James J. Fahey: The Profile of a Patriot

Haley Curtin

Recently I participated in an essay contest sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars of Waltham. The requirements were you had to write an original essay explaining "Why I am a Patriot." The more I thought about the topic, the less clear it became. A question formed in my mind. The question was, what does it really mean to be a patriot?

James J. Fahey was born in 1918, in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York. At a very young age, both of his parents died. James and his siblings left New York to live with their aunt and uncle. They were raised in the wonderful city of Waltham.

On October 3, 1942, during the heat of World War II, James enlisted in the Navy. A month and a half later, on November 23, he boarded the U.S.S. Montpelier. His rank was Seaman First Class. His duty was firing a 40 millimeter machine gun.

James was very busy aboard the Montpelier. The ship fought in nearly every Pacific battle. In fact, the Montpelier won thirteen battle stars, which was the most of any ship on the Pacific during World War II. At the end of the war, after America dropped the atomic bomb on Japan, the Montpelier was among the first ships to visit Hiroshima. James walked through Hiroshima, and the radiation poisoning led to health problems for James and then to his death.

While all of this took place, James kept a secret diary. He wrote down his schedules, his meals, his feelings, the ship's whereabouts, etc. He had to keep this secret because it was against the rules to keep a written record while aboard a naval vessel. He wrote his diary on anything he could get his hands on: loose paper, candy wrappers, he even used some of the admiral's stationary.

After returning home on December 24, 1945, James hid his diary in a tin box under his bed, in fear of it being discovered. He soon forgot about his diary and continued his life as it was before the war. James was forced to make a living by working outside, because of health problems caused by radiation exposure. So James decided to work in Waltham's sanitation department. He was a trash collector and later became a garbage truck driver.

In 1960, Admiral Samuel Elliot Morrison, an admiral on the Montpelier, was writing a memoir about his service during World War II, and he asked James for insight. James offered the Admiral his diary entries. The offer was accepted, and finally after fifteen years of being hid away, James's diary was acknowledged once again.

When Morrison saw James's diary he was astounded. He advised James to take his notes to Houghton Mifflin immediately. So James did. And not too long after that James Fahey was the proud author of the bestseller, *Pacific War Diary.*

James received many awards for his book. In November 1963, James received a resolution from the city of Waltham. In 1964, James was recognized as the national "Garbage Man of the Year". He was also given the opportunity to meet President John F. Kennedy and give him a copy of his book. You can view a picture of James with President Kennedy at The Waltham Museum. James also gave his book to Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Ford, as well as Robert Kennedy.

Although he received many awards, what distinguishes James the most in my mind is what he did with his profits. He sent all his earnings to a priest, Fr. Michael, in India. Fr. Michael used the money to build a church. But, what was built in India was not a church. With all the money James sent, Fr. Michael was able to build a cathedral. The people of India, Fr. Michael included, were extremely grateful. Fr. Michael referred to James as "the man with the golden heart."

James was invited to attend the dedication of the Cathedral, which was to take place on July 23, 1967. James would have like to accept, but he had a small problem. He did not have enough money for the trip to India. Nearly every cent James ever made went to the cathedral in India. James, reluctantly, had to decline the invitation.

The News Tribune, Waltham's daily newspaper, had been following the story of the cathedral in India. When a reporter at the Tribune heard about James's dilemma, he decided to take action. The Tribune started a fund to pay for James and his wife Adel to attend the dedication. Many generous Waltham citizens contributed whatever they could to James's fund.

The fund was so successful that, not only did James and Adel get to attend, but James also invited Admiral Morrison to attend. After all, if it wasn't for Morrison, James would never have had the diary published, therefore no cathedral would have been built.

James, Adel, and Admiral Morrison were not the only ones who attended the dedication. Fr. Michael was there, as well as over one hundred thousand people! They welcomed James with a standing ovation.

In 1991, James J. Fahey died of radiation poisoning. He left behind his book and his memory. The memory of a true patriot!