Lefty Sheehan: Remembering a WW II Hero
He lived in Monmouth Beach (enjoying summers at “The Club”).
He came from an abundant family (born one of 20 double first cousins).
He loved baseball (pitching in the 1942 NYC Catholic high school title game).
He died on 9/11 (serving in 1944 war-torn Europe).
He is for certain a member of America’s Greatest Generation (yet he hardly lived one himself, dying at age 20).
Staff Sergeant James Edward Sheehan, Jr. is something of a family legend. Gone but not forgotten. A shooting-star. They called him “Lefty” and he was a guy my grandmother, aunts and uncles really wanted us to remember. One aunt in particular acclaimed Lefty. A long time Monmouth Beach resident, Ella Ennis (my great aunt). No shrinking violet herself, Aunt Ella had once been the head dietitian for all of NYC’s 26 hospitals.
She spoke often of Lefty’s superb character. His thoughtful nature. His love of America. His bravery. His ultimate sacrifice for liberty. These were the qualities spoken of. So I decided to learn more about my kin. And I found that he’s every bit the hero my family elders told me he was. Him and, most gratefully, plenty of other World War II vets.
Today his Purple Heart decoration and “Wings” (his Aircrew Badge) are much-prized treasures among his family members, according to his admiring niece and goddaughter, Susie Sandless Gardiner.
Born in Brooklyn, NY on September 29, 1923, Lefty grew up in a close-knit, Irish-Catholic family one of six siblings. He graduated from St. Savior’s Academy, a Catholic grammar school in the borough’s Park Slope section. He went to high school at St. John’s Prep in Brooklyn (where he earned recognition as a left-handed pitcher). He was attending St. John’s University and working in Sea Bright at the Henry Sandless Bathing Pavilion in Highland Beach when he enlisted in the US Army Air Corps in March 1943.
Lefty had spent his boyhood summers in Monmouth Beach and many of those days were at the Monmouth Beach Club where he learned to swim and dive. During 1930s summers, his family lived in a pink clapboard house on a corner across the street and down a block from the club. The house is gone. The family lived in Brooklyn during the school year at 175 Midwood Street in the Flatbush section of the borough.
On September 11, 1944 the aircraft Lefty was aboard was shot down over Merseburg, Germany — nearby was the Leuna oil refinery, by then Nazi Germany’s most important refinery and one tenaciously guarded. Lefty was on a Boeing B-17 (nicknamed the “Flying Fortress”) that fateful day. His plane was called the “Kidley Divey,” the US Army aircraft and crew were part of the vaunted 8th Air Force assigned to the 407th Squadron of the 92nd Bomb Group.
According to the official US War Department MIA report, the crew flew out of RAF Podington, a Royal Air Force station in Bedfordshire, England. The target was Labejum, Germany.
Lefty’s nine comrades in arms, the flight crew included Pilot: Bill McIlonie, Co-pilot: Ezra Loyd, Navigator: Stan Sobotik, Flight engineer/top turret gunner: Paul Garman, Radio Operator: Doug Fulkerson, Ball turret gunner: Lefty, Waist gunner: Howard Bohn, and Tail gunner: Elmer Kirby. All were KIA. The only survivor was Bombardier: Ralph Anderson, who became a POW.
During World War II, B-17s were a major offensive weapon in the US Army Air Corps’ arsenal (a separate US Air Force was not created until 1947). Missions like Lefty’s were always important and dangerous — requiring skill and daring.
“No guts, no glory.”
—General Fred Blesse
Considered the Allies finest long-range bomber, the aircraft had a top speed near 300 mph, a range of 2,000 miles, and a service ceiling of 35,000 feet. Cost: $200,000 each in the 1940s. A typical 10-man crew included: pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier/nose gunner, flight engineer/top turret gunner, radio operator, waist gunners, ball turret gunner (our Lefty Sheehan), and tail gunner.
