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On Sunday, the 3rd of November in 2002, deep-water diver Bob Foster discovered the wreckage of the USS YF-415, a Navy lighter that had sunk on the afternoon of Thursday, 11 May 1944. The YF-415 (YF = Yard Freighter) had been in the process of dumping condemned ammunition, pyrotechnics, and ordnance into deep water just outside Boston Harbor when something went very wrong.

According to survivors of the incident, there was a “Whoosh!” and then flames and explosions.

The YF-415

In not-too-distant waters, headed for the Atlantic on a secret mission to report on weather conditions prior to D-Day, my father’s ship, the USS Zircon (PY-16), caught sight of the YF-415 in trouble. The Zircon‘s official mission would be delayed.

Details regarding what happened aboard the Zircon in the ensuing minutes will probably remain unknown as the principals are no longer around to tell them, and there appear to be a few holes in the witnesses’ testimonies before the court of inquiry. What isn’t in question, however, is that my father and one other sailor, Paul Magera, lowered a motorboat into the cold, foggy Atlantic and went searching for survivors from the YF-415. On their first trip, they returned with eleven men, one of whom was severely burned and would die the next day.

Front Page, Boston Globe, 13 May 1944

Signalman Henry J. O’Toole joined my father and Magera for the next trip out and returned with three more men. A third trip yielded no additional survivors. Subsequently, my father was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for valour, which I believe is the highest award one can receive for valour in a non-combat situation.

Copy of my dad’s citation

These are the basic facts of an incident about which my three brothers and I barely knew a thing growing up. Dad didn’t talk much about his service, and we—no doubt more interested in baseball or hockey or music or girls—didn’t inquire. Or… any inquiries were met with curt, vague answers that likely satisfied us at the time. I recall my mother telling me that Dad had helped to pull men from the ocean during the war, but little beyond that. I recall, too, that my adolescent mind embellished the incident with the menace of sharks.

But that’s where it ended. I never saw his medal, only a bar of ribbons left nonchalantly, unceremoniously in a desk drawer. The only remnants of his naval service that I recall seeing as a kid were that bar of ribbons, a couple of beige “Navy blankets” (as they were referred to around the house), a canvas duffel bag (with “Power” written at the top) and his storage chest that was tucked into the shadows of my parents’ bedroom closet. It wasn’t until he died in 1992 that my brothers and I saw the above letter of citation he’d received from the Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet when my mom showed it to the priest prior to his funeral.

Some years later, once the internet became the internet, and possibly after the YF-415‘s wreckage had been discovered, I received an email from my brother Mike with information about the ship and its demise. I can’t recall now if it was the Northern Atlantic Dive Expeditions’ website or some other shipwreck site, but I didn’t pay it much mind beyond the satisfaction of having learned a few more details about that day.

And then, in 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the incident, I did a web search to see if any newspapers—in Boston perhaps—had published stories about the disaster. I believe I typed in “USS Zircon” + “YF-415” + “John Power.” What came up was a newsletter from NADE with an update on the incident, thanks to first-hand reports by Zircon sailors Isidore “Teddy” Bertone and Anthony Susinno, who had remained close friends after the war. In his telling of what happened that day, Teddy mentioned my father, “Johnny Powers.”

I cannot adequately describe the surreal aspect of someone I’ve never heard of in my life talking about my father.

I contacted Heather Knowles at NADE to let her know that my dad was the Johnny Powers in the newsletter, misspelled name notwithstanding (there’s no S on the end of our name). She sent me a photo that hadn’t made the cut for the newsletter—one I’d never seen before. It was a group photo of the Zircon‘s radiomen and aerographers, and there in the back row, looking like he was about to kick someone’s ass, was my dad.

Lt. McKee and his Radio Gang- Also Areographers and SonarmenBWsm
Three years later—because I am a weird mix of introvert and extrovert— I finally got in touch with Teddy Bertone. But I had let one too many years pass, and I deeply regretted hearing from Teddy that Anthony Susinno died only a month or two earlier. In the fall of 2017, I met Teddy and his family, and it was at that time that it occurred to me that there might be more sailors alive who were on the ship that day.  To this day, I have spoken with two: Clarence Livingstone, who didn’t recall the incident, and Richard Garrison, who reiterated the gruesome details of that day. I’ve also spoken with three other Zircon sailors whose assignments to the Zircon came later. (Clarence, who died in May of 2018, admitted that he wasn’t right after his experiences at Okinawa, where he lost several of his friends. I sent him photos from the Zircon hoping to jog his memory, but nothing clicked. His godson told me recently that he just didn’t want to talk about it.)

Isidore "Teddy" BertoneIsidore “Teddy” Bertone, 16 October 2017, Staten Island, New York

As best as I can recall, Dad never spoke with any Zircon sailors after the war ended, at least not after he and my mother moved from Staten Island (where Mom had grown up and where Dad met her) to Toledo, Ohio, where Dad had grown up. I had never heard the name of John Gigarjian in our household even though he was my dad’s best man. I had seen his photograph, of course, amongst my parents’ wedding photos but never knew his name (which is sort of untrue… it was written as “Gigarten” on my parents’ marriage certificate). Neither do I recall hearing the name Carl Lester Miller, although based on photos, my dad appears to have been his best man.

This “project” remains a work in progress. What began as research into the events of 11 May 1944 has become something bigger. I’m not a military fetishist, nor am I a big believer in the “Greatest Generation” myth. While indeed I’m interested in knowing what happened with regard to the YF-415 incident, my attention has mostly turned towards the men who served aboard the Zircon, and to honouring them for more than just their service.  It is the human element that has caught my fancy. Who were these four hundred or so men who came together during a five-year period?

With this blog, I hope to tell some of their stories, as well as more about a yacht named Nakhoda purchased from a millionaire and converted for war duty.

