EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Joe McVeigh grew up in Brooklyn and spent part of his summers in Keansburg. As with several towns along the north end of the shore during those times, there was a ferry running between New York City and the boardwalk community. He met my mom there, as her family also spent time in Keansburg when away from the summer heat of Jersey City. Her father was a mounted policeman and veteran of the Cavalry in World War I and, as many police officers still do today, they took a break in the small towns down the Jersey Shore. Joe and Leona were 18 and 15 when the forces of the Japanese Imperial forces attacked the USS Arizona and other targets in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Joe McVeigh then joined the Navy.
He remained in service until he was 21 and was present at the signing of the surrender of the Japanese forces on the deck of the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945. Like many veterans of World War II, Joe did not speak much about the conflict. However, he did express horror at the vast suffering endured by the Chinese people. He described the anguish of Chinese women who would bring their babies and lay them at the feet of the American soldiers and sailors, hoping that the children would be taken to safety. Joe spent most of his time in the Pacific Theater, fighting the Japanese in Manchuria and the Philippines.
On May 11, 1945, Joe, a Machinist's Mate and an assistant to the Catholic Chaplain, was topside of the USS Bunker Hill when it was struck by a Kamikaze attack while stationed near Okinawa. The ship was nearly destroyed, and Joe, at age 21, had a heart attack as Japanese planes dove into a suicide crash on the deck. Injured members of the crew of the Bunker Hill were brought to the nearby USS Wilkes-Barre, a larger vessel which had itself sustained extensive damage. The Bunker Hill, buttressed by the larger ship, was towed to port. Joe became part of the crew of the Wilkes-Barre.
On August 6 and August 9, 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On August 14, 1945, it was announced that Japan had surrendered unconditionally to the Allies, effectively ending World War II. This was "VJ Day."
Joe piloted his captain's boat from the Wilkes-Barre to the Missouri on the day of the signing of the surrender on September 2. While many soldiers and sailors were eager to see General Douglas MacArthur, my father was more of an acolyte of Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, a fleet admiral in the United States Navy and a native of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Halsey was widely known for having said, "Hit hard, hit fast, hit often."
Attendees of the signing of the surrender received "Plank-Holder's Cards," recognizing their presence at the event. My father kept this card in his wallet for the rest of his life. Sadly, that first heart attack took its toll, and he died from a second heart attack in November 1971. He was only 47 years old. He had married Leona right after the war, and they had three daughters, of whom I am the youngest. Our family lived in Union City and Weehawken, but Joe McVeigh never really became a Jersey guy. He was always Joe from Brooklyn.
It has been 75 years since the end of World War II, and many veterans of the "Greatest Generation" are disappearing from our ranks. Their stories need to be told and remembered. Joe McVeigh's name, along with those of his brothers Frank and Tom who also served out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, is on a monument in Keansburg near the firehouse. It is also on the long list of the names of those who fought for freedom in far-away lands or languished on ships in the middle of the world's largest ocean, waiting for something, anything to happen.
He was just a guy named Joe, but all those Joes need to be remembered.