Posted by: SJS | April 13, 2018

Irish. Catholic. Ambitious. Attitude? You bet.

Growing up in the Philadelphia of the 1950s and 60s as part of a large Irish Catholic family gave me a rather good perspective on the Kennedy experience which so captivated the nation’s attention in that era.

The O’Neill Family was bursting with youthful energy, good looks, entrepreneurial ideas, lots and lots of kids, and intra-family rivalries that would eventually pit relatives against each other and lead to hostile feelings that persist even to the present day.  The Kennedy clan that produced siblings like Joe junior, JFK, Eunice Shriver, Rosemary, RFK, and Teddy bore remarkable similarities to the family of Barney and Nellie Sheehan O’Neill of Philadelphia during those turbulent years of the mid-twentieth century.

What brothers Joe and Jack Kennedy carried with them as they entered the armed forces of the United States at the outset of World War II was characteristic of the many Irish Catholic young men who answered the call to service as hostilities broke out across the globe.  They were fiercely competitive, eager to take on challenging assignments, determined to prove that Catholics were as patriotic as anybody else in the country, and a certain spirit of “go-ahead-and-knock-this-chip-off-my-shoulder-and-see what-happens”  that made them sometimes only too willing to get into a fight.

When George “Red” Stahley married into the O’Neill family, he surely carried a lot of that Irish attitude which he inherited from his mother, Mary Young Stahley, who was a first generation American, the daughter of two Irish immigrants.  Red’s father, George F. Stahley, was my only non-Irish grandparent–a member of the Church of the Brethren who hailed from from Lebanon, Pennsylvania.  For all the Irish blood in my veins, it was Pop Stahley whose example, kindness, and deep faith most influenced my childhood spiritual development and my decision to enter the seminary to study for the Catholic priesthood. In my years as a parish priest, it was Pop Stahley who served as my model of service.

Looking back over my earliest years, I’ve become convinced that Red’s PT service stood him in good stead as he became integrated into the tribal rituals of the O’Neill clan where holiday meals often became sparring matches filled with glib remarks, veiled insults, and alcohol-fueled invitations to compare business triumphs.  While I happily joined my multitude of cousins running in and out of our O’Neill grandparents’ basement on Third Street, getting our holiday clothes dirty and our new shoes scuffed, the adult men were busy engaging in the blood sport known as “after-dinner” discussions in the smoke filled living room where the topics ranged from economics to politics to religion.  Jungle warfare training came in handy as Red made his way through the O’Neill holiday events.  Of course, he was always ready for a robust verbal jousting match as any O’Neill or Kennedy or anybody else for that matter.  Red was never much of a drinker which gave him an immediate advantage–both in terms of coherence and knowing when to bail out.

As an only child who married into a family of eight siblings with a dominant patriarch who was second in power only to an even more powerful matriarch, Red had to earn a new set of campaign bars that were not easily bestowed.  My mother once told me that Nana O’Neill had benign feelings for her choice of Red as a husband.  “He’s a fine lump of a man,” Nana O’Neill answered when asked her opinion of Rita’s choice. High praise indeed for the Navy vet who dodged Nazi strafing runs and Japanese sniper bullets.   Whether you entered the Kennedy or the O’Neill clan as an in-law (or “out-laws” as they called themselves in Philly), you were required to prove your mettle.  And the proving never ended; neither did the intrigue or the surprise attacks that were a common feature of every family gathering.

In the left photo above, Red Stahley stands at the far left, next to fellow “out-law” Frank Morris who served in the Army in the China-India-Burma theater as part of the MP (Military Police) security detail for “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell, one of the leading strategists of the American forces.  Next to Frank stands Eddie O’Neill who served as part of the Normandy invasion force and lost half a leg to a German sniper in June of 1944.  Eddie was a recipient of the Purple Heart.  Red, Frank, and Eddie shared a special bond as the three WWII vets in the family who saw action overseas.  Their wartime service mattered not a whit in the pecking order of the O’Neill ranking system- most especially if your surname was not O’Neill.  Military distinction registered not at all in a family that was fully immersed in the business of business.  Everything was the business.  And when the business dissolved in a tsunami of acrimony, jealousy, and blame there was precious little remaining to hold the family together.   To paraphrase the poet W.B Yeats, “the center could not hold.”

