Common Names

So far, one the biggest obstacles to locating the families of Zircon sailors has been the inability to track down those who had common names. Doing most of my research from home, I often have very little information to go by in my searches at Ancestry. The muster rolls, from which I get names, service numbers, ratings, and (most times) date and place of enlistment, occasionally provide a sailor’s home address. I’ve found this to be the case when a sailor is on leave, and likely was included as a matter of having it at hand should he be called back to the ship suddenly.

So, unless (and until) I am able to find more about what became of these sailors after the war, I can only hope someone from their respective families does a web search and finds me, and that the photos encourage them to contact me.

The next several photos include Francis James Lynch and Edward Simon, two such sailors for whom I can find virtually no viable information because there were numerous people with the same name that served during World War II.

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Francis James Lynch, Coxswain
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Probably also Francis James Lynch

The names were written in the photo album I received from Arthur Fleming Drant’s son, so I feel fairly certain the the names are accurate, but there’s no guarantee. The name next to the second photo (above) reads “Madera.” There was no Madera on board, but there was a Paul Magera. Mager’s son said it’s not him, and based on other photos I’ve seen of Magera, it doesn’t really look like him, despite that the tightly drawn hood obscures much of his face.

Edward Simon, Construction Mechanic, Second Class

Edward Simon is identified in the above photo, and I have another photo of him (below) with Michael Joseph Silvasie and William Bibbins Post. The face above is a bit hidden by the navigation device, so I’m not 100% sure it’s the same fellow as below. The nose looks about the same.

Michael Joseph Silvasie, William Bibbins Post, Edward Simon

I’ve sent postcards and emails to Post’s children (one of the postcards was returned as not deliverable), a postcard to someone who might be related to Silvasie, and based on connecting a few vague dots, I think I might have found a relative or two of Lynch’s.

Based on muster rolls, Lynch enlisted on 6 November 1939, a date which happens to coincide with the enlistment date on a National Guard Service Card I found belonging to a Francis James Lynch, who was born 5 August 1922 and lived at 2185 Amsterdam in New York.

The 1930 census confirms Lynches at that address, and that Lynch had a sister Irene. I also found a Virginia marriage certificate for Francis James Lynch and June Darling Young Collins, which has the same birth date for Lynch. So, I think I’m on the path. I’ve sent a note to Lynch’s sister’s daughter, so my fingers are crossed.

The Troves

As mentioned in my last post, a couple of Zircon sailors’ granddaughters contacted me after finding me via web searches related to their genealogical research.

A couple of days ago, I received a package of photographs from one of them, and was delighted by yet another surprise. Many of the prints were in booklets of ten or so per booklet.

Zircon Photo Booklets
Booklets by The Camera House, 728 Lexington Avenue, New York City

Something that I have wondered about for some time is how the sailors came to receive the photos that have been shared here. Who took them? Who took care of having the film processed and printed? How were they distributed? Did everybody on board get all of the photos? Did sailors have the chance to order them? Considering that some men were on board for only short periods of time, it’s possible that their photos were taken and they never saw them. It’s possible, too, I suppose, that those who were on the ship the longest never saw a single photograph.

By the way, most of the prints that have been sent to me to be scanned have been two-inch by three-inch images on three-inch by four-and-a-quarter-inch pieces of paper. Considering the format, I suppose I can assume that they were taken with a 35mm camera (2:3 ratio). But can I? I’ve yet to count up the number of photographs I’ve collected since I started this project, but I’d say it’s approximately a hundred. I remain confounded as to who took the photos and how they seem to have ended up (so far) in the possession of only a handful of people.

Inside Photo Booklet
Ensigns John G. Gay and Julius Peter Wilkowski (who later changed his name to Peter J. Wills)
Back of Photo in Booklet
Perforations allow for easy removal of the photos.
The Camera House Imprint
The Camera House, Inc. imprint on the backs of the booklets

I suppose that if my research comes to nothing else, I will be glad to have discovered all that I’ve come across so far. My father brought virtually nothing back with him from his time in the Navy. Actually, it’s very possible that he did since I didn’t come along until more than ten years later. It’s possible that his photographs and other Navy-related things (except for his ribbons, Navy and Marine Corps Medal, paperwork, and “Navy blankets”) were left behind in Staten Island when he and my mother moved from there to Toledo in 1951.

Genesis

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.

YF-415
The YF-415

On that day in 1944, in not-too-distant waters, and headed for the Atlantic on a secret mission to report on weather conditions leading up 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, quickly fogging 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.

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Front Page, Boston Globe, 13 May 1944

Signalman Henry J. O’Toole joined dad 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 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 the bar of ribbons, a couple of beige “Navy blankets” (as we referred to them around the house), and his storage chest that was tucked into the shadows of Mom and Dad’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.

Aerographers and Radiomen… my dad is in the back row, far right

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 last year, 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
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 new his name. Neither do I recall hearing the name Carl Lester Miller, although 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.