Son of Donegal, Jack Gillespie lived a remarkable life and had an honorable death. That's all you really need to know or say about a person.
But the Jack Gillespie I knew was special enough to elaborate on those two remarkable and honorable facts of his life and death.
Born in Ireland, young Jack immigrated to America while still a child, at the age of nine, but he left with the imprint of his origin remaining with him until the day he died.
I met him at the bar at J.C.'s, now called Belly Busters, a Browns Mills tavern that he once owned. Jack was the "J" and his wife Conny was the "C" in JC's Market and at JC's bar and grill down the street, just across from the dam by Mirror Lake.
From the moment I met him Jack hit a soft spot in my heart when he said he was from Donegal, the one town in Irleand that I too have fond memories of, including the lake and waterfall and the red head Alish, and ah.....yes, it reminds him a lot of Browns Mills, where the road around the lake is almost indistinguishable from parts of the road along the lake at Donegal.
And Gillespie said he knew my uncle Babe Kelly, who had Kelly's Cafe in North Camden and a summer house in Browns Mills. All those Irish barkeeps knew one another.
We talked about Ireland, and I told him how I traveled there and visited Donegal, and took a hike up a little mountain to a lake and a waterfall, and met Alish McFadden walking down the street. With a napsack on my back, it was obvious I was from out of town, and she offered to let me sleep on the floor of an office where she worked that was closed for the weekend.
From Donegal I went to nearby Letterkenny, where I visited the little old lady who had previously owned Kelly's Cafe, sold it to my uncles, and retired home to Letterkenny. I then returned to Donegal for a quick spin in 1991, on my way back from Berlin. Donegal had retained much of the same characterI had remembered from 1970.
Gillespie said he didn't remember much about Donegal because he came over as a youngster, but he'd since been back, on a golf excursion with his sons.
Jack was also a vet, and he usually hung out, in his retirement, at the American Legion hall in nearby Pemberton, but invariably came by Belly Busters for a late afternoon drink once or twice a week. The sign outside says Belly Busters, but everybody still calls it "JC's," as it was once and will always be known.
When Jack owned it, the bar was back in the corner and surrounded the kitchen. It only had a dozen or so seats, and one small table by the window facing the lake, so everybody got to know everybody pretty well. Frank built the big formica bar after he bought the place from Jack and expanded the kitchen and package goods store. Frank then sold the place to Rahn, from India, who has kept the place pretty much the same.
Everybody knew Jack Gillespie, and treated him with respect, not only as the former owner of the popular bar, but because of the life he lived.
From Donegal to Philadelphia, Gillespie came to America at the age of nine. He grew up in Philadelphia, served in the Army during World War II, worked as a salesman and relocated to Browns Mills to take over his wife's family market. JC's Market was a fixture in Browns Mills, and the primary marketplace in town until the Acme finally opened.
His son John Gillespie noted, "The grocery store gave him such an opportunity to know people. There must have been 2,000 people a day that used to come into that store, and at least half of them came because they wanted to see Jack."
Jack was a fixer. Whenever there was a problem, Jack was the first person someone would turn to for a solution, especially if it could be solved with money. Jack and Connie also let local families run a tab, so they could shop for groceries all week and settle up on payday.
Then when he opened "JC's" tavern, it was, as his son Ed would put it, "live every Irishman's dream of owning a bar."
When they sold the market, one son showed his father the outstanding debts, with lists of names and amounts, only some with lines through them, and asked about collecting it. "Why?" Jack said. They still have the tabs for some locals at the bar, but the tabs are dutifully paid since nobody wants to be the one who ends Jack's tradition, which has passed on, like Micky the Matre' d, with the deed, through three owners.
The last time we sat together at JC's, and talked about Donegal, Jack told me about a jockey at Pennsylvania Park who was from Donegal. An Irish lass and a true Mick, who I later looked up and found she had won quite a few races.
