James M. Shannon's positive spirit withstood the sinking of his Navy ship during World War II -- though his injuries derailed a budding athletic career -- and his courage taught his family that no challenge was too great to overcome.
"If you could drift in the middle of the ocean for hours waiting to be rescued," Lorraine Szypula said of her grandfather, "I could do anything. At least I could try to do anything."
Shannon, a longtime Lynbrook resident, died on June 21 of pulmonary fibrosis. He was 89.
Shannon was one of 32 crew members out of 103 who survived the sinking of the minesweeper USS Skill after it was torpedoed by a U-boat off the coast of Italy on Sept. 25, 1943.
"To us, he just said, 'My ship was blown up, and I got a fork up my nose,' " Szypula said.
Urging a New Jersey congressman 59 years later to officially recognize the heroism of a crew member who perished, Shannon wrote: "A terrible explosion blew me out of the mess hall onto the deck."
Unable to stand, Shannon said he let himself fall over the side. All his clothes had been blown off, his hands and feet were badly burned, his spine was fractured and one foot was attached only by ligaments.
"I reached to get the oil off my face only to find that my nose was hanging off," he wrote.
In 1995, a fellow survivor wrote to Shannon, recounting Shannon's painful rehabilitation.
"I remember the agony of a former star athlete contemplating the possible loss of a foot every time you were wheeled into the operating room for still another operation," the former shipmate, Frank Lombardo, wrote.
Despite the hardship, humor defined the Purple Heart recipient, an Elmhurst, Queens, native. Grandchildren of the former mechanic and watch repairman recall him pulling pranks like inserting his dentures upside-down and temporarily placing a toddler atop a refrigerator.
In high school, Shannon was an outstanding athlete, especially in baseball. Before the war, the Boston Red Sox chose Shannon for its farm team, according to the family.
After being rescued, he spent nearly two years at St. Albans Naval Hospital in Queens, then married his local sweetheart, Helen M. Loving.
"He walked down the aisle on crutches, which my grandmother said was the first time that he walked," Szypula said.
In addition to his wife, survivors include daughters Tricia Shannon, of Huntington, and Kathleen Szypula and Susan Nicoletti, both of Lynbrook; a son, James Shannon, of Rockville Centre; 13 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Funeral services were held June 26 at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in Lynbrook. Burial was at Good Grounds Cemetery, Hamptons Bay.