Life And Death Aboard The USS American Legion

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Frank Zalot and his service medals from his U.S. Navy stint in the South Pacific during World War II

By: Rich Bergeron

The bombing of Pearl Harbor happened on Frank Zalot’s 17th birthday in 1941. He signed up to serve his country the next day and wound up on a ship bound for the South Pacific.

“I was a Senior at Hopkins Academy in High School,” recalled Zalot. “I attended class in the morning, and at noon time my father--who knew I wanted to join--said, ‘If I were 20 years younger, I’d join the Navy.’ I turned the car around, drove to Springfield, and I enlisted. The recruiting officer said ‘When do you want to go on duty?’ And, I said, ‘Right now!’”

The Navy obliged the Hadley, Massachusetts native and sent him right to boot camp. “Three weeks later, New Year’s Eve, we were on the back of a ton and a half truck looking for a ship in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which was The USS American Legion,” Zalot said.

The modified transport vessel was not at all what the young teen expected. “It was a big disappointment, because it was under repair,” he explained. “When you see a transport, you’re kind of disappointed to begin with, because it’s not what you had in mind. You know, you‘re picturing these fighting ships. I was just excited to be aboard ship. To me it didn‘t make any difference what kind of ship it was, as long as it was the United States Navy.”

The highest rank Zalot would receive was signalman first class, just before he left the Navy in 1944. He served the majority of his time in service aboard the USS American Legion and saw the mighty ship support landings and occupations at Guadalcanal and Bougainville. “My entire career was aboard the USS American Legion with the exception of boot camp and my discharge in Boston,” he recalled. “The USS American Legion is the only Navy ship named after the Veterans Organization. So, it’s a proud name, and we’re very proud to have served on it simply because it represents veterans of all wars.”

The USS American Legion would play a starring role in World War II in many ways: battling low-flying Japanese planes, delivering Marines to shore and sustaining Marines in combat, training landing parties, taking on stranded sailors from ships sunken in naval battle, transporting wounded troops to Australian hospitals, and ferrying thousands of United States servicemen like Frank Zalot into the war effort to pay the Japanese back for Pearl Harbor.

Beginning as a simple civilian transport owned by the federal government, the USS American Legion would grow into an imposing, seasoned warrior roaming the South Pacific for the U.S. Navy, bringing the guns and butter to the shores of crucial battleground islands in the war. The vessel evolved from a harmless cargo ship into an “attack transport” over the course of her battle-hardened time in the Navy. The Zidell Ship Dismantling Company would ultimately recycle the vessel in February of 1948.

One of the USS American Legion’s most striking contributions to the World War II allied naval theater was her role as a training platform teaching countless new troops how to storm beach heads across the battlefront. The steady drilling of maneuvers prepared them for the real thing. It was a fitting role for the ship that distinguished itself during the invasions of Guadalcanal and Bougainville. She sailed the South Pacific with men aboard who were highly durable and dependable. The sailors the USS American Legion dispatched on landing parties logged multiple hours of meticulous practice and simulated battle conditions before setting foot on real enemy shores with battle crews.

Zalot is actually the last living witness of one event that turned a typical rigorous training day into a horrible tragedy. The loss of ten of the American Legion’s crew on June 20th, 1943 was one of the worst disasters in New Zealand history, and it almost took Zalot‘s life, too. Among those lost were nine enlisted Navy men and one officer. The deaths came in extremely high and choppy seas off Paekakariki Beach in New, Zealand.

“The beach was actually a great recreational area. It still is. It’s a gradual beach the way a beach should be for swimming,” said Zalot. “But, if you have an LCVP (landing craft, vehicle and personnel) loaded with men, you want the water to be deep, so when you hit the beach your rear end is still in deep water and your bow is on dry land so they can gun it and get going. So this was the worst kind of conditions for an LCVP.”

A strong wind was whipping the waves into a frenzy and adding a different dynamic to the New Zealand surf on the evening of the accident. Multiple landing craft were stranded on the beach earlier that day at low tide. Zalot’s landing craft turned out to be one of the last ones plucked off the beach and plopped back into deeper surf by a civilian crane borrowed from the mainland.

It was well into the night by the time Zalot’s craft was able to get moving back to the ship. A dead motor followed by one towing mishap after another provided the backdrop for the disaster. The men aboard the LCVP had never seen such horrendous conditions. Just when it seemed they were well underway and through the worst the night could throw at them, the craft suddenly and violently capsized when it was dragged backward into a crushing breaker. All 25 passengers and their equipment emptied instantly into the cold, thrashing ocean. The tow boat crew didn’t even realize the craft flipped over until they made it back to the ship. Of the 15 survivors, nine made it to shore, and six were picked up by rescue boats.

The death of the ten sailors prompted new orders mandating every landing craft passenger be required to wear life vests, likely ensuring tens of thousands of lives would be saved throughout the rest of the war. Only a scant few men who tumbled into the water that night lived through the catastrophe. Zalot would never forget the sacrifice of the men who didn’t make it.

“Every night before I fell asleep, and I knew it was gonna happen, I would hear these men screaming. Not only women scream, but men scream when they’re dying, and it’s a kind of a scream that’s difficult to describe. It’s a death scream, a terrifying scream. And it became a nightmare,” he said. “Every single night I would hear them screaming. For 68 years it was happening, and then my daughter Googled Paekakariki, New Zealand, and the report she got back was that ten Marines drowned in heavy surf and their boat capsized and all this stuff. And when I read that I was really upset. I said, ‘Marines weren’t even involved in it.’ I said, ‘Where did you get that stuff?’ So, I wrote the story, and she emailed it down there, and the story just took off there because it was a piece of their history that was missing. ” Last year on Memorial Day, the names of the fallen were read for the first time in Kapiti, New Zealand, which is the closest town to Paekakariki Beach.

