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Letter of thanks: World War II veteran B.J. Shepherd has kept rare note from Secretary of the Navy

By Dave Rogers | Published Wednesday, November 9, 2011

MEMORIES - World War II veteran B.J. Shepherd poses at his house in southwest Wise County with a collection of family photos and keepsakes, including a letter of gratitude sent to him after the war by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Billy Joe “B.J.” Shepherd was just home from the Pacific and working at the family dairy in Graham when it arrived in February of 1946.

It was essentially a thank-you note, but not from anyone Shepherd had ever met.

It came from Washington, D.C., specifically Secretary of the Navy James B. Forrestal. The letter thanked Shepherd for his service during World War II.

MEMORIES - The letter, written to Shepherd from Forrestal thanking Shepherd for his service in World War II, rates a prominent place of display in the vet's house south of Boonsville. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

The letter was sent after Shepherd had returned home, Forrestal wrote, because “I want the Navy’s pride in you … to reach into your civil life and to remain with you always.”

In case Shepherd wasn’t sure why he should be proud, Forrestal’s letter explained.

“You have served in the greatest Navy in the world. It crushed two enemy fleets at once, receiving their surrenders only four months apart.

“It brought our land-based airpower within bombing range of the enemy, and set our ground armies on the beachheads of final victory.

“No other Navy at any time has done so much.”

Needless to say, Shepherd was delighted to receive the letter.

Then he put it away and forgot about it for nearly 60 years.

“I just thought it was a neat letter,” he said last week as he showed a visitor the farm land in southwest Wise County he bought with a $1 down payment in 1950. “I thought everybody got one.”

Shepherd said it was less than 10 years ago when he got involved in raising money for the Wise County Veterans Memorial in Decatur that he showed it to another vet for the first time.

“When I joined the (Wise County) veterans’ group, I took it up to Paul Duffy, the commander, and it was still in its envelope,” Shepherd said.

“He had never seen a letter like that.”

Since then, Shepherd has made a number of copies of the letter. He keeps one in his truck and has shown it to many other vets.

“I’ve never seen another one like it, and everybody I’ve asked about it has never seen one either,” he said.

“I’m sure that (of all those who served) in World War II, more than me got a letter like that. I’m sure it was a random pick. I don’t know why I was picked to get that kind of letter.

“I just thought I was lucky.”

Shepherd agrees he’s been lucky, both before and since receiving the letter from Forrestal, who would go on to become the country’s first Secretary of Defense.

In the hell that was the fighting in World War II’s Pacific Theater, Shepherd and his 270-odd shipmates had an unlikely fortuitous tour of duty. He was a gunner’s mate aboard the USS Picking, a 375-foot long, 40-foot wide destroyer that took part in seven Pacific Fleet invasions – including the Philippines and Okinawa campaigns – and sustained no damage or men lost.

It was hardly a picnic. Shepherd had two jobs, maintaining one of the big turret guns that fired 5-inch shells and serving as “pointer” aiming and firing the trigger on a 40-millimeter anti-aircraft gun.

For several long stretches of days and weeks, the ship was on 24-hour alert for Japanese fighters, including the “kamikaze” suicide planes, and the Picking was also the target of several unsuccessful shellings from shore batteries. Gunners aboard the ship shot down six enemy planes.

The Picking spent six months in early 1944 in the Aleutian Islands, on the western edge of Alaska. On Feb. 4, 1944, Shepherd and the Picking took part in the first naval bombardment of the Japanese homeland during World War II.

In October 1944, the Picking was assigned to the Seventh Fleet and participated in the Philippine campaign. It was part of the invasion of Leyte and, on Feb. 13, 1945, fired the first shell of the war from a U.S Navy vessel into Corregidor.

The Picking was part of the Okinawa operation, beginning April 1, 1945. Six days later, Picking gunners shot down two of four attacking airplanes, including one that got within 200 yards of the ship.

Once back from the war, Shepherd split his time between working in the oil fields and helping out at the family dairy farm. He also showed Jersey cows and that’s where he met O. Ray Brown, a supervisor with the Farm Home Administration.

That’s who helped him buy his Wise County farm for $1 down.

Then in 1954, George Mitchell drilled a 100-barrel oil well on Shepherd’s land, using his new technique of hydrofracturing.

“Three other companies had dry-holed it,” Shepherd said.

Forrestal’s 1946 letter ended with wishes of a bright future for the ex-sailor Shepherd.

“The best wishes of the Navy go with you into civilian life. Good luck!” the letter said.

Shepherd’s not complaining about his good luck.

WISE COUNTY’S LIVING WORLD WAR II VETS

  • Sam Blackwell, U.S. Army
  • Billy Bramlett, U.S. Army
  • Charles Braun, U.S. Army Air Corps
  • Don Brown, U.S. Army
  • Ray Florence, U.S. Marine Corps
  • Troy Hayes, U.S. Army
  • Ham Hamlin, U.S. Marine Corps
  • J.E. Haynes, U.S. Army
  • C.B. Hoyl, U.S. Army Air Corps
  • Henry McDaniel Jr., U.S. Navy
  • E.J. Miranda, U.S. Marine Corps
  • Talmage Morrison, U.S. Navy
  • Billy Narramore, U.S. Army Air Corps
  • Bill Pedigo, U.S. Army Air Corps
  • Sam Renshaw, U.S. Marine Corps
  • Clarence Russell, U.S. Navy
  • B.J. Shepherd, U.S. Navy
  • Windell Splawn, U.S. Army
  • Tom Stephens, U.S. Army Air Corps
  • Gordon Taylor, U.S. Army
  • W.B. Woodruff, U.S. Army

This list was compiled with the help of the Wise County Veterans Group. Please contact us at (940)627-5987, extension 31, or email drogers@wcmessenger.com with additions or corrections.

VETERANS DAY PROGRAMS

  • The Wise County Veterans Group will present its annual Veterans Day Program at the Veterans Memorial Park in Decatur 10:30 a.m. Friday, Nov. 11.
    This year’s program will feature the Decatur High School Band and Journalism Department covering the new Veterans oral history program.
  • Prairie View Elementary students will honor veterans by singing songs and reading student essays and poems 9 a.m. Friday, Nov. 11. The program will include a slide show of pictures with veterans and students while the Prairie View Elementary Choir sings patriotic songs.
  • Slidell Elementary School and Slidell FCCLA will present a Veterans Day Program 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 11, for local veterans. The program will be held at Slidell Elementary School Auditorium. A cake and punch reception will be held immediately after the program for all veterans in attendance.
  • Rann Elementary in Decatur will have Bring a Veteran to Breakfast 7:30 a.m. Friday, Nov. 11. Students have invited family and friends who are veterans to eat breakfast with them. The vets will be recognized and receive a gift bag and thank you cards.

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