Harold Victor Horn

I’ve been a little remiss in getting this post together as Harold died two years ago today. I actually began writing it shortly after he died, but I knew that Teddy Bertone would feel heartsick to read about the death of yet another of his shipmates—he was already feeling blue at the time knowing that there were so few still alive. So I held off and held off and held off, thinking that the first anniversary of his death would be a good time to post. But then, the day before that anniversary, Teddy died. It was a bit much.

Because of Harold’s failing health in the last couple of years, I never got to talk to him, although I’d exchanged numerous texts with one of his daughters, Fawn, and spoke once with his wife, Jean. Fawn told me that she had begun to record conversations with him about his naval service, and because my dad said so little about his time in the Navy, I encouraged her to keep at it.

Side-by-side diptych of photographs of Harold Horn, taken in 1944 and 2018.
Harold Victor Horn, circa October 1944 and 2018

One interesting thing about Harold is that while he was born in Milltown, Delaware, he grew up in Wilmington, a little over three miles from where the Zircon was built—as a yacht for Frederick J. Fisher by Pusey & Jones—when Harold was three years old.

Harold’s Draft Registration Card

He enlisted just prior to turning 18, on 10 May 1944, the day before the YF-415 disaster, and coincidentally, sixteen years to the day before Fawn was born. In 1950, he married Jean, and they raised their four daughters—Fawn, Nancy, Kimberly, and Gail—not far from his childhood home.

After I contacted Fawn, and she and Nancy joined the Zircon Facebook group, and they shared how Harold treasured his time in the Navy, but particularly his time aboard the Zircon. The walls of their home are adorned with photos of the Zircon and a framed calligraphic version of the Zircon’s history. His love and pride of service was in such stark contrast to my dad’s tight-lipped attitude about his Navy days. Which is not to say that he neither loved nor was proud of his time in the Navy—I just wouldn’t have known one way or the other. (As I’ve mentioned previously, besides my parents’ wedding photos in which he wore his Navy Blues, there were very few reminders in the house of Dad’s Navy service.)

A Seaman, Second Class (S2c), Harold, was received aboard the Zircon on 1 August 1944 and was transferred to the PC-1087 on 25 January 1945, the same day my dad was transferred to the YMS-75. While it’s highly improbable, I like to think that they walked down the gang plank one last time together.

Diptych of two pages of the Report of Changes from the USS Zircon, noting Harold's arrival on the Zircon and his departure
USS Zircon (PY-16) Reports of Changes from 30 August 1944 and 30 January 1945
Group photos of Zircon sailors, likely all Seaman, taken circa fall of 1944. Harold Horn is in the back row, second from left.
Harold is in the back row, second from left.
Photograph of three sailors taken in a photo studio. Likely taken sometime in 1945 while Harold Horn was serving on the PC-1087. The two other sailors are unknown.
Harold (bottom right), likely with PC-1087 shipmates
History of the USS Zircon, Calligraphy by Deborah C. Adams

One of the texts I’d received from Fawn included a link to an interview she did just a few months before Harold died with retired Army veteran and author Paul Holbert, who regularly writes and video-blogs about veterans affairs. The first eight minutes of the interview is mostly pleasantries, with the discussion about Harold and his service essentially beginning at the 8:20 mark.

Paul Holbert interviews Fawn Victorie Horn Freeman about her father, Harold Victor Horn.

Of all the people I’ve spoken with since beginning this project, Teddy and Harold both seemed to have had a special affection for the USS Zircon.

Here’s a little more about Harold, taken from his obituary:

[Harold] apprenticed with T.T. Weldin & Sons in sheet metal and advanced his skills in the service. When he was discharged from the Navy, Harold finished his training and became a master sheet metal mechanic and contractor. In 1973 he opened Pencader Contractors, specializing in customized fabrication with his nephew, Harry A. Horn. Harold was a “Chevy” guy, loved NASCAR racing, and was a dedicated fan of Dale Earnhardt. In 2004, at the age of 78, he had the opportunity to drive around the Monster Mile track at Dover Downs.

Navy portrait of Harold Victor Horn
Harold Victor Horn

Isidore “Teddy” Bertone

This post is long overdue, but today seems to be a good day to get ‘er done.

A year ago today, Isidore “Teddy” Bertone died at the age of 96.

Diptych of a third or more of the Zircon's crew probably post-baseball game at Riddell's Bay, Bermuda, 1 October 1944, with a detail crop of Teddy Bertone.
Riddell’s Bay, Bermuda, 1 October 1944

It’s probably not an understatement to say that this blog wouldn’t exist without my having known Teddy. His desire to set the record straight about the events that unfolded on 11 May 1944, when the Zircon came to the aid of the exploding, burning, and sinking YF-415, is what really got the ball rolling for me to finding out more about the USS Zircon (PY-16) and every man that set foot on the ship during its five-year commission as a United States Navy vessel.

Group photo of the Zircon's mechanics taken likely late summer of 1944.
Teddy with his fellow mechanics, squatting… second from right

I’ve told this story before, but I guess it’s worth telling again that I never in my life had heard the name Teddy Bertone before 11 May 2014, the 70th anniversary date of the YF-415 disaster. On that day, I thought maybe somewhere—likely the Boston area—a newspaper would have run some kind of historical piece about what happened that tragic day. I had no luck in finding anything in newspapers, but I did manage to come across a newsletter, The Lookout (Winter 2013), published by North Atlantic Dive Expeditions, which had discovered the wreckage of the YF-415 at the bottom of the ocean on 3 November 2002. (NADE’s profile of the wreck is here.)

