MIDDLESEX - No one knows when he developed the habit of scraping the metal identifiers together, but perhaps it began the moment the late John J. “Jack” Doherty crossed into Nazi-held territory as part of General George S. Patton's relentless advance to the Rhine River in the winter of 1944.
More than 70-years later, after the Battle of the Bulge veteran quietly died in his Woburn home at age 92, Susan Doherty Cashell looked to her late uncle's bedside and spotted his dog tags hanging from the sideboard.
Realizing the etching had been worn thin from the self-soothing habit, Cashell for the first time grasped the full gravity of her family's sacrifices during World War II, when six Doherty brothers — including Cashell's father Edmund Doherty — enlisted and served in the Armed Services.
"If I am to close my eyes and imagine being 19, away from home for the first time and in the middle of combat, I can picture rubbing those tags together for comfort," reflected Cashell, who noted her grandparents had also handed each of their seven sons religious medals to wear while at war.
"[Seeing those dog tags], I just thought about being in a combat role, where people are shooting at you. You can almost picture how it would feel. I know I'd be using my St. Anthony's medal," continued the Lexington Street resident.
The last of his siblings to pass away, John Doherty was the second youngest of six brothers who left their South End homestead for the war after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.
An Irish-Catholic family with deep roots in Woburn, the Doherty brothers in their later years were well-known for their ties to various civic organizations and the Woburn Country Club, as the late Ernest 'Ernie' Doherty - who served in the U.S. Coast Guard during the war — was in his youth a state amateur golfing champion and in his later years a course manager and golf pro.
Getting into the sport by working as caddies to earn some much-needed depression-era cash for their large family, the brothers had a well-earned reputation as some of the best young players of their time to hit the Woburn Country Club links.
But lesser known to many is that the Belmont Street residents of, Mr. and Mrs. William F. Doherty, share the distinction of having the highest number of Woburn children to serve in a military conflict.
With six sons joining the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and U.S. Army during World War II — and a seventh serving during the Korean War — only Woburn's Leland family, which lost two sons in World War II, matched the Doherty's sense of patriotic duty.
"I think about my grandparents. They had to wonder every night, 'Are they all right? Where are they right now?'" said Cashell. "This truly was a generation that knew the value of sacrifice for the betterment of all. That's why I think it's important we learn about this and stay connected to our history."
Woburn Veterans' Agent Larry Guiseppe says what sticks out most to him and local historian Kathy Lucero is just how common it was for entire households to enlist without urging or fanfare into the military.
"These families took tremendous pride in serving. The country was all heading together in the same direction. It was nothing for everybody in a family to want to go in. They didn't even wait to be drafted," Lucero explained.
"As far as brothers from one family in that war from Woburn, that's probably [the most]," Guiseppe remarked in a separate interview. "But back then, it wasn't uncommon that a whole family would serve."
Citing one example, Guiseppe referenced the Gately family, who had six members serve in World War II.
However, unlike the Dohertys, the Gately family was a two-generation fighting clan, as the father, unwilling to stay in Woburn as his five sons went off to war, obtained a special dispensation from authorities in Washington D.C. to enlist, despite being considered too old for military service.
A heavy price
According to records and newspaper articles from the final years of the war, at least 70 of Woburn's native sons died while fighting Nazi and Japanese Axis powers during World War II.
Overall, a total of 3,400 Woburnites enlisted in the military during World War II, a figure that at the time even stunned area leaders.
In fact, in one newspaper account from the era, a Boston Globe writer noted that city's enlistment figures were 50 percent above what would be considered a normal quota for a community of Woburn's size.
"It was such a unique generation," said City Auditor Charles Doherty, whose father Daniel served in the U.S. Navy. "You don't know if you'll ever see it again. They were hardened by the depression, but were grounded by family and country."
By the time the German Army surrendered in May 7, 1945, the Doherty family had sacrificed much, as Robert F. Doherty, who joined the U.S. Navy in Oct. of 1942, perished just three-months after his enlistment during an accident on the deck of a US destroyer off the coast of Virginia.
In perhaps his last letter back home before the mysterious plane crash on the deck of the USS Suwanee - which also killed five of his shipmates — an upbeat "Bobby" Doherty beamed to his aunt about his latest athletic exploits versus a softball team of Navy officers and his hopes that his relatives were improving on their golf game.
Recently appraised that his parents were making preparations to dance together at an upcoming wedding reception, the Navy aviation mechanic also wondered in amazement at the intensity of their bond.
“[My sister] Ruthie tells me my mother and father are going to dance at the reception. I can't believe it. My mother and father are like a couple of kids, mad at each other one moment and the next, still madly in love. That's the way it should be,” Bobby wrote.
William D. Doherty, the oldest brother, joined the U.S. Army a month before his brother's death. Before he would be reunited with his family, the eldest sibling first had to survive being held as German prisoner of war. At the time of his capture in 1945, he had been in the service for close to three years.
"The squadron was in the vanguard of the heavy tank invaders, and the young man may be a prisoner, as it was the Ninth Army that lost many men by capture," read a newspaper account detailing the Belmont Street resident's status as missing in action. "He has seen plenty of service, but his letters back home all indicated he was very much satisfied with his success in the Army."
Cashell’s father, popularly known throughout his life as "Neda" Doherty, returned home safely after also leading a variety of reconnaissance missions throughout France and Germany, but he sustained a serious back injury after his unit was attacked while crossing a bridge into enemy-held territory.
According to City Auditor Charles Doherty, his uncle Neda was riding in the back of a truck, when an explosion tore into the vehicle and flung him to the ground.
The resulting battle with Nazi forces was so intense, Doherty's entire unit scattered. His injured uncle, who suffered a broken back, managed to evade notice by crawling into a nearby foxhole. However, it would be days before he would be reunited with his infantry regiment, which was also attached to Patton's Third Army.
"The unit got separated and for a while, they thought he was missing-in-action or killed," said the city auditor, who never heard a peep from his father and uncles about their war service until the siblings aged into their golden years.
According to Cashell, her father never complained about his nagging back injury, which bothered the MassHighway foreman throughout his life. However, he did often relate an unlikely encounter with his brother and another hometown friend after he finished recuperating in England. (He was subsequently reunited with his unit).
"He never really talked about killing people or anything like that. But he often told me about being in a mess tent and overhearing a familiar voice. He turned around and there was his buddy from down the street, Billy Burke," said Cashell.
"He also told me when he was getting ready to go back [to fight with his unit], he and my Uncle Jackie bumped into a friend from Woburn, Allie Wall. Allie somehow got the three of them officer’s jackets, and the three of them snuck into an officer's club all night."
Yet another brother, Charles Doherty, was too young to enlist in the military during World War II, but he would later join the U.S. Navy in 1951 and serve in the Korean War.
A typical tight-knit family of those years, the youngest Doherty would not go off to battle alone, as Daniel Doherty, who served in the Navy during World War II but never ventured beyond the U.S. mainland, joined the Korean War effort as a reserve member of the U.S. Navy.
According to the city auditor, whose father Daniel named him after his youngest brother, his dad recounted being eager to get into the fight while stationed in Florida during World War II, but the elder Dohertys urged him to stay stateside.
Ironically, when his little brother ended up heading to Korea years later, Daniel Doherty was glad he too could look out for his kid brother.
"He kept on applying to go overseas with his brothers, but they always told him, 'You're in the best place you can be. Stay where you are,'" said the city auditor. "They were a tight-knit group. They all grew up during the Great Depression, when all you had was family."