CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
John “Jack” V. Boylan was born in August 1924, in Newark, New Jersey. His family moved to Brick Township, New Jersey, in 1938. He had military precedent in the family – his brother (17 years older) served in the National Guard until 1936 – but it was the developing situation of World War II that convinced him to join the military. “It was the right thing to do at the time,” Boylan explained. “All my friends were going into the service, and I felt that I should be with them.” He had to wait a year to be old enough to serve. Halfway through his senior year, Boylan received a “wartime diploma” to graduate high school, enlisting in November 1942.
Initially, Boylan visited Fort Dix to receive his uniform and shots. He slept in a tent, participated in “regimented” activities, and “learned an awful lot, fast.” Though considering himself (at times) a “rebel,” Boylan had little difficulty adapting to military life. His poor eyesight disqualified him from combat, and by extension, basic training. Thus, he travelled directly to his first assignment at Camp Shanks in Orangetown, New York, the country’s largest army embarkation center. From the camp, troops boarded riverboats bound for New York City, where they transferred to trans-Atlantic transports.
Boylan’s brother had told him two things: “never volunteer; and, always say ‘Sir’.” The former advice did not help Boylan, however, who languished with kitchen duty. To break the monotony, he broke doctrine and volunteered to be a “runner.” Receiving a Jeep, he delivered messages for the base’s transportation officer. His barracks’ mates, seeking to exploit Boylan’s newfound transportation capabilities, soon ingratiated themselves with him! After “six or seven months,” he became a colonel’s driver. Soon after, Boylan again switched positions, leveraging childhood boating experience to become a small boat operator. In this position, he sailed around the piers to spot possible obstructions for departing river transports.
In time, this invited another opportunity which Boylan accepted – a warrant officer exam for small boat operators. As a prerequisite, a panel of officers at Camp Shanks evaluated him. This he easily managed: “They asked me some stupid questions, and I found out they were dumber about the boats than I was!” Next, Boylan visited the Brooklyn Army Base for the exam. The instructors took him and about 10 other applicants onto a boat in the Hudson River. Although his prior experience made piloting easy, he did once rely on luck. As a passing barge signaled with two “toots,” a confused Boylan replied in kind. Fortunately, he had given an acceptable response, which signaled right of way to the other craft. Boylan’s boy scouting knowledge also proved valuable, helping him pass the knot-tying test.
A month and a half later, Boylan received word of his promotion to warrant officer. (Additionally, he received a letter from Secretary of War Henry Stimson explaining that he was the youngest warrant officer in the US Army!) Given an $150 allowance, Boylan bought himself a uniform, which he hung next to his bed overnight. As he slept, “some nut” put a towel over his thumb, indicating that he must be awoken early for morning kitchen duty. Around 5 am, the sergeant did just that. Boylan snapped awake, “scared skinny,” before noticing his new uniform. “Sergeant!” he said. “When you speak to an officer, come to attention!” The humbled sergeant looked at the uniform and sighed, “Now I know we’re gonna lose the war.”
The next day, Boylan headed to Camp Gordon Johnston, Florida, for six months of boat pilot training. The missions were not strictly local; he often sailed on long-distance “triangle runs” from Tallahassee to Tampa to Cuba and back. Afterwards, Boylan travelled to Taunton, Massachusetts to depart for Europe on the troopship SS Manhattan.
Boylan described the many reasons that made this trip “horrible.” Due to a logging error, he was placed below the aft decks, just above the noisy propeller, instead of with the other officers. There were so many men aboard that they received just two meals each day; and, despite dining in group shifts, many sailors had no place to sit. Smoking above decks was prohibited at night, for fear of the light attracting submarines. As an officer, Boylan sometimes received orders to keep watch on the enlisted men, ensuring compliance with the rules. The ship rolled violently, causing much seasickness. The bathrooms featured troughs in the middle and on each side of the ship; nobody used the side troughs, as the ship’s rolling would splash the water – and urine – everywhere! They finally arrived in Liverpool “in one piece.” He spent just a day in England before reembarking in Southampton for France. Boylan ultimately landed at Omaha Beach three months after D-Day, climbing off the ship via net, as there were no docks.
