Russell Penny, who died Dec. 7, 1941, during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was Suffolk County’s first World War II casualty.
The telegram advising his parents, Anna and Clifford Penny, of their 20-year-old son’s death arrived at their Mattituck home Dec. 10. We can imagine how the couple felt after news broke early on the afternoon of Dec. 7, local time, of the Sunday morning attack in the territory of Hawaii. They knew their son was based there as a member of the Army Air Corps. Their worry no doubt overwhelmed them.
We can picture their reactions as they read about the attack — and the 2,403 dead — in the newspapers and listened to the news on the radio. Their worst fears were realized three days later with the arrival of the telegram: “The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son, Russell M. Penny, was killed in defense of his country at Hickham Field …”
You can see Mr. Penny’s headstone at New Bethany Cemetery in Mattituck. The cemetery is open to the public. Pay a visit sometime, see his headstone and think about the life on the North Fork he did not have. The Mattituck Park District building at Veterans Park is named in his honor as well as another local, Peter Krupski, who died at the battle of Guadalcanal.
In a country where so much is now subject to acrimonious debate, where even discussions of American history can devolve into shouting matches, we can all join and honor the men and women who have served their country in times of war. The 80th anniversary of the attack that brought this country into World War II is a good occasion to think about them.
Honoring veterans is the least we can all do, along with making sure any medical or other needs they might have are met.
Mr. Penny — affectionately known as “Russ” — graduated from Mattituck High School in 1939 and enlisted in the Army the following year, well ahead of the attack on Pearl Harbor that drew America into World War II.
His funeral was held at Mattituck Presbyterian Church. The church was filled to capacity, as the Rev. Percy Redford preached that the “American and Christian way of life” was worth dying for.
There are American Legion posts in Greenport, Southold, Mattituck and Riverhead. Membership at some has dwindled as the older generation of veterans have died. Some have struggled to stay afloat and offer services to their remaining members.
These posts are, in many ways, monuments to men and women who have put others’ interests ahead of their own and put their lives on the line. Many, like Mr. Penny, have lost their lives fighting for a country they loved and wanted to grow old in.
They should all be honored.