Each weekend when my sister and I were little kids, we’d make the drive with our parents to my grandmother’s house on Boulevard Terrace in Brighton. My dad would take us along Boston’s VFW Parkway which was a tree lined road snaking past the VA Hospital, through West Roxbury and Brookline and eventually into the heart of Boston. Our turn was La Grange street. Each time we’d sit at that traffic light waiting to make the turn I’d see the marker standing there with a small and weathered flag stating this was the Keenan Memorial Square. The square was named after brothers in arms. Thomas was in the Marines and died in 1944. His brother Gerald was in the Navy and died the same year. Even as a little kid, I remember sitting at that traffic light and staring at that sign wondering about the Keenan brothers who had made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. I wondered how their families ever got over losing two brothers the same year to the war. Truth is, they didn’t.
Sitting here in South Pasadena, CA, I am 3,000 miles away from the VFW Parkway and years removed from our weekend drives near Keenan Memorial Square. But on this Memorial Day weekend, the names of those two brothers again popped into my head after all these years. So I started searching online. Who were Thomas and Gerald? Who were these two brave young men whose plaque now stood guard at the turn we used every weekend when I was a kid? It took a while. There aren’t many mentions of the VFW Parkway anymore online talking about why it was built or just who it honors. But then I stumbled on a column written by Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe back in 1998. It seemed Mike had some of the same curiosity I did about the Keenan brothers, the same questions that just nagged at me about who these men were that gave the ultimate sacrifice. So the answers now, are coming from Barnicle himself. Now, the rest of the story from his 1998 article.
“I think you need to talk to my uncle,” said the young man who answered the door at the house where both boys grew up. “They know the story. And it’s still sad to talk about.”
Thomas and Helen Keenan had 10 children, seven boys and three girls. The father was a Boston firefighter. The family lived in West Roxbury. After Pearl Harbor, the oldest, Tom Jr., joined the Marine Corps. A few months later, his brother Gerald enlisted in the Navy after Roslindale High.
“Thomas died in the battle for Tinian Island,” his brother Joe, 71, recalled to Barnicle in 1998. “He died July 14, 1944. A priest came to the house with the fellow from Western Union. That’s how we were told: a telegram. “Two weeks later, Gerald died when the Japs torpedoed his ship, the Canberra. Funny thing is, I helped build that boat at the Charlestown Navy Yard. It was a very difficult time. My parents never got over it.”
Both brothers came back to Boston together in death. They were waked at the old Legion Post in West Roxbury, blocks from their boyhood home, and buried side-by-side on Aug. 28, 1944. Thomas Keenan was 23. His brother Gerald was 19. (Boston Globe 1998)
All these years later, as people celebrate the unofficial beginning to summer, as people get the barbecues going and their travel plans set, take a moment to remember the people who made it possible. It sounds cliche to say freedom isn’t free. But when you drive along the VFW Parkway in Boston and see a sign marking the sacrifices of two brothers who died for this country, it becomes clear that freedom often comes with a very heavy price.