In the center of the photo sits Peggy O’Neill, the eldest sibling, who became Sister Margarella, OSF who had a distinguished religious and academic career with the Sisters of St. Francis of Glen Riddle, PA. In addition to establishing the nursing program at Villanova University (go Wildcats!), Aunt Peggy (as we lovingly knew her) served as president of Neumann College, a liberal arts school established by the Franciscans in Southeastern Pennsylvania near Delaware.  Pop O’Neill stands off to Aunt Peggy’s left and Nana O’Neill sits at Peggy’s immediate left.  Rounding out the top row are O’Neill brothers Bud (Number One Son) and Tim on either side of their father, then the twins, Rob and Al, who were the youngest of the siblings.

Seated are Joan (Rob’s wife), Helen (Frank’s wife), Margaret Sheehan (the wife of Nana O’Neill’s brother Jack), then next to Nana, Rita Marie (my mother), Bette (Tim’s wife), and Theresa (Bud’s wife).  The individual photo to the right is my favorite of my mother, taken when Rita Marie O’Neill was 18 and a senior at Little Flower High School in Philly.

The extra “juice” that the Irish Catholic fighting men brought with them against the Germans at Normandy,  and against the Japanese in the jungles of the India-Burma border, or in the hostile waters of the South Pacific made them formidable adversaries and resourceful, tenacious soldiers and sailors.

Between my father, Frank Morris, and Eddie O’Neill (my godfather), I had three of the best examples that a boy could ever want.  I’ve been fortunate, indeed!

 

 

 

With the release of the new movie Chappaquiddick, the world will be treated to yet another chapter in the seemingly  endless story of scandal and tragedy that characterizes the Kennedy family saga.  America–and the world–seem to have an insatiable appetite for the bottomless supply of bad news and tales of improper behavior that flow like a geyser from the family that so dominated the political (and tabloid) headlines in the twentieth century.

I get it.  There can be no debate about the magnitude of the scandal in 1969 that took the life of a talented and dedicated young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, under highly suspicious circumstances.   Nor can there be any reasonable defense put forward about the behavior of Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy in the aftermath of the accident that resulted in the death of Ms. Kopechne and the unconscionable delay in Kennedy’s reporting of the incident.  The events in July of 1969 altered the course of American political history and cast yet another long shadow over a famous family that was already far too familiar with grief, tragedy, and scandalous episodes worthy of the Tudor Court of Henry the 8th in Medieval England.

I get it.  The patriarch of the clan, Joe Kennedy, Sr., was a bootlegger, a Hollywood mogul who broke all the rules, a proponent of the “America First” isolationist fringe who opposed FDR, and a serial philanderer who was never a serious contender for “Father of the Year” honors given the way he treated his children.  Yes, JFK was a notorious womanizer who was a little too friendly with shady characters who may or may not have been members of the mob, and whose presidency got off to a sluggish and rudderless start.  Yes, Bobby and Teddy Kennedy owed their political careers to the vast family wealth and fame that gave them incredible advantages that few other politicians could ever dream of–and they often acted like spoiled, entitled royalty who didn’t have to play by the rules that apply to everybody else.  You’ll get no argument from me on that score.

I get it.  Believe me, I get it.  While I have no interest in seeing the movie Chappaquiddick, perhaps it will play an important role in deepening America’s understanding of this terribly tragic and unfortunate episode in our nation’s history.  Just seeing the promotional ads for the movie have reminded me to continue my prayers for the repose of Ms. Kopechne and to pray for the consolation of her family who lost a gifted, idealistic, and hard-working daughter & sister who died far too early in a horrendous turn of events.  My heart ached for the Kopechne family in 1969 and it aches still.

