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Martin Sheridan, 89; Survivor of Nightclub Fire Became War Reporter

Times Staff Writer

Martin Sheridan, whose survival in a massive Boston nightclub fire in 1942 made him unfit for duty but inspired him to become a frontline news correspondent in World War II, has died. He was 89.

Sheridan, who covered the war for the Boston Globe, died Dec. 31 of kidney failure in New London, Conn.

The posh Cocoanut Grove nightclub near Boston’s theater district was jammed with about 1,000 people -- more than twice its legal capacity of 460 -- when a match struck for illumination possibly triggered the historic 12-minute fire that took the lives of 492 people nearly 62 years ago.

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Sheridan, then a freelance writer and public relations man, was at the club with cowboy star Buck Jones, whom he had shepherded through Boston on a war bonds tour. Sheridan’s first wife, Constance Misslin, was with him. Both she and Jones died.

The couple and the cowboy tried to flee, but collapsed on the floor from inhaling toxic fumes and smoke. Sheridan, like his wife, was listed among the dead.

“I could hear people moaning, the sound of breaking glass, the sound of water running,” he told the Boston Herald on the 60th anniversary of the blaze in 2002. “I was shaking. I lay there ... then someone half-dragged and half-walked me out.”

“I felt somebody pull me to my feet and put me in a cab outside,” he had told another newspaper on the 50th anniversary of the fire he was always reluctant to discuss. “When the driver asked me where I wanted to go, I said ‘Mass General.’ Fortunately, I knew they had a burn unit because I’d done a story about it.”

He was discovered -- and taken off the death list -- recuperating at Massachusetts General Hospital. Sheridan spent 58 days in the hospital and another four months receiving skin grafts for burns on his hands. Over the years, he donated blood regularly until he had repaid the amount given him in massive transfusions.

Sheridan’s burn injuries made him physically ineligible to enlist in the Coast Guard, as he had planned, during the year-old war. But he hired on at the Globe as a war correspondent. Surviving the fire, he said, had made him fearless of death.

“I went out there as a fatalist,” he told Associated Press in 1987. “If you were going to get hit, you were going to get hit.”

One of the first reporters who enlisted as a noncombatant with the Army, he reported on Pacific conflicts for the New York Times and the North American Newspaper Alliance as well as the Globe.

The reporter was aboard the amphibious transport Fremont in 1944 when a young sailor asked if he was Marty Sheridan. He said yes. “I’m the guy who pulled you out of the Cocoanut Grove fire,” replied the sailor, Howard Sotherden.

“I was stunned beyond description,” Sheridan wrote in a dispatch published on Page 1 of the Boston Globe on Oct. 13, 1944. “Here in the Pacific I have suddenly found the man who saved my life.”

Sheridan hit beaches with troops and became the only reporter on a B-29 bombing raid on Tokyo in March 1945, adding his own beer bottle to the bomb load.

Also the first civilian reporter on a submarine at war, Sheridan spent 38 days on the maiden patrol of the Bullhead. After he had debarked, the Bullhead became the last U.S. ship lost in World War II on Aug. 6, 1945. The ship and its 84-man crew sank to the bottom of the Java Sea, purportedly after a Japanese plane bombed the sub as it surfaced.

In 1947, Sheridan wrote a book about the sinking, “Overdue and Presumed Lost.”

Born in Providence, R.I., Sheridan studied at the College of William and Mary and Rhode Island State College. He spent the decade before 1942 writing for various publications, including the Boston American, and handling public relations.

In 1936, he worked as assistant to Russ Westover, who drew the “Tillie the Toiler” comic strip. That experience led to Sheridan’s first book in 1942, “Comics and Their Creators.”

After the war, Sheridan contributed several articles to magazines and newspapers, particularly travel articles. But he devoted the rest of his career to public relations, working successively for Carl Byoir and Associates in New York, Admiral Corp. in Chicago and the National Electronic Distributors Assn. in nearby Park Ridge, and then retiring from the New England Council in 1986.

Widowed a second time when his wife, Margaret Ann Cooke, died of cancer in 1981, Sheridan is survived by his wife, Shirley; two daughters; four stepchildren; two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

A service is planned for Friday in New London at the Coast Guard Chapel.


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