'Angel's Coffin' brings World War II shipmates together through art

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Navy veterans Jack Clifford, 85, and Mel Zimmermann, 88, will be getting together with an old girlfriend next month at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.

Their wives don't mind.

The female they will be visiting is the "angel" Mr. Zimmermann imagined in 1945 for a painting to decorate the bridge of the USS Sangay. Mr. Clifford, who lives in Middlesex, Butler County, and Mr. Zimmermann, who lives outside St. Louis, both served on the munitions ship during World War II.

Mr. Clifford rescued the painting when the vessel was taken out of service in 1946 and eventually donated the work to Soldiers & Sailors. It is now part of a new exhibit called "War in the Pacific -- 1941-1945."

Mr. Zimmermann, who hasn't seen the picture for 68 years, will travel to Oakland on May 17, his 89th birthday, to view the painting at the museum and to visit with his old shipmate, Mr. Clifford. The trip is a present from his family, which includes his wife, Mary, four children, 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Another great-grandchild is on the way.

"I'm getting real nervous," Mr. Zimmermann said of his upcoming journey. "It's going to bring back many memories that were lost through the years."

The USS Sangay was longer than a football field and had a crew of more than 300. While their paths crossed only once when they served aboard the ship, the two veterans have been have been talking regularly on the phone during the past two years.

"Mel's a great guy and we've become pretty close," Mr. Clifford said. He has been waiting to see the museum's "War in the Pacific" exhibit until Mr. Zimmermann comes to town next month.

Mr. Zimmermann was a pharmacist mate aboard ship who treated Mr. Clifford after he had injured his hand. Improvising, Mr. Zimmermann used an on-board dental X-ray machine to produce multiple small images of his Mr. Clifford's hand. The X-rays showed he had broken several fingers. Mr. Zimmermann reset the bones, then used tongue depressors as splints to hold the digits in place while they healed. "He did a good job," Mr. Clifford said. "My hand still works great."

Mr. Zimmermann's painting is called "Angel's Coffin," and it shows a buxom red-haired woman with wings sitting on top of a floating mine. The "coffin" reference was to their ship, which transported tons of explosive ammunition and mines across the Pacific Ocean.

"If we were hit, we were gone," Mr. Zimmermann said.

Michael Kraus, curator and staff historian at Soldiers & Sailors, said the painting is one of the central artifacts in the museum's new World War II exhibit.

"Pin-up girl art was very common, but a lot of it hasn't survived," he said.

Mr. Zimmermann said he was inspired by the "nose art" images, often of beautiful women, painted on the fuselages of warplanes.

By the end of the war in August 1945, the crew of the USS Sangay had seen service delivering munitions to front-line positions at places including Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Mr. Clifford had been one of the last sailors to leave the Sangay when it docked in Orange, Texas, in 1946, headed for post-war decommissioning. A shipyard worker asked him if he wanted the "Angel's Coffin" picture, and he leapt at the offer. The painting spent the next six decades mostly wrapped up at his home in Middlesex until he donated it to Soldiers & Sailors in 2011.

Mr. Clifford, a retired grocery shipper, and his wife, Patricia, raised six children. They have 16 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

The two men linked up again through the efforts of family members who, working separately, updated on-line information on the history of their ship and the current location of the painting in Pittsburgh. That research allowed Mr. Clifford to contact Mr. Zimmermann in 2012.

Mr. Zimmermann, a retired commercial artist who ran his own firm near St. Louis, said his wife has encouraged him to make the trip to see the picture he painted when he was 19 years old. " 'It's part of you,' she told me."


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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