Family Donates Patriarch’s CG Uniform Worn During WWII at Watch Tower 23

SUNSET BEACH – Bernadette Gaffney, 95, freshly coiffed and excited about the occasion, presented her husband Joe’s World War II Coast Guard uniform to representatives of Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities, Inc. (MAC) in a ceremony at Fire Control Tower No. 23 by the Eternal Flame sculpture Oct. 7.

The watch tower overlooks Delaware Bay and out to the Atlantic Ocean. The service rendered by many during the tense times of World War II is immortalized in a plaque that “all gave some, some gave all.”

Joe Gaffney Sr. was born in 1922 in North Philadelphia and joined the Coast Guard as a yeoman in the radio room keeping vigil in Fire Control Tower No. 23 from 1942-45. Gaffney also served in the Army and after completing active military duty service worked for the Department of the Navy at Philadelphia Naval Yard as a mechanical engineer on submarines, as well as ensuring quality controls for military procurement contractors.

“My father always hammered home that his job was to ensure everyone’s safety and that of our country through his work,” reflected Joe Gaffney Jr.

Four generations of the Gaffney family, from Bernadette to great-granddaughter, 6-year-old Maddy, and children and grandson attended the donation ceremony. All family members were, in the words of Gaffney, “very service-oriented, continuing Joe’s exceptional patriotism. None of us ever miss a chance to buy a veteran’s poppy.”

The younger Gaffney took his father’s message to heart by serving in VISTA in the early 1970s in Conway, S.C. as a community organizer.

Gaffney Sr. grew up in North Philadelphia and met Bernadette through her cousin who lived on the same block as his parents, and cemented their relationship as roller-skating teens.

After the war, the family eventually moved to the Mayfair section of Philadelphia where their children grew up and thrived. Bernadette and Joe moved to West Cape May’s Fourth Avenue where they lived for many years in a 120-year-old house until her husband’s death in 1997.

Gaffney remembered his father recounting stories about witnessing German subs in the water and then them landing on shore. Despite the high drama and potential threat of these incursions by possible saboteurs, the elder Gaffney became friendly with a German officer who commanded those subs, but who was not supportive of Hitler’s policies or threat to the U.S.

“My dad and this German officer frequently went out for a drink together,” said Gaffney. “Usually with Mr. Braca of the family who ran many of Sea Isle City’s commercial operations including the newspaper, movie theater and several restaurants.”

Despite (or maybe because of) this friendship, Gaffney said, “I clearly remember my father always admonishing us no matter what the occasion that ‘loose lips sink ships,’ and I never fully understood what this meant or why he said it so often until much later in my life.”

Gaffney’s Coast Guard uniform will be displayed along with other World War II-era uniforms, memorabilia, equipment and photos at the watch tower.

“It is fitting and truly an honor,” said Dr. Robert Heinly, MAC director of museum education, “to accept this highly-significant piece of history and we will treasure Joe’s uniform as part of our local legacy to combat the enemy during World War II.”

To contact Camille Sailer, email