If I were to report the facts, I would tell you Private Martin Teahan of HQ Company, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), died on June 6, 1944, near a church in Picauville, Normandy. While scouting a position, he was shot in the leg, captured, and then killed by a German soldier who thought he was reaching for a weapon. A few weeks after D-Day, a French farmer in the area found a rifle with the name M. Teahan engraved on the butt of the rifle. No one knew what the farmer did with the rifle for 72 years, until it was discovered this February by a French Army Paratrooper Commander named Colonel Patrick Collet.
Those are the facts, but the story associated with the rifle tugs on something much deeper for me. You see, Private Martin was my Uncle “Matty.” Stories of his bravery resonated with me as I grew up in the same rough Irish neighborhood in the South Bronx. Matty's mom had immigrated from Galway; his father from Kerry. He enlisted in the army at age 17, after graduating from graduated from St. Jerome's High School on 138th Street, by forging his Mom's signature. He volunteered for the paratroopers. He was 20 years-old when he died.
Five days prior to the discovery of the rifle I visited my roots for the first time since childhood. I stood in grand St. Jerome’s Church and thought of my Uncle Matty as I looked at his name, engraved in the cool stone of the somber building.
Then, as if by fate, we received an email (on Saint Patrick’s Day) from Colonel Patrick Collet, a French Army Paratrooper commander who grew up in Normandy. He had acquired an M1 Garand rifle from a descendant of the farmer in Picauville. Once he saw the named M. Teahan engraved on the rifle, he knew he had something special and was determined to find who M. Teahan was.
My sister Liz and I long ago became members of the 508th PIR to honor our uncle Matty. Liz setup a profile page on the 508th PIR website, listing herself as a contact. Who knew this simple process would result in such a life altering discovery, as the first place Colonel Collet searched was the 508th PIR website. He found the match and notified Liz. I knew, she knew, the moment we found out, the rifle was our Uncle Matty coming home after 72 years.
Colonel Collet invited my wife Monica and me to visit this June. We got to hold the rifle; I felt the cold metal of the weapon on my fingertips, and envisioned my uncle, bravely marching forward through enemy territory. I was also in the army, many years later, but never engaged in the sort of battle in which so many young men of WWII fought and died. We decided this majestic representation of history should be returned to Martin Tehan’s brothers-in-arms, the 82nd Airborne Division, 508th PIR.
Our visit didn’t end there. Colonel Collet had arranged an unbelievable itinerary for us. We were directed to the site of Uncle Matty’s grave, where we met the U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Milley to salute and say a prayer. A man of quiet authority, I immediately jumped to attention and snapped “Yes Sir” at his direction. Monica of course found this to be hilarious, but she understood, as I did, the magic of the moments we were sharing on this trip.
And what a trip! After the cemetery, we visited Omaha and Utah beaches, including an amazing jaunt to Pointe du Hoc. This moment, staring at the cliff of Pointe Du Hoc, will forever blaze in my memory. General Milley and his staff guided us through each site, and their descriptive stories provided the fields for our imaginations to roam.
Martin Teahan’s rifle will be brought over to General Milley by Colonel Collet and the French Army Chief of Staff General Bosser later this year. General Milley has invited my entire family to officially donate the rifle at a ceremony at the Pentagon. I suspect the plaque will look something like my first paragraph, with some added words about bravery and duty. As appropriate as it will be, I doubt it can ever capture the emotion, the power, and the change we experienced as a result of the rifle’s discovery. Thank you, for a piece of my heritage is now coming home.
Jim is writing a book on the whole experience entitled "Uncle Matty Comes Home." A Facebook page has been created in Martin Teahan’s honor and has over 25,000 fans in just 3 months. General Milley is totally committed to bringing the rifle back and honoring his memory. To all 82nd Airborne brothers, this is a reminder that no matter how much time has passed, what you have done for our freedom will never be forgotten.