Memorial Day hits home

The significance of Memorial Day has come a little closer to home for John and Rita Gillespie of Concord Township. John Gillespie, a Concord Township supervisor, and his wife both had uncles who served in WWII.

John Gillespie knew his uncle, but his wife never met her Uncle John. John McHugh was killed in action in Germany in April 1945, a month before the Nazi surrender and a month after her birth. He had survived D Day and the campaign in Belgium.

While she never knew her uncle, Rita Gillespie did find his grave in the Netherlands when the couple went on a river cruise vacation in April.

The grave marker for John McHugh, the uncle Rita Gillespie never got to meet.

The grave marker for John McHugh, the uncle Rita Gillespie never got to meet.

“I finally made it,” Rita Gillespie said. “I always thought it would be something if someone from the family went over there and just stood over the grave and just said, ‘We’re here. We remember you.’”

She said she never heard a lot about her uncle while she was growing up and regrets not asking more about him.

“My grandmother and my mom never said too much, and I never asked. That was my biggest mistake,” Rita Gillespie said.

As Memorial Day approaches, she’s glad she made it to her uncle’s grave. “I was standing there thinking, ‘Hi, Uncle John. I never met you, but I’m here for you. We didn’t forget you.”

She said that anyone who has an older relative who served in the military and who may have died, especially those who were killed in action, should ask questions about that relative.

“If you have a relative who is buried in a foreign land, I think you should try to investigate, find out where he died, what battle he died in, what the circumstances were.”

She was able to learn more about her uncle at the Netherlands American Cemetery. PFC John P. McHugh was killed April 15, 1945, during fighting along the Ruhr. He had previously been awarded the Purple Heart and a Silver Star.

John Gillespie said the trip came about as part of their 50th wedding anniversary. They’ve traveled extensively, but this trip was different. It was the first time they ever left a tour to explore on their own.

They left the ship in Amsterdam, boarded a train, and went to the American Cemetery. It became an emotional experience for both once they were taken to the actual gravesite.

“We took some pictures. She started to cry. I started to cry. We finally made it after all these years,” John Gillespie said.

After going back to the main building, an employee gave them the information the cemetery had on McHugh.

“We didn’t know that he was in Normandy, then into Belgium and then into Germany where he was killed,” John Gillespie said.

It was in that fighting at the Ruhr when McHugh earned the Silver Star.

John Gillespie knew his own uncle — James S. Lynch — who served and survived the war, but he didn’t learn until later in life after his uncle died, that he had fought at Normandy where he was wounded and captured by the Germans.

Government documents say Pvt. Lynch’s unit was surrounded, and he was shot while trying to retrieve a mortar that was in an exposed position. He was lying in a field when he was picked up by German soldiers, given emergency treatment, and then taken to a prison hospital in Rennes, Brittany. He was held captive for six weeks before allies captured Rennes. He was then evacuated to England.

Gillespie refers to his story as “A tale of two uncles.”

Memorial Day is a day to remember those Americans who were killed in battle. There will be a ceremony tomorrow at Brandywine Baptist Church at 8:45 a.m. and a parade in Kennett Square at 10 a.m.

About Rich Schwartzman

Rich Schwartzman has been reporting on events in the greater Chadds Ford area since September 2001 when he became the founding editor of The Chadds Ford Post. In April 2009 he became managing editor of ChaddsFordLive. He is also an award-winning photographer.

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