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The Fighting Cavanaugh Clan
The Washington Post Sun  Jan 27  1918 Papa-Uncle-Arthur--Tommy

This journalist is long overdue in expressing my appreciation to the staff and our two editors, Michelle Kim and Bryan Fazio, for their unwavering support of “A Veteran’s Story.”  Likewise, the staunchest of unfaltering supporters is our publisher, Pat Cavanaugh.  Pat has always been there for me, to encourage, to offer constructive criticism, to educate, to be a confidante, and occasionally suggest that perhaps I should be measured for a straight jacket along with recommendations for a padded cell.

Pat is not a veteran, but he comes from a remarkable line of Cavanaugh men who did serve. Only recently did I fully understand the Cavanaugh contribution to our country, from chasing Mexican bandit Pancho Villa out of the U.S. back into Northern Chihuahua, to trench warfare in WWI France or escorting Allied convoys across the Atlantic, and onto a ‘tin can’ (navy destroyer) in World War II. That these men made it home in one piece is an amazing narrative in itself, but what the Cavanaugh men did and what they went through is the essence of this article. Research sources include an article in The Washington Post on January 27, 1918. The Cavanaugh clan resided in Washington, DC.

The Mexican rebel and former governor of the state of Chihuahua, Jose Doroteo Arango Arambula, better known to Americans as Pancho Villa, attacked a detachment of the U.S. 13th Cavalry Regiment in Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916. Eighteen Americans were killed, 100 horses and mules stolen, military supplies seized, and the town burned to the ground. Needless to say, Uncle Sam and his electorates were not happy campers.

President Wilson ordered General John ‘Blackjack’ Pershing with 5,000 soldiers to pursue Villa for the purpose of retribution. Sixteen-year-old Willie Cavanaugh and his older brother, Tommy, were among those boys serving with General Pershing. The Cavanaugh clan knew the youngest Cavanaugh was underage and threatened disclosure to keep him out of Harm’s Way. Washington Post excerpt: “whereupon (Willie) made it clear that if any attempt was made to get him out of the Army he would start a private and very interesting war of his own right here in Washington.”

The U.S. Army, utilizing aircraft and trucks for the first time, chased Villa all over Mexico without success. The unproductive nine month pursuit ceased with America’s entry into The Great War, 20 years later referred to as World War One. The three Cavanaugh boys, Willie, Tommy, and Navy Reservist Arthur Cavanaugh, volunteered to fight for their country.

Momma Joanna Cavanaugh’s statements from The Washington Post in 1918: “It’s pretty lonely around the house. Everything is so quiet now. Sometimes I think I hear them around as they used to be, whistling and calling to one another. I’m mighty proud of them.” When the reporter suggested that she could have kept the younger Willie at home, Momma Cavanaugh replied, “Not when he wanted to go.” All three boys would go to war, together.

Seaman Arthur Cavanaugh served aboard the then-modern battleship USS New Hampshire. The battleship escorted convoys from New York to the French coast. Later, Arthur served on a high-speed patrol boat used to hunt German submarines along the European coast. The other two brothers, Willie and Tommy, endured the most horrible element of the conflict: Trench warfare. They not only battled Germans, but had to fight off brown and black trench rats the size of house cats, foot rot known as Trench Foot, enemy snipers, lice infestation, artillery bursts, disease, machine guns, the stench of death, and poison gas.

Both of the Cavanaugh boys knew the odds were stacked against them. Willie served as a "‘runner," dodging bullets and deadly shrapnel to deliver important messages between command posts on the front lines, one of the most dangerous jobs during The Great War. A runner had to be fast and able to think quickly on his feet. In addition to carrying messages, a runner was proficient in map and compass reading, plus kept a mental note of enemy positions. They memorized trench systems, reported on missing casualties, and often led soldiers to their correct positions. The runners normally donned a red arm band, which gives pause to ask why they broadcasted their mission? Chivalry was still alive in WWI, mainly among daring young men flying rickety bi-planes, but I’m not really sure wearing a red arm band on the battlefield was a good idea.

Older brother Tommy served in the hospital corps as a medic, arguably ‘the’ most dangerous job in modern warfare. Tommy was proud of his unit patch, the insignia of the famous 42nd Rainbow Division, the name ‘Rainbow’ said to derive from a comment by Major Douglas MacArthur, “The 42nd Division stretches like a rainbow from one end of America to the other.” He was probably right. The division represented 26 states and the District of Columbia.

Willie and Tommy Cavanaugh participated in 264 days of combat, most notably the Battle of Saint Mihiel and the horrendous Meuse-Argonne Offensive. During the Battle of Saint Mihiel, the terms ‘D-Day’ and 'H-Hour’ were used for the first time. Things did not go well. The Rainbow Division alone suffered 7,000 casualties before muddy roads and rotten weather bogged down artillery and food resupply. Nevertheless, Saint Mihiel was only an omen of things to come.

The follow-up battle, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, is still considered the largest battle in U.S. military history. One million two hundred and fifty thousand American soldiers participated in the fight and casualties were horrific: 26,277 killed and 95,786 wounded. Imagine the terror as well as revulsion felt of a medic and a young runner in the midst of such death and destruction. No records exist of Willie’s and Tommy’s actions during the Meuse-Argonne slaughter, but suffice it to say both carried mental and physical scars of the battle for years to come. As veterans, Willie and Tommy’s compensation was $15.00 a month for the affliction of Trench Foot. Then again, and more notably, the three Cavanaugh boys returned home in one piece.

Fast-forward to World War Two. Willie’s son, Thomas (Pat Cavanaugh’s father) joined the Navy and served aboard the destroyer USS Cone in the Atlantic. Upon Germany’s surrender, the Cone was reassigned to the Pacific Theater of Operations for the finally push against Japan.

“We were assigned to the Pacific with 4 other destroyers,’’ Mr. Cavanaugh told me by phone. “Two days before our departure, the Cone struck a transport ship which heavily damaged the port side near my general quarters on the bridge. We had to return to the Brooklyn Naval yard for repairs. Another destroyer took our place. The war ended while we were in dry dock, but the 5 destroyers sent to the Pacific got caught in the worst typhoon in recent memory. History calls it ‘Halsey’s Typhoon’ after Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey. Three of the five destroyers went to the bottom with all hands.”

Apparently the Cavanaugh clan had a propensity for surviving war, and that, indeed, was a good thing. Pat Cavanaugh, my publisher, recalled a vague story or two from the family’s military folklore, but as with most combat veterans from any family, Pat’s grandfather, father, and uncles recognized that telling the tale can be heart-rending, and that silence can be golden.

Notwithstanding, Pat remembered back when he was a 3 or 4 year old kid and how his World War I veteran Irish grandfather would leave at dusk for the ‘pub’: “I’d be on the porch and as my grandfather left he would say, ‘Paddy, watch the moon. I’m going to crank it up in just a bit.’ Well, of course the moon would rise but I thought my grandfather was doing it. I thought my grandfather, a combat veteran of World War One, hung the moon, literally.”

The military touches all of us. It is the national glue that holds together our principles and defends our freedoms and way of life. Appreciated yet sometimes abused by the changing winds of politics, the men and women of our armed forces have always been there, for you, for me, and for the United States of America. God bless them; America would not exist without them.

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at or