Photo of Teddy Bertone and Frank DeRupo sitting on the side of the Zircon, possibly in Argentia, Newfoundland, Canada.
Teddy and Frank DeRupo, possibly near Argentia, Newfoundland

In the newsletter, the author, Heather Knowles, mentions having spoken with two of the Zircon sailors, Teddy Bertone and Anthony Susinno, about the incident as they were aboard the Zircon that day, and they had mentioned (gulp!) my dad’s name. I contacted Heather to let her know of my connection and she got me in touch with Teddy’s daughter Lisa, but because I’m a weird blend of introvert/extrovert, that connection sort of stagnated for almost three years. Finally, I arranged to talk with Teddy in the spring of 2017, and scheduled a visit with him in the fall when I was scheduled to be on the East Coast for work.

Photo of Paul Beach, Teddy Bertone, Mario Saponaro, and William Barnett, posing with liquor bottles at a fake bar in a photo studio likely in Coney Island, New York.
Paul Beach, Teddy, Mario Saponaro, William Barnett, likely at Coney Island

Teddy lived with his daughter Nicole in Staten Island, so I arranged with my client to have my flight home depart from Newark, New Jersey, and when my work wrapped up, I took the train from Boston to see him. When we met, we were accompanied by a video team, whom Lisa had contacted. They were interested in doing a short documentary piece about the disaster and this sailors’-reunion-by-proxy.

Teddy Bertone and Otto Boerner in a small boat on a rocky shore in Bermuda
Teddy and Otto Boerner in Bermuda

Teddy and I and Lisa sat at the kitchen table, with photos sprawled in front of us, and at some point, Teddy proudly showed me his dress blues which he’d kept all those years. He was as proud of his service as anyone I’ve ever known, but according to Lisa, it had only been relatively recently that he’d begun to talk about it. It became important to him that the YF-415 story be told accurately. In a way, his wish became my command and I began using every possible resource to track down other living Zircon sailors, in the hope that I’d find someone else who was aboard that fateful day in 1944.

Photo of Otto Boerner, Teddy Bertone and George Humphrey walking on  Queen Street in Hamilton, Bermuda. (Circa 1944)
Otto Boerner, Teddy, George Humphrey on Queen Street, Hamilton, Bermuda

One of my favourite moments in that first meeting with Teddy occurred when I was showing him my parents’ wedding photographs via my tablet. Dad’s best man was one of his shipmates—a man whose name I never knew as a kid because I never bothered to ask what it was. (Or maybe I asked my mom and she couldn’t recall.) Anyway, as I swiped through the photos, I came to one in which Dad appeared with his best man.

“Chick!” exclaimed Teddy.

Photo of the author's father (right) with his best man, John "Chick" Gigarjian, taken at Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Staten Island, New York, 20 January 1945.
John “Chick” Gigarjian and my dad

He was so excited. Which got me excited. He then pulled out a photograph from the wedding of another Zircon sailor, Frank DeRupo, to show me that John “Chick” Gigarjian was also Frank’s best man.

Frank DeRupo Wedding Party… Teddy is second from left.

When I got home from New York, I immediately began searching for other living Zircon sailors who were on the ship that day, and eventually located two. one of whom, Richard Hamilton Garrison, I later hooked up with Teddy for a reunion by phone. I also set up a Facebook group, and as I found more families of Zircon sailors, I invited them to the group. Teddy loved being able to commune with the children and grandchildren of many of the men he served with on the Zircon, regularly contributing comments and photos. He was the lifeblood of the group.

Photo of the author and Teddy Bertone, 16 October 2017 in Teddy's home in Staten Island, New York.
Me and Teddy

I regret that I didn’t talk with Teddy as often as I would have liked. I occasionally sent off emails to Nicole asking various questions about his quotidian life aboard the ship, or if questions specific to the YF-415 incident popped into my head. I had arranged to talk with him on—as it turned out—the day after he died.

I’m getting a little emotional as I write this because I never would have imagined getting to know one of my dad’s World War II shipmates, much less becoming friends with one, and wanting to share with him every little nugget of information I found out about the Zircon or one of the four hundred or so men that came and went during its five-year commission as a naval vessel.

As I mentioned, he was as proud as anyone I’ve known to have served in the U.S. Navy and on the Zircon, his only seaward assignment during the war. And after waiting eighty-years, this Italian immigrant from the town of Castiglione in Sicily was proud, too, to finally become a United States citizen.

Image of the front of Isidore "Teddy " Bertone's Draft Registration Card.
Teddy’s Draft Registration Card

There are many. many questions I never got around to asking Teddy, but a couple occurred to me as I was writing this. The first is, where did the name “Teddy” come from? I asked Lisa and Nicole, who asked Teddy’s brother, Vincent, and no one seems to be quite sure. It possibly had to do with someone having trouble saying Isidore. A Teddy Bear might somehow have been involved as well (What?!?). I wonder if someone mistook “Isidore” for “Theodore” at some point, Teddy being a common nickname for Theodore in those days.

The second was: how did he feel about being at war with his native country Italy? His best friends aboard the ship (Tony Susinno, Frank DeRupo, Mario Saponaro, all of whom were born in New York)—whether by chance or by choice—happened also to be Italian. And, of course, his naval duty was essentially related to the German presence in the Atlantic, but he had to have been torn.

Photo of Isidore "Teddy" Bertone, taken by the author on 16 October 2017 in his home in Staten Island, New York.
Isidore “Teddy” Bertone, 16 October 2017, Staten Island, New York

Teddy, we hardly knew ye.

The Pilot Boat New York, Part II

The path to discoveries often take unexpected turns.

Recently, I did another newspaper archive search for articles about the Zircon’s life after World War II. Specifically, I was looking for somethinganything about the ship after John W. Mecom, Sr. purchased it from the Sandy Hook Pilots Association. It had served for about twenty years in New York Harbor by that time, and was about forty-three years old.

I couldn’t find anything substantive, although in my previous post I wrote about possibly having found it’s post-New York name. (Heavy emphasis on possibly.) I then searched again for anything about the ship when it was still the New York. Of course, trying to search for a ship with that name can be futile—to say the least—when there’s a city and a state by that name and probably thousands of businesses with it in their names.

