By Jessica Easthope
Andrew McVeigh never met his Uncle Jack but today he buried him.
“He was a presence in my family without being physically there and by that I mean I was always being confronted by him,” Andrew said.
John Joseph Heffernan Junior was considered a hero long before he enlisted in the Army Air Corp in 1942. An altar boy who graduated St. John’s University at the top of his class. He had dreams of being a doctor if he survived the war.
Andrew and his wife Amy received Jack’s remains, a few of his teeth, skull fragments and a shoulder bone at Newark Airport. He’s Jack’s only family and he’s standing by his side during his last and final mission.
“I feel that I owe this, I just feel a very strong debt that I have to do this and in particular to him given that my greater understanding I didn’t have before we got all this word, it’s an obligation on my part, it’s something I have to do,” said Andrew.
Before he was buried next to his mother in St. John’s Cemetery in Middle Village, he was buried beneath ten feet of mud in a peanut field in Myanmar. Where his B25G bomber was shot down over Burma on February 22, 1944 – he remained, for a lifetime.
“This was a real scar, the degree of loss the family felt over this guy was just incredible,” said Andrew.
DNA technology, the persistence of the United States Military and a mother’s love brought Jack home. In the years after the war Jack’s mom Mary sent letters to the Pentagon, to Congress, even to the Bishop of Mandalay, begging someone, anyone to look for her son.
“In the letters my grandmother wrote she would say at the time he was MIA she said I’m going to see him again so there’s an aspect of reuniting that was very important to me,” Andrew said.
Without remains a funeral and burial weren’t possible. But on Saturday, Jack’s remains were escorted in a flag-draped casket over the George Washington Bridge to the Diocese of Brooklyn.
When given the option between Arlington and burying Jack next to his mother in Queens – Andrew says there was no clearer choice.
“This is a journey of return, the loss created such a hole in the family and when given the opportunity to fill the hole it wasn’t even close, the decision was very easy,” he said.
Jack was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart. His life and his sacrifice honored at last.
“The Gospel of St. John chapter 15 verse 13 says greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. He probably knew he wasn’t going to come out of this but he was doing it because he was defending his family, his friends, his neighbors and his country,” said Andrew. “He probably knew he wasn’t going to come out of this but he was doing it because he was defending his family, his friends, his neighbors and his country.”
Jack is back where his life began and with his mother who never gave up on finding her son. Jack is home.