‘A race against time’: Q&A with ‘The Jersey Brothers’ author Sally Mott Freeman ’76

Sally Mott Freeman ’76 has been on the road pretty much nonstop since releasing her first book, “The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family’s Quest to Bring Him Home,” in May. In between readings, plane rides and TV interviews, the Saving Sweet Briar board member and 2016 Distinguished Alumna took a moment to talk about the fascinating story behind her debut — and the power of the Sweet Briar network.

Sally Mott Freeman
Sally Mott Freeman

What is the book about?
“The Jersey Brothers” is about the desperate search by my father’s family for Barton — a Navy Supply Corps officer and the youngest of three brothers — who was listed as missing after a Japanese air attack on Manila at the start of World War II. Middle brother Bill, my father, was a naval intelligence officer and overseer of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secret White House map room. Guilt-ridden over helping Barton secure the very orders that put him in harm’s way, Bill promptly began searching for Barton from the map room’s well-sourced environs. Benny, the eldest of the three Annapolis-trained brothers, was gunnery officer on Adm. Halsey’s storied carrier, the USS Enterprise, which barely escaped annihilation at Pearl Harbor. From his Pacific vantage point, Benny helped Bill search for their brother, in between Enterprise’s short-handed salvos against the Japanese navy, then the most powerful in the world. Wounded Barton, meanwhile, was taken prisoner straight from his Manila hospital cot after the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. Unknown to his family and beyond its protective tether, prisoner Barton rose to every desperate circumstance and became a moral leader among his fellow prisoners of war under progressively dire conditions.

What does the book mean to you?
Closure – what happened to Barton, who was unaccounted for at the end of World War II, had been a long-repressed family mystery. While it may have receded in time, its corrosive effect on my father and his family of origin had not. After much digging, I did find out what happened to him, and it was emphatically not what officials told the family at the time.

Was the book on your mind for many years? What inspired you to write it?
Yes, it was. The inspiration had been building for decades. We started hearing about this beloved youngest brother — my Uncle Barton — as children, but the explanations of what happened to him never squared.

Was there a particular event that made you decide, ‘I’m going to do this’?
Yes — when I discovered my father’s Naval Intelligence and White House correspondence files tucked in a back corner in my parents’ attic in Charlottesville. In it was an electrifying document trail of my father’s initial search for Barton, as well as other illuminating archives central to the story.

It took 10 years to research and write ‘The Jersey Brothers.’ What were some of the challenges? Did you encounter obstacles you hadn’t anticipated?
In order to accomplish my objective, I needed to develop a timeline and build a fact pattern, and in order to do so I needed to find and speak to dozens of people. And that was a race against time from the start. When I began searching for various wartime colleagues of all three brothers, fewer than 20 percent of World War II veterans were alive, fewer still by the time I finished. But I did find all the key people, and flew to meet and interview each and every one of them.

The Jersey Brothers book coverI made crucial headway in those interviews, thanks also to the corroborating contents of these veterans’ exhumed trunks and storage boxes, some stashed away for more than a half-century. Scattered beneath faded Purple Hearts or Legions of Merit were troves of pertinent archives; some item in each box either solved a piece of the puzzle or offered fresh leads — in-theater radiograms, unpublished memoirs, official memoranda, All-Hands directives, silk maps detailing escape routes, historically significant correspondence, including a hand-edited letter from FDR.

The slowly building Veterans History Project database also helped me break many an impasse. One such VHP interview — of a retired Navy nurse who cared for wounded Navy patients after a Japanese air attack on their base near Manila — filled a five-month hole in my developing timeline of Barton’s whereabouts. A related lead came during a phone conversation with the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery’s (BUMED) historian in Washington, D.C. I had called to get the contact information for the retired Navy nurse. The historian also happened to mention the recent arrival of several old boxes filled with medical records of former American POW’s in the Philippines.

This was about 2008; the documents had been uncovered at Cañacao — the old base hospital at Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines where Barton was stationed. The cache was discovered during the clearing of the then-shuttered building in preparation for its demolition. Dated from 1941 to 1945, these turned out to be the complete records kept by the naval medical staff who cared for hundreds of sailors wounded in the air attack on Cavite in December 1941 — before being taken prisoner themselves, along with their patients, one of whom was Barton.

This was one of my top ‘Indiana Jones moments.’ I immediately jumped in the car and drove to BUMED, about 30 minutes from my home. The archivist led me to an unheated storage area where the boxes had been placed. I barely noticed the icy floor, where I sat cross-legged for hours opening every box and reading through every single page. Here were the day-to-day medical records of Barton and the other Navy wounded. The doctors, medics and pharmacists’ mates doggedly tallied their patients’ conditions, as well as the mounting devastation around them, right up to their capture. Duty-bound, they continued the record keeping throughout their imprisonment — documenting where and how they were quartered, patient conditions and mortality, and the stunning progression of cruelty by their captors.

Sally Mott Freeman on CBS
Freeman spoke to CBS about her book in July.

