Military Appreciation: Great-Uncle Thomas Francis Atwell II

My paternal grandmother’s brother, Thomas Francis Atwell II, was only fifteen years old and living in Lynn, MA when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Like many Americans, he must have been shocked and outraged at this occurrence. Having a father in the Navy in nearby Boston Harbor, I am sure he heard of the goings-on in the shipyard as the country prepared for war. From what I’ve read, one could enlist in the Navy at age sixteen if he had his parent’s consent. Young Thomas must have received their consent the following year, for on September 21, 1942 he enlisted in the Navy in Boston.

USS Cony. Courtesy U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command

USS Cony. Courtesy U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command

Training must have been quick and efficient. Thomas was assigned to the USS Cony, a Fletcher-class destroyer, upon its commissioning on October 30, 1942 in Boston. He was a Seaman, First Class, among many young sailors under the command of Lieutenant Commander Harry D. Johnson. I have to wonder what my great-grandfather must have thought, seeing his son following in his footsteps.

The USS Cony left the East Coast and headed for the Pacific. It took part in troop escort and patrolling duties and saw plenty of action, including the March 6, 1943 bombardment of Vila-Stanmore on Kolombangara Island and support for the landings on Vella Lavella that August. It continued with transport and battle support, particularly on October 27 during the Battle of Treasury Islands. The Cony shot down twelve enemy planes, but not without receiving two hits on her main deck, killing eight and injuring ten. The ship had to be hauled for emergency repairs and underwent an overhaul back in the states.

USS Wren. Courtesy U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command

USS Wren. Courtesy U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command

Thomas was listed on the Cony’s muster rolls until January 15, 1944 at the latest. He even may have been still on the Cony after its relaunch in late March 1944, patrolling for Japanese barges and submarines. In any case, on May 20, 1944, he was aboard another destroyer for its commissioning in Seattle, WA: the USS Wren, commanded by Commander Edwin A. McDonald. The ship was involved in training exercises in San Diego, and then it was off to the northern Pacific for patrolling and providing escort work. As the Allies chipped away at the Japanese territory in the Pacific, they were inching toward Japan itself. The Wren was involved in several bombardments in the Kuril Islands, just south of the Soviet Union’s Eastern shore, between November 1944 and March 1945. By March 31, Thomas reached the rank of 3rd class Petty Officer as a Ship’s Serviceman (Laundryman). (Ship’s servicemen manage and operate these kinds of service activities aboard the ship.)

The Wren made its way to the southern Pacific, moving from Hawaii, to the Caroline Islands. Finally, in mid-May 1945 the Wren joined the action in the battle of Okinawa, performing submarine patrols and antiaircraft watch. Although under attack, the Wren came out the victor against at least four Japanese attacks. (Side note: although the Wren is not mentioned, I highly recommend Jeff Shaara’s historical novel, The Final Storm, about the battle of Okinawa.) After success in this battle, the Wren headed toward the Philippines and joined other ships in supporting aerial attacks on Japan. The end was near.

Finally, the Allies entered into Japanese waters. The Wren was among those who entered Tokyo Bay on August 26, just twenty days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The Allies began their occupation, and on September 2, Japan formally surrendered in a ceremony on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay; the Wren was present for this historic occasion, but left later that day. It would later visit Iwo Jima and Eniewtok.

USS Tucson. Courtesy U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command

USS Tucson. Courtesy U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command

Although the war was over, Thomas’ time in the Navy was not. By September 14, 1945, he rose to the rank of 2nd Class Petty Officer (still a Ship’s Serviceman) and was transferred to the USS Tucson, an Atlantic-class light cruiser. At the time, the Tucson was in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington State in the midst of a three-month overhaul. I’m not sure what Thomas did there (clean uniforms? train his replacement?), or how long he was there exactly. The last muster roll he was on was dated November 1, but showed some sort of activity in San Francisco on October 5. (By this time, the rolls were typed up with all sorts of codes that I haven’t been able to decipher yet.)

The closest thing to a personal story I have on Thomas’ time in the Navy is being told that he did suffer an injury during the war, which involved shrapnel in his back and contributed to him being in a wheelchair much later in life. Perhaps he incurred this injury on the Cony during the Battle of the Treasury Islands.

