World War II

The War Department Regrets ...

... and all he wanted to do was make people laugh

by Virginia Hanley

During World War II, the War Department used local people to deliver the telegrams they sent to notify families that something had happened to their relatives in the service. The man in Melrose who was given this job was Mr. Kellogg, who had a small florist shop at the corner of East Foster and Main Streets (where the Mitre Biter store is now). He had a teletype to send and receive orders for flowers.

On August 8, 1945 he came to our house on Maple Street but no one was home. He went to the office at Casey Florist Company and they told him my mother was working at the Telephone Company. Their office was on West Foster Street in the red brick building that is now the Police Station. He went back to his shop and called the supervisor at the phone company  and asked her to send Mrs. Hanley over to his shop. As soon as my mother heard who wanted her, she knew it was bad news. On the way down the street she thought of her two sons, both serving in the Navy in the South Pacific. When she walked into the shop, she looked at Mr. Kellogg and simply said, "which one?"


On Dec. 7, 1941 my brother Neil was 17 years old. He immediately began talking about joining the Navy and after his birthday in October, 1942 he signed up. Just after Christmas he was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago. In a very short time we began receiving letters from him saying, "Send me more jokes." It seems that during boot camp the sailors were not allowed to go on leave so every Saturday night they put on their own show. After knowing Neil for a week or so, someone decided that he should be the MC at that week's show. He was such a success he was given the job for the duration of their training. But he needed a constant supply of new material, so everyone in the family began getting letters from him asking for help.

We had always thought he was a natural for "show biz" because he was a great story teller and remembered jokes better than anyone. My mother never knew when he would get home from grammar school because he had to stop and talk to everyone he met, especially the old ladies sitting on their front porches. When he was in the eighth grade he came home one Friday night with a box of chocolates for my mother. He had been in a jitterbug contest and won second prize. All during high school he kept entering dance contests and always came in second. Unfortunately for him, he competed against Squint Claflin whose partner was Shirley Bourque (they went steady for years!). Neil had a different partner every week.

Neil and buddy, Gunner Bob Zern, were photographed while working on their torpedo-bomber in early 1945.

After finishing boot camp, Neil was chosen for the Naval Air Corps, to his complete satisfaction, and was sent to radio school. He had been crazy about airplanes since the first single-engine planes flew over our house in the late '30s. He spent the next two years at various training bases in the States. He had been assigned to fly with Lt. William Holmes, the pilot, and Robert Zern, the gunner, and they flew together for the whole time. One of the problems they had to overcome in training was airsickness. The Navy gave them a very short time to become acclimated to flying and if you threw up in the cockpit everyone would know it. So the unfortunate sailors with delicate stomachs soon learned to throw up in their hats, those nice little white hats issued to every noncommissioned sailor. The problem was you could "lose" just so many of those hats before the authorities got wise. The answer was to keep on good terms with your pilot so that he would tip the plane so you could throw up over the side and leave no evidence behind.

He took every opportunity to get home, hitchhiking for the most part, even if it were only for a few hours. On one of these visits, when he was stationed in Quonset, R.I., he told some of his friends in Melrose that when they were flying up the coast, they could see the Casey Florist Company.  They didn't believe him so he told them the next time they flew over Melrose he would do something so they would know he was telling the truth. When they came over again, he dropped a five-pound bag of flour, intending to hit Casey's office.  However, the Navy had not trained him to be a bombardier and he hit the roof of  Tommy Sullivan's house at the corner of Maple and Martin Streets. I don't know if he won the bet or not.

Gunner Bob Zern and pilot Bill Holmes are on the left, and Neil Hanley of Melrose is on the right.

In May 1945 they were assigned to the aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard and sailed from California to Pearl Harbor.  When they arrived they were transferred to the carrier Randolph. In July the task force was sent to bomb Tokyo  On July 10, Lt. Holmes, Bob Zern and Neil  after all their months of training and anticipation took off on their first mission.  An excerpt from the letter the Navy sent my mother follows:

"On July 10th Neil was on a flight over enemy territory with his regular pilot, Lt. W. N. Holmes, when their plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Witnesses observed that the plane had a severe oil leak. Lt. Holmes communicated that they were returning to base. Before he could reach base he further communicated that it would be necessary for him to land the plane in the water. The plane was landed in the normal manner. Neil, Lt. Holmes, and the gunner (Bob Zern) were then seen in three life rafts with complete survival equipment. They waved at Lt. (jg) E. P. Baker, Ensign G. J. Wilson and Ensign C. A Slater who circled overhead and remained in the area until 6:30 which was approximately sunset. All of our planes returned to the ship after dark. Sea planes were unable to contact them in a search which was conducted the following two days by Air Sea Rescue Facilities and no trace of the rafts or Neil or the other two occupants was seen. It was then necessary for us to declare Neil missing in action."

A year later he was officially declared dead but all the questions we had were never answered, when did he die? how did he die? Did they all die together or one by one? After a while you can't bear to even think about it.

My brother Jim spent all his time in the Navy on an LST, the 114 I think, in the South Pacific. He always said they were in the back row of every battle and never fired a gun in anger. After the war was over, he was sent to Japan where among other things they were assigned to repatriating the Koreans that had been captured by the Japanese. He also spent some time in Shanghai, China. He came home in May of 1946 to be warmly greeted by not only my mother and me but by our dog, Gyp. After an hour or so of hugs and kisses and wrestling with Gyp, we realized that Gyp had gone outside. He was sitting on the porch where he could look down the street. He was smart enough to realize that two boys had gone away so two should be coming home. It took us about a week to convince him that Neil was gone for good.

To view the entire letter from Neil's commanding officer, to his mother, Mrs. Mary Hanley, click here.

December 5, 1998

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