Earlier this month, I won “Best Original Column” in the annual Illinois Press Association’s “Best of the Press” contest (Division B). It’s a nice honor and the fourth time I’ve received it. The judges wrote: “Your columns demonstrate how strong storytelling can be used effectively to deliver a message.” As has become my practice whenever this honor befalls me, I usually reprint one of the three columns submitted, which included one about the Cubs winning the World Series (which I watched with the ghost of my father) and one about Big Ten cross-country champion Malachy Schrobilgen of the University of Wisconsin who was inspired by a column (and poem) I wrote years ago when he ran for OPRF High School. But with another patriotic holiday upon us, I decided to reprint the one I wrote for Memorial Day last year. The title was “The more in Memorial Day.”
At 11th and Washington in Maywood, drivers to and from Oak Park and River Forest pass a sign for Conner-Heise Park, a rundown recreational area that you might pay little notice. But the name Heise caught my eye because I knew retired Oak Park village attorney Ray Heise grew up in Maywood, so I asked if there were any connection to his family history.
There was indeed, and the story he told shows how involved Memorial Day can be for some families.
Our communities are planted thick with memorials, most of them representing lives lost. Maywood more than most. The village due west of River Forest is best known for the Bataan Death March.
In November of 1940, men from Maywood became part of the 192nd Tank Battalion which deployed to Bataan in the Philippines following Pearl Harbor. Only 41 of the 122 returned to Maywood alive.
One of those who didn’t make it back was Ray Mason, who was engaged to Heise’s mom, and after whom he is named. His mother died never knowing what happened to her fiance, but Heise finally solved the mystery in recent years when he came across a book titled, Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission by Hampton Sides.
Heise wrote to the author, who referred him to a group called the Battling Bastards of Bataan, the “bastards” referring to the fact that the U.S. military, of necessity, had to abandon the soldiers trapped there. The Battling Bastards, in turn, referred him right back here to Maywood’s Proviso East High School, which happens to house and maintain the most complete record of the fate of those soldiers.
“In a day I had a full report,” Heise said.
Ray Mason was in a tank fleeing the oncoming Japanese when it got stuck in a river bed. When the three crew members emerged from the tank, the Japanese questioned them, then told them to run. All three were gunned down.
After the war, Ray’s mom married George Heise, a Marine who served in the South Pacific. Back then, the military’s policy was to send guys from the same area to fight together. They thought it was good for morale, Heise said, but as in Bataan, it could also turn tragic. Of the 15 men who joined the Marines from his dad’s neighborhood, George was the only survivor.
“He had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder before it had a name,” Heise said.
Ray grew up at 1919 S. 18th Ave., next door to “Aunty Alice,” as they knew her. When his parents divorced, Ray’s dad moved in with Alice, married her and adopted her two children, including Tommy. They had grown up together and now became step-brothers. After the divorce, Ray and his mom moved in with her parents.
George Heise was a “gung-ho Marine” and it seemed to rub off on his stepson, who joined the Marine Corps after graduating from Proviso East in 1968. Because he wasn’t 18 yet, George had to sign for him.
Tommy Heise began his tour of duty with the 3rd Platoon, D Company, 7th Marines, 3rd Marine Division on Feb. 25, 1969. According to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund “Wall of Faces” website, on May 10, his company was guarding a bridge on Mutter’s Ridge in Quang Tri province, just south of the Demilitarized Zone. At 3:30 a.m., they were attacked by several platoons of the North Vietnamese Army. They held the bridge, but nine Marines were killed, including Tommy Heise, who is buried in Forest Park’s Woodlawn Cemetery.
Three years earlier, Tommy Conner, a 1965 graduate of Proviso East, joined the Marines and headed to Vietnam, where he was killed in action on March 8, 1966. Conner came from a respected family. His father, Leon, a World War II vet who died in 2014 at the age of 96, was active in the Maywood community. Tommy’s brother, Ralph, served a term as mayor of Maywood, 2001-05.
Both Tommys were popular kids during a time when the village was becoming diverse.
Their alma mater, Proviso East, endured a considerable amount of racial unrest in the 1967-68 and 1968-69 school years. Perhaps the village had that in mind when they dedicated the park to the “Two Tommys,” one of whom was white and one of whom was black. A gesture, perhaps, symbolizing racial reconciliation. To this day, Heise said, it is known informally as “Two Tommy Park.”
Every year on Memorial Day, Heise would stop by the park to visit the memorial to the Two Tommys and then the tank memorial behind Maywood Village Hall where a plaque honored Ray Mason, his namesake, among the many others lost on Bataan.
“I still stop there from time to time,” he said.
Maywood experienced more than its share of community mourning. Heise recalls the front page of the Maywood Herald, which showed the two sets of parents receiving U.S. flags at the newly dedicated memorial.
Now that memorial is almost a half century old, “an island in a stark playground. They don’t have the money. Sometimes the weeds get pretty long,” Heise said.
“But no one’s ever going to move that boulder,” he added, “and the plaque is still firmly affixed.”
So the memorial will last, even if the residents — and people from other towns driving through — may not know, or much care, who the two Tommys were or why the park is named Conner-Heise.
“For many people,” Heise says, “Memorial Day is just a holiday.
“But there was a cost.”