WINCHESTER – In 1937, when Richard Wallace MacAdams was elected a selectman, Hitler was in power in Germany and taking preliminary steps that would lead to a horrific war. In the Pacific that July, the Second Sino-Japanese War began, to segue later into the War in the Pacific.
While MacAdams was in his second year as a selectman, Neville Chamberlain returned to Britain from a September 1938 meeting with Hitler to proclaim “Peace for our Time.” But that was not to be.
A year later, during MacAdams’ final year in office, Germany invaded Poland, leading England and France to declare war on Germany. World War II had begun. In November, Russia invaded Finland, prompting MacAdams, as chairman of the Board of Selectmen, to issue a proclamation declaring Dec. 17, 1939, to be Finland Day in the town.
MacAdams did not run for a second term. During his final year, he was not only a selectman but also an officer in the Naval Reserve and may well have foreseen a higher call ahead.
A resident since age two or three, a former employee of the Whitney Machine Co., MacAdams enlisted in the Navy at age 18 and served on various ships as a machinist’s mate through the end of World War I. A few months later, he enlisted in the Merchant Marine, becoming a chief engineer.
That experience led to his subsequent position as chief engineer in charge of the New England Engineering Dept. of the Ocean Accident and Guarantee Corporation. Due to his work, he lived in a few other parts of the country, returning to Winchester about 1931. He was active in the town as a member and commander of Winchester Post 97 of the American Legion, a member and esquire of the Lodge of Elks, a Town Meeting member, and finally a selectman.
By 1940, he had been a member of the Naval Reserve for 20 years. That January, at age 40, while the race was on for a successor to the seat on the Board of Selectmen he would soon vacate, MacAdams advanced to the rank of Lt. Commander.
Recalled to active duty that summer, he was assigned for two years to duty in Boston as officer in charge of naval repair and salvage operations. During this time, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the U.S. declared war on Japan and Germany.
Assigned to one of the Navy’s largest oil tankers, the Housatonic, used to refuel the fleet during the Allied invasion of North Africa, MacAdams was carried to many battle areas.
His final ship was an escort carrier, the USS Liscome Bay. In June 1943, he was sent to the West Coast to be with the ship during the final stages of construction. After it was commissioned on Aug. 7, 1943, he went out with her on her maiden voyage.
In October of 1943, the carrier, with MacAdams as her chief engineer and third senior officer, left for Hawaii to join the forces assembling for Operation Galvanic, the invasion of the Gilbert Islands.
The Japanese had occupied the Gilbert Islands three days after Pearl Harbor and used them as a seaplane base. In the fall of 1943, they were one step in the U.S. drive across the Pacific to Japan.
The aircraft aboard Liscome Bay and the other escort carriers provided vital close air support for the landing of troops and their operations ashore. During the Nov. 10 invasion of Makin, Liscome Bay’s embarked airplanes logged 2,278 combat sorties.
The whole campaign was, in the end, successful, but the cost was dear. It was, in fact, MacAdams’ last assignment.
When this selectmen went to war in the Pacific, all hell broke out on board his ship. At 5:10 a.m. on Nov. 24, 1943, a Japanese torpedo hit the Liscome Bay, striking it near the bomb magazine and causing massive detonation of the aircraft bombs stowed in the hold.
The ship broke in pieces. Part was engulfed by water and part by fire. Oil flowed out over the surrounding surface of the water and also caught fire.
In just 23 minutes, the Liscome Bay was gone.
“I saw her explode the other morning before dawn,” the Boston Globe reported a gunner saying. “The flash must have come up ten miles.” Shrapnel was sent flying thousands of yards away.
The destruction was fatal not only for the ship but also for about three-quarters of the men on board, including 53 officers, one being MacAdams. In early December, Winchester learned that he was reported missing in action, with his death confirmed a year later.
On Dec. 12, 1944, the Unitarian Church was reportedly taxed to capacity for a memorial service where representatives of naval, military, fraternal, and civic organizations gathered to honor a man commended during his 1937 campaign for perseverance, tenacity of purpose, and a winning personality, and in 1944 praised by a Navy chaplain “saying that he was one of whom the Navy could truthfully say ‘Well done.’”
Following the service, another was held in Wildwood Cemetery for the dedication of a memorial bearing MacAdams’ name, date of death, and lines by Abraham Lincoln: “I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives, and I like to see him live so that the place he lives in will be proud of him.”
Speers joins up
When MacAdams was lost, two more selectmen were soon to report for active duty, both also with the Navy.
On Dec. 7, 1941, during William Speers‘ first year as selectman, Pearl Harbor was bombed. During the third year of his term, he resigned to serve in the Navy, becoming the first Winchester selectmen ever to resign his office to go to war.
While the U.S. was battling in the Solomon Islands, Speers was sworn in (on Aug. 1, 1943) as a lieutenant (jg) in the Combat Information Section of Naval Aviation. Not called to report for duty until the next January, he continued serving as a selectman and a member of the Public Safety Committee. As chairman of the Board, he was a speaker at the dedication of the Knights of Columbus’ Honor Roll (along with Lt. (jg) John Volpe).
When this selectman went to war, he spent 23 months in the Pacific theater as an air combat intelligence officer on an escort carrier in the Pacific, Philippines, Okinawa, Saipan, Formosa, Iwo Jima, and Japan. The names of the USS Kula Gulf and USS Saratoga have been associated with his service.
Speers made it through the war to come home safely. He resumed his law career. He did not return to the Board of Selectmen but instead successfully campaigned to join the School Committee in 1947.
Wadsworth reports for duty
Following Speers’ example, Philip Wadsworth enlisted in the Naval Reserve during the fall of 1943, less than a year after his election to the board that March. At age 35, he was sworn into the Naval Reserve on Jan. 3, 1944. D-Day was five months ahead.
When this selectman went to war, he crossed the Atlantic to spend a year in anti-submarine work with headquarters in the south of England. In England for V-E Day, Lt. Wadsworth was granted a leave in August 1945, arriving home about V-J Day. Ordered to Pearl Harbor after his leave, he returned home to be mustered out just before Christmas.
Returned to civilian life, Wadsworth (like Speers) resumed work as an attorney. Though he could have taken up his old place on the Board, he declined since the term would soon expire. Instead, he ran for a two-year term and was re-elected in 1946. He was elected Town Moderator in 1949.
MacAdams, Speers, and Wadsworth are not alone in Winchester history for having served both on the Board of Selectman and in military service. The first former selectman to go to war and the first to die in service was Aaron D. Weld. Appointed an acting assistant paymaster in the Navy in Feb. 1862, Weld was taken sick with fever while on the Steamer Jackson of the Gulf Blockading Squadron. Transferred on June 11 to the Ocean Queen, he died that same day. The Winchester Post of the Grand Army of the Republic was named for him.
During the 75th anniversary of WWII, however, it is the three men named above who may be recalled as sharing the distinction of leaving the selectman’s table to serve their country during wartime. And for Memorial Day (originally May 30), it is especially appropriate to remember the one who never returned.