When I asked Jack about the war, he said he was in the Army and served in Europe, but didn't mention that he was a highly decorated hero who was wounded in action, and recipient of the Silver Star, Bronze Star with oak leaf cluster and the Purple Heart.
Jack Gillespie wasn't just a veteran, he was a certifiable hero, with the medals to prove it. But he seldom talked about the war, even among his veteran friends. He did say, when asked what the difference was between earning a bronze star and silver star, that the difference was "getting shot in the legs and getting shot in the ass."
Jack was part of a proud Army division, 28th infantry, that traced its regiment back to the Revolution.
I later learned that he was with the 28th Infantry division, and the same unit and enganged in the same battles as Francis Clark, who earned the Medal of Honor.
According to one internet source, "Clark joined the Army from Salem, New York, and by September 12, 1944 was serving as a technical sergeant in Company K, 109th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division. On that day, near Kalborn, Luxembourg, he crawled through open terrain to reach a platoon which had been pinned down by heavy fire, led them to safety, and then returned to rescue a wounded man. Five days later, near Sevenig, Germany, he single-handedly attacked a German machine gun position and then assumed command of two leaderless platoons. Although wounded, he refused medical evacuation, attacked two more German machine gun positions alone, and carried supplies through hostile fire to an isolated platoon. For these actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor a year later, on September 10, 1945. Clark left the Army while still a technical sergeant. He died at age 68 or 69 and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Salem, New York."
Technical Sergeant Clark's official Medal of Honor citation reads:
He fought gallantly in Luxembourg and Germany. On 12 September 1944, Company K began fording the Our River near Kalborn, Luxembourg, to take high ground on the opposite bank. Covered by early morning fog, the 3d Platoon, in which T/Sgt. Clark was squad leader, successfully negotiated the crossing; but when the 2d Platoon reached the shore, withering automatic and small-arms fire ripped into it, eliminating the platoon leader and platoon sergeant and pinning down the troops in the open. From his comparatively safe position, T/Sgt. Clark crawled alone across a field through a hail of bullets to the stricken troops. He led the platoon to safety and then unhesitatingly returned into the fire-swept area to rescue a wounded soldier, carrying him to the American line while hostile gunners tried to cut him down. Later, he led his squad and men of the 2d Platoon in dangerous sorties against strong enemy positions to weaken them by lightning-like jabs. He assaulted an enemy machinegun with hand grenades, killing 2 Germans. He roamed the front and flanks, dashing toward hostile weapons, killing and wounding an undetermined number of the enemy, scattering German patrols and, eventually, forcing the withdrawal of a full company of Germans heavily armed with automatic weapons. On 17 September, near Sevenig, Germany, he advanced alone against an enemy machinegun, killed the gunner and forced the assistant to flee. The Germans counterattacked, and heavy casualties were suffered by Company K. Seeing that 2 platoons lacked leadership, T/Sgt. Clark took over their command and moved among the men to give encouragement. Although wounded on the morning of 18 September, he refused to be evacuated and took up a position in a pillbox when night came. Emerging at daybreak, he killed a German soldier setting up a machinegun not more than 5 yards away. When he located another enemy gun, he moved up unobserved and killed 2 Germans with rifle fire. Later that day he voluntarily braved small-arms fire to take food and water to members of an isolated platoon. T/Sgt. Clark's actions in assuming command when leadership was desperately needed, in launching attacks and beating off counterattacks, in aiding his stranded comrades, and in fearlessly facing powerful enemy fire, were strikingly heroic examples and put fighting heart into the hard-pressed men of Company K.
I gave Jack a copy of my book 300 Years at the Point, and he invited me to the Legion for a book signing by one of his sons, Ed Gillespie, author of Winning Right - Campaign Politics and Conservative Policies (Threhold, 2006).
Although I already knew his daughters Joanne and Tracy, it was at the Legion where I met his sons Ed and John.