How did it all come together in the end?
From these various accumulating troves, a story arc much broader than my original quest (determining the fate of my missing uncle) began to emerge. By this point, the project had outgrown my dining room, and I sublet a small office walking distance from my home. It wasn’t much, but it was quiet, had ample file space and book shelves, and room to write. It also had a white board on which I continuously updated the three brothers’ respective story arcs and timelines. To avoid getting overwhelmed, I filled one information or calendar gap at a time. And I wrote draft after draft after draft.

I also took several military history and nonfiction writing courses. While I had been a professional writer my entire career, this was a very different pursuit in a very different genre, and I wanted to learn everything there was to know about it. The courses and seminars also helped me build associations with archivists, historians and other history writers. We really supported one another, and that was very important to the process.

Fast-forward: One of my colleagues (a source for the story, in fact) introduced me to my literary agent, who took me on after reading the manuscript. She put it out for competitive bid among the publishing houses in New York, and I ultimately went with Simon & Schuster — and they have been absolutely fantastic to work with.

You must have discovered lots of (family) surprises during your research. Can you talk more about that?
I was astonished when my cousin, in town for my mother’s funeral, placed our grandmother Helen’s wartime diaries — thought to have been lost — on my desk. Here was a daily record of Helen’s prescient and canny war commentary rendered in her powerful, matriarchal voice, but also threaded through were searing, deeply emotional entries about her youngest son’s disappearance and eventual notification that he had been wounded and taken prisoner. As a child, I had a very specific impression of my grandmother — but limited, as any child sees a grandparent, I suppose. When I read through those diaries, I came to see her in an entirely different light. That was in 2009, by which point I had a pretty decent manuscript draft. But I knew immediately that her voice had to be woven into the story, so I threw the draft away and started over. That was more than a little painful, but I have no regrets.

How has your research — and the book’s release — impacted your relationship with family members? How did they respond?
I interviewed every member of my family during the research process. They all had memories and insights into this personal story, and their recollections were incredibly helpful. In fact, they were very supportive throughout my long research and writing journey. Perhaps they would have been less excited if I’d uncovered an axe murderer in the family, but happily there were no such unfortunate finds, and all were thrilled with the end result!

How did researching and writing this book alter your perspective on history — the events of World War II in particular, but also the act of remembering, documenting and telling history in general?
A few things here: My views on Gen. MacArthur and his wartime staff were greatly altered during the research process. Frankly, the most damning materials, particularly with respect to actions taken by his sycophantic staff, came from his own archives — MacArthur Memorial Archives in Norfolk, Va.

Sally Mott Freeman's yearbook photo
Freeman’s senior photo in the Briar Patch

Regarding writing about history itself, I am reminded of a quote by Rudyard Kipling: “If history were told in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” That is, the power of a story about people, not abstract events — what they did in reaction to events, how they felt, how they behaved, good or bad — is what resonates with readers, and is remembered. I approached my research and writing with this truism in mind. “The Jersey Brothers” closely follows the historic plot points of World War II, especially the Pacific Theater, but at its core is a story about one family’s struggle, told against the backdrop of the deadliest conflict in human history.

What are you working on now/next?
I am still on book tour, but am sketching out several possible ‘next projects’ in my limited spare time. Not quite ready to say where that will lead!

Looking back at your college experience, how has Sweet Briar influenced your life and career?
My Sweet Briar experience was terrific, and it had a direct impact on my career — in more ways than one. First, my English professors were superb; they not only taught me literature, but also how to write. My degree was in English, of course, and writing became central to my career, beginning with that first job after graduation. This brings me to the power of the vaunted SBC network: Michela English ’71 and Bev Crispin Heffernan ’75 visited Sweet Briar my senior year to talk to students interested in pursuing jobs in government. At the time, Michela and Bev worked at a small regulatory agency, The Federal Energy Administration (FEA). It was a riveting presentation, and after graduation, I applied for a writer-editor position at the FEA. And, boom! I got the job, and was on my way.

What were you involved in at Sweet Briar?
I rode horses and did theater my first two years, and was also involved in one of the political party clubs. Plus — full disclosure! — I spent quite a bit of time up at UVa.

I studied abroad my whole junior year at the University of Exeter in England, where I also rode, did theater, and played on the tennis team. Back at Sweet Briar my senior year, I was more studious, and frankly wasn’t much of a joiner at that point. Most importantly, I made many lifelong friendships during my SBC tenure. These grew stronger yet as the years rolled by, and we remain close to this day.

What are some of your favorite Sweet Briar anecdotes?
There are so many I could list here. I think the most memorable was the night that hundreds of my fellow students came streaking down the quad. Streaking was all the rage at the time, but it had never occurred to me that Sweet Briar would join those ranks. I recall it was dark and quite late at night. I was returning from Babcock where we had been in a long dress rehearsal for “Much Ado About Nothing.” And, whoa! Suddenly, a blur of what seemed like hundreds of naked women came sprinting down the quad. With apologies to the Bard, that memory “will never age for me, nor fade, nor die.”

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