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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Teddy, we hardly knew ye.
One Reply to “Isidore “Teddy” Bertone”