A Kearny son remembered


Joseph Peden Jr. was about four months shy of official manhood when he – like a lot of his patriotic peers did at the time – enlisted for a six-year tour to join the fight against the Axis forces.

The Brighton Ave. resident did this after having completed two years at Kearny High School.

As character references, he listed neighbor Stanley Hanze, who worked for the Kearny Shade Tree Commission; “S. Leggett,” a KHS teacher; and neighbor/banana salesman Angelo Battista.

On Sept. 27, 1940, his 18th birthday, Joe was officially inducted into the U.S. Navy as an Apprentice Seaman at $21 per month. 

The ruddy, 5-feet-10 inch, 150-pound sailor with blue eyes and dark brown hair was a first-generation American whose parents, Joseph Sr. and Sarah Peden, were Irish immigrants.

On or about March 1, 1942, Joe’s all-too-brief naval career came to an end when Japanese planes strafed a life raft containing Joe and other sailors whose ship had been torpedoed off Java.

Peden, declared to be the first Kearny casualty of World War II, was posthumously honored by his hometown on April 4, 1954, when the Kearny United Veterans Organization unveiled a street plaque bearing Joe’s name across from Garfield School at Belgrove Drive and the newly dedicated street, Peden Terrace, then the site of a new residential development.

Joe’s sister, Florence Peden Otto, bought one of the new homes on the block and lived there until her death in 2010 at the age of 90.

Another sister, Elizabeth Peden Rogers, a past president of the Kearny American Legion Women’s Auxiliary, died last year. She was 97.

As the 75th anniversary of Joe’s death nears, The Observer felt it would be appropriate to recount some details about him, with help from documents and information provided by family members, family friends and others.

Joe was assigned to the USS Langley (CV-1/AV-3), which had served as the Navy’s first aircraft carrier and first turbo-electric-powered ship until 1937 when she was converted to a seaplane tender and dispatched to the Pacific Fleet in the Philippines when war broke out, according to Wikipedia.

The ship sailed to the Dutch East Indies, and then to Australia, arriving in Darwin Jan. 1, 1942, where it became part of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command.

In that role, Langley initially ran anti-Japanese submarine patrols and was then detailed to pick up and transport Allied aircraft – 32 P-40 fighters of the Far East Air Force’s 13th Pursuit Squadron – to Southeast Asia.

On Feb. 27, 1942, Langley and a second ship left their convoy to deliver the planes to Tjilatjap, Java. As Langley rendezvoused with destroyers Whipple and Edsall, the three vessels were attacked by 16 enemy Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers.

By maneuvering, Langley managed to avoid two bombing passes but, the third time around, the ship took five hits that killed 16 crewmen, set fire to its topside, impaired its steering and flooded the engine room, leaving it dead in the water with a 10-degree list to port. Orders were given to abandon ship and the two destroyers scuttled her to ensure she didn’t fall into enemy hands.

Crew members, including Joe, were in the process of being transferred from the destroyers to the USS Pecos (AO-6), a fuel transport ship, off Christmas Island, when enemy planes attacked.

That attack was repulsed and the transfer was completed. However, in the afternoon of March 1, Japanese planes from a nearby carrier struck the Pecos several times, ultimately sinking her, even as its Executive Officer Lt. Cmdr. Lawrence J. McPeake valiantly tried to defend the ship with a deck-mounted .50-caliber machine gun as enemy planes strafed survivors in the sea. He was later reported lost at sea.

Destroyer Whipple raced to the scene and picked up more than 200 survivors. Joe was not one of them.

A telegraph dated March 14, 1942, from Rear Adm. Randall Jacobs, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, informed the Peden family that Joe, listed as Seaman 1st Class, was missing in action.

“The [Navy] Department appreciates your great anxiety and will furnish you further information promptly when received,” it said.

But it wasn’t until April 2, 1943, that word arrived that Joe was “a member of the crew and serving aboard the USS Langley when that vessel was lost as a result of enemy action on March 1, 1942.”

