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John E. Ryan

Patriarch, Civil Rights Attorney, U.S. Army Air Corps Veteran, at 92

-- Observed the Surrender of Japan from a Unique Vantage Point in 1945 –

Lexington, MA, September 2017:  A decorated World War II veteran, former Somerville alderman and former attorney in the Kennedy Justice Department who defended the rights of African-Americans in the Deep South during the Civil Rights era, John E. "Jack" Ryan died at Benchmark Senior Living Center in Norwood on Friday, September 8, while surrounded by his wife of 59 years, Carol (Szulewski) Ryan, and their five daughters.  A resident of Lexington for the last 51 years, Mr. Ryan was 92 and had been in failing health.

            A quiet and intelligent man known for his humble demeanor and high character, Mr. Ryan considered his family his greatest contribution to the world despite a lifetime of other personal and professional accomplishments.  That devotion to his family, and his deep Catholic faith, earned him the respect and admiration of all who knew him.  This was especially true of his wife, his daughters, his five sons-in-law and his 13 grandchildren, who adored and appreciated him for his kindness and quiet self confidence.

            The oldest of seven children, Mr. Ryan was of Irish-Scottish heritage.  His father, George Ryan, an attorney as well, emigrated to the United States from New Brunswick, Canada before meeting and marrying his mother, Marion (Finnin) Ryan in Boston.  Mr. Ryan was born in August, 1925 and was raised in Somerville during the Depression.  The economic challenges and depravations of that period instilled in him a strong work ethic, an appreciation for family, and a recognition for the importance of "being able to earn a buck."  To that end, Mr. Ryan recalled that his first job was working for an ice vendor – using steel tongs to haul huge blocks of ice into the kitchens of families in Somerville, Medford and Cambridge so they could keep their food cold in the days before home refrigeration.  He also worked in a tannery as a teenager and as a hotel steward on Nantucket.

            After graduating from St. Clements High School in Medford in 1943, Mr. Ryan enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps.  Accomplished in mathematics, he was sent to train at the army's rigorous navigator school, but as World War II entered its final stages, he was re-assigned to serve as a machine gunner on a B-29 Super Fortress, the military's largest and most technologically advanced heavy bomber.  Posted to the Pacific Theater as a member of the 330th Bomb Group of the 20th Air Force, he and his crew flew 25 raids over Japan from bases in Guam and Saipan in the spring and summer of 1945.  He later recounted that each mission routinely lasted as long as 14 hours and was flown mostly over open ocean.  On two such missions, his damaged aircraft, "The City of Kankakee," was forced to make emergency landings on the island of Iwo Jima, which the U.S. Navy and Marines had only recently wrested from the Japanese to provide a safe haven for battered B-29s returning from battle.  Later in life, Mr. Ryan expressed deep gratitude for the efforts and sacrifices of those who had fought, been wounded and who had died on Iwo Jima because he felt they had saved his life.  He also frequently expressed his disdain for war, in general, and rarely spoke of his own service or contributions to the war effort.  He was the youngest and last surviving member of his 11-person air crew.

            Among other honors, Mr. Ryan was awarded the U.S. Army's Air Medal and was discharged from the Air Corps in the fall of 1945 after achieving the rank of first sergeant.  Before returning to civilian life, however, he was an unwitting and un-invited participant in one of the most momentous events of the Twentieth Century.  On September 2, 1945, he and his crew buzzed the decks of the battleship U.S.S. Missouri during the signing of the surrender documents between Japan and the Allied nations.  The incident has been subsequently recounted with amusement and admiration by some who witnessed the signing and who have shared their memories in oral histories.  In 1966, Mr. Ryan gave a first-hand account for a story that ran in The Daily Journal of Kankakee, Illinois – the namesake of his crew's aircraft and the hometown of its pilot, Captain Vivian Lock.

            Mr. Ryan told the reporter that The City Kankakee began that day by flying over Tokyo at a low altitude of 2,000 to 3,000 feet – with its crew observing and being awed by the damage and destruction caused by the U.S. bombing raids in which they had participated. 