What has prompted this blog post is something that has very little to do with this new movie or Teddy Kennedy’s bad behavior or unanswered questions about who did what in July of 1969 on a dark road in a remote place.

What I want instead is to initiate a new consideration of the WWII service of Lt. John F. Kennedy in the dangerous waters of the South Pacific in the summer of 1943 when the fate of the Allied Forces against the might of the Imperial Japanese Navy was still an open question. What I am requesting is that we move past the romantic, Hollywood mythology of PT 109, and all the stories of JFK that have been hardwired into our national consciousness to the point that we think we know all the details.  The simple truth is that we do not know all the details–most especially the most important ones.

In the posts that will follow, I will advance my argument on this point and I invite readers of this blog to weigh in, to present counter arguments, and to fill in details that I may not know.  There are sources I will cite that cast an entirely new light- not just on the fate of PT 109- but on the military and political career of John Fitzgerald Kennedy,

Let me state at the outset that I am not a professional historian. I am not an expert on the storied history of the Navy’s  Mosquito Fleet of WWII.  Nor am I as well versed on the design, operation, and mechanical specifications of the Higgins and Elco boats that comprised the PT fleet–but I am vastly grateful to those who are professional historians and naval experts. To these historians and nautical experts, I am immensely grateful.  Their input on my blog have made invaluable contributions and taught me a tremendous amount.  The readers and contributors to this blog have become highly valued companions on my endless path to knowledge about both the PT fleet and the wartime experience of my father.

Let me also state that there is one subject on which I am an expert.  As the proud son of an enlisted PT sailor who saw action in the Mediterranean and the South Pacific, I know what it was like to grow up under just such a father.  A man, an ordinary Navy veteran, who shared with me less than twenty percent of what he saw and experienced but whose life and parenting conveyed the deeper lessons that had imprinted themselves on the deepest part of his consciousness,

I had a father who was an enlisted sailor who knew what it was like to be on a PT base in Sardinia that was strafed by German fighter planes.  I had a father who was a radioman class 3 who came under fire from Japanese snipers while on patrol in the jungle-infested waters of some obscure island near Borneo in 1945.  The man I called “Dad”  always thought of himself as a simple sailor who was chosen by his fellow sailors to tell their newly named, green, PT skipper on PT 373 to go straight to hell when he ordered their boat to undertake a needless second run down that same river which had just cost them a beloved squadron mate to a sniper’s bullet.  And I can tell you that whoever that novice skipper was, he was smart enough to know that he’d best heed the words of Radioman Third Class Red Stahley.  This was not “Mutiny on the Bounty” by any stretch of the imagination, it was PT grit, common sense, and the enforced application of that old PT wisdom- “Officer or not, get your head out of your ass.”

Let me share with my loyal blog readers what I know for certain about the sailors–officers and enlisted men–of the Mosquito Fleet of WWII.  They were bold, reckless, short-tempered, loyal, rash, deeply skeptical, perpetual underdogs, glib, irreverent, deeply suspicious of authority, reluctant to apologize for mistakes, and more familiar than most sailors that each patrol across dark waters could be their last because one well placed bullet from an enemy plane or well-concealed sniper could send their fragile boat–and everybody on it–to kingdom come.

For all these personal reasons as well as what I have learned about JFK over the past seven years, I am calling for a reconsideration of the WWII service of a man whose mythology has overtaken the deeper truths of his wartime experience and shaped his presidency which, in turn shaped the final four decades of the twentieth century.  As a nation, we need to get past the romanticism of the movie PT 109 (as much as I loved it), the enduring myth of Camelot, and the bottomless tabloid fodder of Kennedy scandals.  Yes, Kennedy was a son of privilege, the heir to incredible wealth, and a charismatic figure who seemed to exude charm, class, and power.  But Kennedy was a PT skipper who teetered on the edge of death, despair, vast guilt, a wrecked boat sinking in flame-filled waters with dead and wounded sailors all around him and overwhelmed by a towering fear that most people could never imagine.

