In a little apartment at 26 Austin St. – an address that no longer exists, but stood where the 99 Restaurant is today – the Tiernan family gathered around the radio on Dec. 7, 1941.
President Franklin Roosevelt was speaking in dire terms, telling all of America – and that little corner of Charlestown – that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
America was now at war, he said, and it would be another World War to follow what had been a horrible, debilitating World War I just a few decades before.
The Tiernan family had paid a high price during World War I, as their father, William Tiernan, had been subject to mustard gas in the trenches. When he came back to Charlestown, he was never the same and died long before his time and long before that night in front of the radio.
And so as the family sat around that radio, another younger William Tiernan – the son of the late William Tiernan – prepared to leave Charlestown to fight in another World War just as his father had done.
“I’ll never forget sitting around that radio and listening to the president in our little apartment,” Margaret Tiernan Klessens, who is Williams’ sister, recently told Charlestown Historical Society member Eddy Loan – who researched the story of William Tiernan. “We heard the president say we were at war. Things were different after I heard the president. Everyone signed up.”
That included William Tiernan, the second generation in his Charlestown family to head off to fight a World War in Europe. He was among the approximately 5,100 men and women from Charlestown who went to war and are remembered on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. Of the men that served, 125 would never return and two women did not return.
A MYSTERY PHOTO
In 1984, two Charlestown men stood on Main Street chatting up one another as usual.
One of them was William Tiernan, the World War II veteran who had returned to Charlestown after the war and lived a quiet life driving a truck for the Revere Sugar plant off of Medford Street.
That morning he held a photo that was very important to him. It was a picture of he and his army buddies during World War II standing in front of a glider-type aircraft that was called the ‘Bunker Hill’ and had a Monument drawn next to those words.
Tiernan gave the photo over to his friend Danny Lane on that day and asked him to take care of it and maybe try to fix some of its worn edges and creases. However, soon after, William Tiernan passed away.
Danny Lane kept the photo tucked away, and recently came across the 74-year-old snapshot and handed it over to Paul Lane and Eddy Loan of the Historical Society.
“He was keeping a promise to an old friend to take care of the photo, and he felt like the best way was to give it to the Historical Society for the museum,” said Loan. “As Paul and I looked at the photo, what was instantly remarkable was that the three men in the photo stood in front of an aircraft named the ‘Bunker Hill.’ There was even a small painted rendition of it on the side of the craft. Danny Lane knew very little about the old photo.”
The only clue were three names, including William Tiernan’s, and the date and place, ‘England – Thanksgiving 1944.’
Loan set to work restoring the tattered photo, but a greater mystery began to form around the ‘Bunker Hill’ and the service of William Tiernan – a man and a family that few seemed to know in today’s Charlestown.
FINDING A CONNCTION
Loan said that as he looked at the photo over and over, he was drawn to find out the story behind it.
“I became more and more intrigued as to who William Tiernan was,” he said. “What was his story? Where had he been? What did he see in the war? I felt a bond and was convinced that I had to find the story behind the old photo. I felt like I had a puzzle board with only a few pieces.”
Loan had never heard of the Tiernan family, but he set to surveying the Townie networks to see if anyone else knew of them. After finding an obituary for William’s sister, Anne, from 2014, he was able to ask around about Sally Klessens, who would have been William’s niece.
As luck would have it, Klessens had been a past president of the Charlestown Schoolgirls’ Association. And as even more luck would have it, her mother, Margaret, 94, was still alive and knew quite a bit about her brother, William.
After visiting with Margaret, and securing the help of history expert Billy Durette, Loan had begun to put together a lot about the mystery man.
William Tiernan had been a corporal in the U.S. Army Air Force on the 34th Troop Carrier Squadron, which included a rare glider unit. Research showed that the aircraft in the photo was a Waco-CG-4A glider plane, one of the first military stealth planes used in war. The planes were silent and very light, made of canvas and meant to glide behind enemy lines and crash land so that those inside could do reconnaissance. It was a dangerous job, naturally, and those inside had “no motor, no parachute and no second chance,” said Loan.
William had been a glider mechanic who arrived at the Royal Air Force Base ‘Spanhoe’ in England on July 12, 1944, and he took part in to major glider operations – including Operation Market Garden in Sept. 1944 that targeted German forces in the Netherlands. William’s unit helped get 900 gliders in the air, move operations to France and then soon across the Rhine River in Germany, capturing the town of Wesel.
AUSTIN STREET TO ENGLAND
Upon meeting Margaret, Loan said he was blown away by the information she remembered and holes in the story that she filled in – from William’s experience at an industrial canvas shop on Rutherford Avenue before the war to the fact that he might have actually flown the gliders while also fixing them.
“William’s sister, Margaret, was an amazing woman,” said Loan. “She was actually also a veteran of World War II, serving in the Women’s Army Corps. She was able to walk us back through the past as if she could see it, from the day in their living room on Austin Street to the days before and after the war.”
Margaret shared that behind their home on Austin Street was the old State Prison, and beyond that was a lot of industry on Rutherford Avenue. In the area where Mishawum is today, William befriended a man who operated Breen’s Canvas Company and he started to work at the shop. It was likely there, they surmised, that William Tiernan learned the skills that he put to use on the canvas gliders in Europe during World War II.
“It was another magic moment in this story,” said Loan. “When war broke out, he had the trade of working with canvas from the shop in Charlestown. It’s quite likely that he ended up in the glider unit because of that skill. He knew how to sew canvas, how to work with it and how to stretch it to fit over metal truck frames.”
Margaret said her brother returned to Charlestown in October 1945 after the war, and like many others, didn’t speak much about what he did.
“He just didn’t talk much about it,” she said. “I don’t really know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did fly those gliders too.”
A PHOTO EXPLAINED, A PROMISE KEPT
The only thing left to clue the present into William Tiernan’s sacrificial service in the past to his country is that one small photo.
Now repaired fully by Loan and ready to be presented to the museum, the photo has been explained to a great extent.
It’s a story that has parallels all over the Town, as so many men and women from here have served their country in wars like World War II. Many families lost multiple members of their families. Four Charlestown families had seven sons serving in the war at the same time.
“I’m glad we have solved the mystery of who William Tiernan was and what he did to serve our country,” said Loan. “It’s very appropriate that we now have those answers in time for Veterans Day and I hope we can all use his story as an inspiration to honor and remember the veterans who have served this country and this community.”
Special thanks for this story goes to Bill Durette and Donna Burke for their help in piecing things together.