Thursday, 25 February 2010
Marty Maher and Bringing Up the Brass
Many older graduates and aficionados of things West Point are aware of the John Ford motion picture “The Long Gray Line,” purportedly based upon the life of Sergeant Marty Maher as told to Nardi Reeder Campion and her brother, Russell P. “Red” Reeder ‘26, six-year man, Corps Squad athlete, and hero of the Normandy Invasion (Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart). For many years, it was alleged that there only were three scenes in which the director took “poetic license” with the facts. These were the timing of the announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of 7 December 1941 during Cadet Chapel services (the Japanese planes had not even taken off at that time); the death of Mary’s son during childbirth (the Marty Mahers had no children, stillborn or otherwise); and Mary watching the cadets from her hospital window as they marched to a parade (a physical impossibility).
Needless to say, most of the motion picture—in true Hollywood fashion—consisted of poetic license. Marty himself was shocked at some of the scenes depicting his early days as a soldier—painting the cannon on Trophy Point and fixing plumbing in officer quarters. But there was one particularly interesting occasion when, while delivering ice to officer quarters—a normal duty for garrison soldiers, he mistakenly invited the wife of Chaplain Shipman (later Bishop and author of the lyrics to “The Corps”) to a Saturday night dance at the enlisted barracks—and she accepted. It was only because she mentioned something about “the help” as Marty was leaving that a potential embarrassment was averted. Seeking advice from his first sergeant about what to do when you invite the wife of the chaplain to a dance, thinking she is a housekeeper, ISG Shugler responded by having engraved invitations made inviting the bishop and his wife to the dance. Marty put on his best uniform to deliver them, and the bishop graciously accepted but said he had work to do that evening. His wife would attend in his absence. This she did, all had a good time, and the future bishop graciously appeared after two hours to claim his bride, much to the relief of Marty’s young company commander.
That scene did not make it into the movie, but it probably should have. The scene in which Martin Senior goes for evening strolls with the Supe is true. The Superintendent in question was BG Albert L. Mills, Class of 1879 (Superintendent, 1898-1906). The scenes with Herman Koehler, the Master of the Sword, also are quite true, including Koehler’s departure from West Point in 1918 to establish a physical training system throughout the expanding Army. Other scenes are not so true. Marty never lived in the “Gingerbread House” just down the hill from the Commandant’s quarters. That honor belonged to “Doc” Appleton; Marty did not have married quarters on post until 1914, and then they were nearer the band building and the old PX-Commissary. But even if Marty had lived in the little cottage, Martin Senior did not live with him; he lived with his son Joe (four Maher sons joined the Army). The words attributed to Martin Senior about having slept his first night in America at West Point and wanting to sleep his last night there as well actually were said by Marty to MAJ Bertram Clayton, the post Quartermaster. He added that his dad wanted to “sleep at West Point forever.” His tombstone in the West Point Cemetery reads “Martin Maher, Civilian.” He died in a Highland Falls bar in September 1912 at age 93.
Marty Maher married Mary O’Donnell in Highland Falls, NY, on 5 January 1911. She was 25 while he was 34, and they lived in Highland Falls for the first three years of their marriage and were again living in Highland Falls when Mary died on 6 February 1948. The main story line involving cadets is also a fabrication. A cadet failing academics is tutored by a young schoolteacher recommended by Marty, marries her upon graduation and is killed in World War I while earning the Medal of Honor. So is the follow-on story of his son, who gets married over Christmas leave his first class year, resigns, is shipped overseas during World War II and receives a battlefield commission. But perhaps the greatest bit of poetic license occurs at the end of the movie, when Marty supposedly travels to Washington to see one of his cadets, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to question his retirement orders. He then is flown back to West Point just in time for his retirement review on the Plain. That, again, was pure Hollywood.
Marty did receive a cadet review, on 23 May 1946, even trooped the line with Superintendent MG Maxwell Taylor ’22, and received a watch from the First Captain engraved “To Marty from the Corps of Cadets.” But it was in the normal course of events prior to his retirement as a civilian employee at the end of June that year. A far more interesting scene, again not in the movie, involved the hanging of a portrait of Marty in the gymnasium on 16 February 1950. Red Reeder was behind the funding of the portrait, and coverage of the event led to a Collier’s magazine feature article and then the book about Marty. The portrait depicted Marty as a civilian, in a dark blue suit, but included Technical Sergeant’s stripes in the background (three chevrons, two rockers). A photographer covering the event for a New York paper wanted a shot of Marty wearing a uniform jacket. One was borrowed from a passing Master Sergeant (three rockers), and Marty protested that the rank was wrong. The photographer assured him that they could fix the photo. Evidently they could, but they made a big mistake. Instead of removing a rocker from the uniform jacket in the photo, they added a rocker to the rank in the background of the portrait!
Due to a gangrene infection from arteriosclerosis, Marty was required to have both his legs amputated in 1958 and subsequently resided in the West Point Hospital (then near Grant Hall) from 22 September until his death there on 17 January 1961. Although his relatives often carried from his hospital bed so that he could visit friends on weekends at his favorite bar in the village, Cohen’s, he did not quite equal his father’s departure from this earth.
Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire
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