Wednesday, July 18, 2007

James J. Sheeran, the former insurance commissioner of New Jersey, mayor of West Orange, N.J., and a decorated hero of World War II, died July 16 at his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 84.

He was the father of Josette Sheeran, the director of the U.N. World Food Program in Rome, a former undersecretary of state and one-time managing editor of The Washington Times.

As a 21-year-old trooper of the 101st Airborne Division, Mr. Sheeran parachuted into Sainte-Mere-Eglise early on D-Day June 6, 1944 and some of the most ferocious fighting of World War II. He was captured several hours later among the Normandy hedgerows and put onto a prison train bound for Germany. He orchestrated an escape from the train and headed for what he thought was the Swiss border but actually was well within France.

He joined a patrol of the French Resistance and fought alongside the Maquis. He was hidden for a month by a French family in the village of Domremy, the birthplace of Joan of Arc, where his father, an American soldier in World War I, had met the French girl who would become Mr. Sheeran’s mother.

Mr. Sheeran managed to rejoin U.S. forces and was sent to England for reassignment to the United States. But once there, he talked his way back into his unit after learning that it was about to embark to the Netherlands for Operation Market Garden, a doomed attempt to drive quickly to Berlin to end the war in 1944, commemorated in the book and movie “A Bridge Too Far.” He was severely wounded in the Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne, a small town in Belgium, on Christmas 1944. He received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart and spent several months in a military hospital.

Mr. Sheeran”s extraordinary service during World War II was recognized by France in January, when Ambassador Jean-David Levitte pinned the Chevalier of the Order of the Legion of Honor France’s highest decoration on Mr. Sheeran”s lapel at a dinner in his honor at the ambassador”s residence in Washington.

“I pay tribute on behalf of France to a great American patriot and to a son of France,” the ambassador said. His exploits, he said, represent “an extraordinary story that is much better than a Steven Spielberg movie.”

Mr. Sheeran was born in Passaic, N.J., and grew up in West Orange, where he quarterbacked the West Orange High School football team to the state championship in 1941. He enlisted soon after Pearl Harbor. After the war, Mr. Sheeran attended law school and served two terms as mayor of West Orange, the city”s youngest mayor at the age of 35 when he was first elected. He became a special agent of the FBI and was appointed insurance commissioner of New Jersey in 1974. After serving two terms, Mr. Sheeran practiced law and co-founded with his wife, Lena Chang, two insurance companies, NJ Cure and NJ Pure.

Mr. Sheeran is survived by his wife, and children from an earlier marriage to Sarah Gallagher; a son, James Sheeran Jr. of Brielle, N.J.; three other daughters, Victoria Yokota of Yardley, Pa., Jaime Maniatis of Morrisville, Pa., and Kimberly Zoller of Boulder, Colo.; a stepson, Eric Poe of Hopewell, N.J., and a stepdaughter, Audrey Knox of Princeton.

A wake will be held at the Quinn Hopping Funeral Home in Livingston, N.J., at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. today, and a funeral Mass will be said at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow at St. Paul”s Roman Catholic Church in Princeton.

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