Let’s take another look, shall we, at what that set of experiences might do to a person and the course of their life in the aftermath, regardless of how much wealth and family connections they are heir to.

I wish the producer, director, and cast of Chappaquiddick all the luck in the world.  Their film may be a box office smash,who knows?  In the meantime, I’ll be very busy about other things.

What I am yearning for is an entirely new examination of Lt. John F. Kennedy, USNR and his service in the South Pacific in WWII. That same place that changed my father’s life forever and, to a large extent, charted the course of my own history.

So buckle up, blog fans.  We’re heading out for some deep, dark waters.  There’s lots to discover.

Posted by: SJS | April 3, 2018

The Goldwater voter who admired MLK

It was fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.  I was a junior in high school and I can remember that day like it was yesterday.  The evening before his death, Dr, King delivered one of his most memorable speeches and– in a way that was prophetic– spoke of the proximity of his own assassination.  I have listened to that speech hundreds of times. It never fails to inspire me and to rekindle my idealism, especially when that idealism is at a low ebb.

At the time of Dr. King’s death, my father had become a strong admirer of the man.  This represented quite a transition for Red, who had voted for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election.  As Red became more attuned to the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s, I noticed that he was paying more attention to the arguments put forward by Dr. King.  I am quite sure that Red’s position on the Viet Nam war was heavily influenced by the opposition voiced by Dr.King began with ever greater intensity in 1966 and 67.  Having spent a good portion of his Navy career patrolling dense, enemy-controlled jungle rivers in a PT boat in 1945, Red found it hard to understand why young men the age of his son had to do the same thing in Swift Boats in a war against an enemy that had never attacked the United States.  The words of MLK gave expression to the growing anti war convictions of Red Stahley.

In the days following Dr. King’s murder, my father kept his car lights on during the day time–which had become a way of expressing grief over the loss of a significant national figure.  I vividly remember one car ride with my father on a Sunday afternoon when we were on Broad Street in Philadelphia.  Another driver flipped off my father and Red returned the gesture with gusto.  At an intersection a few blocks further north, stopped at a red light, on Broad and Olney, some guy yelled “Go to hell you n_____-lover.”  Red remained motionless, waiting for the light to change.

When the light turned green, Red looked calmly in the direction of his heckler then shouted, “Go f— yourself, you worthless punk.” before slowly driving away, never taking his eyes off the man.  I remember praying fervently that my father would step on the gas and get us out of there.  My father’s ability to hold a stare was beyond impressive–as I knew better than most.  All these years later, I remain convinced that if that man had dared to open his mouth again, Red would have pulled over our ’66 Dodge and jumped out.  Fortunately, silence prevailed.

“Whoa dad,” I said.  “You really told him a thing or two.”  Red just smiled and told me to get the Phillies baseball game on the radio.  “I fought in World War II to protect the free speech of a–holes like that,” he said. “And I fought to protect my free speech rights to tell them exactly what they can do to themselves.”  Point well taken.

In the above photo, Dr. King holds a photo of the three civil rights workers who were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi in 1964 when they were working to register voters.  The witness of Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner inspired  countless other young Americans to follow their example in promoting justice, equality, and the right to vote for all Americans.

Posted by: SJS | March 31, 2018

Rescue missons – another PT task

From the beaches off the Normandy Coast on D-Day to the waters of the Adriatic Sea to the islands of the South Pacific, PT boats performed countless rescue missions.  Scooping downed fighter pilots out of the ocean or searching for drowning troops of the Normandy invasion whose landing crafts had been hit by enemy gunners, the PTs used their speed and agility to find Allied troop and bring them to safety.  In this photo from the vast collection of PT Boats Inc,, two enlisted men demonstrate the rescue net mechanism– a vital part of PT boat deck gear that saved more lives than  will  ever  be known.

