Maine high school student captures amazing stories of our neighborhood heroes

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 My expectations for a book about Maine veterans by a high school kid were low. Very low.

Sure, Morgan Reilly has “a passion for history and stories.” And certainly, Maine’s living World War II veterans have many compelling stories to tell. I didn’t doubt that.

But I did doubt Rielly’s interviewing and writing skills. And boy, was I wrong. Very wrong.

This is one terrific book. This high school senior is an extraordinary young man, with a real sense for a good story. His interest in history was sparked when he was just five years old and spotted his neighbor, John Malick, a World War II Veteran, walking down his street. Malick was missing an arm, and Rielly’s father explained that the arm had been lost in a World War II fight on the island of Guam. The precocious five-year-old then asked his Dad, “What was World War II?”

Instead of Sports Illustrated, Morgan had a subscription to Smithsonian magazine. In first grade, he was mesmerized by Liberty Kids on PBS, about kids living in Colonial America. By the third grade, Morgan decided he wanted to be an historian. Wow! What were you planning to be when you were in third grade? Not an historian, I’ll bet!

In the eighth grade, Morgan took an online high school course and got an assignment to interview a World War II veteran. He read an old African Proverb, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.”

“I began thinking of all the ‘libraries’ living in my hometown with all their knowledge of the past century and how, soon, those libraries could be lost forever, like so many before,” he writes. And so, we have this wonderful book, a collection of stories from those “libraries” of veterans all over Maine.

I was hooked by the very first story, of Bernard Cheney, a native of Lubec. One of my Mom’s best friends in school in Lubec was a Cheney. Bernard went from high school into the service and ended up a paratrooper. He participated in the invasion of Italy, discovering how devastating the war had been there. “There were no buildings,” he told Rielly. “and kids used to pop out of a hole or tunnel down under some rocks.”

Later, Bernard participated in the liberation of France and set up a POW camp there. Then he went on to the Battle of the Bulge. Surrounded by Germans, Riley reported, “there was anywhere from two to four feet of snow on the ground. It was snowing and fog, mist, so you couldn’t see four feet ahead or back, and about 28 degrees and people freezing and sleeping on the ground.” Some froze to death.

Bernard’s unit, the 551st Parachute Infantry Regiment, lost over half of its men in that definitive WW II battle. Bernard was injured, but doesn’t remember how. After recuperating, he went right back into battle in a new unit, liberating the Wobbelin concentration camp and personally witnessing the horrors of what the Nazis did there.

“I was with the sergeant when we blew the padlock off the place and went in and found,” the concentration camp survivors,” Bernard told Rielly. They found 30 or 40 boxcars full of people. Almost all of them were dead.

Bernard’s service didn’t stop there, and this was just the first of 25 stories of our amazing veterans in this book! And like quite a few of the men and women whose stories are told here, Bernard Cheney died since Rielly interviewed him.

But thanks to Morgan Rielly, Bernard Cheney’s “library,” like the libraries of the 24 other veterans whose astonishing and inspiring stories are told here, will never be lost. 

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