Given that there has been presented “no acceptable proof” of death and that “the list of prisoners made available by the Japanese through the medium of the International Red Cross has so far failed to include the name(s) of any the personnel attached to the USS Langley,” Joe will be “continued in a missing status, the Navy added.

On April 17, Sarah Peden – apparently having obtained additional information – wrote back, saying: “Yes, we have all hope [Joe] is safe some place. Joseph survived his ship and also the sinking of the Pecos and was on the raft. I could not give up hope those boys are someplace ….”

How did Joe’s mother learn what happened after her son left the Langley?

Especially since it wasn’t until December 1945 – three months after the war ended – that theNavy informed the Pedens that the Langley’s survivors, including Joe, were transferred to the Pecos, which was soon after sunk by enemy bombers, and that the Whipple responded to Pecos’ distress signal, picked up more than 200 survivors and dropped depth charges on an enemy sub it had detected before leaving for Freemantle, Australia.

“It is regretted that your son was not among the survivors rescued by the Whipple,” the letter said, adding that the Navy had now been “forced to the conclusion that [Joseph] is deceased.”

In June 1946, the Pedens learned that Joe had been awarded the Purple Heart for making the ultimate sacrifice.

An Observer news story about the Peden plaque dedication published April 8, 1954, references the Pecos bombing and says that Joe and other sailors made their way to a raft and eventually spotted a ship (evidently the Whipple) heading toward them. Instead of waiting, two of the sailors jumped into the water and began swimming to the ship while Joe and the others remained.

“One of the sailors, a resident of West Orange, told Peden’s parents of the incident after his discharge …,” the story said.

Sally Rogers Petito, a former Kearny resident and now a Verona resident – and Peden’s niece,who recalls attending the plaque dedication as a child, said: “I heard stories afterward, about this sailor coming to the house in Kearny to explain what happened to my uncle. He took the men outside to tell the story.”

Kearny’s Lewis Battista said his uncle Carl and grandmother Michalina were invited by Sarah Peden to hear the sailor’s story which he remembers being told as a kid.

None of the surviving Peden family members reached by The Observer could identify the West Orange sailor but one possibility has surfaced.

Joe Fagan, the West Orange town historian, suggested that the late Henry J. Restorff of West Orange – a WWII Navy veteran and 2002 recipient of the N.J. Distinguished Service Medal – was a good candidate.

program from the dedication of a West Orange Honor Roll monument to veterans – living and dead – on Memorial Day 1944 mentions that Restorff “was a fireman [technically, Engineman 2nd Class] aboard the Langley when that aircraft tender went down off Java. A short time later, he spent six hours in the dark waters of the Indian Ocean when the Navy tanker Pecos slipped below the waves.”

It’s very likely, said Fagan, that Restorff was the man who returned stateside to look up the Pedens because it was rare for servicemen and women from the same town to be assigned to the same boat.

What prompted Joe to go the Navy route? Sally Petito recalls hearing that from an early age, Joe, “wanted to be a sailor.” And Bob Rogers, a nephew now living in a suburb of Jacksonville, Fla., echoed that, noting that as a kid Joe clearly had a thing for ships.

“My mom (Elizabeth Peden Rogers) would tell me stories about uncle Joe and the fellow coming over from West Orange,” he said. “And I remember when she was in her 90s – she was living in Spring Lake – she was holding a little wooden model warship, maybe six inches long, 3-masted, and it was a little rickety, and she said, ‘My brother Joe made this when he was 11.’ 

“For some reason, she’d had it all this time. ‘And now,’ she told me, ‘I want you to fix it.’ And I did, even frying the matchsticks – part of the masts – in a pan to darken them.”

Then, so fascinated by his uncle’s adventures at sea, he put in a request for Joe’s military records.

“Months went by and finally, one day, a thick brown envelope came in the mail with all the records,” Rogers recalled. “I must have spent 40 minutes going through everything. They had Joe’s hand-written application for enlistment. Then suddenly, it dawned on me that that very day was the anniversary date of the day he enlisted. I started getting chills.”

He read his uncle’s Purple Heart citation and the sailor’s account of enemy planes strafing survivors in the sea following the attack on the Pecos.

“For me,” he said, “that was a kind of closure.”


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