John is a big lawyer in the county, and Ed is a big lobyist in Washington, the former chairman of the Republican Party, a protege of Carl Rove, and special advisor to the President of the United States.
In his book Ed writes, "In Ireland, there's a Gaelic word for people who are great storytellers and have an ability to sense what's coming in the future - Seanchai (pronounced 'Shan-a-key'). My father is a Seanchai. Before the Iraq War, he shared with me his reservations. 'I hope to God he (Bush) doesn't do it, son. If we go there, we'll be in there a long, long time.' Before the nineties sock bubble burst, he told me that stocks were selling for more than they were worth, despite what Wall Steet was saying at the time."
"Family lore has it that he correctly predicted the sex of all twelve of his grandchildren by dangling a pencil from a needle and thread over his expectant daughters' and daughters-in-laws midsections. If the pencil swung back and forth like a pendulum, it would be a boy. If it went around in a circle, it would be a girl."
"Jack Gillespie has an uncanny ability to size people up in an instant. His reservations about one of my girlfriends was enoguh to cause me to look in a different direction for a wife, and his hearty endorsement of Cathy was all it took for me to ask her to marry me (a piece of sage advise he would gloat over forever)."
"When I was a cocky young political operative, I often dismissed his insights. After all, he didn't have the benefit of a college education as I did (thanks to him, of course)."
"Then one day,...it dawned on me that far more often than not he was dead on the money. So I was disconcerted when after the Roberts nomination [for Supreme Court] had concluded in a successful confirmation, Dad said to me, 'I hope you're done with that stuff now, Eddie.'"
"'Well, Dad, the President has asked me to stay on and to help with the next one.'"
"'Well I hope like hell you told him no.'"
"'Dad, I don't know how to tell the president of the United States no!'"
"'Easy. You just say, 'Sorry, Mr. President, I can't do it.'"
"'I can't do that, Dad.'"
"'I'm worried, Son.' When my fther calls one of us 'Son,' it always carries a sense of gravity. 'This next one's going to be bad.'"
"'Why do you say that?' I asked, incredulously."
"'I don't know, but it's going to be bad.'"
"Given his track record, this gve me a very unsettled feeling."
Then Jack stopped coming by JC's or going out much at all. I'd ride by his house on the other side of the lake, and his white sedan would be there, and the big Irish and American flags hanging by the door. If he was out there sitting in the shade I'd beep my horn and he'd wave, not knowing who he was waving to. Everybody in Browns Mills knew Jack Gillespie.
The mass at St. Ann's in the Pines was said by the local parish priest, Father Edwin, and Jack's nephew, who was priest (Jack's sister is a nun).
It was in the eulogies that I learned more about Jack, and followed the entourage to the Veterans Cemetery, where Pat Looney, a JC's regular, led the military ritual, folding the flag and presenting it to the family.
The flag was given to the son, Dennis, who had served in the Coast Guard.
A week or so after he died I took a ride around the lake and passed Jack's house. The Irish and American flags were still flying by the door, and his white sedan was parked in the driveway, just like he was home. I beeped my horn, and waved, and looked across the street to the sign that reads: Never let it be said and said with shame, that all was beautiful until you came.
That's one thing that can be said about Jack Gillespie. He left this earth a better place than he found it.
God Bless Jack Gillespie.
28th Infantry Division:
CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR WINNERS: T/Sgt Francis J Clark, Co K, 109th Infantry Regiment, for 12 Sep 1944 action at the Our River near Kalborn, Luxembourg.
SLOGAN: Fire and Movement:
FOREIGN AWARDS: 109th Infantry regiment awarded the French Croix de Guerre for 28 Jan to 2 Feb 1945 action in Colmar, France per French decree #565, dated 27 March 1945.
