Profiles in Sacrifice: Cpl. David L. Conway

In the midst of 1944, World War II raged in both Europe and the Pacific. Cpl. David L. Conway, a married man with a two-year-old daughter at home, had been stationed in Washington, DC, far away from the theaters of operation. Assisting with prisoners of war, David had befriended a young German soldier. The solider had written a letter to his fellow prisoners, encouraging them to share information that would help the Allied forces, in exchange, he believed, for the right to stay in the United States after the war ended.

When David returned to duty after a short leave, he found out that the soldier had committed suicide when he learned he would have to return to Germany. “This had a very bad effect on my dad,” said his daughter Geraldine Conway Morenski, nearly 70 years after his death. David then asked to be moved from his safe post in the United States to the front lines overseas. He arrived in in February 1945 as a replacement troop.

Serving with the 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, David died during a firefight near Weissenfels, Germany on April 14, 1945, likely being killed by a German sniper. A few weeks later on May 1, 1945, just 10 days before his daughter turned three, Marion Dougherty Conway received news of her husband’s death.

Making the decision to have him buried overseas, years later she explained to her daughter that it could take three to five years to get the bodies back home again. Fearing it would cause confusion for her young daughter, Marion opted to have him buried at Netherlands American Cemetery. “I know that as a child losing a father you never really believed that he was dead,” said Geraldine. “I always thought he had amnesia and some day he would wake up, and remember he had a daughter and that he’d walk through the door.”

Even with suffering the loss of her father, Geraldine still considers herself one of the fortunate World War II orphans—she has two distinct memories of her father from 1944. In both, her dad is laughing and smiling, relishing in the joy of being with his young daughter.

And while her personal memories are limited, Geraldine has gleaned details of her dad from family members and research.  Standing around six feet tall, David had wavy black hair with bright blue eyes. As a first generation American of Irish decent, he grew up in Massachusetts and dated his wife for seven years, prior to walking down the aisle. 

Marion never remarried, and traveled to the cemetery for her first and only visit in 1973. Upon returning she felt reassured with the decision she made 30 years earlier. “In retrospect, it probably bothered her for many years that maybe she should have had his body brought home,” said Geraldine. “For her it was an affirmation that she had made the correct decision for both of us, and for him.”

Geraldine first visited Netherlands American Cemetery in May 1985 after being prodded by her boss, a Dutch man with a sister living in Maastricht, just miles from the cemetery. Her first visit left her feeling at peace. “To me, it was the period at the end of a sentence. It was a place. I could touch a stone. I could see his name. It became real. Up until then, there was no place to go,” said Geraldine.

During this trip, she also met her boss’s family members, Anneke and Leon Segers, and their three young boys. “That’s when Anneke said to me ‘I will take care of your father for you.’ She explained that the Dutch have adopted graves at the cemetery since it was built,” said Geraldine. At present all 8,301 graves have been adopted. These adopters visit the cemetery multiple times a year and lay flowers at the gravesite. “They use the term adopted because they bring that soldier into their family,” said Geraldine.

More than 30 years ago, Geraldine’s unlikely friendship with the Segers family began. They have attended each other’s birthday parties. They’ve watched each other’s children grow. This friendship has turned into a true family.

Geraldine’s connection with the cemetery and with World War II has continued to evolve over the years. In 2000 she joined the American World War II Orphans Network (AWON), and in 2002 she returned to the cemetery for her first Memorial Day ceremony. At the end of this ceremony, she walked over to her dad’s grave for a few minutes. “He kept saying ‘You must bring the children. Bring the children.’ Well I know it wasn’t my children, as my children had already visited their grandfather’s resting place with me in 1995, so I brought AWON children,” said Geraldine.

In 2005 Geraldine led 40 AWON members to Netherlands American Cemetery for the Memorial Day Ceremony. Again, in 2010 Geraldine organized another trip. This year, in 2015 to coincide with the 70th anniversary of VE Day, the group will return again to the cemetery.

This Memorial Day weekend, thousands of Dutch citizens will gather at the cemetery, along with Geraldine and more than 50 members of AWON, to remember and honor the sacrifices made seven decades ago in the fight to liberate Europe.

Follow along on their journey Memorial Day weekend via the ABMC website, Facebook, and Instagram as they return to Netherlands American Cemetery.

About ABMC
Established in 1923 by Congress, ABMC is a U.S. government agency charged with commemorating the service, achievements and sacrifice of the U.S. Armed Forces where they have served overseas since 1917. ABMC administers our nation’s overseas commemorative cemeteries and federal memorials. For more information visit www.abmc.gov, or connect with us on Facebook, Youtube or Instagram.