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On Memorial Day, Learning The Story Behind The Markers

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A memorial honors Staff Sgt. John Henry McCarthy on the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Colborne Road in Boston.

NPR — along with seven public radio stations around the country — is chronicling the lives of America's troops where they live. We're calling the project "Back at Base."

Walk through a town square this Memorial Day and you might just see a marker or monument commemorating sacrifice in war. On it: The name of an American who died in combat.

In some parts of the city of Boston, there are markers on nearly every corner.

One of those markers is at the intersection of Commonwealth Avenue and Colborne Road in the Allston-Brighton section of Boston. On one corner — near the trolley line — is a small sign with two American flags. It reads: "Staff Sgt. John H. McCarthy Square."

He lived just up the street, but never returned home after his second tour of duty to Vietnam.

"He loved the country and he thought that we're at war and that he wanted to fight for his country. He thought that was the right thing to do and that's what he did," says Richie McCarthy, who still gets emotional when talking about his big brother, Jack.

The two brothers, born about two years apart were close growing up in Allston-Brighton. The boys' father died when they were toddlers. As a child, Jack developed a talent. He liked to paint. He was a perfectionist.

"A lot of times he did these paintings and he'd do it and I'd say it's a beautiful painting, and the next thing I know, he'd have painted over it so he could paint again," says Richie.

By 1960, Jack developed an interest in the military, and on his 17th birthday enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.

"He was like a tall, good lookin' kid. And he looked like a Marine," says Dan Daley, one of Jack's childhood friends. "He was probably like 6'1", maybe 215, muscular type of kid. When you saw him in his uniform, it was impressive. I mean he could be a poster boy for the Marines."

By all accounts, Jack McCarthy thrived in the Marine Corps. In 1962, he was chosen for a training exercise observed by President John F. Kennedy. Later that year, he was assigned to a ship deployed during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was sent to Vietnam for the first time in 1965.

He was assigned to work with local South Vietnamese villagers, and root out the Viet Cong. He wrote home about it in November 1965:

Dear Mom, I will really miss some of the people in this village. All the kids call me by my name, and most of the older people to [sic]. We have had a few more brushes with the V.C. in our area but we are getting smarter than them because we have been killing them. And they haven't hurt us for a long time. Your loving son, Jackie.

After 13 months in Vietnam, Jack returned stateside. But by late 1967, his brother remembers, he was called again, to return to Vietnam.

"We had conversations before he went back the second time, and he told me that he thought something could happen," says Richie.

And something did happen. On the morning of Feb.18, 1968, Jack McCarthy stepped on an enemy explosive device, and was severely wounded. He was evacuated to a Naval field hospital in Danang, and was able to send some letters home:

Dear Mom, Sorry not to have written before but I'm feeling better now and am going to be okay. I'm lucky it wasn't any worse but I've lost my right leg, and the sight of my right eye. Don't worry about it. Please. Your loving son, John.

He was eventually transferred to an Army hospital in Japan. But despite the efforts of surgeons, he died on the morning of March 25, 1968. He was 24 years old.

"When I think of him, I just think what a shame it is he couldn't really live his life," Dan Daley says. "You know, when I'd see his name on the wall like I was in D.C. recently, that's all I think of, what a shame, poor kid, he was so young. He never really had children or he didn't really have a life, he was just starting out, and snuffed out. It was sad, he had a lot of potential, it just wasn't realized."

Not realized, but not forgotten.

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