As I’ve mentioned previously, my dad didn’t talk much about his time in the Navy. I’m pretty sure that it was my mom who had given me the vague information that he had helped pull men from the ocean, but nothing about the circumstances.
As I’ve thought about this, I suppose part of the reason he didn’t speak about it was his humility. So many of the Zircon sailors’ children that I’ve spoken with have had the same experience with their fathers. I suppose there is something about just getting the job done during a national crisis that makes a person recognize that he or she is but a bit player in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps it was a preference to not discuss the gruesome details of the disaster.
I also consider that by the time I was born in December of 1955, my dad had been out of the service for a little over ten years. By the time I was in any way conversational, I was probably 10 — another ten years of separation from his service. I have to assume that it wasn’t really much on his mind.
Of course, now… as I’ve had conversations with two of his fellow sailors, Teddy Bertone and Richard Garrison, about the events of 11 May 1944, I really wish that I’d prodded him about his experience that day. I wish I’d asked how it affected him.
Oddly, when I did ask him about his service, he told me that he was on a minesweeper. My older brother says that when he asked dad about his service, he said that he was on a weather ship. I can understand, to a point, why “minesweeper” would be his response, as it was his last assignment (the YMS-75), but I don’t get why the answers would vary.
I suppose that my story has to start somewhere. In a way, it starts with my having discovered Teddy Bertone’s comments about my dad online, since it was the impetus for all the research I’ve done and continue to do. But there are so very many pieces to this puzzle that I’m going to back things up a bit to the somewhat unlikely beginnings of a millionaire’s fancy at the time of economic disaster.
The Zircon‘s pre-wartime incarnation was as the Nakhoda, a yacht designed by Cox & Stevens, Inc. and John H. Wells, Inc., and built by the Pusey and Jones Corporation of Wilmington, Delaware in 1929 for Frederick J. Fisher, of General Motors and Fisher Body fame. It cost Fisher somewhere between one and two million dollars, and the Navy acquired it for $155,000 as World War II loomed. The Nakhoda was one of three “sister” ships built at the time for Detroit-area millionaires, the other two being the Cambriona, built for entrepreneur and Detroit Tigers part-owner, Walter O. Briggs (purchased by the Navy in 1942 and renamed USS Crystal), and the Rene, built for Alfred P. Sloan, president, chairman, and CEO of General Motors (purchased by the Navy in 1941 and renamed Beryl).
The ship’s launching in Wilmington, Delaware was worthy of an item in the New York Times in August of 1929, as was its arrival at Brooklyn’s Tebo Yacht Basin for outfitting the following February in both the Times and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
News of the Nakhoda’s impending arrival was announced in the Detroit area, with nearly two-thirds of a page in the Detroit Sunday Times devoted to the ship, with photos and details of the ship’s elegant design.
Items appeared in various newspapers about the ship’s ports of call, ranging from the Great Lakes to Miami, Florida. The Nakhoda‘s passengers included other captains of industry to Mrs. Woodrow Wilson and Jesse H. Jones, head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.
In December of 1940, less than seven months before Frederick Fisher would die, his wife Burtha sold the Nakhoda to the United States Navy.
Two years later, much of the Nakhoda‘s furniture and miscellaneous items would be sold at auction.
Note: This is a pinned blog entry… please scroll down for more recent posts.
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 had been in the process of dumping condemned ammunition, pyrotechnics, and ordnance into deep water just outside Boston Harbor when something went very wrong.
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 mission was to 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 parent’s 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 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, I finally got in touch with Teddy Bertone. But I had let one too many years pass, and I deeply regretted hearing the news 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. 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.