Peter Buckley/Voices | Playing checkers with a hero

Peter Buckley/Voices | Playing checkers with a hero

By PETER BUCKLEY

Beginning last fall, the world has been celebrating the end of World War I, which occurred on Nov. 11, 1918, 100 years ago.

When I think of World War I, I think of my mother's uncle, my great-uncle, a veteran of that war. When I was 7 years old, my great-uncle would play checkers with me whenever my family visited him.

My uncle looked remarkably like Winston Churchill, and they were about the same age. By the time I got to know him, he was a portly man with age spots on his hands and on his balding head. When my uncle spoke, he talked in short, choppy sentences that came out of his mouth like a growl.

Like Churchill, he was always observed with a cigar in his hand. In brief, I was afraid of the old man, but that never stopped me from playing checkers with him.

No matter how many times I played checkers with my uncle, I could never beat him. He gave no quarter to me or to anyone else.

I knew that he was a retired judge, and even though I was only 7 years old, I pitied the defendants who had come before him.

One day, tears came sliding down my face after yet another loss at checkers with my uncle. He must have noticed my tears, because during the next game, I actually began to jump a number of his checker pieces and it appeared to me that he was letting me win.

I guess I should have been offended that my uncle was allowing me to beat him at checkers, but I thought, "A win is a win."

Just as I was preparing to celebrate my first victory, my uncle quadruple jumped my checker pieces to win the game.

My uncle was tough on me and he was generally a tough character all around.

Years later, I learned that my uncle had earned the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for heroism and had been wounded in action 14 days before the end of World War I. I looked up his citation for the DSC and discovered he was as tough with the Germans as he was with me:

JOHN T. COMERFORD

Citation:

The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to John T. Comerford, Captain (Infantry), U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action while serving with Machine-Gun Company, 101st Infantry Regiment, 26th Division, A.E.F., near Bois-de-Belleau, north of Verdun, France, October 28, 1918. Following five days' combat, during which his company made three attacks and repulsed four counterattacks in which his company was well-nigh exhausted by uninterrupted fighting, the enemy placed a barrage of minenwerfer, machine-gun and artillery fire on a slightly entrenched front line, causing the infantry to fall back, leaving a gap in the line. Captain Comerford volunteered to re-establish the line, gathered a group of 10 men, organized them and led them into the gap, encountered an enemy patrol coming through, charged and drove them out, re-established the line and held it under a heavy machine-gun fire until reinforcements arrived. During this action, he and a majority of his men were wounded, and some of the latter killed, but their heroic action prevented the enemy from inflicting heavy losses by flanking fire.

General Orders No. 56, War Department, 1922.

Peter Buckley lives in St. Joseph and is a retired special agent with the FBI and a former chief deputy with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office.

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