In Memoriam: William Leroy Kirchhoff

As I have stated previously, the impetus for my research regarding the USS Zircon was the USS YF-415 disaster. From time to time, however, I have gotten a bit frustrated chasing down leads regarding the sailors involved with that incident, and I have turned my attention to other aspects of the ship and its history. Last year, I devoted a considerable amount of time looking for the sailors who were last to serve aboard the Zircon. Since I found many of them to be new enlistees, and therefore younger than those who’d served during the thick of the war, I hoped to find a few who were still living.

I did.

One of them was William Leroy Kirchhoff, who was received aboard the Zircon on 6 June 1945 and served until the ship was decommissioned on 10 May 1946. I called Bill, who lived near Baltimore, not long after looking him up, and we exchanged a couple of voicemails before finally hooking up. Bill’s voice sounded strong and enthusiastic as he told me that after I’d left my first message, he’d written down the names of a few of his ship mates aboard the Zircon. I could only smile as the names he read to me matched up with my those on my spreadsheet. His memory seemed tack-sharp and he recalled anecdotes about the sailors and his time aboard the ship, and when his memory went dry with regard to other names, I read from my spreadsheet the names of those who would have been on board at the same time as he was. This fueled a few more memories as the names rang familiar with him.

We talked for probably forty minutes, and he seemed to thoroughly appreciate my having contacted him. I told him I had met Teddy Bertone, one of his ship mates, and I suggested that I give his phone number to Teddy so that the two could chat. He approved and indeed Teddy and Bill spoke not long afterward.

Bill told me that his eyesight was bad due to ocular degeneration, and that he had pretty much stopped using the computer. He wouldn’t be able to check out the photos and other miscellany I had collected and posted online. I offered to send him some photos, hoping he would be able to identify some of the sailors in them, but time and work and—probably most importantly—my too-occasional inability to follow through interfered with that plan.

For the last several months, I have been meaning to call Bill about something that has confused me a bit about men whose names appeared on Zircon muster rolls. Their ratings are all aviation-related, so I hoped he could tell me more about why those men were assigned to the ship… if they actually served aboard the Zircon, or served elsewhere, but technically reported to the Zircon. (If that makes sense.) Again, I didn’t get around to it.

A few days ago, a couple of people posted photos in the Zircon Facebook group. The first one, a snapshot of a photo, is of (from left to right) Bill, Richard Lewis Weis, and Robert James Stanslow, three names I had seen on my spreadsheet for so long but whose visages were but vague apparitions in my head. During our conversation, Bill talked of being pretty good friends with Weis, so I was pretty excited to see the two of them together.

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William Leroy Kirchhoff, Richard Lewis Weis, Robert James Stanslow

The second photo was posted shortly after that by someone else, with Bill and two other sailors at what was likely a photo studio at Coney Island. (The person in middle is a bit of a mystery, as there was no Yacobozzi, the barely visible name written above him, on the Zircon‘s muster rolls. )

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Ralph Patrick Annunziata, (Al?) Yacobozzi, William Leroy Kirchhoff

The photos prompted me to give Bill a call at long last, and when I called, his wife, Shirley, answered the phone. After telling me rather brusquely that I couldn’t talk to Bill, and asking who I was and why I was calling him, she eased up and explained that Bill had died about a month ago. Once she recognized who I was (Bill had told her about our conversations), she apologized profusely for being so suspicious, but I told her it was completely understandable in this day and age. Shirley called me again yesterday to give her daughter’s email address to me so that I could send the above photos, as well as a photo of one of the pages in the photo album the above top photo is in.

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Memory Leaves

Making his entry in the album just two days after he’d turned 19, Bill signed his name, included his address, and counselled the album’s owner, Richard Edward Mercer, “Don’t Forget Ocean City.”

William Leroy Kirchhoff, 17 April 1927 ~ 3 January 2019

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


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.

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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.)

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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.