December 7, 2014 3 Comments
Above, My Father as a 17 year old enlisted man in WWII. He stands between his beloved pony Bob, and his own father. My grandfather served in every station on the Passaic NJ police department from patrolman, Chief of Detectives to assistant Chief. Passaic was a very large tough working city with a significant organized crime problem. Recognized as incorruptible, he was targeted by the mob, but would not be intimidated. The only years he took off from law enforcement in his adult life were 1917-1919 when he was a Sargent in the 78th division in France where he saw savage combat in the trenches. His only real wish in life was that his own son would not have the same experience. It didn’t come true, as my father went to both Korea and Vietnam.
Dec. 7, 1941; On that Sunday, my father was just about to turn 16 and was attending a Passaic (N.J.) High School football practice. With the news of Pearl Harbor, the game was called off. All 23 seniors on the team decided to enlist in the Navy as a group the following morning. They were early graduated in January 1942 and sent to boot camp with the best wishes and pride of their home town. It was their fate to be assigned to the cruiser the U.S.S. Juneau. For shipmates, they happened to have five brothers from one Iowa family whose name would become tragically well known, the Sullivans. The Juneau was sunk on 13 November 1942 off Guadalcanal.
Because of censored news, the sinking was not known for several weeks. My Fathers’ adopted older brother was a Chief Petty Officer named Frank Ryan who was on the Cruiser Vincennes in the same area, it was not unusual to have long breaks in mail. Everyone just assumed they were on a long patrol out in the South Pacific. While walking home after work just before Christmas of 1942, my father was stunned to see Frank Ryan, standing in front of him in Passaic. He was emaciated and ill, his uniform hanging on him. He could only say to my father “Billy, they got the Vincennes.” Although it was sunk in August, this was the first word. It was the first moment that my fathers simple pride in the Navy had to confront that the fleet was not invincible. With growing foreboding, my father realized the lack of contact from friends on the Juneau might be for the same reason. In another week this was confirmed on the eve of Christmas. All 23 of the teammates and the 5 Sullivans had gone down with the ship. Of 697 crew on board, there were only 10 survivors. This event led my father to Join the Navy when he turned 17. He eventually spent 33 years on active duty.
From the Past: Sun N Fun 2005
The man in the photo is Jim Giles. Out of thousands of people whom we spoke to, Grace noticed he was wearing a U.S.S. Vincennes hat, and suggested I introduce myself. The Vincennes was a heavy cruiser in WWII. It was a modern fast ship. It was one of the escorts that took the Doolittle Raiders close to Japan.
It was sunk on August 9, 1942 in a ferocious night action that was later known as the Battle of Savo Island. Technically, it was a severe defeat for the U.S. Navy, who lost several ships that night. But, they blocked the Japanese forces from descending on the Marine foothold on Guadalcanal. Among the plank owners on the Vincennes was a 35-year-old U.S. Navy chief named Frank Ryan. He was an adopted as a orphan by my grandparents in the 1920’s. Frank joined the navy in the late 1920s , and was the largest influence in my father’s choice to devote his own life to the U.S. Navy. Upon seeing Jim Giles’ hat, I mentioned Frank Ryan’s name to him, and he instantly replied “He was a chief in the Black Gang. Built like a fireplug. I remember him well.” An impressive memory reaching back 63 years.
Frank Ryan survived days in the water to be rescued, he was one of the very few of his shipmates who lived. He returned to combat as a plank owner on the Missouri. He survied the was but was haunted by tragedy. He died before he was 50.
When we got home from the airshow, the first phone call I made was to my father to tell him that I had personally met a sailor who had served with the hero of my father’s youth. He was very surprised and it brought back a stream of strong memories.”