Jim Corbran and Kevin Greiner never met each other until about a month ago, but for decades, they both pursued the same mysterious question: Who was Robert C. Greiner?
Greiner, a South Park High School graduate, was an Army infantryman who died in France in August 1944, in the waning days of World War II. He had been a shadowy presence in the lives of Corbran and Kevin Greiner for a long time.
“When I was 10, my sister and I found an old news article saying Robert Greiner was married to our mother, before we were born,” said Corbran, 70, of the City of Tonawanda. “But he was like this dark family secret that nobody would tell us anything about.”
Kevin Greiner, 71, of West Seneca, has known for decades that he had two uncles — Robert Greiner and his brother, Edward — who grew up in Buffalo’s First Ward and were killed in combat seven weeks apart in 1944.
“But my dad and other people in the family never wanted to talk about it,” Kevin Greiner told The Buffalo News. “I guess the memory was just too painful for them to discuss it.”
On Thursday afternoon, Corbran spent a couple of hours with Kevin Greiner and his wife, Sandra, in Gene McCarthy’s historic First Ward tavern. And this time, there was plenty of conversation about Robert Greiner.
What made the gathering special was the small but meaningful gift that Corbran gave to Kevin Greiner — the Purple Heart medal that the Army gave to Robert Greiner’s family after Nazi soldiers killed him 79 years ago.
Corbran said the Purple Heart had been “hidden away” by his family since the 1940s. He said he and his sister, Patricia Hamilton, found it in the home of their father, Henry Corbran, after he died in 2005.
“Ever since we found it, we’ve wanted to give this Purple Heart to Robert Greiner’s family … and I’m really glad we were able to turn it over to Kevin,” Corbran said.
“This means the world to us,” an emotional Kevin Greiner said as he and Corbran sat behind their beers at Gene McCarthy’s. “This is huge.”
Corbran and Kevin Greiner never met Robert Greiner. Military records show he died near Normandy, France, of shrapnel wounds years before they were born.
Corbran’s mom was the late Marie Quinn Corbran, who married Robert Greiner in 1943, not long before he shipped off to France after enlisting in the Army.
Four years after her first husband died in combat, Marie married Henry Corbran. Marie died of an illness in 1979.
“My mother would never tell us about her first marriage, and would never explain why,” Corbran said. “My godmother once told me that it was just too painful for my mother to talk about, because of the way she lost him. And my father would never talk about him, either.”
While he wishes they had told him more, Corbran said he could only imagine how painful it was for his mother, as a young woman in the First Ward, to get the news that her husband had died in combat.
Kevin Greiner told a strangely similar story about his father, Colton Greiner, who died in 2003.
“We grew up knowing that he had two brothers who died in the war, but my dad and other people in the family wouldn’t tell us any details,” Kevin Greiner said. “I can only guess that it was incredibly painful for my dad to discuss, losing his two older brothers in the war, seven weeks apart.”
Corbran said he spent years contacting museums and veterans organizations in search of someone related to Robert Greiner. Finally, someone associated with a First Ward Facebook group put him in touch with Kevin Greiner.
Aided by his wife, Kevin Greiner had also been doing some research, trying to find out more details about the lives and deaths of his two heroic uncles.
The sacrifices made by the two uncles he never met inspired Kevin Greiner to volunteer for the military during the Vietnam War. During that war, he spent three years on active duty at American missile sites operated by Army Air Defense units.
Kevin Greiner credits Matt Parsons, a retired Buffalo Police detective and historian, with helping him track down information about his uncles. He said Parsons — who wrote a book about South Park graduates killed in wars — also helped him obtain a Medal for Conspicuous Military Service for Robert Greiner.
“What happened to the two Greiner brothers unfortunately happened to many Buffalo families during wartime,” Parsons told The News. “Two brothers go off to war to serve their country, and neither one comes back.”
Kevin Greiner said he was “thrilled” when Corbran called him last month and spoke of his plans to deliver his uncle’s Purple Heart to him.
“Kevin is his uncle’s closest living relative and I’m really glad this medal is in his hands now,” Corbran said during the gathering at McCarthy’s.
“Getting this is a really big step for my family,” Kevin Greiner said, looking back at the beautiful old medal. “But this isn’t the end of it. My wife and I still want to find out everything we can about both of my uncles.”
After dying for their country, the two Greiner brothers were initially buried in France. Their bodies were later moved to Buffalo. They now rest steps away from each other in a veterans section at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Kevin Griener makes sure they aren’t forgotten there.
“I visit their graves every time I pass through Buffalo,” he said.
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