I did an eBay search for Sandy Hook Pilots Association with the thought that maybe, just maybe someone have a press photograph of the ship for sale. I got lucky a couple of years ago when I purchased a copy of a press photo of the ship taken when it was undergoing the conversion from Navy vessel to pilot boat. So, you never know!

I found nothing on eBay, but somewhere, somehow along the way, I found a reference to the book, Always On Station: The Story of the Sandy Hook Ship Pilots, by Francis J. Duffy After looking to see if Duffy might still be alive (he isn’t), I found that he was associated with the Steamship Historical Society of America (SHSA), whom I contacted to see if perhaps the group happened to have a photo of the New York in its collection. Sure enough it does.

Aimee Bachari, SHSA’s Education Director, let me know that she had two negatives of the ship on hand, but no means in-house by which to scan the them. As a matter of wanting to know exactly what she had (I expected 35mm negatives), I asked her if she wouldn’t mind holding a negative up to a diffused light source and taking a photo of it with her mobile. I half-expected that she’d tell me to take a hike, but a day or two later, I got an email with this photo attached. A big, beautiful 4″ x 5″ negative! And well-exposed to boot!

I took the image into Photoshop, inverted from a negative image to a positive, corrected the perspective a little bit, converted it to black and white, and cropped it to get rid of most of Aimee’s hand. I cropped it again to little more than the ship.

In this form, it’s not great, but it is nonetheless gold.

Yesterday, I contacted a photo lab about a mile from where SHSA’s offices are to see how much it would cost for scans of the negatives (surprisingly not much) and then emailed Aimee to offer to pay for them. I’m even willing to pay additional as a donation. I’ve yet to hear back.

I then set about to determine where the photograph had been taken by opening up Google Maps and scanning the Manhattan and Brooklyn shorelines in 3D mode to see if I could recognize the buildings. They look pretty distinct to me, so I was hopeful. But then, the photograph was taken 29 May 1951, and there’s the possibility that the buildings were no longer there.

I contacted a friend of mine back in Michigan who grew up in New York to see if she might recognize the buildings. As luck would have it, she has an 85-year-old uncle who worked on the New York City waterfront during the 1950s. She sent him the photo and he immediately recognized the Whitehall Building, which is just above the boat in the middle of the 1951 photo.

Via Google Earth, this is the area where the ship was photographed. The Whitehall Building appears to have been having some work done on its façade when the image was recorded as there is black fabric covering the south side of the building.

The waterfront area has change quite a bit as almost all of the docks have been replaced by landfill.

Grand Mutter

After what seems like an eternity of not paying much attention to the Zircon, its crew, its history, and therefore this blog, something recently lit a little bit of a fire underneath me to try to find out what happened to the ship after it was sold to John W. Mecom, Sr. in 1973. So, I did a newspaper search hoping that additions to its collections of newspapers, I’d come across an article about the ship running aground in Corpus Christi in 1988.

I didn’t find anything about that incident, but I discovered an obituary in the 31 August 1986 Galveston Daily News for Bill Curry, whom Mecom had employed as the captain of his yacht.

While Curry died a couple of years before the incident in Corpus Christi, I hope that I might be able to find out from his children (I’ve attempted to contact only one as of yet, with no luck) if they know anything about the ship or have photographs or… something.

I also found this article in the 27 August 1989 Victoria Advocate which, while not about the ship per se, very possibly mentions the name that Mecom gave to to the Nakhoda/Zircon/New York after he purchased it—Grand Mutter.

I haven’t been able to find any other news stories which mention the Grand Mutter, but I’ve sent an email to Mecom’s grandson to see if at least he can confirm that that’s indeed the name that was given to it.

Just as I was about to publish this, I noticed that the latter article above mentions John W. Mecom, Jr. not John W. Mecom, Sr. Possibly it’s a typo or possibly I’m following a dead-end trail.

Edit to add (11 March 2023): After giving this considerable thought, I believe that the Grand Mutter is not the Zircon, but the yacht owned by younger Mecom.

The Method To My Madness (The Madness To My Method?)

When I started this research (should I put that in quotes?), I had no idea what I was getting into, really. I had a bunch of names on documents titled Muster Roll of the Crew and Report of Changes—all which which fell under the category of “muster rolls” on Ancestry—which I soon would transpose to an Excel spreadsheet, not knowing what I would do with the tidbits of information that was on them. Because I have no military experience, it took me a few times of poring over them to figure out that the literal muster rolls were done on a quarterly basis and any changes in personnel between the quarterly reports were recorded on the Report of Changes. So, if I were to try to determine who was on board on any given day, such as 11 May 1944, which was the impetus for this project, I would have to start with the most recent quarterly muster prior to that date, then do the addition and subtraction of sailors noted on the subsequent Reports of Changes. Besides noting the arrival or departure of sailors, a Report of Changes would also denote when a sailor’s rating was changed, if there were passengers aboard for transportation, and occasionally make note of when sailors were absent over leave. In a few instances, sailors’ home addresses were included when they were on sanctioned leave. There were a few cases in which sailors were listed as “stragglers” when (I assume) they failed to return from approved leave.

Quarterly Muster Roll (left) and Report of Changes

In the above image, the muster roll lists who was on the ship on 31 March 1944 (it’s one of three pages from that day) ; the Report of Changes from 11 May 1944 (one of two pages) indicates that seven men were received on board (“Rec.”), four were transferred off (“Tran.”), and four had changes in their ratings (“C.R.”), along with the dates the actions occurred and related notes. When I created my spreadsheet, I pretty much took as much information as was available on all the documents so that I could minimize having to go back to the documents themselves. (I probably should add columns for each time a sailor’s rating changed.) A couple of the columns are designated Dad and YF-415… these help me to identify which sailors served at the same time as my dad, and specifically on 11 May 1944, respectively.

