Some 43 years after his death in Vietnam, the thoughts and words of Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty of Columbia are still finding their way home to his family in South Carolina.
In an emotional and somber ceremony at Memorial Park in downtown Columbia on Saturday, four unsent letters belonging to the young soldier who fought in the 101st Airborne Division were returned to Flaherty’s family nearly half a century after he was killed in action at the age of 22.
“It is a miracle that these letters have shown up after all this time,” an emotional Kenneth Cannon, Flaherty’s uncle, said at the ceremony held at the city’s Vietnam memorial.
The letters were discovered by a retired Department of Defense analyst who had come across a Vietnamese online magazine. The article described a soldier there who had held onto the letters for years in hopes of returning them to Flaherty’s family.
Sealed in an unassuming white envelope, the letters were presented by members of the 101st Airborne Division to Cannon. The ceremony – which included about 20 members of Flaherty’s extended family, members of the military, veteran’s groups and the general public who had come to pay their respects – was at times difficult for Cannon, who remembers Flaherty as well-liked and loved by many.
“Everybody he met was a friend,” Cannon said, fighting back tears. “Everyone loved Steve.”
In some ways, the incredible journey of the lost letters first began half a world away, when Cannon’s nephew, Ron Flaherty, first found Steve – the son of an American serviceman and Japanese mother – living in a Japanese orphanage. The year was 1957 and Ron, stationed overseas, was so taken with the boy that he convinced his parents back in the United States to adopt him. He arrived in Columbia when he was 9 years old.
Steve Flaherty, as he was named, grew up to be a popular student and promising athlete. In fact, the Dentsville High School standout, once mentioned in Columbia papers, The Record and The State newspaper, turned down a chance to play baseball for the Cincinnati Reds. Instead, he decided to enlist.
“He felt it was his duty to fight for the country he loved and that had done so much for him,” Cannon said.
Flaherty’s adopted parents, Raymond and Lois, and brother Ron have passed away now.
But for his sister-in-law, Martha Gibbons, the incredible journey of the orphaned boy who would later die for a country he believed in is still amazing.
The family says it can all sometimes seem a little overwhelming.
“It’s just a culmination of the life he led,” Gibbons said.
The family plans to donate the letters to the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia. There, they will become part of a new exhibit on Vietnam the museum has planned.
“He came from such a meager background,” Gibbons said. “It’s so honoring to know that now his life and what he gave will live forever.”
For Cannon, his nephew’s journey has come full circle.
“This is probably the final chapter in Steve’s life,” he said, clutching the envelope to his chest. He doesn’t know yet when he’ll open the envelope and read the letters, but when the time comes, he said, he’ll know.
“Just to hold something that Steve held in his hands, that’s going to be touching. It’s like having him back here with us.”