Posted by: SJS | February 13, 2018

Squadron (Ron) 4 Emblem

Ron 4 Emblem

Based in Melville, Rhode Island, at the PT Training Center, Squadron (Ron) 4 was the unit that gave the PT sailors their first taste of life on a PT boat.  The insignia of Ron 4 included the iconic mosquito image, in this picture cast as the wise instructor teaching the junior bugs the finer points of their boat.  This picture is courtesy of PT Boats, Inc.  As proud as the PT sailors were of their special role in the USN, they never took themselves too seriously.

On July 20, 1944 there was a failed attempt to assassinate Adolph Hitler.  This event occurred during the same summer my father arrived at his first USN posting in the Mediterranean when PT boats would play a key role in the liberation of Southern France.  As he served on the PT base radio unit, it did not take long for Red to see how formidable was the enemy he faced.  German fighter planes and E-boats made every PT sailor realize that no place was safe either on the water or on land.

Within Germany that summer, the failed assassination attempt involved members of the German military, the diplomatic corps, and a young Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The conspiracy of resistance to the tyrannical dictator came tantalizingly close to ending the life of the Nazi  despot who was responsible for the deaths of millions during his reign of terror.   As it was, Hitler survived and unleashed the Gestapo to track down, torture, and execute all who had been involved in the plot to take him out.  Bonhoeffer was arrested, moved among prisons in Berlin and German concentration camps, tortured, and executed in the spring of 1945.  Within two weeks of his death, Allied forces liberated the camp where he had been murdered.  The Gestapo thugs executed the conspirators slowly, over several hours, using piano wire.

As a pastor and a gifted theologian, the decision to join a conspiracy to kill Hitler came as a result of an agonizing process of discernment for Bonhoeffer.  When he came to realize the full scope of the Nazi plan for “the Final Solution” -the complete extermination of the Jewish community in Europe- the young pastor decided that he had no choice.  Praying and preaching were not enough.  Young Dietrich threw in his lot with the conspirators who were determined to eliminate Hitler regardless of the consequences.   When I was studying the theological writings of Bonhoeffer in school, I remember asking my father about him.  “Those guys were brave,” my father said “as brave as any of the guys I served with on the PTs.”  Coming from Red, there was no higher praise that could be given.

On this national holiday when we honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is good to remember the life of another Christian martyr who served as an inspiration to King–Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  And at the current time when the White House is occupied by a man who has earned the endorsement of Neo-Nazi groups and has become a hero to the Ku Klux Klan and uses the term “shithole” to describe nations (and an entire continent)–we need to highlight the contributions of champions like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who gave their lives in opposition to racism and hate.

We need to reclaim and protect the ideals that have already made America great.  Going forward, let us honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and recommit ourselves to the values for which he lived and died.

Posted by: SJS | January 12, 2018

Red Stahley hated racism–and so do I

How glad I am that my father did not live to see the vile, vulgar and racist behavior of the current American president.  Red’s first taste of war in the Mediterranean was against the Nazi war machine and he was always very clear about what he was fighting for–and against.   When our family moved to a new home in 1964 in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, he was repulsed by the anti-Semitic vandalism that some of our new neighbors had to endure.

“I put my life on the line to fight this s___” he said more than once. I was well acquainted with my father’s anger but nothing upset him more than racism.  He was deeply proud of his service in WWII to counter the fascist tide that was threatening the world.  He had more close encounters with death than any of us knew–things I only found out as I did research for this blog long after his death.  I will be proud of his service every day of my life.  And every day, I grow more grateful and feel a growing obligation to honor his service.

I can only begin to imagine what Red would say in response to the most recent comments of a repulsive bigot like Donald Trump who defends Neo-Nazis and has earned high approval ratings from the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist scum.   With each new day, Trump brings greater levels of disgrace and dishonor to the office he holds and to the country we love.  What more evidence do we need about his incompetence, stupidity, and destructiveness?