A snippet of my Zircon Excel spreadsheet

As mentioned above, my first goal with this project was to determine which sailors were aboard the Zircon on 11 May 1944 so that I could try to find other sailors other than Teddy Bertone who might be alive. But as I learned more about the ship and its history, and as I learned more about some of the sailors in the news clippings I’d find, I went all in on trying to track down the over four hundred sailors that came and went over the course of the ship’s five-year commission as a Navy vessel.

I pretty much worked my way down the list alphabetically, but if something such as the rescue of the sixteen SS Otho sailors on 8 April 1942 caught my attention, I’d re-order the data to see which sailors were on board that day, and make them the priority. (I have additional, separate tabs for the crews of the Otho and the YF-415 as I’ve also spent gobs of time trying to locate families of those sailors. Shiny objects!

Once I make contact with a sailor or family member, I fill in the row of data boxes with yellow. Light blue means I attempted to contact someone via Facebook; the blue-green means I sent a postcard. Red text indicates an officer. The light pinkish colour is no longer significant (if I recall, it was an indication that I located a sailor’s family); dark blue indicates I’ve spoken with an actual sailor; the dark green are aviation-related sailors from when the Zircon was designated relief flagship for the Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. I’ve not determined exactly what the aviation-related sailors did. I’m not even sure that they actually set foot on the Zircon… I’m kind of under the impression that they were assigned to the ship only on paper. Perhaps the deck logs will clear it up for me when I eventually get them.

Anyway, I keep plugging away at locating the families of Zircon sailors, regardless their length of duty aboard the ship, as there might be photographs or diaries or mementos out there somewhere.

And as if there weren’t enough tangents for me to follow with regard to the Zircon, I started a similar project and blog about the other ship that my dad served on (for almost five months), a mine sweeper, the YMS-75. The shutdown of the National Archives has brought that project to a screeching halt as well, but I hope to dive back to it in the coming year.

The SS Otho

On 3 April 1942, just a few months before my dad would board the Zircon, the merchant ship SS Otho was sunk off the east coast by a torpedo from the German submarine U-754 while en route from Takoradi, Gold Coast (British West Africa) to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The torpedo struck the ship’s starboard side below the stack at the bulkhead between the #3 tank and the engine room, and within fifteen minutes, the ship disappeared into the Atlantic. Most of the fifty-three men aboard the Otho managed to abandon the ship within five minutes in three boats and a raft. At shortly after noon on the 8th, the Zircon picked up that raft and sixteen of the Otho’s survivors. (Ultimately, only twenty-one men survived the attack.)

USS Zircon Deck Log from 8 April 1942
Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Record, Saturday, 11 April 1942, Page 1

The list of men rescued by the Zircon:

John Frank Augustine
Philip Westerly Babcock
Harold Joseph Bohnen
Torsten Carlson
Malin Derrickson
Alric Jackson Edwards
Carl Oscar Hansen
Robert Vincent L’Hommedieu
Edward Thomas Magruder
Acsielo M. Perez
Carl Foch Roberts
James Lee Tigner
Cristobal Velasquez
Parke Milburn Ward
Will Bussey Wiley
Stanley Anthony Zelinski

The Zircon’s deck log has Derrickson’s first name as “Maliu” and newspaper accounts such as the above Wilkes-Barre Record, reported his name as “Marlin.” Based on an Ancestry page and obituaries I’ve found for, I believe, his son and wife, Malin appears to have been his name. I’ve also found Malin used on a couple of sunken ships websites.

I’ve not yet made contact with any of the families of the sixteen survivors, but I found photos at of Torsten Carlson (who died just six months later when the SS Examelia was sunk by U-68 about twenty miles south of the Cape of Good Hope) and James Lee Tigner. Based on Tigner’s 2011 obituary, he and his wife did not have children as they had devoted their lives to missionary work for the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Tigner’s wife, Jayne, was instrumental in having a memorial built in London, Connecticut for those who had lost their lives in the Merchant Marines. I’m still searching for something about that.

Torsten Carlson (left) and James Lee Tigner

I also found a photo of survivor Edward Thomas Magruder with a few family members, including his sisters, Dorothy and Lorraine. Below the photo is the text that accompanies the photo on Ancestry. Employed by Pan American Airway Lines as a plumber, Magruder was a civilian on the Otho when it went down. A couple of years later he joined the Navy. It appears that he had at least two children from his first marriage. He died 2 December 1984.

“Dorothy Magruder (Eddie’s Sister), Eddie holding Glenn, Mom hugging Jean, Buddy in front of Dorothy, and Lainie holding bible. Summer of 1944.”

Since the Otho went down, it’s highly unlikely that many photos exist that might have been taken aboard the ship, although I found this one at dock via Sunken Ships of the Outer Banks blog…

SS Otho (date unknown)

…and another at eBay that shows very little of the ship while underway.

Date on back of photo: 18 January 1941

The Otho was launched on 28 February of 1920, so it was just shy of being twenty-two years old when it went down.

The Tacoma Daily Ledger, 29 February 1920

As best as I can tell, the following sailors were aboard the Zircon the day of the rescue. Once the National Archives is open again, and I’m able to get deck logs from that month, I probably won’t know for sure.

