[Martha (Julia’s mother) and John L. McCrea on their wedding day]

As John’s attentions to my mother continued, I found it difficult not to be disarmed by his obvious enthusiasm for her. (I should note here that I refer to the Admiral as “John,” a privilege that was accorded me sometime later. At the time, like most others, especially the young, I called him “Admiral.”)

The widow Tobey, like her daughter, did not initially embrace the possibility of her remarriage. John, the boy two doors down the street, tackled this obstacle with what I now know to be his usual resourcefulness and determination. He was a gentleman of the old school, who opened doors and pulled out chairs for ladies. As would be expected, he wined and dined her and brought her flowers. Sometimes he brought spectacular dahlias he had grown himself in his backyard. Mother, an enthusiastic gardener, particularly appreciated these homegrown offerings.

But his attentions went considerably further. John was then a vice president of public relations for John Hancock Life Insurance Company, and he traveled frequently to give speeches for the company. From wherever he might be traveling, he always called her regularly, or wrote, if she was not reachable by phone. He sometimes brought her little presents from his travels. One that I still have is a small china box with the inscription “You are witty and pretty.” Inside is a tiny newspaper clipping from a 4-line column entitled Thought For Today. It reads: “Robert Burns said, ‘But to love her, love but her, and love forever.’” But most important, John repeatedly told Mother—and my older brother and me—what a wonderful person she was. The unabashed expression of such sentiments was a novelty in our tight-lipped New England household.

Any lingering misgivings about the marriage, if I had any, were quashed by John’s gesture after Mother consented to marry him. In celebration, he had a little metal plaque made up. It read, “On this spot she said ‘Yes,’” and gave the date. He would take it out every now and then, plunk it down on the actual site—the library sofa—and tell us how lucky he was that she had agreed to marry him. How could anyone resist a man who behaved like that? The plaque suggested the commemoration of military battles won, and perhaps it was meant that way. John once quipped to a friend that it been almost as hard to win the hand of Mrs. Tobey as it was to win the Second World War.

This blog consists of my thoughts, memories, and musings about John McCrea, a remarkable man who led an extraordinarily interesting life. It is based on my experience of the man as his stepdaughter for 25 years and on my work editing his memoirs. The blog supplements but does not duplicate the material in Captain McCrea’s War, available beginning November 15 on Skyhorse Publishing.

The Bribe


(pictured from l-r: brother Phil, Judy, mother Martha, stepdad John McCrea on wedding day January 1965)

I did not welcome John McCrea when he appeared on our doorstep to court my widowed mother. At the time I was a college freshman with a strong independent streak. I adored my father, who had died when I was eleven, and as far as I can recall, this was the first man who seemed interested in taking my father’s place. In retrospect, this seems odd since my mother Martha was a very attractive woman, but that is what I remember.  In any case, John at age 71 was an imposing figure. He stood tall and erect, with a full head of white hair, a booming voice, and an air of command that I found vaguely threatening.

Then there was the matter of his being an admiral. I knew no one who had made the military a career. My father had volunteered to serve in the army during the First World War, but that was different. I was a left-leaning flower child, who believed in love, not war. I quickly decided that this admiral could not possibly understand or appreciate the sensitive values of a young person like myself, and I kept a cautious distance.

This was the state of affairs when I first experienced the force of John’s disarmament techniques. In those days, I was into folk music, and I sang and played the guitar. One day, John arrived with a present for me. I knew that I had not been particularly warm to him, and I suspected that this offering was a bribe. As I opened the package, I wondered what sort of inappropriate thing he could have gotten to soften me up. I was amazed to find an album of folk music filled with unusual songs by true folk masters—nothing ordinary or commercial. I was simultaneously thrilled and filled with guilt about my behavior. To this day I don’t know how he managed to pick out such a perfect present for me, but for the first time I sensed that this admiral might have a lot more on the ball than I had given him credit for.