by James Breig
When John A. La Barbera, a parishioner of Our Lady of Sorrows Church, Corona, went overseas during World War II, he took with him his Catholic faith and fond memories of his buddies, most of whom were also in uniform and scattered around the world.
One of their number, however, remained at home because he was rejected by the draft board. Instead of serving in the military, Robert Ebersold acted as a conduit of news for the others. He lived down 37th Ave. from Our Lady of Sorrows.
La Barbera, who signed his letters “Jackie,” held on to his faith and his friends as sure anchors in a world of roiling conflict. The proof of that lies in 45 letters he sent to Bob. In them, Jackie often expressed his deep belief in God and his affection for his friends back home.
Jackie entered the service on July 22, 1942, when he was 19, and would end up halfway around the world from his hometown. Within just a few months, he was in Hawaii, awaiting transport of his unit to the South Pacific. That happened in March 1943.
“I can’t tell you where I am,” he wrote Bob, citing wartime censorship, “but…I am south of the equator and west of the international dateline.”
In fact, Jackie was on Guadalcanal, which American forces had just taken from the Japanese in one of the nation’s first Pacific victories. Once in a war zone, La Barbera grew more and more dependent on his faith to get him through.
Although a member of a bomb squadron, the Corona man was not in imminent danger. He joked that “I wouldn’t know the bomb sight from Adam.” His role was behind the scenes in a communications office. Nevertheless, anyone in the military was putting his life on the line because of where he was and the uncertainty of what might happen. The South Pacific also held dangers of its own in malaria and other tropical diseases.
Despite those precarious circumstances, Jackie could focus on a change in Bob’s life. His friend had fallen in love and was thinking of proposing. As La Barbera tended to his assignments on the island, pitched in to build a permanent camp, and couldn’t sleep because “it is too hot and we are too tired,” he made time to pray for Bob.
“I have been praying for your intention,” Jackie wrote, “and it would make me very happy if she says yes…I wish you and her all the luck, success and happiness in the world. All I hope is that you wait until I get back…before you get married.”
The feeling that God was closely involved in their lives was reflected in Bob’s letters, too, because Jackie thanked him “for saying a Mass for me. I have not been to Mass in about a month. We have no R.C. chaplain. I wish we did because I would like very much to go to Mass. The last Mass I attended was the morning we left Hawaii.”
He recognized that being in danger tended to concentrate one’s thoughts on the Deity.
“Down here,” he told Bob, “soldiers turn Christian overnight and prayers are what we need most.”
There was another constant theme in Jackie’s letters: baseball. He longed for clippings from newspapers about his favorite team, the Yankees, and he took part in pick-up softball games on Guadalcanal. As the major league season unspooled, he begged Bob for detailed information and hoped “it turns out good for the Giants and Yankees.” The former was Bob’s favorite club.
In July 1943, Jackie made a special request to his friend: “I wish you would pray for a certain intention of mine. All us boys down here are praying so that we may be relieved in time to get home for Christmas…So please say a little prayer for that.”
That prayer would not be answered, but Jackie took some solace from the World Series. The Yankees beat the Cardinals in five games, something he had not expected. As he had told Bob before the fall classic began, “I would be a very happy young man if my Yanks can beat those speed demons.”
Before the end of 1943, Jackie was again on the move, this time to the Solomon Islands. Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, Bob was making a unique contribution to the war effort by writing for The Serviceman’s Tablet, a newsletter sponsored by Our Lady of Sorrows to keep in touch with parishioners in the armed forces. They numbered as many as 5,000 men, a figure that astonished Jackie.
“It is one swell paper,” he enthused in a letter to Bob, “and I enjoyed every word of it and so did the boys down here who read it. As far as I know, our parish is the only one that is doing anything like that.”
As 1944 began, La Barbera did something he hadn’t done in a long while because his unit finally got a Catholic chaplain. “I served Mass again last Sunday,” he told Bob. Although he admitted to being “rusty” on his Latin, Jackie added that “I guess I may still keep on serving every Sunday…I like it because it brings me even closer to Our Blessed Lord and the Blessed Sacrament.”
As the year ran on, La Barbera was shipped to the Admiralty Islands and then to New Guinea. At the former site, he experienced a religious ritual he had missed. “Sunday before last,” he wrote, “we had Benediction for the first time in a very long time, and as usual it did things to me.”
And so it would go for Jackie: stories of playing baseball in the South Pacific and following the Yankees from afar, hopes for a quick end to the war, sorrow over the loss of people he and Bob knew back home and firm expressions of faith.
In a letter written in October 1944 from the Netherlands East Indies, La Barbera noted that a mutual friend had been killed in France. He commented, “This war is getting closer to home all the time.” He then closed with “That’s all for tonight…Vaya con Dios. Your pal, Jackie.”
Jackie made it home. He died in Flushing in 1996, when he was 73. Was he in time for Bob’s wedding? Did he continue to play baseball? Did he have a family? What happened to Bob? The memories of people who were in Our Lady of Sorrows parish during World War II could fill in some of those blanks.
James Breig, a veteran Catholic journalist, is the author of “Searching for Sgt. Bailey: Saluting an Ordinary Soldier of World War II.” The book is based on letters he found that were sent by a soldier in New Guinea to his mother. In his research, he also came across John A. La Barbera’s mail. Breig’s book can be purchased at www.amazon.com.