Ignacio Acack
Arthur Merrill Adams
Gilbert Atwood Anderson
Joseph Francis Baldassare
Raymond John Battistelli
Frederick Joseph Beloin
John Stuart Bennethum
Joseph Cornelius Benson, Jr.
Harry Reno Blankenship
Samual/Samuel Booker
Thomas Brader
Berton Johnson Byers
Page Herman Carter
*Howard Cochrane
Francis Michael Conlon
*Edward Lee Crain
Sylvester Craven
Arthur R DeFields
William Louis Dommerich
Thomas Stephen Dunstan
John Robert Edwards
Burton Sandiford Evans
George Joseph Fager
Pete Richard Federoff
William Joseph Franey
John G Gay
John Thomas Gleeson
Anthony George Gutsch
Louis Monroe Harper, Jr.
Edward Davis Howland
Walter Hudgins Gordon
Ronald Johnson
Daniel Johnson
Burris Beaty Jones
Charles Jordan
Randall Manuel Keator, Jr.
Alexander Joseph Kotarba
*Martin John Kuck
George La Roy
Edward Lawrence Larsen
James Francis Ledwith
George Love
Francis James Lynch
Paul Magera
Angelo Maiorano
John McGhie
John Charles McNicol
James Eli Monte
John Earl Morgan
Charles Milne Morris
William Mortimer Newman
Orla Ezra Nichols, Jr.
**Stanley Thomas Niciejewski
Alfred Lester Nickles
Henry John Niemczyk
Anthony Nigro
**Joseph Francis Nolan
Edwin Lathrope Oakley
**Robert Davidson O’Brien
Eugene Martin O’Connell
**Edward Daniel O’Connell
William Henry Oesterle
James Thomas O’Hagan
Erhard Linus Olson
Thomas Augustine O’Neil
Eugene Patrick O’Shea
Henry John O’Toole
Julio Sabila Pacalioga
John Herbert Peach
William Ganeric Petrushonis
William Edward Pitt
William Bibbins Post
*Edward Walter Ranski
William Richard Salomons, Jr.
Charles Owen Schauss
George Preston Seybolt
Michael Joseph Silvasie
Theodore Soltys
Christopher Sottile
William Dixon Stevens
Carl Stone
Kenneth Edward Thompson
Edwin Thorne
Frank Truhn, Jr.
Elster Johannessen Tufte
Anthony Joseph Viviano
Wellesley Plant Wheeler
Julius Peter Wilkowski (Peter J. Wills)

*Received for temporary duty on 3 April 1942 and transferred 22 April 1942. I suspect that they were aboard for training, as one was rated Seaman, First Class (Cochrane), two were rated Seaman, Second Class (Crain and Kuck), and one, Apprentice Seaman (Ranski).

**Niciejewski, Nolan, O’Brien, and O’Connell were transferred to the USS Sylph on 3 April 1942 for temporary duty. and returned for duty on the Zircon on the 22nd. It would seem that this was to make room for Cochrane, Crain, Kuck, and Ranski.

Riddell’s Bay, 1 October 1944

Riddell’s Bay, 1 October 1944

The banner cover for this blog was originally shared to the Facebook group I created in November of 2017. In the early days of the group, I was only looking for family members of the sailors who were on the Zircon on 11 May 1944, the day of the USS YF-415 Disaster.

A couple of those sailors were Edwin Lathrope Oakley and Henry John Niemczyk. I originally contacted Oakley’s son, who didn’t seem very interested in this project of mine, but passed along my message to his sister. She joined the group and posted a photo of about fifty loose photos (and a few news clippings) that she had. In all honesty, I hadn’t expected that there’d be so many photographs since I don’t recall that my dad ever had any. But indeed there were, and she agreed to send them to me. I was a little disappointed that my dad wasn’t in any of them, but I was more than pleased to share them to the group once I scanned them.

A month later, I tracked down Niemczyk’s son, Mike, and invited him to join the group. It wasn’t long before he posted the group photo, taken at Riddell’s Bay in the Bahamas. On the back of the photo, his father had written: “Riddel’s Bay – The Whole Gang” and dated it 1 October 1944. There are forty-six men in the photo, accounting for just under half of the ship’s full complement that day.

And there, in the middle-front of the group was my dad.

Dad amongst “The Whole Gang”

The feeling I had upon seeing this for the first time is almost indescribable. I can only compare it to what it must have been like finding gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1849. And, of course, it was gold for me. I can’t tell you how much I love the photograph. While seeing him on board the ship with the other Soundmen and Radiomen was trippy, in a way, since I’d never seen it before, seeing this one was something altogether different, as it showed him communing with his ship mates, some of whom he’d spent the better part of two and a half years of his enlisted life. This moment was but a sliver of a lifetime that I barely had known existed. (Recently, another Zircon sailor’s daughter sent me a copy of this for me to scan at 9600 dpi, and that’s the one I’ve included here. The print is about 2.5″ x 3.5″ and the image 2″ x 3″.)

Not long after he posted this photo, Mike shared a photo taken either just before or after this one. I’ll call it the outtake. There aren’t quite as many men in the photo and many of them appear either getting into position or getting up. A light leak mars the image, but I like it because my dad actually looks to have a smile on his face.

Riddell’s Bay, Take Two

I created a contour-line legend for the first photo (I suppose I should do it for the second as well) so that we, the Facebook group members, could more easily put names with the faces.

As of 27 July 2021, twenty-five of the forty-six sailors have been identified.

02. Michael William Magenheimer
04. Albert Craft Emmett
06. William Richard Salomons, Jr.
07. Joseph Henry Hoser, Jr.
08. Isidore Teddy Bertone
10. Henry John Niemczyk
11. Anthony Nigro
13. Raymond Francis Carpenter
14. Leonard Francis Therrien
16. William Arthur Green
19. Robert Forest Segar
23. George A. Krueger
25. Irwin Rubin
26. Lester Burton Wood
27. Ira LaFlorrid Zeek, Jr.
29. Angel Luis Ruiz
31. My dad
34. Rinaldo Biaggio Iannettone
35. Theodore Soltys
36. James Rudolph Burton
37. Louis Augusto Alves
38. Paul Buford Beach
39. Frank Nicholas DeRupo
40. Hervey Johnson Gibbs
41. Peter Anthony Schmanski

I’m most bummed that two of the faces are obscured by beer cans. In the outtake, the fellow who is #20 in the “good” photo is in profile, and it looks like it might be Ralph Patrick Annunziata. I think that there’s a good chance that #18 is Richard Hamilton Garrison, but since his family has chosen not to speak with me, I can’t confirm it.

