The stories of eight brave Wilmingtonians that never returned from World War II

This is the sad story of eight young men from Wilmington that never came home from war. 

Inspired by a love of local history and equipped with a subscription to newspapers.com, two years ago I became transfixed by the daily News Journal coverage during World War II.  What I learned about the loss for our small city was shocking.

With over 400 residents killed the human cost in Wilmington was enormous.  At the neighborhood level, the impact was devastating.

 

Twenty-eight members of St Hedwig’s Parish in the city’s southwest section were killed.  In the Ninth Ward, over 90 service members died. Within one block of 4th and Union Streets, six young men gave their lives. In the “40 Acres” neighborhood, six more died during the summer of 1944 alone.

Particularly moving for me, within a short distance of where I grew up on 17th St, seven residents lost their lives, including someone who lived in the house directly facing the window of my childhood bedroom. 

Not wanting this period to be forgotten or ever taken for granted by future generations, I created a website  providing biographical sketches taken from the newspaper coverage for all of those killed.  After the News Journal covered the project,  several readers reached out to put me in touch with a friend or family member who had additional information about the story of several of those on the website.

 

Honored to get the chance to document their stories, over the last year I’ve conducted dozens of interviews with the widows, brothers, relatives and friends of those profiled in this article.

 On Memorial Day 2020, as we ponder our current crisis, my generation’s “Great War,” the collective sacrifice of the Greatest Generation, as embodied in these stories, should leave us room to reflect.  Times are not good at this current moment. But in Wilmington they have been much worse.

Sgt. Harry Fineman, 24

Harry’s parents were Jewish immigrants.  They emigrated to Wilmington from South Africa where his father had served in the British Army during the Boer War.  Mr. Fineman operated a poultry shop at 2nd and Tatnall, the neighborhood where Harry grew up. 

Graduating from high school in the depths of the Great Depression, jobs were scarce.  Harry spent two years in the Civilian Conservation Corps and then another two years working for the Allied Kid Company, a tannery on the City’s East Side that employed generations of Wilmingtonians before closing in 1977.  

 

Harry joined the Army, excelled, and rose to the rank of Sergeant.  After Pearl Harbor, he wrote his parents saying “Don’t Worry. Don’t believe the lies about the Americans. We’ll eventually win.” 

As the first soldier killed from Delaware, Sergeant Fineman’s death received extensive media coverage.  Legendary Wilmingtonian Catholic priest Father Francis Tucker, pastor of St. Anthony’s Parish, eulogized Fineman in a ceremony in Rodney Square.

Fineman’s death was only the first in a nightmare period for Wilmington’s small and close-knit Jewish community.  As my neighbor, a 101-year old life-long city resident told me, with emotion in her voice 75 years later, “There were so many of them [killed]. We never thought it would be possible that so many boys from our small community would die.” Indeed Sgt Fineman was the first of 30 Jewish city residents killed, their service pictures preserved in a touching online memorial at the Jewish History Society of Delaware.

 

Private Adam Thomas, 36, “Buffalo Soldier”

African-American soldiers fought, died, and experienced the horrors of war in equal measure as their white counterparts. They were also forced to suffer the undignified and humiliating treatment of racism and segregation.  Private Thomas’ story illustrated all the above.

Not a life-long Wilmingtonian, he graduated from Camden High School and had been working directly before the war in New York City while his family lived in Wilmington at 8th and Locust Streets. At 36, he was older than the average soldier, nevertheless, Thomas was drafted and assigned to the 92nd Infantry Division, 366th regiment, the famous all-black unit featured by the Spike Lee film The Miracle at Santa Anna.

 

The mountainous terrain in Italy favored the German defenders and made the fighting conditions even more challenging as Lee’s movie aptly shows. Thomas was killed on February 10, 1945, but in the chaos of combat his death couldn’t be confirmed for several weeks.  He was first reported as “Missing in Action,” and his family had to go weeks before his body could be recovered and confirmed dead, the uncertainty no doubt adding to their suffering.

Sergeant Harry Hinkson, 21; One of 100 students lost from a single school

 

No school in Delaware was more affected by World War II than Wilmington High School.  A News Journal article on the school’s 1945 Memorial Day ceremony aptly illustrates this point.  It describes students placing a wreath listing the names of 54 alumni that had been killed, the 14 names of men who had attended but not graduated, and the 22 names of those “missing in action.”  And this with still two months of heavy fighting left in the Pacific.

