Thursday, September 7, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: A Fallen Commander's Letter to his Son Inspires the Nation

A series of personal letters appeared in a pamphlet entitled Lest We Forget..., printed in 1943 by the Navy's Industrial Incentive Division to bring a sense of perspective to civilian war workers, many of whom were already exhausted by the pace demanded of them during the second full year of the war. 
USS Wasp (CV 7) appears on the Elizabeth River after an overhaul that began in December 1941.  She would operate in the Atlantic and Mediterranean until June, when more antiaircraft guns were installed at Norfolk Naval Shipyard before her departure for the Pacific. Lt. Cmdr. Shea's letter to his son was probably mailed just before Wasp's departure from Hampton Roads.  (National Archives and Records Administration)  

It is true that many of these workers had reason to feel underappreciated or even taken for granted.  Despite the dangers and drudgery of their jobs, however, they did not face imminent death like the end users of the things they were producing for the war effort, men like Lieutenant Commander John Joseph Shea of the USS Wasp (CV 7), the author of perhaps the most famous missive in the collection.  He wrote it to his son, Jackie, as he was leaving Hampton Roads in June 1942, bound for the Pacific.   

This illustration depicting five-year-old Jackie Shea appeared in the 1943 Navy pamphlet Lest We Forget.. (Author's Collection) INSET: A photograph of Lt. Cmdr. John J. Shea and his son, taken before he reported to the aircraft carrier Wasp (CV 7) in March 1942. (John J. Shea Collection, Courtesy of the Boston College University Archives)
June 29, 1942

Dear Jackie,

This is the first letter I have ever written directly to my little son and I am thrilled to know that you can read it all by yourself. If you miss some of the words, I'm sure it will be because I do not write very plainly. Mother will help you in that case I am sure. 
I was certainly glad to hear your voice over the long distance telephone. It sounded as though I were right in the living room with you. You sounded as though you missed your daddy very much. I miss you too, more than anyone will ever know. It is too bad this
war could not have been delayed a few more years so that I could grow up again with you and do with you all the things I planned to do when you were old enough to go to school. 
I thought how nice it would be for me to come home early in the afternoon and play ball with you, and go mountain climbing and see the trees, and brooks, and learn all about woodcraft, hunting, fishing, swimming, and things like that. I suppose we must be brave and put these things off for a little while.

When you are a little bigger you will know why your daddy is not home so much any more. You know we have a big country and we have ideals as to how people should live and enjoy the riches of it and how each is born with equal rights to life, freedom, and
the pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately, there are some countries in the world where they don't have these ideals, where a boy cannot grow up to be what he wants to be with no limits on his opportunities to be a great man, such as a great priest, statesman, doctor, soldier, business man etc.

Because there are people and countries who want to change our nation, its ideals, forms of government, and way of life, we must leave our homes and families to fight. Fighting for the defense of our country, ideals, homes, and honor is an honor and a duty which your daddy has to do before he can come home to settle down with you and Mother. When it is done, he is coming home to be with you always and forever. So wait just a little while longer. I am afraid it will be more than the two weeks you told me on the phone. 
In the meantime, take good care of Mother. Be a good boy and grow up to be a good young man. Study hard when you go to school. Be a leader in everything good in life. Be a good Catholic, and you can't help being a good American. Play fair always. Strive to win but if you must lose, lose like a gentleman and a good sportsman. Don't ever be a quitter either in sports or in your business or profession when you grow up. Get all the education you can. Stay close to Mother and follow her advice. Obey her in everything, no matter how you may at times disagree. She knows what is best and will never let you down or lead you away from the right and honorable things in life. If I don't get back, you will have to be Mother's protector because you will be the only one she has. You must grow up to take my place as well as your own in her life and heart.

Love your grandmother and granddad as long as they live. They too will never let you down. Love your aunts and see them as often as you can. Last of all, don't ever forget your daddy. Pray for him to come back and if it is God's will that he does not, be the kind of a boy and man your daddy wants you to be.

Thanks for the nice sweater and handkerchiefs and particularly for the note and card. Write me very often and tell me everything.

Kiss Mother for me every night.

Goodbye for now.

With all my love and devotion for Mother and you,

Your daddy
 
John J. Shea, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on January 30, 1898, earned a scholarship to Boston College at the age of 16.  He enlisted in the Naval Reserve on June 11, 1918, right after graduation, and became a naval aviator after completing training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Shea had been on active duty since 1930, serving from 1934 to 1940 as executive officer of Naval Air Station Squantum, Massachusetts.  

