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The Short, Unhappy Life of
G.I. Thomas Kavanagh Mystery



Heroic Army Service is Topped by Toy Gun Bandit Career

New York – (AP) – Dead at 25, Thomas Joseph Kavanagh began his brief public career with a toy pistol and he ended it with another toy pistol clenched in his dying hand.

Both times he was trying to bluff fortune in small-scale lone-wolf robberies. But between the two episodes he won six decorations as a valorous doughboy overseas.
The short unhappy life of this hero-criminal is a masterpiece in human irony – a strange jigsaw puzzle with the key fragment missing.

In some way it holds a challenge to us all. A challenge to find out the “why?” behind what he did.
All there is to go by now are the official police and war department records, and this is what they say:

First Attempt Fails

At the age of 16 Thomas Joseph Kavanagh, a Brooklyn boy of good family, tried to hold up a Manhattan jewellery store watchman with a toy pistol.

Perhaps because of his youth he was charged only with petty larceny. He pleased guilty and received an indeterminate sentence.

War gave him the opportunity to redeem himself, and he made good in full measure.

He served in Africa and Italy. In that long “forgotten war” up the Apennines he was a frontline platoon commander for the veteran 168th infantry regiment.

Of all combat men platoon leaders have the highest mortality rate in battle. They take the lead where the metal flies thickest. Gen George S. Patton once bluntly told a group:” Gentlemen, your duty is to be killed.”

He Served Bravely

Thomas Joseph Kavanagh wasn’t killed. But he did get a Purple Heart for wounds in action. Among his other decorations were three that are given only for personal bravery above the call of duty – the Silver Star, the Bronze Medal and an Oak Leaf cluster.

I don’t know what he fought the Germans with – pistol, rifle, machine gun or mortar – but he fought long, hard, often and well. And he learned how to use weapons that were loaded. He must also have seen men die, and gained that protective indifference to the sight of dead men that all doughboys have to get or go crazy.

When he came home he left the army with an honorable discharge and a Good Conduct ribbon.

Neighbours said he was rather silent and aloof, but so are many boys back from war.

Here I Am Again

Last Thursday evening Thomas Joseph Kavanagh walked into the Trans-Canada air lines office just off Fifth avenue. His hand was in a brown paper bag and he pointed it at the clerk:

“Her I am again,” he said. “This is a stickup.”

The clerk immediately recognized Kavanagh as the man who held him up last month and took nearly $1,000. Two detectives were in the back room waiting for just such a return call.

They stepped out of separate door and as Kavanagh raised his arm menacingly they began firing. Once bullet hit him in the head, two in the chest.

He fell dead. When they pulled his hand from the paper bag, they say clutched in the ex-war hero’s fist – a toy pistol.

Later Kavanagh’s father was brought to identify the body. Police told him they also held his son responsible for three other lone robberies of the Colonial Airlines office. They gray-haired father held out this son’s honorable army discharge and shook his head in wordless grief. He said Kavanagh only recently had enrolled in a university under the GI bill of rights.

Sigmund Janas, president of Colonial Airlines, send a check for $500 to the two detectives – one of whom had been wounded by the other’s crossfire.

“This example of what can happen to any individual who thinks he can take anything he wants at the point of a gun without working for an earning it,” Janas said, “should teach others a lesson.”
But what is the thing we don’t know? What can make a man bravely risk his life time after time for his country – and then toss it away in a futile bluff with a toy weapon?

What gave Thomas Joseph Kavanagh the courage to be a standout hero in war yet left him without the long anonymous valor with which millions of other veterans are working out the problems peace brought them.

Death holds his answer.

Originally appeared in the Dixon Evening Telegraph. Dixon, Illinois. Mon, Feb.16th, 1948