Sargent Shriver’s Century of Service

Sargent Shriver during World War II (Photo credit: VF)

14 November 1942, 11:30 p.m.

Amid the din of screaming shells and blasting artillery, Lt. Sargent Shriver’s headphones fell silent as blackness swallowed the battleship. He ordered his men in the forward starboard gun turrets to cease fire.

Plunged into darkness by a loss of electrical power, the USS South Dakota drifted, blind, for what felt like eons. No searchlights, no radar, no radio.

The burning hulks of Japanese ships blazed in the distance. After a few agonizing, elongated moments, the seamen’s eyes adjusted to the feeble light shed by the crescent moon, but they still could not make out any of the closer vessels — not the battleship and four destroyers in the column ahead of them, nor the enemy.

Suddenly, Shriver’s headphones crackled to life and the searchlights flashed on a ship ahead. The Dakota opened fire for a second, then quit when they realized they were shooting at one of their own destroyers.

Fortunately, the gunners missed the USS Gwin, but they inadvertently damaged their own vessel: “the muzzle flash from the battleship’s great guns ignited fuel vapors around… two scout planes,” blasting them into the sea and setting several fires on deck.

Up ahead, the column engaged the enemy. The Dakota exchanged fire with the Japanese. Torrents of bullets raked the decks as torpedo strikes repeatedly rocked the battleship’s hull.

Suddenly, the Dakota overtook the remnants of its four-destroyer escort. The Gwin and one other vessel were disabled, but the wreckage of the other two had already begun to slip under the waves.

“We were going close to 30 knots,” Shriver remembered, “The destroyers were sinking, and hundreds of the sailors on those ships were in the water. I was up on the deck and I could see our guys in the water and we cut right through them. We must have killed hundreds of American sailors who were serving on those destroyers.” The “force from” the “four huge propellers on the stern sufficient to propel this 45,000-ton thing… killed scores of them.”

More torpedoes pummeled the Dakota’s hull.

Strafing fire kept cutting down sailors.

Artillery rained down. Explosions erupted around the deck.

Electrical fires sprang up around Shriver and his men as they systematically shot out Japanese searchlights.

Nevertheless, the enemy bombardment continued unabated.

“The sight was terrifying,” Shriver recalled. “Screaming projectiles, each weighing a half a ton or more, flew flat and red across the sky, trailing flaming tails of fire. Shells flew in both directions by the dozens. Projectiles as long as a living-room sofa hurtled across the deck, landing with explosive impact.”

A few hundred feet across the deck, Shriver saw a shell come “through and chop” a fellow officer “right up to the waist. It severed his body off: his pants, and legs and shoes all stayed there, while the top half of his body was whisked away by the shell.”

Some shells struck but did not detonate — lodged, sizzling in the Dakota’s metalwork.

Other unexploded shells “rolled around the deck,” rumbling “like a pack of out-of-control bowling balls.”

Busted pipes sprayed “hot, hissing steam,” scalding nearby seamen.

Shriver hardly noticed when a shard of shrapnel struck him in the shoulder. “Dozens of my comrades died, some of them not 10 feet away from me. I was goddamned scared, lying flat on the deck, praying to God the night would end with me alive. I didn’t think it would.”

Finally, the Dakota sped out of range. Shriver and the other survivors spent hours putting out fires and carrying the wounded across decks and down stairways slick with gore.

In the morning, they learned that the Allies had won the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

The steep price of the victory haunted Shriver. The admiral, he reflected, “was not worried about whether we rode over some of our own sailors in the water. He didn’t have ten seconds to think about them. Because he focused on winning the battle, rather than the fate of the men in the water, we defeated the Japanese that night, and turned the tide of the war. That was the right thing to do. And yet still, when I think of it now, I feel sick.”

Later in the war, Shriver served on submarines, first patrolling the North Atlantic to protect Allied shipping, and later scouting the Japanese coast to prepare for an Allied invasion that Hiroshima and Nagasaki rendered unnecessary.

