A “Blue Devil”: Joseph Aloysius Downey

USS Melvin (DD-680) underway c.1943

As much as I enjoy researching the family histories of other people, my greatest satisfaction comes from exploring my own family’s history. It is especially satisfying when that research helps answer questions that may have been left unanswered for decades. This is one of those times.

James Downey (1847- c. 1910) was born in Ireland in May 1847, though exactly where I have yet to determine. According to what James told the 1900 census enumerator, he came to the United States in early 1869 when he was 21 years old. Right around the time of James’ arrival, a great deal of heavy industry was established along the Delaware River in New Jersey. Several iron and steel producing factories were being constructed and work was easy to find for a recent immigrant like James.

James made his way to Burlington County, New Jersey and within two years of arriving he had already married and found work in an iron foundry. His wife Bridget (her maiden name is still a question) was also an Irish immigrant, and the couple started to raise their family in Florence, New Jersey. James and Bridget raised seven children, among them a son named David (1887-1939). David would attend school up until at least his fourteenth birthday and, after finishing his education, found work as a chipper in a local pipe foundry.

David Downey married an Irish immigrant named Marjorie (Marie) in 1909 and the couple would welcome their first child, a son named James, in April 1910. The family lived on Broad Street in Florence, New Jersey for most of their marriage. David and Marjorie had three more children over the next twenty years of their marriage, and there was a fourteen-year gap between their second and third children. David’s employment saw him move around from one factory to another throughout the period.

Postcard, c.1905, showing Broad Street in Florence, New Jersey. (Source: ebay.com)

That third child, Joseph Aloysius Downey (1925-1963), born April 14, 1925, is the subject of this post. Four years after his birth his parents had their last child, a daughter named Eileen (1929-2007). The 1930 census record seemed to show that there may have been some marital strife between David and Marjorie. Marjorie was living, along with the two youngest children and two boarders, at the house at 216 Broad Street in Florence. Meanwhile, David and the second oldest son, John, were boarding at a house on Chestnut Street in Florence. The cause of the separation, not surprisingly, is unknown as is how long it lasted.

The children of David and Marjorie lost both their parents by 1939. One day in April 1938, while walking down the street in Florence, New Jersey, Marjorie suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. In spite of a doctor having witnessed her emergency and quickly getting her to a hospital, she died shortly after. The family barely had a year to grieve her loss before David Downey’s death in 1939. The four children moved into the home of their aunt, Mary Downey, on North Second Street in Florence, New Jersey.

When World War Two started, Joseph A. Downey was working for Florence milk merchant Robert Doherty. Robert Doherty’s dairy was found on the 300 block of West Fifth Street in Florence, just a couple of blocks from Mary Downey’s home. The United States involvement in World War Two was just over two years old when Joseph wasted no time registering for the draft on 14 April 1943, his 18th birthday. Rather than wait to be drafted, he instead volunteered for service in the United States Navy Reserve.

While I do not know where Joseph underwent his basic training, Navy records list him as being a Seaman 2nd Class on the Fletcher-class destroyer USS Melvin (DD-680) upon its commissioning in November 1943. Joseph would serve on the Melvin for the duration of the war. The destroyer was sent on a “shakedown” cruise off Bermuda in the winter of 1943 before being stationed in the Pacific Theater, arriving at Pearl Harbor in March 1944. It was in the Pacific where the USS Melvin would be dubbed the “Blue Devil” by the Japanese and “Merciless Melvin” by its own crew.

The USS Melvin underway in 1945, with crew paraded at the rail. (Source: http://www.navsource.org/archives/05/680.htm)

The Melvin did not stay at Pearl Harbor long, departing 31 May with a Task Group headed for the island of Saipan. There, on the night of June 13, it managed to sink a Japanese submarine and shortly afterwards sank a Japanese merchant vessel. The Melvin spent the next month providing fire support, conducting anti-submarine patrols, and serving escort duty to the islands of the Eniwetok Atoll. The Melvin screened the troop transports and oilers headed to Guam in July 1944, a role it played until the beginning of August. The destroyer continued escorting vessels throughout the late summer into the early fall of 1944. During the fall of 1944, Seaman Joseph Downey was promoted to Fireman 2nd Class, part of the engine room force on the ship.

The somewhat mundane tasks of submarine hunting and escorting transports halted when, in October 1944, the Melvin steamed towards the Philippines and what would become the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Early in the morning hours of October 20, 1944 it entered Leyte Gulf and carried out patrols between the islands of Dinagat and Hibuson. The Melvin joined in a torpedo attack by Destroyer Squadron 54 on October 25, an attack that began the Battle of Surigao Strait. Along with two other destroyers, the USS Remey and USS McGowan, Melvin launched torpedoes just after 3:00 am. The torpedoes struck the Japanese battleship Fusō, which sank less than 40 minutes later.

Japanese battleship Fusō, sunk by the USS Melvin. (Source: wikipedia.com)

The Melvin continued in its role as an escort and support vessel throughout last year of the war. The destroyer took part in the invasion of the island of Luzon, the assault of Iwo Jima, and assisted with the protection of the damaged aircraft carrier USS Saratoga after it was attacked by Japanese aircraft in late February 1945. After escorting the carrier to safety, the Melvin returned to see action in the Okinawa campaign and subsequent campaigns against the Japanese homeland until the war concluded in August 1945. The ship served on occupation and minesweeping duties off the coast of Japan until the beginning of October 1945 when it was ordered to San Francisco.

The USS Melvin was awarded ten battle stars for its service in the Pacific Theater and rightfully earned its “Blue Devil” nickname. Fireman 2nd Class Joseph A. Downey spent 18 months at sea aboard the USS Melvin and was present for all of the ship’s engagements, large and small. Joseph, now a civilian after being discharged from the Navy, returned home to Florence, New Jersey in late November 1945. Like many of the men returning home from World War Two, Joseph found work in his hometown and eventually met his future wife, Thelma Bentz of nearby Fieldsboro, New Jersey.

Joseph A. Downey and Thelma Bentz on their wedding day, 1950.

Joseph Downey survived 18 months on a Navy destroyer in the Pacific Theater only to lose his life on a backroad outside of the small town of Dennisville, New Jersey in 1963. The car, in which he was one of two passengers, failed to negotiate a turn on the Petersburg-Dennisonville Road at 9:45 am on the morning of Saturday, February 23, 1963. Both passengers were killed and the driver, a fellow Navy veteran, was severely injured. Fireman 2nd Class Joseph Aloysius Downey is buried Beverly National Cemetery, Burlington, New Jersey.

© Noel B. Poirier, 2022.


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