James McCaffrey, seaman, housing activist, dies at 86


By Albert Amateau

James McCaffrey, a longtime Chelsea resident who sailed in the U.S. merchant marine during World War II and had a ship torpedoed from under him, died in a New Jersey hospice on Feb. 11 at age 86.

He died of multiple lung disease, said Catherine Tupper, whose family has known McCaffrey for 65 years and who called him “Uncle Jimmy” since she was a child.

A political and housing activist, he was a member of the National Maritime Union, whose Chelsea and Village union halls he shipped out from for more than 40 years. He had many friends, several of whose children he called his nieces and nephews.

“He told me his mother came from a family of 14 chil-

dren and his father came from a family of 19, so he had an untold number of cousins all over the country and in Ireland,” said Tim Gay, a Chelsea friend and fellow member of the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club.

“I spent three hours with him last October, when he told me about being icebound on a ship in the North Sea — or in the Arctic near Murmansk — for a long time,” Gay said. “Jimmy described a Russian soldier who was ready to shoot crew members until they gave him cigarettes and started to talk with him. I remember Jimmy saying, ‘I realized they were just kids too,’” Gay recalled.

McCaffrey was born in Chicago to James and Mary McCaffrey, but lived with his mother for a year in Cuba and also with her in Ireland for a time. He later moved with his mother to San Diego. She died at the age of 100 in 1996 in San Diego.

“He told me his father served with Pershing in Mexico in

1916 as a cook during the Pancho Villa campaign and then served

with Pershing in World War I,” said Randy Petsch, a Chelsea friend. Petsch was a fellow member with McCaffrey in Chelsea Coalition on Housing, a tenants’ group organized by the late Jane Wood. “He also said his father was a painter and worked with Diego Rivera on a mural in Chicago,” Petsch said.

“A diminutive and soft-spoken man, Jimmy was courageous back in 1982 in resisting a landlord whose tenants

had a series of fires as well as burglaries and threats intended to scare them from their homes,” Petsch said.

In his youth he was a boxer and spoke about sparring with Willie Pep before Pep became the welterweight champion.

“We used to hear about Reuben Jones — his favorite boxer,” said Tupper.

As a seaman, Jim sailed around the world six times and visited hundreds of ports, Petsch recalled.

“He sailed the Murmansk run, a poorly protected convoy that supplied war materials to America’s Soviet allies,” Petsch said.

“Jimmy told us about being torpedoed around 1945 and having to be repatriated,” Tupper said.

In 2003, the Russian Federation recognized merchant seamen who sailed the Murmansk run during World War II and McCaffrey went to Washington, D.C., as one of the survivors to accept a citation from the Russian ambassador.

McCaffrey first went to sea as an engine room wiper in 1943 and last sailed in 1988. He told a friend, Joe Doyle, about a purge of seamen members of the Communist Party from the N.M.U. in the late 1950s: “The only reason they didn’t kick me out of the union was because they thought I was too stupid to get mixed up with the commies,” he told Doyle.

Tupper recalled first meeting McCaffrey 40 years ago.

“He’s been part of the family since then,” she said.

“He thought everybody should travel,” she said. “He took trips with my brother to 36 of the 48 states. When I was 14 he bought bus tickets for my friend and me and sent us to Washington, D.C. He sent me to the Montreal World’s Fair,” said Tupper.

“My father died in 1969, and in 2000 we were trying to find out whether he came to the U.S. from Ireland in 1916 or 1917,” Tupper said. “My daughter, who was 19 at the time, said she thought he might have left because of the ‘Troubles’ and Jimmy agreed. So he began sending her clippings and everything else about Ireland and mailed it addressed to ‘The IRA Lady, Catie Tupper.’ I told him, ‘Jimmy, you’re going to get us on every F.B.I. watch,’ but he kept on sending stuff to ‘The IRA Lady,’” Tupper said.

A sister, Mary McAndrew, of Los Angeles, survives. Redden’s Funeral Home on W. 14th St. was in charge of arrangements. The funeral service was Mon., Feb. 15, at Guardian Angel Church on 21st St. in Chelsea.