WWII sailors connect through ship's painting

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Navy veteran Mel Zimmermann had a two-word greeting for the shipmate he saw Saturday for the first time in almost 70 years.

"Hey, Swabbie," Mr. Zimmermann, 89, called out to Jack Clifford, 86, as the two met up at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.

What brought them together after so many years was the image of a beautiful woman. Mr. Zimmermann, a pharmacist's mate and an aspiring artist, painted the pin-up portrait of the buxom woman for the bridge of the USS Sangay in 1945. Mr. Clifford, who served on the same ship, rescued and cared for the art work for six decades after the Sangay was taken out of service in 1946.

World War II veterans reunited after nearly 70 years

Two World War II veterans were reunited at Soldier & Sailors Memorial Hall after nearly 70 years. (Video by Nate Guidry 5/17/2014)

He donated the piece to Soldiers & Sailors in 2011 where it holds pride of place in the military museum's new "World War II in the Pacific" exhibit case.

"How about paying me the storage fee for taking care of your painting?" Mr. Clifford joked after the two men shook hands and embraced in front of the picture. They were surrounded by more than a dozen relatives who cheered and waved small American flags.

Mr. Clifford lives in Middlesex, Butler County, and Mr. Zimmermann resides outside St. Louis. Their only contact when they served aboard the Sangay, a munitions ship, was when Mr. Zimmermann treated Mr. Clifford for broken fingers following an accident.

The two men reconnected through the joint efforts of their daughters.

Mr. Clifford's daughter, Sharon Johnson, came across a black-and-white photo of the painting while she was looking online for additional information about her father's old ship. The image illustrated the Wikipedia entry describing the battle history of the Sangay.

Ms. Johnson updated the online encyclopedia's entry with the information that her father had donated the picture, called "Angel's Coffin," to Allegheny County's military museum.

Mr. Zimmermann, urged to do so by his wife Mary, had been writing an account of his World War II service. That document led his daughter, Diane Barron, to the same Wikipedia article about the Sangay where she learned about the current location of her father's work.

The two men have been talking regularly on the telephone over the past two years while they made plans to get together in Pittsburgh to see the painting. Saturday, which was Mr. Zimmermann's 89th birthday, seemed a natural choice for their reunion.

"Here's your birthday present," Mr. Clifford said, handing his friend a package. Inside was a golf shirt with the name "USS Sangay" embroidered on it. Mr. Zimmermann in turn gave Mr. Clifford a cap decorated with the name of their ship.

"We are honored to have you here," Michael Kraus, curator and staff historian at Soldiers & Sailors, told the men as family members looked on.

"So this is the painting I have heard so much about," Mary Zimmermann said as she viewed her husband's work for the first time. Mr. Zimmermann said he had been inspired by the pin-up girls whose images decorated the fuselages of airplanes.

His painting shows a naked red-haired woman with wings sitting atop a spiky black floating mine. The Soldiers & Sailors exhibit uses a heavy white rope, strategically placed, to make the picture suitable for viewing by school-age visitors. The Sangay, which was longer than a football field and had a crew of more than 300 men, transported thousands of mines like the one shown in Mr. Zimmermann's painting.

As they answered questions from reporters and family members, the two men joked about their experiences.

What had been their nicknames aboard ship: "Cliff" and "Doc." Mr. Zimmermann would have been known as "the pill pusher," Mr. Clifford said. "We also were called some other names," Mr. Zimmermann said.

Who was the model for the angel in the painting. "It wasn't the guys on the ship," Mr. Zimmermann said. "They were pretty ugly."

Handed glasses of non-alcoholic sparkling cider, the two ex-sailors offered toasts to their wives and to their ship. The USS Sangay had seen service delivering munitions to front-line positions in the South Pacific at places including Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

"This is one of the highlights of my life," Mr. Zimmermann, blinking back tears, said of Saturday's reunion. A retired commercial artist, he ran his own firm near St. Louis.

The Zimmermanns have four children, 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

The Cliffords raised six children at their home in Middlesex. They have 16 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Mr. Kraus said "pin-up girl" art like "Angel's Coffin" had been very popular during World War II but much of it had been lost.

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. He asked a shipyard worker what would happen to the "Angel's Coffin" picture, and he was told it likely would be scrapped.

He was permitted to remove the picture from the ship's bridge. The painting spent the next six decades mostly wrapped up at his home in Middlesex until he donated it to Soldiers & Sailors in 2011.

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

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