After bivouacking nearby for three days, Boylan relocated to the recently liberated city of Cherbourg on the Cotentin Peninsula. At the time, Cherbourg was the only major northern French port available to the Allies. (It remained so until the liberation of Antwerp in late 1944.) Boylan piloted a “57-footer” tugboat with the 357th Harbor Craft Company.
The Germans had destroyed the inner harbor’s lock, leaving it susceptible to the 12’ tide differences, and preventing the docking of ships. Thus, transports moored offshore and transferred their cargo to barges, which Boylan guided into the harbor at high tide. The barges became grounded as the water receded; once the tide returned, he led them back to the transports for more cargo. The tugboats saw near-constant use in this role.
While in Cherbourg, Boylan participated in search and rescue operations for a plane that disappeared in bad weather over the English Channel. The plane had been carrying Glen Miller, “the biggest” American band leader at the time, to France for performances. “Any time he played for the troops,” Boylan said, “there was a mob there, because he was so well-liked.” Regrettably, the search uncovered no trace of the aircraft, and Miller was never found.
In another unfortunate occurrence, Boylan witnessed the sinking of the troop transport SS Leopoldville after dark on Christmas Eve, 1944. The ship carried over 2,000 troops of the 66th Infantry Division (reinforcements hastily organized for the Battle of the Bulge). Several miles from port, it suddenly exploded. Boylan believed it had struck a mine or been hit by a torpedo from an S-boat (schnellboot, the German equivalent of a PT boat), but it was actually torpedoed by the submarine U-486. He described the grisly sight: “A lot of flame, a lot of smoke. Pieces of the ship, here, there. Bodies. Sailors alive, screaming, which we pulled on board.”
Boylan raced his tug to rescue survivors. “When you’re doing it, time stands still,” he said. Over twenty vessels moved to assist, but even this response was “never enough.” Men could not last much longer than 15 minutes in the freezing cold water. The darkness also hampered rescue efforts; the boats refrained from using searchlights for fear of alerting S-boats. Boylan made three trips, but by the last he was “only getting bodies.” Despite their best efforts, 819 people perished.
Soon after, Boylan headed to Granville, a small French port on the Channel coast. The harbor received ships from Wales, which offloaded coal to fuel military railroads. Here, he piloted smaller (40’) tugboats built in Canada. At night, Boylan patrolled between the German-occupied Channel Islands, watching for enemy naval activity. “This was crazy,” he commented. “When I look back on it now, I laugh; but, at the time, it was scary.” The small wooden tug would have been no match for an S-boat. “The only thing we had was a .50 caliber machine gun, and I don’t think there was one of us on board that knew how to use it!” Days after, Boylan left Granville. In March 1945, German minesweepers and armed barges from the Channel Islands mounted a successful nighttime raid on the port. They damaged the harbor facilities and Allied vessels, captured a collier (a ship for transporting coal), and liberated a number of German POW laborers. Boylan remained unaware of his close call with the raid until several weeks later.
Boylan’s parents worried about their son serving overseas. He maintained contact with them via Victory-mail (V-mail), a hybrid letter-microfilm military postal system. “It was always good to hear” from his family, though the messages often arrived late, sometimes a month after issue!
Next, Boylan relocated to the Rhine River, participating in the Battle of Remagen. Unexpectedly, Allied troops had captured the Ludendorff Bridge intact and were hastily shuttling troops across the river while under heavy enemy fire. Expecting the bridge to fail (which it did, after ten days), the Allies began constructing a pontoon bridge nearby. The river current was so strong that the pontoons could not remain intact without support. Thus, Boylan maneuvered his tugboat to help the engineers install engines, which constantly pushed against the water flow.