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Military Appreciation: Great Grandfather Thomas Francis Atwell I

From my great-grandfather’s obituary, I know that Thomas Francis Atwell I enlisted in the Navy in 1909 at age 18. Born and raised in Providence, RI, It seems that he went straight to the US Naval Training Station in nearby Newport. He is listed there in the 1910 census as an apprentice.

Thomas F. Atwell prior to 1917.  Source:  unknown Providence, RI newspaper.

Thomas F. Atwell prior to 1917. Source: unknown Providence, RI newspaper.

By the time the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Thomas was a Boatswain’s Mate, First Class. From what I can gather, boatswain’s mates were in charge of the external parts of the ships: the deck, the rigging, boats, external equipment and organizing the other members of the crew in using these items. (To me, it seems that one must have a lot of attention to detail and organization skills in this job.)

In May of 1917, Thomas was part of gun crew/armed guard (commanded by Chief Turret Captain William J. Clark) on the SS Silver Shell, a commercial steamship owned by Shell Oil Company. The ship departed New York and was headed to Marseilles, France. According the the Official U.S. Bulletin, In the early afternoon of May 30 in the Mediterranean Sea, a German “submarine was first seen at about 7,000 yards. She had a 6-inch gun forward and another aft. She flew no flag. Upon sight of the submarine the steamer hoisted the American flag and waited about 10 minutes. As the submarine approached the steamer fired. The submarine responded. The steamer kept a speed that would permit the submarine to come within range. Then followed a fight lasting for an hour and a half. the submarine came to a distance of about 2,300 yards. By that time the submarine had fired 35 shots and the steamer 25. The last shot of the steamer apparently struck the submarine, which raised clear out of the water and stood stern end up for a few seconds. Then she disappeared.” The Silver Shell was able to complete her journey to Marseilles.

Being the first American crew to sink a German U-boat, this story made newspapers all over the country. The incident lead to the U.S. policy of arming merchant vessels to protect themselves as they carried cargo to the Allies.

SS Silver Shell in 1915.  Courtesy:  Dept. of the Navy, Naval Historical Center.

SS Silver Shell in 1915. Courtesy: Dept. of the Navy, Naval Historical Center.

I don’t know how the rest of my great-grandfather’s time went during the war, but by 1920 Thomas achieved the rank of Chief Boatswain’s Mate, the highest rank he could attain as an enlisted man. He retained this title for the rest of his naval career. The census of January 20, 1920 found him on the USS Utah at sea. He was not on the Utah for long, because in June he married my great-grandmother, Eva Christina Lipsett in Salem, MA.

The 1920s knit the Atwells together. Their two children were born at this time (Eugenie in 1924 and Thomas II in 1926). Perhaps that led to Thomas obtaining a commission closer to home. On the April 7, 1930 Census, he was stationed in Boston harbor on the USS Southery. By the late 1930s, he no longer seemed to be navy, but worked as a superintendent in an office building.

Like many Americans, Thomas must have seen the writing on the wall as World War II progressed in Europe and Asia. It was inevitable that the United States would eventually join the war, so Thomas re-entered the Navy in October 1941, working as a Chief Boatswain’s Mate at the Boston Navy Yard, where he would remain for the rest of the war. With so many ships coming and going, I am certain his many years of experience helped the operations run smoothly.

Finally in 1947, Thomas retired from the Navy. He moved permanently into civilian life, working for many years and having plenty of time for retirement. He passed away on January 16, 1988 and received a military funeral. Like his wife Eva, he was buried at Pine Grove Cemetery.

Military Appreciation: Grandfather George Edmund Pleau

For Military Appreciation Month, I thought I would highlight a few of my military ancestors and relatives. The first is my paternal grandfather, George Edmund Pleau. Yes, the son of George Edmund Pleau (of Rochester) and Bertha Colomy (of Lynn), who I’ve written about before.

By the time Word War II rolled around, not only were my grandfather’s parents dead, but my grandfather was married to Eugenie Beryl Atwell and had a baby son (my father). It seems that George’s young family was living with his in-laws, Thomas Francis Atwell I, Eva Christina (Lipsett) Atwell, and his younger brother-in-law, Thomas Francis Atwell II. A veteran of The Great War, the elder Thomas went back into active duty in the Navy at nearby Boston Harbor (more on that in a future post). Not long after turning eighteen in 1942, the younger Thomas followed his father’s footsteps into the Navy (more on him in the future as well).

