Jack Purcell entered the US Navy in March 1942. He served as a communication officer on a Navy LST in the South Pacific and left the military in March 1946.
The Final Story
John E. Purcell was everywhere. His orchestra, the Jack Purcell Orchestra, performed at nearly all of the society galas and venues in Pittsburgh — country clubs, balls, you name it. The trombonist and bandleader played for Sen. H. John Heinz III, Jackie Gleason, the Mellons and the Hillmans. He was even friends with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, despite their differing political views.
In a Post-Gazette video from 2012, Mr. Purcell said he played at the Stanley Theatre before it was the Benedum, on AM radio before there was FM, at the Penn Theater before it became Heinz Hall, and at the Nixons both old and new.
When you have a 70-year-long career, you make your mark.
“He was always called the Lester Lanin of Pittsburgh,” said his son, Rick Purcell of Pittsburgh.
Mr. Purcell died Friday at the age of 94. At the time of his death, he was living in Mt. Lebanon.
Jack Purcell told a great story at our breakfast the other day, one with no moral nor even a point. It’s a story that just makes you laugh and shake your head.
Jack was a well-known musician and orchestra leader (The Jack Purcell Orchestra) who played gigs all over the country with some of the nation’s finest talent. He was also a Navy officer during WWII, where he initially played first trombone for the Navy band in Washington, DC. Why the Navy suddenly and inexplicably changed his orders to operational sea duty in the Pacific, he’ll never know.
Before shipping out for combat duty, Jack was assigned to one of the most famous yachts in history, the Zaca. The 118′ Zaca had been built in 1929 especially for railroad magnate Templeton Crocker, who sailed it around the South Pacific during the 1930s. After Pearl Harbor, the Navy requisitioned it, painted it gray, fitted it with machine guns, and used it as a radio ship off the coast of San Francisco to track Japanese ship movements.
One day, while serving as officer of the deck on sea patrol, Jack spotted a green ball about the size of a beachball floating in the rough surf. He turned to the helmsman. “Head for that ball and pick it up with the net!” he ordered.
Sailors had enjoyed catching these unusual glass balls for sport. They were net floats used by Japanese fishermen (presumably off the coast of San Francisco). These hand blown glass floats sometimes escaped the nets and floated out to sea until sharp-eyed sailors spotted them. Jack couldn’t explain why they were so prized. “They were rare,” he said. “You didn’t see many of them. But the rule was, the first man to spot it got it.”
The helmsman of the Zaca took a pass at the green ball. He missed. Jack ordered him to turn around and try again. “Turning around a 118′ schooner isn’t easy,” he said. “It took a quarter mile or so to circle around.” The helmsman tried again, but the waters were choppy. He missed again. “If you miss a third time, I’m jumping in to get it myself!” warned Jack. Sure enough, the helmsman missed and, true to his word, Jack stripped down and jumped. He battled the waves for a hundred yards there and back to get the big green ball. As he was doing so, his commanding officer came topside and peered out into the ocean. “Sailor,” the skipper demanded, “who is that man out there swimming?”
“That’s the officer of the deck, sir,” a sailor responded.
Needless to say, when Jack wrestled the ball out of the water and over the gunwales and presented himself dripping but triumphant, the Zaca‘s captain wasn’t happy.
“Now, let me asked you,” Jack said to our group, “was that brave or stupid?” Most of us agreed it was stupid. “Just to prove that I really did it, I present to you the green float.”
Out of a large shopping bag emerged a gorgeous green glass ball, which Jack held in triumph over his head. He had just run across it in his attic the other day. He didn’t know he still owned it, and the sight of it brought back the memory.
What happened to the Zaca? After the war, the actor Errol Flynn bought it and sailed it around the world before his death in 1959. It then languished, stripped of everything valuable, in a French harbor. Sounds of wild cocktail parties emanated from it at night, leading Anglican and Catholic priests to conduct an exorcism in 1979. Some years ago, a yacht enthusiast bought it, restored it to its former glory, and it now sails once again in the Mediterranean.
For more on Japanese net floats: http://japanese-glass-floats.blogspot.com/