WEST PALM BEACH — Dad Mac sat in his living room and furiously scribbled the names the German propaganda machine rattled off. Names of GIs whose moms and dads and siblings and sweethearts in Florida and Iowa and Oregon. Loved ones who for weeks or months had wondered and worried and wrung their hands. Mac would fill out and address a postcard. It would say: Your boy is alive.
As World War II raged, and before and after D-Day, James L. MacMannis wrote as many as 33,000 postcards to families across America. After a while, people called him Dad.
At first, he said, he sent out just a few cards and got few responses.
“I was discouraged,” he told Palm Beach Evening Times Editor Tom Penick for a column in June 1944. “It was weeks before I heard from any of the folks I had written. Then they started.
One parent wrote, “You are doing marvelous work. May God bless you.”
Penick’s story said that on the day he visited MacMannis’ home, 30 letters from families were in his mailbox. Dad Mac opened one in front of Penick. It was from a woman who had not heard from her GI husband in months. Mac read the letter with tears in his eyes. He said that stood as his salary, and he was overpaid at that.
The date of Penick’s column was June 2, 1944. Neither he nor most of the country knew at the time that in four days, on June 6, the world would change
James L. MacMannis was a veteran of both the Army and Navy and both world wars. He’d been a barnstorming pilot in those first days of flight — a relative claimed he got America’s fourth-ever pilot’s license, something that couldn’t be independently verified — and taught pilots in World War I when military aviation was in its infancy.
He was a parachute jumper who later became an airplane inspector. He joined World War II via the Coast Guard in the Baltimore area.
Around 1943, he moved to West Palm Beach, believed to be about a block south of what’s now the Norton Museum of Art. His granddaughter, Diane Nitz, said in April from Nebraska that she does not know how he came to relocate in South Florida or what he did for a living.
MacMannis did have a hobby: shortwave radio.
In August 1943, he tuned in to a Berlin station. Naturally, it was a propaganda broadcast by the Third Reich. Night after night, the feminine voice would rattle off each soldier’s name and serial number, along with messages the GI hoped would get back to their families in the U.S. The Berlin fräulein even gave the GI’s home address so that anyone listening could drop a line to the family that he was OK, at least relatively.
Whether the idea was to show how humane the Germans were or was a ploy to get parents to pressure the U.S. government to push for peace, only the Nazis could say.
But for Dad Mac, a light went on.
Every night at 7, Dad would settle into his rocking chair. He listened even when the static made broadcasts pretty much undecipherable. Some nights he would listen until dawn.
Often, at least for some of the night, his wife sat with him.
“He doesn’t dare leave because he fears he may miss some of the broadcast with the prisoners’ list,” Mary MacMannis said in Penick’s 1944 column. “And he tries to get all.”
Some nights it was 20 names, some nights 60 or 80. One night he heard 157 names. Some nights, there was no list.
Dad Mac didn’t tell families everything. Sometimes the broadcast would impart that a boy had had both legs blown off or had bullets still lodged in his body.
“It’s enough to let them know that Berlin says they (soldiers) are alive and a POW,” MacMannis said.
He also worried at times if he was a dupe, forwarding details to desperate families about which the Nazi propaganda machine might be lying. He said he felt better when the War Department began verifying to him what he was hearing.
Once word got out about “Dad’s Listening Post,” others stepped up to help; fellow radio enthusiasts, the West Palm Beach fire chief, an assistant chief and a printing firm donated everything from radio parts to postcards. Dad Mac graduated from a small radio to a big receiver.
By January 1945, MacMannis estimated he’d heard 20,000 messages about American POWs and mailed out about 15,000 cards.
Life magazine got wind of him and ran a photo of Dad and Mary in their living room in front of a giant radio. That story quoted a total of 33,000 messages from POWs, including Canadians.
“War Prisoner Information,” Dad Mac’s cards said. “A free humanitarian service given by ‘Dad MacMannis’ Listening Post.’ ” And, “A veteran of both wars keeping faith with his buddies.”
The form would say Dad heard on Berlin’s Radio DNJ on a certain date that their loved one, name and serial number and so on, was either well or wounded.
“May I have his picture and a reply to this report? Thank you,” the card also would say.
“Howdy, folks,” one postcard quoted G.I. Ray Sherman. “I won’t be long. These Germans treat us mighty well. I will write you soon. Don’t worry. Love Ray.” The form was dated July 22; no year.
A search of databases shows a Ray J. Sherman, born in 1923, had enlisted in Milwaukee and served in the infantry in both the North African and Italian theaters before the Germans captured him at Anzio on Feb. 16, 1944.
His parents need not have worried. His August 2018 obituary said he would escape on his third try and get back to U.S. lines in May 1945. His widow confirmed to The Palm Beach Post in April that he enjoyed a 68-year marriage, had a long career in various industries and died at 95 in Madison, Wisconsin.
‘Our Last Mission’
At some point, Dad Mac started monitoring Japanese radio broadcasts, which also were giving out information on POWs.
By 1947, Dad Mac was living in Los Angeles. There, he met up with Louis Zamperini. Dad Mac got Zamperini together with three other Southern California former POWs to form the “Our Last Mission” support group.
The name might sound familiar. Zamperini is the hero of “Unbroken,” the book — and later the movie — that details his time as an Olympic track star in California before going to war, being shot down, drifting 1,700 miles in a life raft and spending two years in a POW camp in Japan.
Dad Mac said he believed it was he who’d first relayed to Zamperini’s family that he was alive and a POW. The publicist for Laura Hillebrand, author of “Unbroken,” said in 2014 that many people heard the broadcast and alerted the Zamperinis. A publicist for Zamperini told The Palm Beach Post in June 2014 that Zamperini would not respond to an inquiry. He died the following month.
At some point, Dad Mac wanted to assemble an album of all the photos he’d collected. Family members have told The Post that, as far as they know, that never happened, and it’s believed the photos are scattered or no longer in the possession of the family. A 2014 search of the Internet showed some of them for sale on online auctions.
Databases indicate Pennsylvania native James Leerer MacMannis died April 1, 1979, at age 84 in Pasadena, Texas, near Houston.