“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 gruesome Cocoanut Grove fire in 1982, I was stunned when Dad turned to me and blurted, “Did I ever tell you the extraordinary story I heard while I was serving 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. 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 of Massachusetts 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 for a spell. 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 Boston 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 when I 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 very hot, and there was no reason for him to be wearing protective gloves on a typical 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 sighed, ‘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’s 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 inside 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 in rehab in Boston, 1943.
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 recollected.
“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.”
Dad in the South Pacific in 1945.
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 visibly 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 the 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.”
Howard Sotherden and family on leave, 1942.
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 so galvanized him that Sheridan only wrote about it one more time after his surreal rendezvous with Howard Sotherden. In an article he composed for The Boston Globe, which commemorated the 15th anniversary of the fire in 1957, 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 died instead at 89, learned firsthand that when things are at our worst, people are usually at their best.
The USS Fremont at sea in 1944.