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Painting revives World War II sailors' memories

| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 5:15 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
World War II veterans Jack Clifford, left, of Valencia, and Mel Zimmerman of St. Louis, Missouri, share a toast and laughs upon meeting each other again after 67 years apart at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Saturday, May 17, 2014. The two served aboard the USS Sangay. Zimmerman painted the pin up girl, rear, in case, and Clifford acquired it after the ship was decommissioned. Clifford searched for him for many years and the two finally connected. Zimmerman's family brought him to Pittsburgh to see the donated artwork and to meet Clifford again.

Jack Clifford kept her in the closet for decades.

“I never saw the painting, but my brothers, they said they knew it was there,” said Sharon Johnson, 46, of Gibsonia. “Apparently little boys notice naked women. Who knew?”

A pair of World War II veterans — who are among the survivors of a South Pacific munitions carrier dubbed “Angel's Coffin,” the USS Sangay — met each other in person for the first time Saturday at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland, almost 70 years after one sailor saved the risque artwork of the other.

Mel Zimmerman, 89, who served on the Sangay from 1943 to 1946, doesn't remember where he got the wooden board or paint to create the vivid flesh tones for the pinup's curvy physique. The ship's crew of about 300 was in the ocean working four hours on and four hours off, he said. Teenagers sleeping above five cargo holds crammed with live ammunition were too young and bored to know they could die.

“With all that ammo, you knew you wouldn't get injured on the Sangay,” said Zimmerman of St. Louis. “If anything had hit us, we'd have been blown sky-high.”

Clifford, who said he served on the Sangay from 1944 to 1946, snagged “Angel's Coffin,” a name coined by Zimmerman, when the ship was decommissioned in 1946. It collected dust in a Valencia closet until Clifford donated it to the museum a few years ago, where it is on permanent display

Johnson saw an old photograph of the piece on Wikipedia and edited the listing to include the painting's new home in Pittsburgh.

Zimmerman's family saw it and contacted museum curator Michael Kraus. The families and Kraus helped to arrange the reunion.

“For us, this is the best of what we can do,” Kraus said, “bringing together two people who lived the history we're trying to share.”

Zimmerman stood beside the glass-encased exhibit, eyes roaming trinkets now thought of as antiques.

“It's not just about this,” he said, tapping the glass. “Jack and that painting bring back so many memories. So many good and bad things that happened on that boat. We were so young and so lucky.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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