The first time I met Pilot Officer Lawrence Maguire was on a blazingly hot day in 2015. Even though the sun was setting, heat still radiated off the ground and through the soles of my shoes. “I am so sorry,” I said as I stood over the white marble headstone bearing his name in the austere New European Cemetery in Djibouti. Maguire, one of thirteen Commonwealth casualties laid to rest in the cemetery, was an American who flew for the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II. His plane was shot down over Djibouti (then French Somaliland) on July 15, 1942. Like us, it was duty that brought him here. However, looking down at his name, I had to ask him why he served . . . although, I could just as easily have been asking myself the same question.
My journey to the Horn of Africa began 73 years after Maguire’s, when my husband received orders to our embassy in Djibouti. Our family packed up and moved to the small country some locals refer to as The Gates of Hell. Strategically located on the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb at the southern end of the Red Sea, Djibouti is home not only to our only base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, but also to a host of other nations’ militaries, including China’s first overseas outpost. It is a tiny, desert nation that just happens to find itself in the right place at the right time throughout history. However, when you combine its remote location, sparse vegetation, and extreme temperatures, one could wonder why people risk their lives there and why we chose to stay for three years. Our answer was, as it is and has been for countless others, service above self.
It was shortly after our arrival that I learned of Maguire. We received an invitation to the British Remembrance Day commemoration, but rather than just giving me a heads-up, my husband added, “You’ll especially want to go to this one. We have an American buried here.” Few things are more important than honoring those who have fallen. In this life of service, we know the risks are great, that some are not as lucky as others, and that we could easily find ourselves the ones in mourning. Living with that knowledge every day is our burden. It’s part of the price we pay to serve.
Maguire haunted me from the start. For years, I have struggled with the question of what drives us, both service members and their spouses, to make the decision to serve. We sacrifice so much of what some call “a normal life.” But why? Why do we do it to ourselves, our families, our loved ones? Living so far away from home, being one of only a few service member spouses and families in Djibouti, it was no surprise that the story of a bright, ambitious young man, with a desire to serve the greater good no matter the cost, would captivate me and encompass my time there.
The constant rotation of staff in a place like Djibouti means institutional memory can slip through the cracks without anyone realizing it. That was the case with Maguire. Almost a decade before, another military spouse posted to Djibouti had learned of the existence of Maguire’s grave by word of mouth, but little more was available. Another embassy employee then set about researching Maguire and slowly his life story began to take shape, but even that fell to the wayside after a time. As I picked up the lead years later and headed down the rabbit hole of files and archives, I became almost obsessed with what I found. Obsessed with making sure he would not be forgotten again.
Born in East Orange, New Jersey on April 9, 1919, Lawrence Robert Maguire was an all-American boy. A beloved only son and an adored older brother, he was a good student, community volunteer, and hard worker. He could have done anything with his life, however a family history that included service in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I, instilled Maguire with a strong desire to serve a higher cause. By the time he graduated high school in 1937, the world was once again on the brink of war. Following a short stint at Seton Hall University, he left to pursue a path that would take him closer to the conflict that was starting. He applied to the British-American Ambulance Corps, only to be turned down as France fell. Not giving up, he applied to the United States Naval Academy and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. However, as months passed, with no word on his applications and our nation continuing to remain officially outside of the conflict, he had had enough. Maguire said goodbye to his family, hitchhiked to Canada, and enlisted in their military. On July 30, 1940, Maguire was sworn into the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Maguire’s skills and ability were noticed by his superiors and he rose rapidly from airman to pilot officer, an ascent that placed Maguire right where he wanted to be, in the fight. He became a bomber pilot, stationed initially in England, flying missions into continental Europe. During one mission in July 1941, German Messerschmitts attacked his plane and he crashed at sea off the Dover coast. He came to while submerged and surviving crew members helped pull him up, keeping him afloat on one of the plane’s fuel tanks until they were rescued. He spent three months at Ramsgate Hospital recovering from wounds to his face, knee, and thigh.
During Maguire’s recuperation, his mother wrote a letter to his commanding officer, both thanking him for saving her son’s life and pleading to have him reassigned as an instructor or anything that would keep him away from further harm. I was brought to tears as I read the letter. Her words were steeped in a combination of pride and fear, no different than the sentiments I have heard from countless parents. But her wishes were left ungranted. There was a war on, and despite knowing what could happen, Maguire was still determined to serve. As soon as his wounds healed, he returned to duty, heading first to Egypt, and then ultimately to the 8th Royal Air Squadron based in Khormaksar in the Colony of Aden, or as we know it now, Yemen.
At that time, control of the Horn of Africa was still uncertain for the British. Although the Italians had been defeated in the East Africa Campaign, the Vichy French still controlled French Somaliland. From there, the Vichy could threaten the Allied supply convoys that transited the Red Sea and Suez Canal. Maguire and his crew were tasked with flying supply missions between Aden and Hargeisa in British Somaliland, missions that were also used for reconnaissance over the Vichy stronghold. It was on one of those missions that Maguire’s plane came under enemy fire and crashed. All lives were lost. The French buried them with full military honors in the cemetery the following day. Maguire was the first RCAF officer to die in the Africa theater of war and is the only American killed in action to be buried in Djibouti. He was 23 years old.
Maguire’s family, even with the thanks of the British and Canadian governments and the medals he was awarded posthumously, was left devastated. Struggling to make ends meet, his mother wrote one final letter to the RCAF, explaining how her husband never fully recovered from their son’s death and died in 1945. Problems with receipt of Maguire’s pension forced her and Maguire’s younger sisters to leave their family home for a smaller place in another city. However, despite it all, they never lost the pride they felt for the person he had been and the choices he made. Even now, the pride still lives in his remaining family, including a nephew named for him two decades after his death.
In the three years I lived in Djibouti, Maguire was never far from my thoughts. I felt I had a connection with him, an understanding of his choices. My family became Maguire’s family. We attended every Remembrance Day commemoration and conducted our own Memorial Day services. We tended his grave. We watched over him. On several occasions, my husband joined our ambassador to represent the embassy when Americans killed in action in the Horn of Africa were transported through Djibouti. Each time I thought of Maguire, I thought of how history repeats itself. I wondered what he would have thought, knowing that seven decades later we are in the same place, still sacrificing for stability in the region. What would he have thought of an American military family actually living just down the road from where he died? What would he have thought of any of it? Would it have changed his mind? I have to think that his answer to the last question would be no, because after three very difficult years there, that was also my answer.
As our time in Djibouti drew to a close, I found myself heartbroken at the thought of leaving Maguire, fearful that he would be forgotten again. That was when I knew I had to tell his story. We honor others and tell their stories because they deserve to be remembered. Their stories are lessons for our future. I wanted to make sure that he would not fade away. I wanted to thank him for helping me along my own path.
I had the chance to say one final goodbye shortly before we left. The day was just as hot and unforgiving as it was the first time I met him. This time I simply said, “Thank you,” and took a small stone from the ground near his grave. It sits on my desk as a constant reminder of why we continue to serve . . . and of him.