            "Viv (Captain Lock) went over Tokyo, which was extremely interesting because there just wasn't anything there," said Mr. Ryan.  "It was an amazing site…  There were people riding bicycles on the streets, but we were so low that they were looking up at us and losing their balance… "

            Eventually, Mr. Ryan told the reporter, the huge bomber banked out into Tokyo Bay to join an armada of B-29's that was to provide a massive demonstration of force in a fly-over during the surrender ceremony.  However, he said that overcast skies prevented Captain Lock from locating his aircraft's designated formation.  After scanning the horizon, Mr. Ryan said the crew observed the U.S.S. Missouri in the distance and Lock dropped the plane to an altitude of about 300 feet.  Roaring over the ship's decks and guns approximately 100 feet off its port side – Mr. Ryan said Captain Lock "rocked" the plane's wings as it passed the Missouri to acknowledge the ceremony's participants.  From his waist-gunner's position in the middle-right of the bomber, Mr. Ryan had a bird's-eye view of the historic event.

            "We were very low and the Missouri was on my side," he said.  "I could see all of the sailors dressed up in their whites – long lines of them two or three ranks deep, a hundred or so in each line…  I could see the table with the men seated and apparently signing something, but I couldn't see who was doing the signing – American or Japanese."

            According to another account shared with a reporter, Captain Lock said that years later, during an Air Corps reunion, the commanding officer of the 330th bomb group, Colonel Elbert Reynolds, told him that despite his breach of protocol, which could have resulted in Lock being court-martialed, Reynolds was pleased that the City of Kankakee had made its presence felt during the ceremony.  Lock said Reynolds told him, "I'm glad somebody reminded those damn Army and Navy guys that someone else was in the war!" 

            When he returned to Massachusetts in the late fall of 1945, Mr. Ryan took advantage of the GI Bill to enroll at Boston College, where he earned a degree in history.  In 1950, he went on to graduate from Boston College Law School.  He then joined his father's family law practice, Ryan & Ryan, in Arlington.  During that period he was elected Ward 6 alderman in Somerville, a position in which he was to serve for six years.  In 1958, Mr. Ryan married his wife Carol. 

            In 1962, Mr. Ryan accepted a position with the Kennedy Administration to serve as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.  The Ryan family, which now also consisted of two daughters, Carolyn and Kathleen, moved to Alexandria, Virginia.  For the next four years, Mr. Ryan worked in Washington D.C., where he represented the government in civil rights matters involving voting rights and the integration of schools, restaurants and public facilities in the Deep South.  Among other things, he went into hostile areas of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to escort African-American citizens to their local county court houses so they could register to vote.

            In 1966, Mr. Ryan and his growing family, which now also included middle daughter, Jane, returned to Massachusetts.  They settled in Lexington and Mr. Ryan became deputy division counsel for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at its Waltham headquarters.  He held that position until his retirement in 1987 and continued to manage a private family law practice for several more years.  During this period of their lives, he and his wife Carol added two more daughters to their family, Jacquelyn and Suzanne.

            During his five decades as a resident of Lexington, Mr. Ryan served on the town's Historic District Commission and was an active member of St. Brigid's Catholic Church, where he volunteered on the parish council and served as its president.  In his later years, Mr. Ryan derived great joy and satisfaction from the births and varied exploits and adventures of his 13 grandchildren, who currently range in age from 6 to 26. 

            Mr. Ryan was pre-deceased by his brother George of Somerville and his sister, Joan Powers of Austin, Texas.  He is survived by four siblings, and all of his siblings' families.  His surviving sister and brothers include Ann Diamond of Maryland; Lawrence Ryan of Chelmsford; Dr. Edward Ryan of Wakefield; and, Thomas Ryan of Florida.  In addition to his wife Carol, he also leaves his daughters and their families:  Carolyn Ryan, her husband Scott Sacco, and their children, Christopher and Allison Ryan, of Norwood; Kathleen Ryan, her husband Joseph McDonough, and their children Kerry, Lauren and John McDonough, also of Norwood; Jane Ryan, her husband David McCormick, and their children Daniel, Carol and Marie McCormick of Medway; Jacquelyn Partridge, her husband Christopher Partridge, and their daughters Jenna and Kelsie of Arlington; and, Suzanne Burgess, her husband Craig Burgess, and their sons, Ben, Luke and Sam of Westford.

A wake for Mr. Ryan will be held at St. Brigid's Catholic Church, 2001 Massachusetts Avenue, Lexington, Massachusetts on Wednesday, September 13, 2017 from 4 PM to 7 PM.  The funeral service will be held at St. Brigid's on Thursday, September 14, 2017 at 11 AM.  Burial will immediately follow at the Westview Cemetery, 201 Bedford Street, Lexington.  The family suggests that remembrances be directed to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, One Bulfinch Place, Boston, Massachusetts 02114.

 

 

Comments   

# Doreen Carson 2017-09-13 15:04
A life so very well lived. It was an honor to have known Mr. Ryan.

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