COMBAT HIGHLIGHTS: From Normandy, through France, Belgium, Luxembourg and eventually into Germany itself, the 28th Infantry Division blasted its way to success against the enemy which referred to the Keystone unit as the "Bloody Bucket" division. That phrase described the fury of the assaults which it launched shortly after landing on the Normandy beaches 22 Jul 1944. By 31st Jul, the 28th was in the thick of the hedgerow fighting. Advances were at a crawling pace while towns like Percy, Montbray, Montguoray, Gatheme and St Sever de Calvados and Hill 210 fell. By 20th August, the Division was rolling eastward along the highways of France. An advance north to the Seine to trap the remnants of the German 7th Army saw the capture of Vernauil, Breteuil, Damville, Conchos, Le Neubourg and Elbouf as the bag of prisoners mounted. On 29th August, the Division entered Paris and paraded under battle conditions before a populace delirious with joy. There was no time for rest, however, and the advance continued on through the Forest of Compeigne, La Fere, St Quentin, Laen, Rethel, Sedan, Mezieros, Bouilion and on the 6th of September the crossing of the Mouse was accomplished. The Division swept into Belgium averaging advances of 17 miles a day against the resistance of of German roadblocks and "battle groups." The city of Arlon, Belgium fell to a task force as the Division fanned out into Luxembourg. Combat Team 112, attached to the 5th Armored Division, liberated the southern portion of Luxembourg and smashed its way into Germany at Wallendorf in an attack aimed at Bitburg. Combat Teams 109 and 110 liberated the northern part of Luxembourg and on 11th September entered Germany in strength. After hammering away in assaults which destroyed or captured 153 pill boxes and bunkers the Division moved north and cleared the Monschau Forest of German forces in the area east of Elsenborn, Rocherath, and Krinkelt, Belgium, moving up to the Siegfried Line again. Further attacks were postponed and the Division made another move northward to the Hurtgen Forest. There the attack began 2nd November 1944 and the Keystoners stormed into Vossenack, Kommerscheidt and Schmidt amid savage fighting. Losses were heavy and ground once wrested from the enemy was lost and regained to be lost again to the ever increasing fury of his counter-attacks. By 12th November, the 28th had completes its Hurtgen Forest mission and moved south to the scene of its initial entry into Germany where it held a 25 sector of the front line along the Our River, from the northeastern tip of Luxembourg to the vicinity of Wallendorf. In this sector the Germans unleashed the full force of their winter offensive against the thinly-held and over-extended division line. Five crack (German) divisions were hurled across the Our River the first day to be followed by four more in the next few days. the Keystone rocked under the overwhelming weight of enemy armor and personnel but refused to become panic stricken. The defense by the Division against Von Rundstedt's assault was termed by one correspondent as "one of the greatest feats in the history of the American Army." By the time that the 28th was relieved it had thrown the German timetable completely off schedule and had inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. During early January 1945, the Division was charged with defense of the Meuse River from Givet, Belgium to Verdun, France. Later that month a move to the south, to Alsace, was made. There the 28th had the experience of serving in the French First Army in the reduction of the "Colmar Pocket" and to it went the honor of capturing Colmar, the last major French City in German hands. Further advances to the east across the L'Ill River and Rhino-Rhono Canal to the west bank of the Rhine followed. By 23rd February, the Division had returned north to the American First Army and was in the line along the Olef River. March 6th was the jump-off date in an attack which carried the Keystone to the Ahr River. Schleiden, Gomund, Kall, Sotenich, Sistig and Blankonheim all fell in a rapid advance. Many prisoners and large stores of enemy weapons, equipment and ammunition were taken. The Rhine was crossed and an area south of the "Ruhr Pocket" occupied by the 28th awaiting an southward drive by the German forces trapped in the pocket. Early in April the Division moved west of the Rhine and took up occupation duties in the area north of Aachen along the Holland-German border. Two weeks later came a move to the permanent occupation area; the Saarland and Rhonish Palatinate. Early in July the Division started redeployment to the United States, arriving home in August 1945. After V-J Day, the 28th Division reassembled at Camp Shelby, Mississippi and was inactivated on 12 December 1945.