By Alex Green
"I do not have to remind anyone that this is a once-in-a-lifetime event for someone like me because I am not a writer, but a truck driver for the City of Waltham, Mass. I cannot believe it myself because it seems like a dream. It could only happen in this great, wonderful country of ours." --James J. Fahey, "The Pacific War Diary"
James J. Fahey could have spent most of his life in prison. Instead he was famous. Even President Kennedy asked to meet him. Generations before "embedded reporters" made a mockery of what it meant to write about the experiences of war, Fahey saved every scrap of paper he could find for three years as he and his fellow sailors fought their way toward Japan. From 1942 until the end of World War II in 1945, he meticulously recorded the daily life of an average seaman in a horrific war. It was illegal. He could have been court-martialed, and at the end of the war he had produced perhaps the most clear picture of the Pacific War known to this day.
Fahey, an orphan born in Hell's Kitchen in 1919, enlisted in his adopted hometown of Waltham in October, 1942. When he returned, severely afflicted by radiation poisoning after visiting Hiroshima, he hid his diary and became a sanitation truck driver. Over a decade later, Admiral Samuel Morison contacted him for information to help finish a book he was writing on the war. When Fahey produced his diary, Morison immediately contacted the Boston publisher Houghton Mifflin. The "Pacific War Diary" was printed in 1963 and Fahey became an international sensation.
Fahey took his earnings from the sale of his diary and donated them for the construction of Our Lady of Dolors Roman Catholic Church in the village of Mettupatti in southern India . He could not even purchase a plane ticket to see the finished product. The city of Waltham raised the funds for him and when he arrived for the dedication he was greeted by over 100,000 people.
Fahey died in 1991 and his wife Adele donated a number of their possessions, including his uniform, to the Waltham Museum where an exhibit honoring his life exists to this day. A stone memorial honoring him stands at the intersections of Moody, Maple, and High Streets. His book remains in print to this day, now published fittingly by Mariner Press, an imprint of his former publisher Houghton Mifflin.
Last week, President Obama called for an age of responsibility before a crowd of 2 million onlookers. Yet even Obama's singular moment in history seems to pale before the legacy of ordinary people like Fahey. His humility makes even the discussion of doing what is "good" and "right" nearly profane. It is simply what must be done, in bad times and in good, or there can be no hope for us as a nation.
Alex Green is the owner of Back Pages Books, an independent bookstore on Moody Street in Waltham.
Waltham Museum Link: http://www.walthammuseum.com/