A handful of other photos have since surfaced that also appear to be from the same period, maybe even the same day, at Riddell’s Bay. I hope to get scans of them but these are the best I have for the time being—mobile photos of photos. I’m 99.9% certain that my dad is in the first one. The hat he’s wearing in the group photo looks to be what he’s holding in his lap in this one. I’m also pretty sure that the fellow who had the beer can obscuring his face in the group photo also has a beer can partially obscuring his face in this one. The person who is second from left appears in so many photos I’ve seen, but I’ve been unable to figure out his name.

Robert Forest Segar (left), my dad (third from left), Leonard Francis Therrien (far right)
Theodore Soltys and William Richard Salomons, Jr.
Standing (left to right): Schmanksi, Niemczyk, Salomons, O’Toole, Bernard; Greene;
On the ground: #28 in “The Whole Gang” (unknown), Emmett, #21, Alves , #22
Paul Magera

Frank Paul Bielskis

Because I haven’t updated this site in some time, I thought I would start posting individually about some of the men who served aboard the USS Zircon (PY-16).

When I began my search for the Zircon sailors (and/or their families), I created an Excel spreadsheet of all the names that appeared on muster rolls I’d obtained via One of the first things I did was to determine which of the sailors were on board the day of the YF-415 disaster (11 May 1944), as looking for witnesses to that event was a priority of mine at the time. So, taking the March (quarterly) 1944 Muster Roll and then adding and subtracting the sailors whose names appeared on the subsequent Reports of Changes, I was able to determine that there were a hundred and twenty enlisted men aboard the ship on 11 May 1944. Once I acquired the ship’s deck logs for 1944, I found that there were eight officers.

Once the spreadsheet was completed, I began searching for information about each sailor in alphabetical order, and amongst the first handful on the list was Frank Paul Bielskis. Unlike many (probably most) of the people I’ve searched for, I found a fair number of newspaper articles which mentioned Bielskis’ name. Sadly, they all were news articles about the boarding house fire in Brockton, Massachusetts in which he died.

Page 1 of the 30 April 1966 edition of the Boston Traveler

Bielskis had been married, with two children, but he appears to have been either separated or divorced from his wife at the time the fire occurred. For a time, he and his wife, Frances (“Fannie”) had lived with his parents, Casimir (Charles) and Eva, in Brockton. He worked as an automobile mechanic.

His wife apparently did not marry again, or so her obituary suggests. Bielskis was not mentioned.

His children have not responded to my postcards, letters, and phone calls, so either they were too young to know much about him when he died, or their relationships with him were such that they have no interest in speaking about him.

The below photo of him (at top right) is the only one I have of him in which he has been identified. I received it from Thomas Shubert, whose father is at the very top of the photo.

Top: Thomas Charles Shubert, Jr; Middle: Elster Johannessen Tufte, William Albert Greffin, Ned Landis Lamprecht, Frank Paul Bielskis; Bottom: William Richard Salomons, Jr., Paul Magera, Buford Aubry Griggs (Photo courtesy of Thomas Shubert)

I am generally pretty outgoing, but calling strangers out of the blue remains somewhat uncomfortable for me, especially since we live in the age of scam. TA few months ago, however, I gathered up enough moxy to call Theresa Loef, sister of Frank Paul Bielskis. I sent her a postcard in November of 2020 but hadn’t heard from her, so I thought a call was in order.

I’m glad that I called. We had a perfectly lovely conversation, and she wasn’t the least bit concerned that I was trying to defraud her in any way (she didn’t seem to be anyway).

Theresa is almost twenty years younger than her brother, so she barely knew him. She was unaware of the YF-415 disaster, but she did recall the fire in which he was killed, and told me that Bielskis originally roomed on the ground floor of the hotel, but another boarder had physical issues which made it difficult to get to the third floor, so Bielskis traded rooms with him, thus saving his life and sealing Bielskis’ fate. Of course, this could be a myth. This could be the story that her parents told her, as I don’t know how such a thing could be known unless there were interviews of the survivors that made it to print. Myth or not, it is what she holds onto as a proud memory of her brother.

Not long after speaking with Theresa, I sent her a copy of the photo.

Radio School

Radio School, Personnel Staff | U.S. Naval Training Center – 30 August 1944

I received this mobile phone photo taken of a long-stored, rolled-up group photo of a Radio School graduating class taken on 30 August 1944. I don’t know where the Training Center was located or who is in the photo, with the exception of one person, Joseph Michael Torres.

Torres was a Zircon sailor for only a week, from 17 to 23 February 1942, during the ship’s first year as a Navy vessel. His rating at the time he was transferred was Radioman, Second Class (RM2c). He is one of the staff members in the photo, front row, fourth from the left (counting the person cut off at left). I’m unsure of what his rating was a the time of the photo.

When my dad left the Zircon, he was a Radioman, Second Class, so there’s a chance that he went to this very training center, and very possibly had Torres as an instructor. It’s very possible, too, that there are people in this photo who went on to be Radiomen on the Zircon during its last year and a half.

Once the National Archives opens up again, I hope to find out where this was taken and if it was the only training center for Radiomen. I also hope, at some point, to get a better copy of the photo.

The Men of the USS YF-415

The impetus for my research of the USS Zircon (PY-16) has been the USS YF-415 disaster. Ultimately, had I not learned of my father’s heroics on 11 May 1944, or had he not been involved with the rescue, I probably wouldn’t be typing this today.

I occasionally spend more time attempting to locate relatives of Zircon sailors than the sailors even spent aboard the ship. But as I have discovered, the more I follow the bread-crumb clues to a sailor’s post-war life story, the greater the chance that I might find stories or photographs out there which help to fill in a little more of the Zircon puzzle.

