Kevin Cullen

Veteran tells ‘their stories’

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / November 12, 2009

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Bill Durette grew up in the Bunker Hill projects in Charlestown, and when he was a kid he’d watch the parades go by and count the lines of men wearing ribbons and medals. It seemed like they went on for miles.

As he got older, he realized that every year the lines of those marching got smaller. When he graduated from high school he joined the Army, and he came home three years later. Every year that passed he noticed that the World War II vets he knew were dying off.

“People should know their stories,’’ said Durette, who is 49 and works for a scientific equipment company.

So, six years ago, he started knocking on doors, asking people for old photos and uniforms. He interviewed veterans and wrote down their stories. He bought poster board and glue and, with the earnestness of a kid doing a school project, pulled together a World War II history of his neighborhood.

Charlestown is one square mile. From that square mile, 5,000 men and 100 women went off to war in the 1940s, and 94 men and two women didn’t come back. Gold Stars hung in windows from City Square to Thompson Square, all the way down to the Schrafft’s factory in Sullivan Square. In the other windows, mothers pulled back curtains, watching their kids walk down to the Navy Yard, waiting for them to return.

On Veterans Day three years ago, Durette put his exhibit up in the Navy Yard, and 1,000 people showed up. Two years ago, he bumped into Dan Doherty at the rededication of the World War II memorial in City Square. Dan Doherty and his brother, Tim, grew up in Charlestown. More important, their dad was a World War II vet. Most important, they manage office buildings and had some space at 20 City Square. They offered Durette free space on the ground floor.

Diners at Olive’s, an icon of the new Charlestown, can look across the street and see, mounted on easels, the sacrifice of the old Charlestown.

This is not the Smithsonian. But what it lacks in polish, it makes up for in authenticity.

The Salvatos on Cambridge Street sent three boys off to war. Anthony Salvato made it back, but his brothers, Francis and Candelora, didn’t.

“I don’t think there was a family in Charlestown that didn’t have someone in the war,’’ Anthony Salvato said.

The Kenneallys from Elm Street had seven boys in the war. So did the Kelleys on Bunker Hill Street. Jimmy Kelley, a Marine, died on leave, trying to save people at the Cocoanut Grove fire in 1942. His brother, Dan, died on Iwo Jima. The Coltons from Lincoln Street and the Woods on Baldwin Street had seven boys overseas, too.

The Hamanos, a Japanese-American family on Henley Street, had two boys join the Army, including Kinzo, a Charlestown High running back known as “the Japanese Typhoon.’’

Four of the Kenneally boys were on the USS Harry Lee, but they got split up when the five Sullivan brothers from Iowa went down with the USS Juneau.

“Before the war, my oldest brother drowned when he was 15, and my mother never got over that,’’ said George Kenneally, the youngest of the seven. “I don’t know how she survived having seven boys at war.’’

Florence and Lee Johnson got married during the war, while in the service. They had five kids. Their oldest, Edward, joined the Marines and was killed in action, in Vietnam, on Aug. 27, 1967. Seven years ago, Florence Johnson spent her 79th birthday in Vietnam, on the spot where her son died.

“That’s my husband and me,’’ Florence Johnson said, pointing at a black and white photo of them in their uniforms on their wedding day. “It doesn’t seem that long ago.’’

The next public viewing of the Charlestown Veterans History Project’s World War II exhibit is Dec. 5, noon to 3 p.m., at 20 City Square. For more information, contact Bill Durette at Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at