From Out Of The Blue

In my search for Zircon families, I use a number of sources: Ancestry.com, Fold3.com (an Ancestry site for military information), Newspapers.com, NewspaperArchive.com, GenealogyBank.com, Findagrave.com, Google, and a whole host of other sites, too many to recall must less list here. I look for obituaries or wedding announcements or anything, really, which might lead me to someone with whom I can get in touch.

Once I think I’ve homed in on the people for whom I’m looking (sometimes even not-so-common names are problematic), I look for email addresses. Usually, my first attempt at contacting someone is via email because I can explain what I’m doing, and send links to the photos and documents I’ve collected as a matter of illustrating that I’m not a Nigerian prince looking to scam them. As much as I try to send form messages that I can copy and paste, I feel a need to customize each note with information that is specific to the Zircon sailor.

I usually start off the email with, “I realize that this is from out of the blue…”

Of course, I don’t know for sure if the email address actually belongs to the person I hope to contact. I get a lot of bounces of undelivered messages which helps me to eliminate them from my list, but unless someone responds to the messages that don’t bounce, I never really know if they’ve received my inquiry; and if they did, if they’re the right person.

I can’t help but think, too, that there are many people out there who just don’t want to be bothered, or who hated their fathers, and for whom my email is just an unwanted reminder of someone they’d rather not think about.

If I don’t get a response via email, or if I can’t find a viable email address, I’ll send out postcards I’ve had printed up, which I hope gives some assurance to people that I’m on the up-and-up. I write out the messages by hand hoping to add yet another layer of trustworthiness. But as with email addresses, I can never be sure that I’m sending the cards to the correct address, since people move occasionally. And as with the emails, I can never be certain that the cards are all that welcome, but I’ve designed them with photos of the ship and/or sailors with the intent of creating an authenticity that suggests, well, authenticity on my part.

At the time I sent out the first card, I had just received about fifty photos from the daughter of one of the Zircon sailors, so I used a couple of those. With the photo of the actual ship on the front, and a group photo of about twenty-five sailors on the back, I hoped that the card announced very clearly what my intentions were.

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USS Zircon (PY-16) at dock (possibly during its conversion for military service); one of the group photos

Not long after printing those up, I received a group photo taken on 1 October 1944 at Riddells Bay in the Bahamas. When the photo was posted to the Facebook group, my jaw about hit the floor when I spotted my father in the front middle of the group. I had never seen the photograph before, so I felt like I’d found gold. Because there were about twice as many guys in the group, I created a second card, hoping that those to whom I sent the card might recognize their fathers’ faces, much as I had. On the back is an aerial photo of the Zircon underway, an image I’d received from the National Archives.

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“The Whole Gang” ~ Riddells Bay, The Bahamas; the Zircon underway

The third card I created uses photos from the Zircon’s Commissioning Ceremony, which I received from the daughter of one of the ship’s officers, who sent her 8″ x 10″ original copies to me to scan. At the top of the photo, standing at attention, is the bulk of the Zircon’s original crew, so I sent the card to relatives of the Zircon’s first sailors, the “Plank Owners”… again hoping they might recognize their fathers (or uncles or grandfathers).

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Commissioning Ceremony, 25 March 1941, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

A Lack of Stories

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.

Maybe.

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. 

The Nakhoda

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).

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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.

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New York Times, 22 August 1929 (left) and 8 February 1930
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Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 7 February 1930

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.

Detroit Times, 8 June 1930

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.

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Newport Mercury, 6 June 1930
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Detroit Free Press, 23 June 1931
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Detroit Free Press, 27 August 1931
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Miami News, 5 March 1932
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Battle Creek Enquirer, 27 July 1934
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Detroit Free Press, 27 July 1934
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Ironwood Daily Globe, 7 August 1935

In December of 1940, less than seven months before Frederick Fisher would die, his wife Burtha sold the Nakhoda to the United States Navy.

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Detroit Free Press, 8 December 1940
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Detroit Free Press, 19 June 1941

Two years later, much of the Nakhoda‘s furniture and miscellaneous items would be sold at auction.

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Parke-Bernet Galleries Auction Program, 5 June 1943 New York Times