The following article appeared in The Hartford Courant on August 28, 2005. The article has been provided to Wethersfield Historical Society courtesy of the author, Clark Whelton. Thank you Mr. Whelton for sharing your memories of the effect of WWII in Wethersfield.
"First and Last"
I never met Bob Keeney. He died in August 1945, in the Philippine Sea in the closing days of World War II. But I knew his parents, Bill and Emma, well.
In 1952, soon after my family moved into their Wethersfield neighborhood, Emma Keeney called me next door (she lived at 479 Wolcott Hill Road) and showed me Bob's illuminated portrait above the mantel. He was a handsome young man in Navy whites.
"Bob wasn't much older than you when his ship went down," Emma Keeney said with tears in her eyes. "He played baseball at Wesleyan. Do you like baseball?"
I nodded. I was 15 and thought about little else.
"Then please, I want you have this." She handed me Bob's catcher's mitt. "And please take these other things, too."
Into my hands she placed an extraordinary working model of a steam engine, several books, and a .22-caliber rifle. "Bob loved them," she said. "But it's time to let them go."
"It's such a sad story," my mother said later when I showed her the gifts. "The war was almost over when Bob's ship, the USS Indianapolis, was sunk. Bob must have been one of the last boys to die in the war. And what a strange coincidence. Do you remember the Whiteheads, our neighbors when we first moved to Wethersfield? Their son was a Navy ensign, too. He was one of the first to die."
Ensign Ulmont I. "Monty" Whitehead Jr. had been assigned to the battleship USS Arizona. The only reminder of the young officer was the Gold Star in the window of his parents' home across the street at 199 Clearfield Road.
His father, Ulmont "Ully" Whitehead Sr., owned a garage on New Britain Avenue in Hartford. In 1944, when a hurricane blew down a willow in our back yard at 198 Clearfield, Ully Whitehead backed his big tow truck between the houses, attached a length of cable to the tree, threw the winch motor into gear and hauled the huge tree upright. It lived for another 30 years.
By all accounts, Monty Whitehead was headed for a brilliant career in the Navy. A 1933 graduate of Hartford's Bulkeley High School, Monty served in the enlisted ranks for three years before winning an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. At Annapolis, Monty starred in football, leading Navy in receiving in 1938 and kicking a key field goal in Navy's 13-7 victory over Army in 1939.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, as Japanese planes swooped down on Pearl Harbor, Monty Whitehead must have been racing to his battle station when an enemy bomb ignited the Arizona's forward magazine. He and his shipmates made up nearly half the U.S. losses that day.
Bob Keeney was a student at Wesleyan around that time. He joined the Navy's V-12 officer training program and entered active duty in 1944.
On July 30, 1945, after completing a top-secret delivery of the atomic bombs that ultimately ended the war, the USS Indianapolis was ordered to Leyte in the Philippines, setting in motion a string of catastrophic blunders. The cruiser's captain requested an escort vessel. The Navy not only denied his request, it failed to inform him that his ship would be passing through waters where a Japanese submarine had been sighted. It was almost midnight when two torpedoes struck the Indianapolis amidships. It sank in 12 minutes.
Because the Indianapolis had been incorrectly reported as safely anchored in Leyte, its SOS was ignored. For four horrifying days, 900 sailors drifted in the open ocean under a blazing sun. Their agony is beyond description. Some 200 crewmen were killed by sharks. Bob Keeney, like hundreds of others, hung on as long as he could before succumbing to exposure and thirst.
Monty Whitehead, an only son, had three sisters. His parents were survived by six grandchildren. But Bob Keeney was an only child. His death was a devastating blow from which his parents never recovered.
For years, Emma traveled around the country, meeting with a number of the 316 sailors who survived the Indianapolis disaster. Before her death in 1995 at 100, Emma brought friendship and a helping hand to many who sailed with her son, and to countless others as well.
Ensign Keeney's grave is the wide Pacific, where he rests with 879 other sailors who died with him. Ensign Whitehead's remains lie with his 1,176 shipmates in the Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
But their cause was victorious and the nation they defended did not forget them.
The Whitehead Highway, which links downtown Hartford to I-91, was named in Monty Whitehead's honor; and Wethersfield's Robert A. Keeney Cultural Center - where Bob Keeney's portrait hangs today - preserves his memory. I gave his mitt to a boy playing ball on the field adjacent to his parents' home.
Two ensigns and two neighbors - Connecticut's first and last to die in World War II.
Ensign Robert Allan Keeney Ensign Monty Whitehead