As the proud son of a distinguished PT Veteran I say we’ve had enough of Nazism, racism, and hate.  If nothing else, I owe it to the memory of my father to do whatever I can to stand up against the tide of fascism, bigotry, and racist hatred that is now threatening our own country and the ideals of the American republic.

It’s time to  rise up and reclaim our democracy.

Let’s get busy.

Posted by: SJS | January 3, 2018

Cliff Robertson in PT 109

It was the late summer of 1963 and our grandparents had just brought my sisters and I back to Dayton, Ohio where our family was living at the time.  We had spent the summer visiting with our extended family in Philadelphia and it was time for us to readjust to Ohio and prepare for the new school year.  We were still getting used to Ohio after moving there in January of that year and being back in Philly with all our cousins was like a dream.  So the return to Dayton was not an entirely happy experience, but we made the best of it.  The prospect of a new school year in a city that was still unfamiliar so far from our old hometown was daunting and a bit depressing.

As a reward for good behavior on the long drive to Dayton, our grandparents promised us that there would be some surprises awaiting us in Dayton.  It turned out that my surprise was a trip to the movies to see an epic film about the wartime heroics of then President John F. Kennedy and his crew mates on PT 109.  Seeing the dramatic story of JFK–portrayed by actor Cliff Robertson–and his crew on the 109 unfold before me on the big screen in that darkened theater were an overwhelming experience.  The movie, based on the actual events of 1943, brought me powerfully into the world my father had known during his days in Squadron (Ron) 27.  The sights and sounds, the danger and surprises, the bond between the PT sailors and the determined enemy they confronted were all real to me in a new and profoundly vivid way.

Leaving the theater that evening, my eleven-year old mind wasn’t sure whether it was in Dayton, Philadelphia, or islands of the South Pacific in the summer of 1943.   For two hours, it felt like I was on the boat and in the churning waters of the South Pacific.  I could almost taste the saltwater in my mouth.  On the ride home from the theater, I gradually settled back into the reality of my current situation but with a new perspective on it.  If those valiant PT sailors with JFK could survive the destruction of their boat and the hostile waters of the South Pacific, then I could surely handle whatever challenges lay before me.  And so I did!  The inspiration I drew from that cinematic experience helped me in more ways than I realized–and it came at exactly the right time.

The PT 109 poster was supplied courtesy of PT Boats, Incorporated in Germantown, TN.

Posted by: SJS | December 20, 2017

Happy 93rd, Red!

 

Red Stahley HS graduation

 

On this day in 1924, George “Red” Stahley was born in Philadelphia, PA.  He was the only child of George F. and Mary Young Stahley.  If he were still with his, we would be celebrating his 93rd birthday today.  I can hardly believe that he’s been gone now for over 17 years.   One of the most rewarding things about my research into his Navy career on the PT boats of WWII has been the opportunity to discover so much about him that I never knew or fully understood.  This voyage of discovery has connected me with people all across the country who have expanded and deepened my understanding of the PT service and, in so doing, have brought me greater insight into the pivotal experience of my father’s life.  And the learning continues.

Red as a high school senior (1943) and in his official USN photo (1944).

Red in dress blues, hatless

 

Posted by: SJS | December 7, 2017

Day of decision

It was on this day in December of 1941 that George J. Stahley made the decision that he would enlist in the US Navy as soon as he graduated from high school.  It was Sunday, December 7th, the day that the air force of Imperial Japan bombed Navy ships in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  While he may have shared his decision with a few close friends, he did not inform his parents until much later.  Like so many of his generation, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a turning point–perhaps the major turning point–in his life.  At the time, he was a junior at North Catholic High School in Philadelphia.  From that day forward, his mind was focused on finishing high school and entering the service.

In this photo, the USS Arizona burns furiously in the wake of the attack.  To the left of the Arizona are the USS Tennessee and the USS West Virginia; both ships were already hit and going down.

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