For some reason, George did not go into the military right away. Was it because he was newly married? Was there an immediate need for him at home at the beginning of the war? Whatever the reason, he did eventually join the Navy before October 20, 1944 (the date of a picture of him in uniform). (I’m sure being in a family of Navy men and the proximity to Boston Harbor were factors.) While I have not yet found any records prior to his muster rolls on active duty, George must have gone to naval basic training, which I assume was in nearby Newport, Rhode Island. On Friday, March 2, 1945, George boarded the Evarts class destroyer escort, USS Dobler (Hull No. DE-48) in Boston Harbor. The weather was overcast and cold, but warming as the day went on, in spite of a brief snow squall. Perhaps his father-in-law was able to see him off or shake his hand; at the very least, I’m sure Thomas Atwell knew his son-in-law would be boarding the ship that would protect Allied submarines and other ships in the Atlantic.

George Edmund Pleau, October 20, 1944.  Author's collection.

George Edmund Pleau, October 20, 1944. Author’s collection.

I have found exactly three muster rolls for George’s time in the Navy: March 18, March 31, and June 30. During that time, his rank was Seaman, First Class (Gunner’s Mate), and also during that time, the war in Europe ended! (V-E Day being May 8.) I’m not sure exactly when his time on the Dobler concluded. According to Wikipedia, the Dobler went to New London, CT for training duty on July 18 and was finally decommissioned in New York City on September 11, 1945. I assume that one of these two dates was when George disembarked and went home, as the remainder of the war had already come to an end in August. I imagine that George probably saw minimal battle action, if any, considering the point of the war at which he was at sea.

Battle or no, my grandfather received the military honors due him at his death. I remember the American flag draped over his coffin, then carefully folded into a triangle and gently laid in my grandmother’s arms. A special military marker denotes his place of burial at Pine Grove Cemetery in Plot T, Section 3.

George Edmund Pleau Sr.  WWII plaque at Pine Grove Cemetery.  Author's collection.

George Edmund Pleau Sr. WWII plaque at Pine Grove Cemetery. Author’s collection.

Third Great-Uncle Theodore W. White

Theodore W. White was the youngest child of Job and Elizabeth White, born in 1860 in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. He, too, immigrated to the United States in 1869. Theodore became a worker in the shoe making industry in Lynn.

According to family legend, as previously written, Theodore became quite sick about 1886 when he and his father Job traveled to Martin County, Florida to see if the warmer weather would improve his health. After his father’s sudden death in Florida, Theodore returned to Lynn around 1889 and his mother Elizabeth continued to live with him.

Theodore White in 1893 Lynn City Directory.  Author's Collection.

Theodore White in 1893 Lynn City Directory. Author’s Collection.

On August 22, 1890, Theodore married Sophronia Bailey. They went on to have three children:

  • Glenn T., born July 1891
  • Gladys May, born May 19, 1895
  • Kenneth Douglas, born January 13, 1898

Sadly, the year Kenneth was born, Theodore passed away on November 9 of cardiac and renal disease, just like his brother Milton. Sophronia and the children moved in with her widowed mother Laura and brother Edwin. Sophronia never remarried and died sometime after 1924.

Glenn married Viola Slaney on Dec. 29, 1912 in Revere, MA. They do not appear to have had children. Glenn died in October 1924 and was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery.

Gladys married Leroy Matthews in 1921; she died on March 17, 1982 and he on September 24, 1974. Both are buried in Waterside Cemetery in Marblehead, MA. Gladys seems to be Theodore’s only child who gave him descendants; on May 1, 1922, she and Leroy had a daughter, Gwenna, who in turn married and had children. Gwenna died on April 11, 2011 and is also buried in Waterside Cemetery.

I show no record of Kenneth marrying. Somehow he made his way out to San Bernardino, CA and died there in February 1975.

* * *

This is the end of the Colomy/White story (until further research turns up something new and cool). Soon we’ll be turning our attention to other branches of my family. Stay tuned!