 

Sgt Harry Hinkson of 10th and Monroe was one of those students.  Harry was a B-17 tail-gunner in the legendary 8th Air Force operating out of England.  He was killed on a mission August 5, 1944 over Germany. Paul Collins, who himself made it through 35 missions as a B-17 bombadier in the 8th Air Force, fondly recalls his old friend and classmate:  

Harry was a close friend of mine. He was in the band at Wilmington High School.   We even went hunting together and drank together after high school.   Harry wanted to get into the Marines.  His mom cried that it was too dangerous so Harry went into the Air Corps thinking it was safer. Half-way through my tour I got word that Harry was missing.  Harry’s mom came to my mom screaming in anguish. Harry would have been safer in the Marines!  I’ve won so much money over the years betting on which service lost the most people in WW2 as a percentage of their total numbers.  People assume it the Marines or the Army. It was actually the Army Air Corps.

Lieut. Richard Britton, 25, 20th and Monroe Sts.

“Dick” Britton was one of 58 alumni of P.S. du Pont killed in the War. This is an astonishing figure when you consider that the school only opened in 1935. I had the great fortune of interviewing his younger brother, Allen, P.S. du Pont class of 1938. 

Taken for granted by Americans until recently, disease and sudden death was a common occurrence in the early 20th century.  Dick and Al’s parents died in 1922: his Mom on a Friday and his dad the following Sunday both from bouts with pneumonia.  They were then raised by their grandparents at a beautiful house at 20th and Monroe Streets.

 

Their parents and grandparents had experienced success working on a paper mill along the Brandywine or as employees of the Dupont Company and left the two boys with a modest inheritance. They lived comfortably, thought not lavishly, during the Depression.

Dick was the “smart one” and got very good grades. He attended Penn State and graduated in 1940 with a degree in commercial chemistry.  He got married to Betty Lee just before the war.  

Sadly, on his first  cruise, his submarine, the USS Capelin, disappeared without a trace.  Allen believes that the cause was probably a malfunctioning torpedo that exploded onboard.  

While at training, Allen received word that Dick was missing and he came home. Betty Lee attempted to live with “Grandmother” for a while, but they could not get along. At different stages in life, like hundreds of thousands of others in the same situation, they had different reactions.   

 

Al encouraged Betty Lee to go to school and she eventually attended Cornell and remarried. Allen went on to fly 70 missions on the crew of a B24 liberator with the 15th Airforce in Italy.  And no doubt his grandmother had many sleepless nights until he completed his term of service. 

The Bill and Irene Story – Family Lives Altered Forever

Irene and Bill on their wedding day at St. Hedwig’s Church with Irene’s sister Ruth

World War Two disrupted forever the hopes and dreams of hundreds of Wilmington families.  That sad fact is illustrated in the story of Bill McCarthy and Irene Malinowska.  Bill’s niece Patty reached out after seeing the website, and shared additional information. She also put me in touch with Irene, whom I interviewed for the project.  With their blessing, I tell the Bill and Irene story.

Bill moved with his family from Massachusetts to Wilmington in 1933.  He grew up at 6th & Monroe Sts. in what is now called “West Center City.” At Wilmington High School, his classmate Paul Collins remembers him as the “life of the party” and unusually “mature beyond his years.”

Irene Malinowska grew up in the working-class Polish neighborhood near St. Hedwig’s church. She had (and has) an independent spirit.  Whenever she was able to come up with 14 cents for trolley fare she would go downtown to the Wilmington Library on Rodney Square to read books.

Irene had a crush on Bill but couldn’t seem to get his attention.  Then one day luck turned in her favor. “To this day” she believes “it’s purely accidental how we got together.” 

Irene was in the hallway of Wilmington High School between classes and passed a note to her friend that said “I’m tired of liking Bill.  I know he’s got eyes for someone else.” 

 “Someone came up behind me, pulled the note out of my hand, and it was Bill.  We started going steady and, in those days, everyone who went steady got married.” 

Bill courted Irene by taking her dancing at Bronson Hall, located at 4th and Adams Streets.  While Bill worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, she graduated high school in June of 1942 and they set a wedding date for the following November.

Bill sensed that he would be drafted and one night he came to her house and brought devastating news.  He told his fiancé that “I’m breaking our engagement. I know I am going to be drafted soon and I just can’t do this to you.” 

Irene was absolutely devastated, took to her bed, and couldn’t go to work. She lost her job.  This went on for several weeks until one day her friends brought her to a café across the street from the Pennsylvania Railroad (now Amtrak) station.  They ordered a drink for her.  Suddenly Bill showed up and picked up the drink and drank it. 

“It stunned me.  In retrospect, I think my friends were trying to get us back together.  How else did he know we were there?”

Soon after he said “Come on, we’re getting married.”

