In May 2014, I had no idea what a simple web search would wrought. As explained in the pinned post (and again in my post from last month), I was curious to see if any newspapers ran articles about the USS YF-415 disaster, and the subsequent rescue of about half of its crew by my dad’s ship, the USS Zircon (PY-16). Because of life (read: mostly work) and my hesitancy to make cold calls to people I don’t know, I didn’t get in contact with Isadore “Teddy” Bertone for almost two years after I’d read about him on the Northern Atlantic Dive Expeditions (NADE) website. My biggest regret in this process so far is that I didn’t contact Tony Susinno when I had the chance. Tony was Teddy’s lifelong friend and fellow Zircon sailor with whom Heather Knowles at NADE also had spoken about the YF-415 disaster.
It wasn’t until after I met Teddy in October of 2017, that it occurred to me that more Zircon sailors who were aboard the ship on 11 May 1944 might be alive. So I went through the ship’s muster rolls I’d downloaded from Fold3.com and identified the approximately one hundred enlisted men and officers, and I began searching various newspaper archives sites, FindAGrave.com, Ancestry.com, etc. to see if I could find living Zircon sailors.
The first one for whom I couldn’t locate an obituary, either in archived newspapers, public records, or more recent newspapers via Google searches, was Richard Hamilton Garrison, who when he left the Zircon had the rating of Storekeeper, Third Class (SK3c). Not wanting to repeat my previous mistake of failing to speak with a Zircon sailor when I had the chance, I found Richard’s phone number online and gave him a call early in February of 2018. I announced who I was and explained why I was calling, and he lit up. He recounted his experience on the Zircon that day in 1944. While he couldn’t recall what he was doing at the time the Zircon came upon the YF-415, nor the names of the three men who had gone out searching for YF-415 survivors (my father, Paul Magera, Henry John O’Toole), he described the gruesome details of body parts in the water and the smell of burning flesh.
He also talked of being a musician, and how when he enlisted, he’d hoped to play in a Navy band. That wouldn’t come to pass. He told me of his wife, who had died of cancer, and that he also had cancer. It was clear in his voice that he missed his wife, but his own sickness didn’t seem to affect his attitude. At 92, he was sharp and cogent. He told me his son lived in the San Francisco area, and that his daughter had been a nurse in Oregon or Washington… that she looked after him. I later found he had another daughter.
We spoke for probably forty-five minutes, and towards the end, the names one of his fellow sailors came to mind… Joseph Henry Hoser, Jr., who also worked in the ship’s store. At the end of the call, Richard told me that he was really pleased that I’d called and suggested that if ever I were in the San Diego area to get in touch so that we could meet. I told him I would do just that, and as it happened, a client contacted me the next day or so to confirm photographing his association’s annual meeting in Los Angeles in the coming week. I called Richard and told him that I’d be in Los Angeles in just a few days, and that I could rent a car to make the two-hour drive to see him. He seemed excited at the prospect. I certainly was.
A day or two later, however, he called and left a message on my voicemail. It was rather somber in nature, and he said that he had to cancel my visit; that it was “weird,” but would I please call him back. When I did, he told me that a neighbour of his, a local sheriff, had come by to check in on him, as he regularly did, to see how he was doing. He asked him if anything was new, and Richard told him about me, my phone call, and my plans to visit him. The neighbour told him not to see me, that I was probably a con artist attempting to scam him. Richard told me that he didn’t give the guy my name, address or phone number. I told him that if he had, he would have been able to find me all over the internet. You know… because I’m not a con artist. Richard then told me that he would treat this all as if it had never happened. We said our good-byes.
In the months that followed, more Zircon photographs came into my possession, and I sent copies of a number of them to Richard, hoping that 1. I could convince him I was on the up and up; and 2. see if he could recall names of unidentified sailors in the photos. I also sent copies of news articles and the NADE newsletter. He didn’t respond. I sent a letter to his daughter who cared for him. She didn’t respond.
At some point, I shared Richard’s phone number with Teddy Bertone so that the two former ship mates could talk. Teddy has been my driving force in this project, and as he has opened up about it in the last few years with his family, he has also come to miss those with whom he served. Teddy is as proud a person that has ever worn a military uniform, and he continues to hold dear those days he was in the Navy. I knew how important it would be for him to talk with Richard, so I helped to make it happen. Neither knew each other way back then (or recalled having known each other), but Teddy had remembered that Richard played a trumpet on board and that he had blonde hair.
A month or so later, I asked Teddy’s daughter how it went and she said it had gone great. I asked, too, if I came up in the conversation, hoping that Teddy had vouched for me and my integrity. She said that he had. So, I made another call to Richard, shortly after sending him an enlargement of the group photo which graces the top of this blog. I was really hoping he could identify himself in the photo and perhaps others. But he was curt with me when I asked about the photo, and then he hung up. I was really hopeful that I could have gotten him on video talking about the day of the YF-415 disaster, as well as about his everyday life aboard the ship. But since it was clear that he no longer wanted to talk to me, I decided not to press him and stopped communicating with him altogether, with the exception of a postcard for his birthday. As the 75th anniversary of the disaster approached, I sent a note to a San Diego area television station hoping that someone would interview him about the incident. I never heard from anyone. I suspect that no one contacted him. I shared his phone number with Boston-area writer-historian Jim Rose, who interviewed him for his article on the 75th anniversary of the disaster.
A couple of months ago, since I had stopped trying to contact Richard, and since I couldn’t have expected his family to get in touch with me, I did a web search, essentially look for—and hoping I wouldn’t find—an obituary for him. Alas, I did. I felt a bit crestfallen. He had died about ten months earlier. I began writing this up with the intention of posting it today, the first anniversary of his death.
I sent notes of condolence to two of his children, neither of which has responded, and I let Teddy’s daughters know. While I suppose I understand Richard’s kids’ unwillingness to contact me, I also sort of can’t. Selfishly, I’m sad that I wasn’t able to develop my relationship with Richard beyond that first phone call. I really would have loved to sit face to face with him and have a discussion about his time on the Zircon, and his life before and after the war… something I never did with my own father.