McKeever Survives German Bombing Of USS Savannah
Some people will spend an eternity trying to understand the meaning of true love, soul mates and even love at first sight. Dott resident Jim McKeever has been fortunate to have fallen in love at first sight twice in life – first in laying eyes on the USS Savannah and several years later when he saw his wife, Alice Jean, at a dance.
A native of West Virginia, McKeever spent much of his younger years in Martinsburg, W.Va., after having moved there at the age of seven with his mother and stepfather. It was there he first saw Alice Jean, where he secured a position as a motorcycle cop at the urging of the town’s mayor and heard firsthand about the “good life” in the United States Navy.
According to McKeever, it was a timely visit from his brother-in-law and several friends that prompted him to enlist for the war effort in September 1942. Thinking to himself that it didn’t sound like a bad shake to have a clean bed, good food and a ship to take him to and fro, the 21-year-old joined up and soon found himself in Norfolk, Va., completing nine weeks of basic training.
Up at 6 a.m. for reveille, breakfast and a brisk walk along the parade grounds, McKeever stated he wasn’t in favor of “parading up and down” the grounds. Telling his commanding officer he thought all of the walking was “stupid,” he soon found himself sitting on the sidelines as his comrades continued on without a word. Armed with a good, if not sarcastic, sense of humor, his na- ture not only got him out of marching but also out of what was to be McKeever’s first assignment on an aircraft carrier. Instead, he found himself standing in front of a smaller, light-cruiser dubbed USS Savannah CL-42.
“Next to that aircraft carrier was my baby,” recalled Mc- Keever from the living room of his Barnetts Run Road home. Celebrating his 90th birthday this Sunday, his love and memories regarding the ship he called home for three years have not diminished over the years.
“I fell in love with her at that moment and I still do,” said McKeever, who earned himself the title of ship’s tailorsecond class due to his prior experience at a dry cleaner’s. In performing his everyday duties, McKeever would care for the captain’s clothing; press uniforms; sew buttons and stripes; and keep the area tidy and shipshape for Saturday white glove inspections. It was during battle that McKeever found himself posted at a battle station performing “damage control.”
His travels aboard the USS Savannah took him around the world to Spain, Brazil, Algeria and eventually to Italy, and through a total of four invasions. The most prominent of those events, however, was undoubtedly the Allied Forces invasion of Italy where the cruiser provided much-needed fire power while troops took to the beaches under heavy German fire. The main invasion force landed around Salerno on the western coast as Operation Avalanche, while two supporting operations took place in Calabria (Operation Baytown) and Taranto (Operation Slapstick).
In the midst of battle on September 11, 1943, in the gulf just off Salerno, the USS Savannah was struck by a radiocontrolled aerial bomb that would be known many years later as a German secret weapon called “Fritz X.” The bomb did not immediately explode upon contact and fell straight through to the bottom of the ship before detonating. The crew was able to contain the explosions and much of the damage, which resulted in the tragic death of 206 sailors. An additional 14 were injured of the almost 3,000 men on board.
“God’s will is the only reason it didn’t explode,” he said.
Already in damage control mode, McKeever braved the fire, smoke and toxic fumes that were filling the ship’s forward turrets to help fellow sailors to safety. Receiving a letter of commendation for his actions, McKeever said had he been an officer and not the ship’s tailor, it is likely he would have received a silver star to symbolize his heroic deed.
Even though the Germans firmly believed they had sunk their target and the Allied Forces believed the ship should be abandoned, the crew stood firm. The ship did not sink, and the situation was reportedly under control within 20 minutes, stated Mc- Keever.
His duties, however, were just beginning. With a hatchet and knife, he cut the bodies of fallen military men out of the ship’s bulkhead and later went on to make the body bags for those sailors who were to be buried at sea. Among the fallen was best friend Bob Blair, who was found frozen in place and time still gripping his gun.
McKeever stated over the years he has refrained from travelling to the countries he visited during his time with USS Savannah so as not to subject himself to reliving unhappy memories. Time aboard the ship wasn’t always so difficult, though, as the sailors occupied their free time with watching movies, snacking on soda and candy, talking, playing cards and dice, and writing home to their loved ones. His mother wrote him without fail weekly during his military service, making his time away from home more bearable.
Months later while on leave, McKeever was approached by a photographer urging him to kiss a passing girl in New York City’s Pennsylvania Station. Not one to pass up the opportunity to kiss a pretty girl, the sailor scarcely brushed his lips across the stranger’s lips during the unexpected photo op.
The photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt, from Life Magazine published the photo of McKeever on February 14, 1944, as well as numerous other photos of military men giving their fond farewells. One year later, the famous photojournalist snapped another photograph of a sailor and nurse at Times Square on Victory over Japan Day, also known as V-J Day in 1945.
He never knew about his appearance in Life Magazine until he returned home with an honorable discharge in September 1945. Not having expected to return home alive, McKeever said he told his father to sell both his car and motorcycle prior to heading out for basic training. He returned home to Martinsburg with no mode of transportation awaiting him, but was quickly given both a motorcycle and a uniform as well as the title of traffic cop at the insistence of the town’s mayor.
Six years later, and still working for Martinsburg’s Police Department, McKeever attended a dance where he saw his Alice Jean dancing with one of her girlfriends. Love at first sight had struck again. Looking over at the local prosecuting attorney, Mc- Keever announced at that instant this new girl in town would someday be his wife.
Of course, Alice Jean recalls their chance meeting a bit differently. Thinking of him as being a bit of a “smart aleck,” she agreed to go out on a date since her current boyfriend was away in the military, and she didn’t have anything else better to do at the time. The two were quickly married, as was predicted; bore four children; and moved to rural Fulton County 54 years ago to raise their family.
During their 60-year marriage, McKeever went on to secure a number of jobs to support his growing family, such as appliance and car salesman, farmer and even building inspector.
Looking back, none of those positions have held the same meaning or significance as his time as a sailor with the United States Navy. In fact, it’s very likely that brief time away from home molded Mc- Keever into the man he is today – a husband, father and granddad who would be willing to get out his needle and thread to sew on a button or mend a cheerleading uniform; a loyal friend to the end; and an old sailor who still won’t pass up the opportunity to kiss a pretty girl on the cheek.