Summer 2007 Edition NJDMAVA Veterans

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NJDSM recipient receives Legion of Honor

Ocean County Donation

French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte(left) honors James J. Sheeran (center) and wife Dr. Lena Chang-Sheeran (right) at a ceremony and dinner in Washington, D.C. Photo by Lisa Coppola.

James J. Sheeran, one of the first New Jerseyans to receive the New Jersey Distinguished Service Medal, was honored by the Republic of France at a ceremony at the French Ambassador’s residence, in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 31.

More than sixty of Sheeran’s friends and relatives attended the ceremony and were then Ambassador Jean-David Levitte’s guests for dinner at his residence.

Ambassador Levitte, recounted Sheeran’s extraordinary exploits during World War II, and presented him with the medallion signifying his being named a Chevalier of the Order of the Legion of Honor. The award recognizes individuals for their contributions to the French Republic.

The Ambassador recounted the incredible saga of Jim Sheeran. His father who served in Europe during World War I, returned home with a French bride, the former Lucy uniere. That his mother was French would play an important part in his wartime exploits.

As did many others of his generation, Sheeran enlisted in the Army. Volunteering for the Paratroops, he jumped at Normandy, France with the 101st Airborne Division - the Screaming Eagles, in the pre-dawn hours before D-Day, June 6, 1944. Separated from his unit and finding himself alone and in a swamp, Sheeran was captured by German soldiers later that same day. Paraded through the streets of Paris by the Nazis, Sheeran was placed on a railroad car, with other Allied prisoners, for transport to POW camps in Germany.

It was at this point that Sheeran’s story became truly remarkable. In concert with four other paratrooper-POWs, Sheeran managed to kick open the boarded up window of the
wooden cattle car in which they were riding. Believing they had already entered Germany, the five men jumped off the train. Three of the five were shot, and presumably killed, by the German soldiers “riding shotgun” on top of the railcars. Sheeran and another paratrooper, a Native-American named Bernie Rainwater, managed to escape unharmed.

Without benefit of a map or compass, Sheeran and Rainwater
began heading south, through German occupied France,
hoping to reach Switzerland. Along the way, they contacted members of the French resistance, instructed them on the use of American weaponry that had been air-dropped and also
aided in military operations. Separated from their French comrades during one of these actions, the paratroopers ontinued their journey south.

The two, through sheer luck, made their way to the village where Sheeran’s mother was raised, Donremy. Never having been there, and not speaking the language, Sheeranrealized where they were, from the Mirabelle fruit trees his mother had told him about, which were unique to that part of France.

Again intercepted by members of the resistance, Sheeran and Rainwater were taken to a village elder: an eighty-year old woman who had taught Sheeran’s mother as a school girl. She instantly recognized the family resemblance in Jim’s brilliant blue eyes and confirmed that this was the son of Lucy Muniere. Now united with cousins he had never met, Sheeran and Rainwater would be safeguarded by the people of Donremy until the allied advance reached the area in eptember.

As an aside and another part in this stranger-than-fiction story is that Donremy is the birthplace of Joan of Arc, the Patron Saint of Soldiers. The stone hut in the woods, in which Sheeran and Rainwater were often hidden, was said to
be Joan of Arc’s childhood home.

Repatriated by American forces on Sept. 15, Sheeran and Rainwater were immediately returned to England. As an escaped prisoner of war, Jim had the opportunity to return home but opted to rejoin his unit. Within a day, he was back
in combat, having jumped on Eindhoven, Holland in Operation
Market-Garden. Sheeran would remain with the “Screaming Eagles” through the siege at Bastogne, where he was wounded in combat.

Following the war, Sheeran completed college and law school, joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a pecial Agent and then began a private law practice. In 1958, at the age of thirty-two, he was elected the youngest Mayor in West Orange’s history and served two terms. In 1974, heeran was appointed Commissioner of Insurance and served until 1984. He currently serves as the Chairman and Chief perating Officer of NJCURE, the state’s largest reciprocal insurance consortium.