TOWNSEND — Ash Street resident Jim Deignan, 87, clearly remembers the day he shook hands with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“I was 12 years old,” he said. “A seventh-grader in the Highland section of Lowell. They let out school so we could go down and watch him come through.”
It was Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign, while he was making a tour of New England. Arriving early along the anticipated route, Deignan claimed a plum spot at the curb, then patiently awaited the arrival of the candidate’s open Buick touring car.
“When his car got in front of me, it stopped,” he recalled. “I stepped off the curb and I said to him, ‘I want to shake your hand, Mr. President.'”
It was a bold move. Roosevelt promptly replied that he was not the president, as he hadn’t been elected yet. Deignan confidently told him he would be.
It was an opinion expressed many times in his politically-oriented family. His father was an active member of the Democratic Party, and would later serve four years as a city councilor in Lowell.
Roosevelt, though possibly taken aback, chatted with the young man for a few minutes before moving on. Deignan then ran home to tell his father that he’d shaken the hand of the future president.
Years later, during his show business career singing in nightclubs and theaters, the Townsend native’s path again crossed that of a president. In fact, it crossed that of two more presidents.
In 1948, while waiting on the platform for a train to bring him to a singing gig in Providence, R.I., Deignan unexpectedly met Harry S Truman.
“While I’m standing there, his train backed in and he walked out onto the rear deck,” he said. “I chatted with him awhile until a crowd gathered.”
And then in 1954, during a political rally at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium, he spoke with John F. Kennedy, who was then campaigning for the Senate.
“It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him that one day he was going to be president,” he said. “But I didn’t do it.”
Deignan said he inherited his singing voice from his father, who was a vaudevillian. “I started singing as a boy soprano,” he said. “And then when I went into high school my voice changed and I became a tenor. I worked some theater dates at the Keith House in Boston.”
When he turned 21, he went to work in nightclubs and casinos. That was when he was drafted, but a hernia he’d had since boyhood kept him from serving.
All that changed on Dec. 7, 1941, when, during a concert by the Trapp Family Singers, he learned that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. He was determined to serve his country.
“My father was a veteran and my uncles were all veterans, so when I got home I said to my father ‘Hey, get me in the hospital and have me operated on for this hernia,'” Deignan recalled. “I wasn’t going to let the kids I grew up with fight the war for me. I was going to be there.”
On Aug. 26, 1942, he boarded a bus for Fort Devens, spent 90 days in basic training at Camp McCoy, Wis., and was assigned to a Topographical Engineering Battalion. It was his work as a topographical engineer that would land him in the middle of the D-Day invasion.
In preparation for D-Day, the United States Army had conducted a disastrous full-scale training exercise in April off the English coast, code-named “Exercise Tiger,” in which 749 lives were lost. After the incident, Deignan received new orders — to replace one of four fallen combat engineers. He arrived at the staging center in Plymouth, England, to see bodies from “Exercise Tiger” washing up on the beach.
After his unit had gathered with a Catholic chaplain, he shipped out to make the Normandy landing on the morning of June 6, 1944.
Deignan was 24 years old.
“There were so many ships,” he said. “And they were so close that it looked like you could step from one ship to the other.”
He remembers the sudden roar of the guns from American battleships pounding the German positions above Utah Beach just before dawn.
“There were three tiers of guns on the ships,” he said. “I think they were 15 inchers. And it was something else. As soon as one tier fired the others fired, and they shelled the hell out of that beach.”
Strangely, he said he wasn’t afraid. A cousin had sent him a rosary she’d made and he carried it with him throughout the war. Right before hitting the beach, he reached into his pocket and fingered the rosary.
“Father, it’s in your hands,” he prayed. “Whatever happens is in your hands.”
Deignan said not a single man from his unit was lost that day.
For heroism during combat, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre (the Cross of War) by the French government.
“The thing that always stands out with me,” Deignan said while showing the treasured military decoration with its red, white and blue ribbon — the colors of the French flag — “is that it’s not just the people who actually see hand-to-hand action who are heroes.”
“Everybody that puts on a uniform is a hero,” he said. “Not only that, but we used to have a saying in the Second World War: ‘They are also heroes who stand and wait.’ The mothers, fathers, sisters, relatives and friends, who stand and wait.”