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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.
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.
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.
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.
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” 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.
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