Joseph McLellan of New Ipswich receives his father’s boot tag from World War II
|Published: 11-11-2023 6:53 PM
Joseph McLellan of New Ipswich admits he didn’t sleep very well Thursday night.
The reason? On Friday, McLellan went to the senior center in his hometown of Fitchburg, Mass., to receive a boot tag worn by his father, also named Joseph, in World War II. The boot had been found in a cave in Guadalcanal.
McLellan, 73, was 11 when his father died Sept. 12, 1961 and he said receiving the boot tag felt like his father reaching out to him.
“I’ve been walking on a cloud for a month,” he said.
The story begins with Floyd Brantley’s friend and a call from Dwight Witcher.
Brantley, a 97-year-old World War II veteran who is part of the Arkansas Marine Corps detachment, received word from a wartime friend in Guadalcanal that he found a boot tag belonging to a Joseph Alexander McLellan while digging in one of the caves on the island, according to Phil Jordan, past commandant of the Marine Corps League in Fitchburg. Witcher, past commandant of the Marine Corps League in Conway, Ark., contacted Jordan in May after finding him through the National Register of Commandants in the Marine Corps leagues.
Allied forces landed on the islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Florida in the southern Solomon Islands on Aug. 7, 1942, with the intent of keeping the Japanese from using them to threaten supply and communication routes between the Americans, Australia and New Zealand. The battle lasted six months before the Allies took control of the island, with 1,598 Marines killed and 4,709 wounded. Three U.S. destroyers were also sunk during the battle.
Jordan said no one knows how the tag was lost, as McLellan returned to Fitchburg after the war, where he and his wife Angelina Lelli are both buried in St. Bernard’s Cemetery.
“This boot tag, although small in size, carries a tremendous amount of family value, much like a wedding band or engagement ring that was once part of Joseph’s life,” he said.
Several weeks after Brantley learned about the boot tag, he received it in Arkansas and sent it to Jordan.
The next step? Finding McLellan’s family.
Jordan and his friends Mike Rimes and Don Lassila researched various avenues before eventually finding the younger Joseph McLellan in New Ipswich.
They found him on Facebook.
“That was the last thing we had to do,” Jordan said.
When McLellan got the call from Jordan Oct. 9, he said he wasn’t sure it if was legitimate.
“At first, in this day and age, I thought it was a scam,” he said.
But then McLellan looked up Jordan and realized this was no scam.
“I was very excited,” he said. “I said, ‘We can meet at the 99 (restaurant) and have a cold beer and you can give it to me,” he said.
However, Jordan said he wanted to have the ceremony – where the audience included both Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale and Nick Squailia representing his wife, Mayor-elect Samantha Squailia – to commemorate the history behind the tag.
The war was not a subject of conversation when McLellan was growing up, to the point where he said his father didn’t even want to watch war movies or TV shows in the house.
“The only way I knew he was in the service was because of this uniform,” he said, pointing to a picture of his father in uniform, in a double frame along with a photo of his parents on their wedding day.
Both McLellan and his boyhood friend Ken Jones, who was at the ceremony, confirmed that growing up, Jones never knew about McLellan’s father being a Marine, and McLellan never knew about Jones’ father having been a prisoner of war.
McLellan contacted Jones after learning the news of the boot tag, and Jones said that he could see his friend’s excitement even through a text message. McLellan let Jones know, even though they hadn’t seen each other since 2014.
“That’s what friends do,” Jones said.
Because the war was not discussed in the McLellan household, the finding of the boot tag allowed him to learn something new about his father, more than 60 years after his death.
“Up until last month, I never knew he was in Guadalcanal,” he said. “I never knew he was overseas.”