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Remembered at last: A Merchant Marine finally gets the sendoff of a hero

  • A small crowd gathered for a dedication ceremony at the gravestone of Newell Sweeney, a WWII merchant marine killed in 1942, at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Tracey Sweeney of Pembroke sprinkles water from the Atlantic Ocean on the grave stone of his brother, Newell Sweeney at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Interfaith minister Rev. Terry Odell unveils the gravestone of Newell Sweeney, a WWII merchant marine killed in 1942, during a ceremony at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Emma Sweeney sings the National Anthem during a dedication ceremony at the gravestone of Newell Sweeney at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Tracey Sweeney of Pembroke thanks a small crowd for coming to the dedication ceremony of the grave site of his brother, Newell Sweeney, a WWII merchant marine killed in 1942, at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • A small crowd gathered for a dedication ceremony at the gravestone of Newell Sweeney, a WWII merchant marine killed in 1942, at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • A bugler performs during a dedication ceremony at the gravestone of Newell Sweeney, a Merchant Marine killed in 1942, at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen on Saturday. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • A small crowd gathered for a dedication ceremony at the gravestone of Newell Sweeney, a WWII merchant marine killed in 1942, at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Saturday, September 30, 2017

Tracey Sweeney shut his eyes to see the brother he barely knew.

He shut them in the drizzle and cold at the New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen on Saturday, and he shut them during our conversation in his Pembroke home the day before.

He shut them to remember Newell Sweeney, a Merchant Marine who was killed 75 years ago off the coast of North Carolina, during the often overlooked story of World War II. The chapter about German submarines off our eastern shores, looking to destroy supply lines and kill sailors.

In this case, the SS Atlas, delivering oil on April 9, 1942, got hit by two torpedoes and sank in a gasoline-filled blaze, about 10 miles from land. In a crew of 33, Newell and another sailor perished and were never found.

Then they were forgotten. The Department of Veterans Affairs did not begin honoring the Merchant Marines with government benefits and tributes until legislation was passed in 1988, finally giving them their due.

So, Tracey Sweeney made sure his brother, a Massachusetts Maritime Academy graduate, fisherman and lover of the sea, was properly recognized, with a granite marker in the cemetery reserved for those who died while serving our country.

“I had a bucket list,” Tracey said. “And that’s one of the things I wanted to do.”

Sweeney made sure to tell me that this column should be about his brother, not him. In reality, of course, it’s about both.

It’s about two brothers, the oldest of four, 22-year-old Newell, and the youngest, Tracey, 8 at the time of the tragedy. With such a vast age difference, the brothers lived very different lives, meaning they really never got to know one another.

I asked Tracey to describe his brother. He closed his eyes and searched, going back to their childhood days in Brockton, Mass.

“I remember our mother getting the telegram and sitting on the back porch,” Sweeney said, referring to the April day that his family got the awful news. “That’s all I remember.”

Then he closed his eyes again.

“I remember him leaving for Mass. Maritime early and I was just getting up for school. And I remember him coming home and he had this funny thing in his hand, a piece of metal, called a sailor’s palm. He was on a training ship with sails, and when they used to repair the sails, they had a needle to sew the canvas and they used it to push the thing through. That’s all I remember.”

I met Sweeney, 84, with his wife, Florence. We sat at their long wooden table, in a kitchen with a woodstove and lots of warmth. Florence was a nurse, as was Sweeney’s sister, who suggested the two go out.

“She shows me the picture,” Florence told me, “and I said if he looks anything like his picture ...”

She stopped and laughed, her point made. Pictures of Newell, placed on the table, also showed a handsome young man, with chiseled features and a serious, almost sad look in his eyes.

Sweeney had the necessary paperwork on hand, documenting Newell’s journey from death to immortality. There was a Western Union Telegram, dated April 10, 1942, which read, “We sincerely regret to advise that Newell Sweeney has been reported missing and presumably lost as a result of enemy action.”

There was a page from an historical account of the event, which read, “When the fire had burned out, the men returned to the smoldering lifeboat, extinguished the flames that were destroying the craft, and reboarded it. Two of the men died in the water and several were badly burned.”

And there was a magazine-style piece, quoting an official message to the Sweeney boys’ parents:

“I believe that the American people generally recognize the heroism of those in the American Merchant Marines and that their service means as much to the ultimate safety of our country and its allies as that of any soldier or sailor in uniform.”

It took a while, but those words carried weight when, on Jan. 19, 1988, Merchant Marines who served during World War II became eligible for all government benefits, including honors such as Saturday’s tribute.

Tracey pushed through the red tape, securing a spot for Newell at the Veterans Cemetery last year. The granite marker was put in place this summer. Saturday’s ceremony was presided over by Rev. Terry Odell of Penacook, who poured seawater, scooped from Hampton Beach, over the stone.

Julia Giglia of Abington, Mass., Tracey and Florence’s daughter, was there. She’d heard stories through the years, seen black-and-white photos of her uncle.

“I knew it was going to be a special day,” Giglia said. “Dad is very sentimental and he has no siblings left. (Newell) was a big brother hero to him.”

Their other daughter, Joyce Daley of Pembroke, was there, too. “There was an awareness of a loss, and I’m proud of dad for working so hard to make this happen,” Daley said. “It was a nice tribute.”

The seven-man Massachusetts Maritime Academy Honor Guard was there. A bugler blew taps.

Thomas Sullivan Sweeney of Bridgewater, Mass., Tracey’s great nephew, also came, missing homecoming and a football game at Mass. Maritime. He began his first of two years at the school in August and was scheduled to officially become a cadet on Sunday.

“This really put things into perspective,” Thomas Sweeney said. “It gave me an appreciation for the sacrifice (Newell) made.”

Emma Daley, Tracey’s granddaughter and Newell’s great niece, also attended. She placed a rose at the base of the gravestone and sang the National Anthem.

Tracey, standing at the front of a family semicircle, mouthed the words, his eyes closed, of course.

“Perfect,” he said later.