After a brief stint at the Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington DC, Shea reported aboard Wasp as assistant air officer in March, 1942.  Boston Globe columnist Joseph Driscoll, who sailed aboard Wasp during a convoy run in the Atlantic that spring, called Shea "the softest-spoken man on the ship."  "Only 43," continued Driscoll, "he had the athletic build of a football player, which he had been at Boston College. He was 6 feet tall, and hard and lean and shifty on his feet.  His freckled nose was dented from personal combat, and he had red hair."

Aviation fuel and ordnance fires consume the stricken aircraft carrier Wasp (CV 7) after she was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-19 off Guadalcanal on September 15, 1942. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph
Shea was declared missing after Wasp was struck by three torpedoes in the waters near Guadalcanal on September 15.  The citation of his Navy Cross, awarded posthumously, reads in part:

Lieutenant Commander Shea directed the fight against fires on the flight deck of the U.S.S. WASP, after the carrier had been crippled by the Japanese bombing attack which later caused her to sink. Lieutenant Commander Shea disregarded the danger from the fires, flying debris, and exploding ammunition to carry on his fight. When the water pressure failed, he employed chemical fire-fighting equipment in a desperate effort to extinguish a fire in a ready ammunition locker, and was leading out a fire hose to continue his efforts when a terrific explosion occurred. He was not subsequently seen by his shipmates.
(Boston College University Archives)
On September 16, 1943, Shea was declared legally dead, but by then, "The letter to Jackie" had long since taken on a life of its own. His sisters Dorothea and Cecilia, teachers in the Boston Public School system, had reprinted the letter in pamphlet form shortly after he was declared missing, and on October 27, 1942, the Boston Globe printed it, calling it "an inspiring memorial to American youth."  Newspapers across the country, as well as Life, Look, and Time magazine followed suit.  It also was featured in various government publications such as Lest We Forget... because Elmer Davis and his Office of War Information could never have dreamed up such a simple, powerful message that spread so quickly without governmental prodding. Shea's letter was imbued with a heartfelt authenticity that no government propaganda could match.
"You know," recalled Jackie to a Globe reporter ten years after his father's death, "the best part of the letter is that my father never could have known it would come to light even in the event of his death, so no one can doubt he meant exactly what he wrote."  

Although U.S. naval forces had struck a decisive blow against the Imperial Japanese Navy during the Battle of Midway in June, by September it was by no means apparent to the US Navy, much less the American public, that the tide had turned against them.  On New Guinea, Japanese soldiers were only about 25 miles away from Port Moresby, and closing, while on Guadalcanal in the Eastern Solomons, US Marines were facing stiff resistance in holding Henderson Field.  In the waters nearby, the IJN had sunk three American cruisers and one Australian cruiser during the Battle of Savo Island in August, topped off by the loss of the carrier Wasp and 193 of her men, including Shea, only five weeks later.  The message of honor, duty, dedication, and resolve he left his son became a message to the nation at a critical time.

After Shea's letter was donated to Boston College in 2001, the college's historian, Thomas O'Connor, said of its' impact, "The Allied forces were losing everywhere.  Hitler had invaded Russia. The Japanese were taking over the Pacific.  People were asking, 'where did we go wrong?' Then this letter came out and reaffirmed all the best values people thought we had lost."

The letter and the acclaim it garnered made young Jackie and his mother Elizabeth celebrities of a sort.  They appeared at numerous parades and other events, such as the launching for the new aircraft carrier Wasp (CV 18) on August 17, 1943, and then on May 20, 1944, when the light minelayer Shea (DM 30) was launched at the Bethlehem Steel Company in Staten Island, New York, little Jackie signed the bow.  NAS Squantum's airfield was renamed for Cmdr. Shea in 1946, and Jackie, standing at his mother's side, dutifully laid a wreath at its dedication. 

Elizabeth Shea, widow of Cmdr. John Shea, holds six-year-old Jackie Shea as he signs the bow of the light minelayer Shea (DM 30) at her launching in Staten Island, New York, on May 20, 1944. (Bill Gonyo via Navsource)
The light minelayer Shea (DM 30), seen here in 1946, was heavily damaged during the Okinawa Campaign in late-1944. (Ted Stone Collection, Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
After graduating from his father's alma mater in 1958 and earning a doctorate in classical philology at Harvard University, "Jackie" grew up to be Professor of Classics John R. "Jack" Shea, and taught at Boston College for many years. He died on March 14, 2015, at the age of 78.


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