Irene’s mom was delighted and said, “Good, you’ve already got it half planned.”  Bill said “No, we are going to get married this week.”  So, Bill and Irene got married in October 1942 instead of the original date of November.  They had a daughter on August 26, 1943. She never met her father. 

In December of 1943, Bill was killed fighting with the Infantry in Italy. 

For Irene, the toll was devastating.  She found a job at the VA Hospital and with her independent spirit persevered through the tough times and remarried after five years.   She lives in Florida today.   “Thank you for telling people about Bill,” she said.

 

The War is Over, Except It’s Not:  Harry Hickey, Anthony Daniello and the USS Indianapolis

The pain that the surviving family members feel when a loved one passes is the same, regardless of how they died. But for about 800 families across the country, several of them from Wilmington, the circumstances of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the timing of its public announcement in the very last days of the war, when families assumed that their sons had survived,  may have had an extra devastating punch. 

To summarize the relevant military facts as succinctly as possible, the USS Indianapolis was a battleship sent on a top-secret mission to deliver components of the atomic bomb to its assembly point on Tinian Island in the Pacific.  It delivered the cargo and then for a variety of reasons, it went back out unescorted.  Out of a perfect storm of bad luck, it crossed paths with one of the few remaining Japanese submarines left.

On July 30th it was torpedoed and sunk within 12 minutes.  Due to a communications breakdown no rescue ships came for five days.  Of the 890 men that went into the water alive, only 300 were rescued.  The incident itself was only announced to the public on VJ day. 

 

Harry Hickey, 21, a graduate of A.I. Dupont School, was one of those onboard.  At 6’3, he was known as a great basketball and football player growing up in Wilmington.  While home on leave in late June 1945, the local VFW post in Bellefonte, having heard of his ship’s action in the Pacific, asked Harry to speak about his experiences:

  

Shortly after his June 20th talk in Bellefonte, Harry made his way back to San Francisco and joined the ship as it left port on July 16th. Harry was amongst those who made it alive into the water but he did not survive to be rescued.  His body was recovered and he was buried at sea. 

As noted in a 1979 News Journal article, Harry’s mother, a teacher at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School was devastated.  His sister acknowledged that “Mother rested easier after she knew his body has been identified.  But it always bothered her that she had no grave to visit.  She always said he would never be at peace because the waves wouldn’t let his body rest.”  Mrs. Hickey dropped flowers into Delaware River each Memorial Day until her death in 1951.

 

Anthony Daniello, 19

Like thousands of other young Wilmington men of late high school age, Anthony Daniello left P.S. du Pont high school early to serve in the Navy.

Anthony’s younger brother John answered the door at 17th & Rodney Streets on that fateful day when the Western Union agent delivered devastating news. The timing made it especially awful since it was announced the war had just ended.

In January of 1946, as the Daniello family loss still lingered, the legendary News Journal reporter Bill Frank, published in his daily column a letter from Mrs. Daniello, which illustrated the shock, anger, and raw emotions running through so many Wilmington households. 

Mr. Daniello also recalls that the captain of the ship took the time to have a long phone conversation with his mother. That satisfied Mrs. Daniello enough to end her quest to find out more information and she channeled future efforts into the Gold Star Mothers organization.   

 

A Memorial Day Reflection

In conclusion, Wilmingtonians are going through tough times today.  But we’ve been through them before and on the occasion of Memorial Day 2020, it’s worth reflecting on what previous generations have gone though and what lessons we can learn from them.  They persevered with great dignity and carried on with their lives. We can all learn from them and should never forget the astonishing sacrifices made by the families of Wilmington, Delaware during what may have been the worst period ever in the city’s history.

A note on sources:

All of the information in this article comes from the Wilmington papers published during or after the War and interviews with city residents. Special thanks to Paul Collins, Allen Britton, Ed Punte, Joe Schuckler, Libby Zurkow, John Daniello and Eleanor Mattas.


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About the Contributor

Nathan Field

Nathan Field

Nathan Field is the founder of the Wilmington History Society. You can read about their next event here: whs20.splashthat.com

3 Comments

  • Nathan, you are doing a great job and a great service researching and telling these moving stories that need to be told about young heroes from Wilmington. Makes whatever woes we think we face today seem trivial by comparison. Have been enjoying your podcasts with Knightly. Hope to meet him when the plague is over. KEEP IT UP.

  • Nathan,
    I just read your article. It is so appropos to be reading it on Memorial Day. Thank you for helping me and others to appreciate what Memorial Day really means and to understand what a devastating effect WWII had on our little community of Wilmington.

    Very well done.

  • Thank you, this should have been the last war and military sacrifice of our families and country!

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