Boston Globe, 13 May 1944

But I keep circling back to the YF-415 disaster to make yet another attempt to locate someone who might be related to the men who were on that ship that day. Sometimes, new records are made available at Ancestry that hadn’t been available a year or even a month earlier. also adds to its archives every month or so. Other times, I change search terms, such as dropping a middle initial, as I did recently for Ensign Kenneth Brundage Bowen, who was one of the officers aboard the YF-415 that day. (I previously hadn’t found an obituary because almost all obituaries include a person’s middle initial.) According to his testimony before the Court of Inquiry, he had no official role aboard the ship that day… he was essentially aboard as an observer. I finally located his children, although I’ve yet to speak with any of them.

I have to admit that the chain of command on the YF-415 that day has confused me a bit. It has taken re-reading the transcripts for the Court of Inquiry to connect the dots. But it still seems to have been a bit haphazardly organized. So, here’s what I’ve come up with.

The regular crew of YF-415 that day were:

Louis Brunswick Tremblay (Chief Boatswain’s Mate and Captain)
William John Bradley (Motor Machinist’s Mate, First Class)
Joseph Francis Burke (Coxswain)
Frank Emil Federle (Electrician’s Mate, Second Class)
Eugene Lee Hall, Jr. (Machinist’s Mate, First Class)
Yee Ming Jin (Seaman, Second Class)
Donald Brook Neal (Motor Machinist’s Mate, Second Class)
Mike Peschunka (Seaman, Second Class)
Vernon Warren Smith (Boatswain’s Mate, Second Class)

Mike Peschunka

Of the regular crew, only Tremblay, Hall, Neal, and Richardson survived the fire and blasts. Yee was below decks and took to the ship’s shower, hoping to protect himself from the flames. He went down with the ship. Bradley, although one of the fourteen men rescued, suffered third-degree burns over seventy-five percent of his body. It’s my belief that he attempted to get Yee to leave the shower and abandon ship, and in so doing suffered the burns which cost him his life.

Chief Gunner’s Mate, Levi (Lee) Tritle Ridenour was in charge of the dumping operation according to his testimony before the Court of Inquiry. He also was supposed to ensure that the materials were handled safely. His assistant, for want of another word, that day appears to have been Warrant Gunner George Richard Hornak. He was aboard essentially to observe, but also assisted with the dumping of some of the materials.

George Richard Hornak

Lieutenant Robert Vincent Knox was in charge of the work crew, the Black sailors assigned to the ship from Hingham Naval Ammunition Depot. I think that his only responsibility was to ensure that these fifteen men did their assigned work; he didn’t actually supervise the work they did. If that makes sense.

Lieutentant Herman William Doering had transported twenty-four “dangerous fuses” from Cohasset, Massachusetts to be dumped as well. Once these fuses were overboard, he assisted with the dumping of the materials from the depot. He had no official capacity aboard the ship beyond getting rid of those fuses, although he did assume unofficial supervisory duties over the work crew at the request of Ridenour when he and Hornak took a lunch break.

Kenneth B. Bowen, Robert V. Knox, H. William Doering

The work crew from Hingham Naval Ammunition Depot:
Adell Braxton (Yeoman, Third Class)
Raymond Navarro Carr (Gunner’s Mate, Third Class)
Truman Sterling Chittick (Seaman, Second Class)
George Mitchel Cook (Gunner’s Mate, Third Class)
James N. Cox, Jr. (Seaman, First Class)
Freddie Edwards, Jr. (Seaman, First Class)
James Stanley Griffin (Seaman, Second Class)
Warren Lee Griggs (Seaman, Second Class)
Charles Reed Harris (Seaman, First Class)
Raymond Lester Henry (Seaman, Second Class)
Julian Jackson (Seaman, Second Class)
Ellis Mosley
(Seaman, Second Class)
George Richardson (Gunner’s Mate, Third Class)
Carl Lee Ruffin (Gunner’s Mate, Third Class)
Edward Wilson Sumpter (Gunner’s Mate, Third Class)
James Buster Turner (Seaman, Second Class)

Boston Globe, 13 May 1944

There is very little to find about most of the Black sailors since, well, it was 1944, and beyond listing names, newspapers didn’t provide much information about Black people as a rule. It has been one of the more startling aspects of my research to see newspapers that devoted a few column inches each day to “News For Negroes” or something similar. One exception was Adell Braxton, who was a star athlete in Battle Creek, Michigan before he joined the Navy. It was a weird coincidence, too, to discover that he got married (or at least obtained his marriage license) in my hometown of Toledo, Ohio. It took me some time, but I was finally able to track down Braxton’s widow’s daughter from a third marriage.

A collection of articles about Adell Braxton from the Battle Creek Enquirer from 1944

A few of the clippings I’ve found regarding the disaster have listed those who died along with next of kin. Many of the Black sailors were from the South, so finding anything about their relatives has been a struggle. Death announcements or obituaries are virtually impossible to find. I found a clipping with Raymond Carr’s photo from before the war, but I’ve not been able to locate family. Another photo of Carr accompanied the article about the disaster in the Louisvile (Kentucky) Courier-Journal.

Louisville Courier-Journal, 17 August 1941
Louisville Courier-Journal, 14 May 1944

Frank Federle, also from Louisville had a brother and a sister at the time of his death, but as best as I have been able to find, neither had children. I’ve been in touch with survivor Edward William Sumpter’s son, who forwarded along some information he’d received from Joseph Francis Burke’s son, who was instrumental in having the disaster recognized in the Congressional Record (entered by Senator Edward Kennedy) as well as convincing the Navy to perform a memorial service at sea for those who died.

One of the survivors, Carl Lee Ruffin, appears to have made the military his career as I found clippings indicating that he served in the Air Force, reaching the rank of Technical Sergeant. I’ve located his family, but no one has yet responded to my queries.

Sikeston (Missouri) Daily Standard, 27 May 1963

I’ve also spoken with a great niece of Truman Chittick, who forwarded along this photograph of her uncle. She had found me via Ancestry while doing a search for information about him.

Truman Sterling Chittick