On the surface the story of what happened to my brother Sergeant Bernard (“Ben”) E. McSweeney during World War II may seem like just another war story. However, this story brings to light the power of teaching our faith of Catholicism and one of the most powerful prayers to our Blessed Mother — the Hail Mary.
I am 88 now, and this summer I find that memories of Sgt. Ben live as vividly in my heart as ever. His memory also lives on in a 2018 book: Stories of New York’s 27th Infantry: 1917-2017, by Geoffrey S. Milligan.
Bernard McSweeney, a St. Lucy’s alumnus who died in 1988, enlisted in the National Guard in the late 1930s. When war was declared on Dec. 8, 1941, McSweeney, part of the 27th Infantry Division (Syracuse), was sent to Fort McClellan, Ala. After training, Sgt. McSweeney was sent to Hawaii and then Germany as a medic.
The third oldest son of widowed Agnes McSweeney, he along with brothers Jack and Jim were in active fighting during World War II. His third brother Joe was in the Navy stationed in Washington, D.C., for the duration of the war to use his talent in lithography. Their mom, Agnes, and three other siblings (Clarissa, Rita, and Teresa) would pray together daily for their safe return. Every day Agnes prayed the “Thirty Day Prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
Sgt. McSweeney was a medic for the 411th Infantry Regiment when on Dec. 21, 1944, he was wounded near Bobenthal, Germany, during the time of the Battle of the Bulge. He was evacuated to England to be treated. Sgt. McSweeney returned to action and he was later given the Bronze Star Medal for his heroic action on March 21, 1945, saving wounded men while in direct observation and fire from enemy pillboxes. It was stated at the awarding of it that “McSweeney’s actions reflected the highest traditions of Military Service.” His mother and siblings were given word of Bernard being awarded the Bronze Star for military bravery but never knew he had been wounded. When he came home from the war he shared very little of what happened during his service or that he was wounded.
But, the one thing he did want his mother to know was how three Hail Marys had saved him. He explained to her that during battle many men were wounded and calling for help: “Medic, medic!” And he could even hear some crying out, “Mommy, Mommy!” as they lay in great pain and torment. Sgt. McSweeney continued to explain that medics who went to help were usually snipered — shot dead. But he told his mom he knew he had to help all these men.
So each time before running out he would say three Hail Marys. He explained that after he did that he would go out and gather the wounded and it was as if he was invisible — able to carry the wounded men out of battle while firing went on all around them. That was the only mention of the war he ever made. Sgt. McSweeney wanted his mother to know that his faith had sustained him and that he believed that is why although wounded he was able to come home to her and his family. As Catholics we know the power of prayer, God’s great grace and mercy, and the love of his Mother Mary (who we could say is “our Mommy”) for us.
Over the past 36 years, Teresa McCarthy-Brusa and her husband, John Brusa, have presented and have been part of “Life in the Spirit” seminars throughout the Diocese of Syracuse. They are active members of Holy Family Church, Fairmount.