Famous photo was hardly the highlight of Montville man's World War II years

James Sheridan, in white Navy uniform at left, didn't even know a Life magazine photographer was capturing the sailor kissing a nurse just after the U.S. victory over Japan had been announced in 1945.
James Sheridan, in white Navy uniform at left, didn't even know a Life magazine photographer was capturing the sailor kissing a nurse just after the U.S. victory over Japan had been announced in 1945. Alfred Eisenstaedt, Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Montville - For James Sheridan, it was a forgettable moment: Amid all the excitement in Times Square following President Harry Truman's announcement that the war in Japan was over, another sailor grabbed a nearby nurse and kissed her.

Sheridan, a Navy sailor, peered at them with a look of slight amusement but didn't break his stride. He didn't even notice the Life magazine photographer who captured him as an onlooker in what would become an iconic photo.

Sixteen days later, Sheridan, who was stationed in the area and just happened to be in New York that day, received calls from his mother and sister informing him that he was in the photo. It became a story he was fond of telling his children.

Sheridan, now an 87-year-old Montville resident, has a copy of The Kissing Sailor, a 2012 book that identifies the kissing couple in the V-J day photo as well as Sheridan. But he doesn't like to brag about being in the background of the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph - he'd rather swap war stories with his 97-year-old nursing home roommate Charlie, also a World War II veteran.

For Sheridan, who grew up in the Catskills, the Navy had seemed like the only option out of an impoverished life in New York. He said he first tried to enlist underage at 15, but was caught and sent home. Instead of heading back to school, he moved to Poughkeepsie and worked in a bakery.

"We didn't have very much and I wanted to make some money, and my stepfather was giving me a bad time," said Sheridan, whose biological father died when he was 13 months old. "So I said, 'To hell with it.'"

The bakery owners were nice to Sheridan and brought him plates piled high with food when they noticed he hadn't been eating. But still, he was discontent-he'd get choked up when he looked up from washing dishes and saw kids walking to and from school.

Sheridan loved geography and history, and recalled his history teacher, a Navy veteran, repeating the slogan, "Join the Navy and See the World." So when he turned 17, he forged his father's signature and finally made it into the Navy.

As a member of the Armed Guard, Sheridan served on the Liberty ships that transported cargo. He did see quite a bit of the world. But he also saw things that made him question his decision.

"When I got in, it was a world for me," said Sheridan. "Them battles, they were … whew."

Not long after he deployed, Sheridan's ship was part of a convoy that delivered troops and supplies during the Battle of Anzio. They dropped off the cargo and "got out quick" - but not without a stop in Naples, where he met an Italian artist in a bombed-out building and traded him a pack of cigarettes for a charcoal portrait. Later, as the convoy passed through the Mediterranean, both the ship in front of and behind the one Sheridan was on sank simultaneously. His was not touched.

Then, in May 1944, Sheridan's ship was converted to carry troops and sent to Oban, Scotland, with several others, and he "no idea of what was going on."

In Scotland and in Cardiff, Wales, Sheridan spent weeks in intense gun drills with friendly planes diving on the ships. On June 4, 1944, they loaded troops and battle gear and learned that they would be taking part in the D-Day invasion.

"On the docks all we could see for miles was troops, tanks, trucks and jeeps-what a sight that was," he wrote, recalling the experience in a 1998 letter. Two days later, as they crossed the English Channel, "the sky was full of allied planes from horizon to horizon and the water was full of ships as far as we could see." They could also see the bodies of soldiers who died in the opening assault.

The ships went single-file through a path cleared by the minesweepers and exchanged fire with Germans, who were shooting 11-inch guns from the shore.

Once it was dark, the German planes attacked, dropping several 500-pound bombs only 50 feet from the side of their loaded ship, said Sheridan.

Perfect eyesight is a requirement to be an Armed Guard member, so even in the blackness, Sheridan said he was able identify a German bomber by its exhaust streams.

His gunner officer "put my hands on the gun and I went duh-duh-duh-duh and, boy, it was something," said Sheridan. He said he shot down the plane, which had a crew of three. The troops on board treated him as a hero, he said.

At Normandy, too, Sheridan stopped to grab souvenirs from Omaha Beach, slipping two metal objects-one still hot-into his pocket. Recently, his daughter, Maureen Beaver, found the gun's shell casing and the rivet from a mine stashed away with other treasures in Sheridan's drawer.

Sheridan said his next assignment was to transport hundreds of German prisoners to England. "He used to tell us that they were a bunch of young boys, blonde hair, blue eyes, and they were scared too, getting captured," said Beaver. "It just really struck him because he wasn't much older than they were."

Sheridan's ship made seven round trips between Normandy and Plymouth, England, delivering troops and arms and returning with prisoners, wounded and survivors from sunken ships. During the trips, they were bombed every night and hit with gunfire from shore. The concussions left permanent damage in one of Sheridan's eardrums.

After a 30-day leave, Sheridan and other sailors were told to tell their families that if they were hit, there would not be any bodies to recover. Then they were sent to deliver supplies to the Battle of the Bulge in Antwerp, which they had to reach by navigating the Scheldt River through the Netherlands and Belgium. When they reached their position in one of the docks, it was raining buzz bombs and V2 rockets, about 700 a day, said Sheridan. His ship was able to escape a direct hit but they were very close to death, he said.

Later, Sheridan spent time in Guam, where he didn't see much action - but he did learn to drive.

While he was playing baseball with other sailors, a friend fell into a hole that had presumably been dug by the Japanese. He was bleeding and Sheridan was the closest person to him, so the other players began to shout, "Take him to the medic!"

"I don't drive!" he called back.

"Well, goddammit, you'll learn right now. Get in there and take him," came the reply.

"So I rumble-bumbled to the medics and took him over," said Sheridan, who went on to buy a car with the money the Navy gave him after the war.

It wasn't just the battles and the driving lesson that left an impression on the teenaged Sheridan, who said he "grew up" in the Navy. He angrily recalled a moment when he noticed a mother and baby whale swimming in the ocean, and then some sailors on another ship trying to kill the whales.

"Can you imagine that?" he asked. "A mother and a baby? God damn them, people are rotten. I learned that, in life. But I'm glad that I did what I did."

k.catalfamo@theday.com

James Sheridan relaxes in Guam in October 1946.
James Sheridan relaxes in Guam in October 1946.
James Sheridan, 87, visits with his daughter, Maureen Beaver of Ledyard, on Wednesday at the Orchard Grove Specialty Care Center in Uncasville.
James Sheridan, 87, visits with his daughter, Maureen Beaver of Ledyard, on Wednesday at the Orchard Grove Specialty Care Center in Uncasville. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo
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