December 9 – Happy Birthday Christopher Heffernan, Jr.

heffernan222In April of 1945, after three years of not knowing if his only son, an Army captain serving in the Philippines was alive or dead, New York State Supreme Court Justice Christopher J. Heffernan received a ray of hope. It came to him in a very informal and indirect way but it came to him none-the-less. The Judge was told that an officer who had been imprisoned in Manila by the Japanese forces who had invaded the islands shortly after Pearl Harbor had been attacked, had met another prisoner who supposedly told him he had seen Christopher J. Heffernan, Jr. alive as late as November of 1944. One can only imagine the sense of hope and excitement that must have permeated the Judge’s Market Street home, when he told his wife and the youngest of his four daughters that their beloved son and brother might be alive. But then, just a few weeks later on Flag Day, 1945, a letter came from the War Department confirming once and for all that Captain Heffernan had died of malaria in a Japanese prison camp in April of 1942.

That meant this promising young graduate of St. Mary’s Institute and the West Point Military Academy had made the Supreme sacrifice for his country before reaching the age of 24.While searching the Internet for facts about this gallant Amsterdam native’s life, I came across the following memorial to him posted by an unnamed classmate of his at a Web site maintained by the West Point Association for Graduates. Usually, I grab facts from my research sources and compose original profiles for my subjects. In this case, I would be trying to write something that has already been written as close to perfectly as possible. Since I cannot identify that classmate by name, I do wish to acknowledge and thank him anonymously for his heartfelt words.

Christopher Joseph Heffernan, Jr.,was born in Amsterdam, New York, on 9 December 1917. He was the fifth child of Justice and Mrs. C. J. Heffernan. His father was Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, Third Department. Both of Chris’ parents were of Irish descent; in fact his father was born in County Athlone. Chris was brought up to be a devout Catholic, serving as an altar boy in the local church. He had four older sisters, who were very fond of him, and he lived a happy childhood. He was an outstanding student and an affectionate son and brother. His three surviving sisters have warm and vivid memories of him—forty-one years later.

When Chris decided on West Point, it was discovered that the local congressman had no appointment available. But Justice Heffernan had met Congressman Anthony Sabath, 5th District Illinois, on a train trip. Sabath had an appointment open, and he offered it to Chris. Chris finished high school in 1934 and spent the school year 1934-35 at Behne Millard’s prep school in Washington, D.C., along with many of his future classmates, and on 1 July 1935 he reported to “Hell on the Hudson.”

West Point in the mid-thirties was a grueling ordeal—especially the first year. Chris was fortunate in being assigned to K Company, partly because of his height (not too tall; not too short) and partly just plain “luck of the draw.” K Company had a unique esprit de corps and a more mature disciplinary “style” than some other parts of the corps. One learned how troops were actually handled in the real Army.

All of Chris’ surviving roommates remember him as quiet, polite, and unselfish, always ready to do his share of the disagreeable chores. These virtues were by no means universal in an environment deliberately designed to evoke competitiveness. Chris performed respectably in all aspects of cadet life, graduating number 273 in the Class of 456 members. But he made no effort to lead the world or set it on fire. Subject to adequate accomplishment in all essential areas, he concentrated on enjoying cadet life as much as one could, and he succeeded remarkably. His generous character and witty Irish charm made him popular with high and low alike.

He chose to go to the Infantry in the Philippines, and along with almost a dozen classmates, travelled there via the United States Army transport Grant. Chris boarded her in Brooklyn in early September and arrived in Manila in late October, after stops in Panama, San Francisco, Honolulu, and Guam. Assigned to the 31st Infantry in Manila, he led the active military and social life of a bachelor lieutenant in the old Army for two years. Then on 1 July 1941 he married a beautiful, tiny (4ft. 10 in.) mestiza named Maria Aran and nicknamed Bing. They had no children.

War came in December 1941, and the 31st Infantry was immediately in the thick of it. Chris was promoted to captain, and assigned to command C company. His direct superior, the commanding officer 1st Battalion, was Lieutenant Colonel Edward H. Bowes, USMA 1919, whom many of us recall as “Daddy” Bowes, a well-known Tac. After more than three months of close and continuous fighting, the end came on Bataan with the surrender on 9 April 1942. Chris died of malaria the very day of the surrender. As one of his classmates who shared the ordeal points out, if Chris was fated to die it was perhaps merciful that he did so in April 1942, because he was thus spared the Death March, three years of squalid incarceration, and the grim slaughter of the sunken POW ships which claimed so many of his comrades.

After the war, Chris’ remains were brought back for interment at Amsterdam. His three surviving sisters have lost contact with his widow.

This was a short life—a little over twenty-four years. The overwhelming majority of those years were happy ones. Was the short life wasted? Only if victory in World War II was without value. Chris’ life was part of the price of victory. And the manner in which he led this brief life—so as to leave warm and enduring memories with all who knew him well—may serve as an example to us all.

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