B-17 missions sought to penetrate deep into enemy territory by flying above anti-aircraft artillery fire and attacking strategic targets by precision daylight bombing. The plane was typically armed with a dozen 50-caliber machine guns and nearly 6,000 pounds of bombs. To identify and hit targets, the crew used the Norden bombsight, a top-secret automatic computerized telescope that bombardiers used with remarkable accuracy.
By the mid-1940s, the German Luftwaffe was less threatening, according to my research, so Lefty’s plane was probably taken down by German flak. Fired from ground-based guns exploding shells produced flying metal shrapnel in all directions often hitting planes like B-17s — which flew in formation and its shell wasn’t impenetrable.
The overall bombing mission for Lefty’s crew that day was to attack Germany’s essential oil production network and end The Third Reich’s war-making ability. Over a two-year period Allied B-17s dropped tens of thousands of tons of bombs — this was the sole mission of the 8th Air Force — and destroyed the German military’s ability to move. Targets included oil factories, refineries, rail links and other strategic industrial locations.
The carpet-bombing air raids on German industry took an awful toll, though – more than 900 B-17s were lost along with nearly 10,000 airmen being killed, wounded or captured.
As a ball turret gunner (he was also a gunnery instructor), Lefty’s combat post was a tight one — a 4-foot wide Plexiglas sphere that hung from the bottom of the B-17. Armed with twin 50-caliber machine guns, the turret could rotate 360-degrees and protected the plane’s exposed underbelly.
Lefty had a lot working against him. He showed valor just manning his post that day. According to a website on the Memphis Belle (a celebrated WW II aircraft), B-17 ball turret gunners had a 60% mortality rate and the average age of these gunners was only 18.
In fact, the entire allied aerial effort to destroy the Nazi energy grid produced amazing acts of bravery and valor. From 1942 to 1945, a total of 17 Medal of Honors — by far the most — were earned by B-17 crewmen. With brief research I found two ball turret gunners to get a Medal of Honor in WW II — Maynard “Snuffy” Smith and Archibald Mathies. Read about them and other MOH recipients, HERE.
Ultimately, the service and sacrifice of airmen like Lefty proved vital in choking off the German military momentum allowing ground forces to win a quicker Nazi surrender. Eight months after Lefty’s death the war in Europe was over. Lefty had two brothers who also served in WW II, Phillip in the US Merchant Marine and Bill in the US Army.
The family connection with me and Lefty is both complicated and interesting. Basically, we are the products of two brothers marrying two sisters (the Irish families lived across the street from each other on First Place in Brooklyn), according to my uncle Mike Sheehan (our family historian).
Lefty’s parents, James E. Sheehan, Sr. and Irene Ennis, were married in 1915. They had six children: Peggy (born in 1916) Midge (1918), Philip (1919); James, Jr. (1924); Bill (1926) and Mimi (1928). In 1918, Jim’s brother, George A. Sheehan, MD (my grandfather), married Irene’s sister, Loretto (our side called her “Granny”). The couple had 14 children: George, Arline, Joan (my mother), Jim, Jack, Patsy, Mary, Anne, Fran, Skip, Honey, Margie, Liz, and Mike.
Lefty’s father was also an accomplished high school baseball player during his Brooklyn youth. Professionally, he worked in the oil business for over 40 years — mostly as a sales manager (with the Fiske Brothers). He died in June 1948. His wife, Irene, died in 1968.
Due to the fog of war the Sheehan family would not acquire Lefty’s remains for nearly 5 years. While his obit appeared in the November 9, 1944 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Lefty’s body was not returned to the family until August 6, 1949, according to another Brooklyn Daily Eagle story.
While some family members harbored doubts about the true contents of the casket, Lefty’s parents buried him in a family plot in Holy Cross Cemetery, in Brooklyn, NY.
For me it means a whole lot knowing what a real hero we have in the family. RIP – Lefty Sheehan.