The war in Europe ended before Boylan arrived at his next post in Marseilles. Here, he piloted small boats to ferry troops from the docks to anchored troop transports, which would carry men stateside and to the Pacific Theater. At one point, Boylan relocated to a town north of the city to operate a “control post,” where he directed traffic to prevent troop convoys from “bunching up” on each other. Halted convoys bivouacked in a nearby field and were supplied with food, until Boylan received orders to let them pass. Most passing troops were Italian campaign veterans, heading to northern French ports to return stateside. “They were real good,” he said of their behavior, “for the simple reason, they knew they were going home. They just couldn’t wait to get moving again.” Famous actor and comedian Mickey Rooney happened to be travelling in one halted convoy. Annoyed at the delay, Rooney flew into a tirade. Still, Boylan refused to let him pass. Boylan found the incident amusing: “I think he’s still swearing!” he laughed.
At this time, Boylan did not have enough points in the Rating Score system to return home. With the Pacific War still raging, he departed on a ship for the Far East. After transiting the Suez Canal, however, Japan surrendered. Thus, the ship diverted to round the Cape of Good Hope, then returned stateside via Newport News. Everyone felt it was a “great thing,” to get back to the States; some soldiers even threw their equipment overboard in excitement.
Upon returning home, Boylan received 30 days of leave. Another 15 days soon followed; with an excess of troops returning, “They didn’t know what to do with us.” Finally, he received a telegram requesting his immediate return to base for reassignment. However, Boylan ignored the message for several days, in order to spend Christmas with his family. His parents’ fears about him being punished for this fortunately proved unfounded. After Christmas, he boarded a train in Newark and headed to his former Florida training post, Camp Gordon Johnston. Boylan remained there a day for housekeeping purposes, before being reassigned to San Francisco. The cross-country train ride gave him an opportunity to fraternize with nurses, WACs, sailors, and GIs. MPs patrolled the train to enforce alcohol prohibition. In El Paso, the passengers were allowed a brief break to disembark. Boylan and some other men used the time to purchase booze from a bar. Taking cups from a water dispenser and using their bayonets to crush ice, they enjoyed their illegal drinks in the concealment of the train’s berth.
Through San Francisco harbor, Boylan drove a small boat with a WAC “welcome home” band to greet troopships returning from the Far East. After two weeks, however, a civilian tugboat strike occurred in New York, and he was reassigned there to fill in. The large transport RMS Queen Elizabeth was the first to arrive during Boylan’s shift in New York. The army “always sent too many to do the job,” in this case assigning “six or eight” tugboats to dock her. He detailed the confusion that ensued: “I still swear to this day that the captain of the Queen docked the ship himself. We were pulling this way, pulling that way. Scary, you look up at this monster above you up there. We did help a little, I think. But not that much.”
Boylan was discharged in the spring of 1946. At age 21, he returned to school, alongside several high school friends, to receive an official diploma. (Unfortunately, the wartime diploma he had received was “not worth the paper it was written on!”) Boylan laughed recalling his occasional “hooky” adventures, skipping school to see Empire Burlesque performances in Newark, and attempting to avoid trouble with teachers the following day.
Unfortunately, Boylan lost several childhood friends to the war. One friend, a B-17 bombardier, was shot down over Germany, yet survived. His parachute partially malfunctioned on bailout, causing him to break a leg on a rough landing. Subsequently, he spent a short time in a POW camp before the war ended. Boylan kept in contact with him and other fellow veterans, but did not speak publicly about his military experiences until this interview.
Boylan commented on the uncertainty of contemporary affairs: “We’re all living in a world today where we’re either looking behind us to see what’s coming up, or ahead to see what we’re going into. It’s a terrible thing.” Nevertheless, he believed, from experience, that these challenges could be overcome. “I think America is a very proud country, and they’re gonna survive. They’re gonna survive, and be stronger.”
Boylan affirmed that if given the choice again, he would serve. “We had to do it,” he said. “If we didn’t do it… there’d be a German flag up there instead of the American flag.”
On October 1, 2008, John Boylan passed away at the Burnt Tavern Nursing Home. He was 84. Predeceased by his wife, Jeanette Delaney Boylan, he left behind a son, a daughter, a brother, and two grandchildren.