The Spirit of the Letter
© 2001 The Boston Globe
By Joseph P. Kahn, Globe Staff
The legacy of the World War II generation lives on in best-selling books and blockbuster films, but never more hauntingly than on two pieces of simple, lined notepaper now stored in the Boston College archives.
The letter, written nearly 60 years ago by a US Navy commander to his 5-year-old son just weeks before the officer was killed at sea, gained wide circulation in its day for celebrating basic American values - love of country, honor and duty, family and religion - at a time when the country's future itself seemed in jeopardy.
The words contained in the letter, moreover, captured the wartime mood with a deep sense of fatherly affection and a poet's flair, making its sentiments and the tragedy it foretold resonate even more universally.
"Study hard when you go to school," wrote the naval officer in his only letter to his son. "Be a leader in everything good in life. Be a good Catholic and you can't help being a good American. Play fair always." So famous was the letter that when its recipient idly asked BC historian Tom O'Connor this month if the college would be interested in having it, O'Connor, a World War II veteran himself, nearly fell over.
"You mean the Jackie Letter?" he stammered. "You bet. When can I see it?"
Jack Shea, now 64, soon returned with the original document in hand. Stored inside a felt-lined strongbox and rarely taken out by family members, the envelope bears a June 30, 1942, postmark and a stamp reading PASSED BY NAVAL CENSOR. In the upper left-hand corner is a return address: "Lt. Commander J. J. Shea, USN, The USS Wasp."
Behind those few lines lies one of the great stories from America's last great war. "I knew for years I was going to give the letter to BC," Shea says during an interview on campus this week. "I just wasn't sure when. Knowing the university historian personally was my final motivation."
With three children and seven grandchildren of his own, Shea adds, designating a single heir was impossible. "There's no individual I'd want to hand it over to," says Shea, who teaches Greek and Latin at BC. "I might have kept it if it had never been published, but it was. And now it makes sense for the college to have it."
Says O'Connor, looking over the letter and other Shea family artifacts arrayed on a library table, "Not only is it a historical treasure, it speaks to the values of the college itself in ways we have trouble articulating today. Future generations will profit immeasurably from this."
The generational power of the Jackie Letter is only one aspect of a saga that tugged at the nation's heartstrings decades ago, yet never lost its peculiarly Boston flavor.
Cambridge native John J. Shea was a standout scholar-athlete before enlisting in the Navy. A graduate of Boston College High School and Boston College (class of 1918), Shea, a chemistry major at BC, also played football and baseball at The Heights, wrote poetry for its literary magazine, and comanaged the debating society.
After a post-graduation stint in the Naval Reserve Flying Corps, Shea was recalled to active service in 1930. Later assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Wasp, Shea was bound for the Pacific Theater in mid-1942, a time of low morale for the Allied forces, when he talked to his young son by telephone and said he might not be home in two weeks, as his son had hoped.
Shortly thereafter, Shea wrote to the boy about "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." But, Shea continued, "I suppose we must be brave and put these things off for a little while."
That paragraph was merely a prelude to an eloquent meditation by Shea on why America was at war. "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," wrote Shea. "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."
His letter went on to admonish young Jackie to mind his mother and set high ideals for himself in life. "Strive to win," Shea counseled, "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."
Lt. Commander Shea never lived to see his son fulfill those dreams. On Sept. 12, 1942, the Wasp was steaming toward Guadalcanal when three Japanese torpedoes ripped into its hull, igniting the ship's ammunition supplies and fuel tanks. According to eyewitnesses, Shea repeatedly ran into the flames to rescue his men before he vanished in the inferno. Shea was one of nearly 200 men who died on the Wasp that day.
The Shea family was notified of his death on Oct. 21. Looking back, Shea believes his father must have sensed he would never survive the voyage when he penned the letter to his son.
"I always associated his bravery with how he lived, not how he died," reflects Shea, a private man who only reluctantly agreed to speak about the letter and his father's legacy. "And I've always believed he had a clear premonition about his own death, which is why he wrote that letter."
Shea has no memory of the phone conversation that inspired the letter, he says, and only a vague recollection of his father tossing him in the air as a child. Still, he says quietly, having the letter in his possession "often made me feel like I had a part of him around" while growing up.
The letter's text went considerably beyond the standard "be a good boy" advice, Shea points out. Instead, he says, it sketched out an entire code of conduct, one that Shea did his best to incorporate into his own life even as he found his own path to follow.
"Philosophically, it did serve as a template for me," says Shea, "although I never regarded it as something etched in stone. I'm sure some of my father's views would have changed over time, too. I guess you could say I felt more inspired than confined by what he wrote."
Shea's mother never remarried after her husband's death and died in 1957, at age 55. Shea himself would be honored posthumously in a number of ways, including the naming of both a Navy destroyer and the BC baseball field for the heroic naval commander. It was Shea's sisters, however, three of whom taught in Boston and Cambridge, who gave the Jackie Letter its initial public exposure by bringing it into their classrooms after Shea's death and thus ensured that a private letter from father to son would become as iconographic as any John Wayne film role or Norman Rockwell painting of that era.
What began as a local story in the Boston Globe and other newspapers quickly became a national one. Life, Look, and Time magazines reprinted Shea's letter, alongside stories of his heroism under fire. The Boston School Committee distributed copies of the letter in the hope that children would learn "how love of God, of country, and of home are the essential qualities of the highest type of citizen," as a 1942 pamphlet puts it.
According to O'Connor, the letter caused a sensation in part because the country's mood was so bleak at the time.
"The Allied forces were losing everywhere," recalls O'Connor. "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 stood out from thousands of other wartime missives, adds O'Connor, because of its lyricism and the fact that it was addressed to Shea's son, not his wife.
"The line about going mountain climbing and hunting and fishing was something everyone could relate to," O'Connor says. "It was the letter's capacity to relate the individual to the universal that really made it special."
O'Connor and Shea both note, too, that by specifically linking Catholicism to patriotism, the letter helped dispel another widespread doubt at the time: whether Catholics' loyalties were to the United States and to the cause for which its soldiers were fighting. Shea's words to his son in some ways prefigured the campaigns of such prominent Catholic politicians as Al Smith and John F. Kennedy.
As for Jack Shea, although he graduated from BC in 1958, he never became the football star or military hero his father was. An only child, he preferred the quieter life of a classics scholar, earning his PhD from Harvard in 1974 and joining the BC faculty a year later. And while he might not put it quite this way, Shea grew up having to share the father he never really knew with the country that embraced him as a symbol of everything good and noble about America. That is no easy burden for any son to carry through life, great as the legacy may be.
"The letter was a big part of that," says Shea. "By far the
biggest part, I'd say."
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.
Written June 29, 1942, from Lt. Commander John J. Shea, USN, USS Wasp, to his son