I’m The Guy Who Pulled You Out of the Cocoanut Grove Fire

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“Given what he experienced in the South Pacific, it’s best that you not ask your father anything about the war,” my mother frequently reminded me over the years. She said it with such solemnity that I kept my mouth shut, even when we watched World War II documentaries together on television.       

Thus, when Channel 5, WCVB Boston, advertised an upcoming special on the 40th anniversary of the infamous Cocoanut Grove fire in 1982, I was stunned when Dad turned to me and blurted, “Did I ever tell you the incredible story I heard on the USS John C. Fremont?” When I shook my head, no, Dad continued, “At the time, I was on the amphibious transport ship in the South Pacific in October 1944 when I heard it. Here we were off the coast of the Philippines, and all I could think about was Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston.”

When I shot him a baffled look, he exclaimed, “I’ll get to how the Fremont and the Cocoanut Grove connected in a moment, but you do know about the fire, right?”

“Yes, Dad, I read a long piece about it years ago in The Globe. How nearly 500 patrons perished in less than seven minutes while hundreds more were gravely injured. If I remember correctly a sailor had removed a light bulb in order to kiss his date, and a young busboy dropped the original light bulb, and it smashed on the floor. The poor kid then used his lighter to screw in a replacement, but the ceiling material was highly inflammable, and it caught fire immediately. Most of the dead died of smoke inhalation.”

My father nodded as I repeated the story to him. “You’ve got the details right for the most part,” he replied. “We lost 10,000 men from the Commonwealth in World War II. Incredibly, we lost 1/20th of that number in less than 10 minutes on the safest street in Boston in 1942. It makes you wonder.”

When I shot him an astonished glance, he switched gears and began to reminisce: “Your mother and I regularly patronized the Coconut Grove once she was old enough to drink legally. Oh, yes, we saw Tommy Dorsey and an impossibly young Frank Sinatra at the Grove in 1940. We danced to Artie Shaw, Sammy Kaye, and Glenn Miller there. The Cocoanut Grove was the preeminent nightclub in Boston in our day. Except for the Totem Pole at Norumbega Park in Auburndale, it was our favorite hangout as a young couple.”

“Where was the Cocoanut Grove located?” I asked.

“In the Bay Village section of Boston on Piedmont Street off of Stuart – a couple of blocks south of the Common,” my father recalled.

“So what does this have to do with the USS Fremont, Dad? I mean you implied that two years later – and thousands of miles away – that you were somehow confronted with the Cocoanut Grove fire once again!”

“Well, here is where it gets really interesting!” he laughed. “We were heading for what would become the largest naval battle in World War II – the Battle of Leyte Gulf – and our ship included a number of journalists who were covering the war for various US newspapers. I was at the Officers’ Club one afternoon and heard a patron with an unmistakable New England accent ordering a drink at the bar. I introduced myself, and the gentleman said his name was Marty Sheridan and that he was a reporter for The Boston Globe. Needless to say, we were both delighted to meet one another so far away from home!”

My father paused and glanced out our den window and then continued.  “As I got closer to him, however, I became very curious because he was wearing white gloves. He was a civilian, it was hot, and there was no reason for him to be wearing protective gloves on a simmering tropical day.”

Dad then recollected the gist of a conversation he had had with the young reporter 38 years previously. “Marty could sense that I was appraising him. He gulped down a gin-and-tonic and said, ‘I nearly died at the Cocoanut Grove. My hands were almost burned to the bone.’”

The Globe reporter then described going to the nightclub nearly two years previously – it was during the evening of November 28, 1942 – and Sheridan, then a freelance writer and public relations man – was at the club with renowned cowboy star Buck Jones, whom he had accompanied to Boston that weekend on a war bonds’ tour. Sheridan’s young wife, Connie, was with him when the fire started in the Melody Lounge. The couple and Buck Jones tried to bolt from the building, but they all collapsed on the floor after inhaling a veil of toxic fumes and smoke. Later that evening, Buck Jones, Marty Sheridan, and his wife, were listed among the dead.

In the Officers’ Club of the John C Fremont, The Globe journalist then recounted, “I could hear people moaning, the sound of breaking glass; the sound of water running. I was shaking. I lay there … then someone half-dragged and half-walked me out. I then felt somebody pull me to my feet and put me in a cab outside. This mysterious and obviously heroic individual literally saved my life, and I never discovered who he was. He disappeared in the smoke – probably to help others in the Grove. When the driver asked me where I wanted to go, I said, ‘Mass General.’ Fortunately, I knew they had a new burn unit there because I’d done a story about it.”    

Marty Sheridan then told my father that Buck Jones and his wife, Connie, perished from smoke inhalation that night, but that Sheridan spent the next two months at Mass General – and another four months receiving skin grafts for burns on his hands. Because of his extensive injuries, he was physically ineligible to enlist in the military. Eventually, he was hired by The Globe as a war correspondent. In the summer of 1944, Marty Sheridan was sent to cover the war in the South Pacific.

“I looked at Marty and informed him that my brother, your Uncle Joe Kelly, was a doctor on call that night at Mass Eye and Ear and that perhaps he had treated him when he arrived at Mass General a little before midnight!” my father recalled.

“Marty smiled, and said, ‘Small world, Lieutenant Commander!”

Dad then looked at me and added playfully, “Of course, a day later, we would find out how small it could truly be.”

I asked Dad what happened to make a somewhat implausible story even more incredible.

“Well, that’s when this tale gets very eerie. 24 hours later, Marty Sheridan stumbled into the Officers’ Club seemingly in shock. I instantly asked him what had just happened.”