A devout Catholic, Shriver believed God had spared his life for a reason, and he resolved to devote himself to service as soon as he got the chance.

First, however, he needed to earn a living. Shriver briefly practiced law and worked at Newsweek, but then the millionaire Joseph P. Kennedy hired him to manage the Merchandise Mart, a massive commercial building in Chicago. He dated his boss’s daughter, Eunice, and then married into the Kennedy clan.

Shriver became a community leader in the Windy City, promoting the desegregation of public and parochial schools.

In 1960, he worked for John F. Kennedy’s successful presidential campaign. Once elected, JFK asked his brother-in-law to lead a talent search for his administration. Shriver helped JFK assemble one of the most distinguished Cabinets and ambassador corps in the country’s history.

Next, Kennedy assigned his energetic in-law to launch the Peace Corps, an innovative organization that trains idealistic college graduates to live and work for two years in developing countries to improve education, health care and other services. Shriver made the program a remarkable and much-imitated success.

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson wanted to make Shriver his running mate, but the Kennedy clan refused to allow it, insisting “It’s Bobby’s turn.” Of course, given the visceral mutual contempt between LBJ and Robert Kennedy, putting RFK on the ticket was out of the question.

Instead, LBJ appointed Shriver to run the domestic War on Poverty in addition to the Peace Corps. As the director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, he would have substantial latitude to design programs to help the poor. Johnson and Shriver agreed that the theme of the War on Poverty would be “a hand up, not a handout.”

In 1964, Congress gave Shriver a larger budget than he expected — $1 billion. He knew that he needed to spend it all and have something to show for it if he hoped to qualify for comparable budgets going forward, so he resolved to spend most of the money launching Head Start, a preschool program for low-income kids. Experts warned him that he would not be able to launch a large educational program so quickly, that he could hope to serve no more than 10,000 students in Year One. Shriver ignored them, spent the whole budget and managed to serve 500,000 students that first year. The program yielded strong and measurable educational benefits and qualified for expansion in subsequent years.

Not all of Shriver’s antipoverty programs succeeded so splendidly. The Community Action Program proved both ill-advised and ill-fated. Despite a few notable successes like George Foreman, the Job Corps produced limited gains with a difficult population. Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a domestic Peace Corps, struggled to replicate the successes of its international inspiration.

Shriver began to burn out. In 1966, he resigned as director of the Peace Corps to devote himself exclusively to the War on Poverty. However, as Vietnam and race riots ramped up, a conservative backlash combined with a poisonous counterculture to crush LBJ and constrain his political agenda, including his antipoverty programs.

In the spring of 1968, Johnson saved Shriver by making him the US Ambassador to France. This was no vacation, however. In his diplomatic role, he helped mend America’s strained relationship with Charles de Gaulle, and assisted with the Paris Peace talks that would have ended the Vietnam War in 1968 had it not been for interference from the Nixon campaign.

After LBJ left office, Shriver returned to the US, dividing his time between Special Olympics — a charity his wife founded — and Democratic politics. In 1972, he became George McGovern’s emergency running mate after Thomas Eagleton had to drop out. Shriver proved an effective campaigner, but no running mate could have given McGovern a chance against Nixon that year.

He failed to gain any traction when he ran for president in 1976. Shriver spent the rest of his life practicing law and dabbling in business while devoting most of his energies to the Special Olympics.

In 1993, President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Shriver would have turned 100 today. His keen mind faded into the fog of Alzheimer's a few years ago, and he died in 2011. Still, Shriver’s spirit of service lives on in the US Navy, in the Catholic Church, in integrated schools, in the Peace Corps, in Head Start, in the Special Olympics, and in all of us when we put others before ourselves.

All quotations are from Scott Stossel, Sarge: The Life & Times of Sargent Shriver (2004).

History, politics, education, music, culture. Award-winning high school teacher, former principal. College instructor. Seahawks Diehard. Twitter: @brian_mrbmkz

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