“’You won’t believe it, Commander,’ replied Marty. “I was interviewing a few of the boys on your ship for the paper,” Sheridan said, “when an electrician’s mate, first class, a young chap named Howard Sotherden, who said that he was from Rhode Island, asked me if I was Martin Sheridan from Boston. When I replied that I was, he said, ‘Well, Sir, I’m the sailor who pulled you out of the Cocoanut Grove fire!’ After asking him a few detailed questions, I surmised that Howard Sotherden had indeed been my guardian angel that night at the Grove!”

When Marty Sheridan recounted the tale to him, my father shook his head and said, “Jesus, Marty.” Sheridan then told Dad that he was going to write about it for The Globe. “That will be one hell of a story,” my father said to him.

A day later, Sheridan composed his piece that eventually ended up being circulated in almost every major paper in the country. From a cubicle in the Officers’ Club on the USS Fremont, Marty Sheridan wrote: “I was stunned beyond any words to describe it. Here in the Pacific, nine thousand miles from home, I have suddenly found the man who saved my life.”

A few days after Dad told me this improbable story, we viewed the special on the Cocoanut Grove fire together in our family den in Wellesley. We learned that Marty Sheridan made sure that when he returned from the war that he donated blood regularly until he had given back all that he had received while being treated at Mass General. The tragedy that he experienced was so galvanizing to him that Sheridan only wrote about it one more time after his surreal rendezvous with Howard Sotherden and the subsequent article that he composed on the Fremont. In an article he composed for The Boston Globe, which commemorated the 15th anniversary of the fire, Marty Sheridan wrote, “I shall never forget the screams and cries of the trapped, the crash and clatter of overturning tables and chairs, the smashing of dishes and glasses.”

Both Howard Sotherden and Marty Sheridan outlived my father – who died in 1986 – by more than a decade. A few years after Marty Sheridan passed in 2004, his daughter, Meg, informed readers on a Cocoanut Grove website that her father and Howard Sotherden “stayed in touch for the rest of their lives. My father saw to it that he was given a medal for valor for his actions at the Cocoanut Grove that night. He pulled several victims out before he went back one last time and found Dad.”

In the end, Marty Sheridan, who could have perished at 28 but instead died at 89, learned firsthand that when things are at our worst, people are usually at their best.

Related image

The USS John C. Fremont

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10 thoughts on “I’m The Guy Who Pulled You Out of the Cocoanut Grove Fire

  1. Meg Sheridan Schmidt says:

    I am Martin Sheridan’s daughter, Meg. I was so surprised to read your father’s first hand account to you about his recollections of my father on the Fremont in the Pacific. It’s always interesting to learn something new in a different perspective. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Meg – Dad knew your father pretty well and loved to tell the story. Given the horrors of what he experienced in the War, he rarely talked about any of his experiences in the South Pacific even though he fought in some of the most famous battles in recent history. Your Dad’s incredible story though? THAT he loved to tell to us! God bless.

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      • Meg Sheridan Schmidt says:

        Thank you! Bless you as well. It’s always so interesting to hear another perspective on dad’s recollections. I never knew about your father until I found your blog. He must have been a great man.

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  2. Thank you, Meg! A funny story about Dad. The only thing he ever told me about Iwo Jima was on the day that the famous banner was raised on top of Mount Suribachi. “When that picture was taken,” he informed me. ” I was standing in the same spot about three hours later taking notes for the Admiral about the damage to the Japanese Air Strip and how extensive it was so that the Army Corps of Engineers could repair it!”

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    • Meg Sheridan Schmidt says:

      I hope you were able to extract other stories of your father’s experiences during the war like his interesting memories of Iwo Jima. My father was a friend of Joe Rosenthal who took the famous raising of the flag photograph on Iwo Jima. He gave my father an autographed copy of the photo. My father had another interesting story that began early in the war. He asked if he could go out on a submarine war patrol. Every time the answer was a resounding “no!” After he became a war correspondent he asked an officer if he could go out on a patrol. He was told that the officer would have to go through the higher ups and get back to him the next day. The next day he was asked when he wanted to go. Dad told the officer “give me 3 days to get things in order and I’ll be ready”. He left on the first patrol of the U.S.S. Bullhead submarine. Months later when they returned to port, Commander Walter Griffith pulled him aside as he was leaving the sub. “Guess you were lucky Scoop as I just received this bulletin.” The bulletin read: NO CIVILIAN MEN WILL BE ALLOWED ON A SUBMARINE WAR PATROL! REPEAT: NO CIVILIAN MEN WILL BE ALLOWED ON A SUBMARINE WAR PATROL! It was a mistake but someone let dad go out. He wondered who gave him the o.k. After several visits to Admiral Chester A. Nimitz after the war dad again asked the question and Nimitz just smiled. Dad felt he was the one who gave him permission! The Bullhead was the last submarine lost (on it’s 3rd patrol) in World War II.

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  3. Sadly, Meg, there aren’t many more. Dad suffered severe PDST (undiagnosed, of course) and, according to my mother, was never the same person after the war “except when he watched baseball games with you boys.” I know he “was there” and saw significant action but that’s about it.

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    • Meg Sheridan Schmidt says:

      Shaun,
      Thank you for sending me this wonderful comeback story of the Red Socks and how much your father and you cheered them on to victory that season. I wish your dad had lived to see his beloved Red Sox win the World Series! I now live in a suburb of Chicago. We’ve had the “long suffering Cubs” who were in a 108 year drought without a World Series win. That finally ended in 2016 which ended the curse of the Billy Goat! It brought so much joy to long time Cubs fans!

      Meg

      Like

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