The fact that Zalot is even alive today to tell the tale of that fateful disaster is a miracle in itself. Before rescue crews snatched him out of the churning, angry, chilling sea, he blacked out and traveled in his unconscious mind to his hometown of Hadley, Massachusetts. Something he calls “supernatural” brought him back from the brink of death and kept him alive.

“When we capsized, I didn’t know we capsized. I don’t remember capsizing, hitting the water, because I was on top of the motor mount,” Zalot recalled about his last ditch effort to get the ship towing the LCVP to stop plowing through huge breakers. “The next moment I’m back in Hadley, Massachusetts, and it’s not like a dream, it was real. And I got onto the bus, drove up Russell Street, and the bus stopped in front of my home. I walked up the steps, had my handbag, was ready to knock on the door, when I felt a kick to my head. And that’s when I realized and said to myself, ‘I’m underwater.’ So I reached up and grabbed a sailor’s belt buckle. I don’t know who he was. I grabbed the belt buckle, and I pulled myself up.”

The seas were so rough that night that Frank feared he might actually drown in the very boat that eventually came to his rescue. Bosun’s Mate Mulcahy steered him to a life vest they shared until both were rescued, and he later received the Presidential Unit Citation for his heroism.

“Before the accident we’d already been together for 9 months,” Frank said about his fallen shipmates. “Of course I knew them all. We were friends. They were ordinary guys just like the rest of us, but they had a great, great sense of humor.”

Ted Picard also served on the USS American Legion and remembers the general alarm sounding on the ship the night of the tragedy. “It was cold and windy, and when we lowered the boat in the middle of the night there were waves about 14 feet high,” said Picard. “So, I had to travel up and down the beach in that storm and try to find anybody that survived that was out in the water with life jackets. It was a hell of a time, because we hit some pretty good waves. Even lowering the boat in the water in those conditions was bad.”

Frank would later find himself rewriting history of the accident to recognize the lives of those lost. He also solved the mystery of one of the most culpable men involved, the same lieutenant commander who ordered an inquiry into the incident and pressured Zalot to blame someone else.

“Lieutenant Commander Jensen held an inquiry into the accident two or three weeks later. And, he was putting a lot of pressure on me to blame Lieutenant Ackerman for causing the boat to capsize,” Zalot said. “I refused to do that, because he didn’t.”

50 years later, Zalot attended a navy reunion in Minneapolis. While having breakfast with Grady and Betty Brooks from Virginia, Betty said to him, “You know, Grady was the coxswain of the boat that pulled the boat off the beach in Paekakariki where those ten men drowned.”

Zalot perked up immediately, he recalled. “I said, ‘What? For 50 years I’ve been trying to find out who the coxswain was.’ And Grady said, ‘Frank’s blaming me for the death of those ten men.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not blaming you,’ I said, ‘I just want to ask you one question. Why didn‘t you stop when we hit the first breaker?’ And he said, “I did, but Lieutenant Commander Jensen was in the boat, and he ordered full speed ahead. And I had to obey orders.’ So, Ironically the man responsible for the disaster started the board of inquiry.” The conclusion of the investigation left out blame entirely, and there were no reprimands or charges handed down as a result of the tragic accident.

“To me, this whole thing is mind boggling, because for 68 years we didn’t talk about it because it was history and you figured they had a record of it down there, they knew all about it, and, you just don’t talk about these things,” said Zalot. “So, if my daughter hadn’t Googled the internet a year ago, we wouldn’t be here today. It would be a mystery forever. It would be lost forever.”

Zalot still knows a few local Massachusetts residents he served on the Legion with. Ray Plante of North Attleboro and Ted Picard of Easthampton will attend a special memorial for the accident victims with Frank on Memorial Day, 2012.

The accident’s always been difficult for Zalot to discuss. “I think I talked about it two or three times,” Zalot said. “It’s tough to talk about it, and why would you want to?” Once he finally set the record straight about how they passed away, the screams of his drowning, dying shipmates finally ceased.

Memorial Day, 2011 ceremonies in Kapiti, New Zealand centered around the drowned men. “Their names were read for the first time,” Zalot explained. “They didn’t even know the names of these guys ‘till I sent them in. That night I’m laying in bed thinking Mayor Jenny Rowan read their names for the first time. Then it dawned on me. The only reason I heard this screaming all these years was these guys were trying to communicate with me to ‘tell our story because we died without names. We died and we want people to know who we are. We didn’t die in vain.’ The minute their names were read, the screaming stopped, and I haven’t heard it since.”

The people of Kapiti, New Zealand will have another celebration on May 28th, 2012 featuring a sculpture of a Higgins boat and a plaque marking an official memorial. The names of the 10 sailors lost will be remembered forever thanks to Zalot‘s efforts to explain what really happened.

Frank’s daughter J.M. Stowe maintains contact with Allison Webber, who is the Executive Secretary for the Kapiti U.S.Marines Trust. Webber is gearing up for the Memorial Day festivities. She even set up a Web-site in support of the volunteer trust she created at:

“We will start on the weekend before Memorial day with a series of 1940’s themed concerts and a bit of a festival in Paekakariki, then have a big event on May 28, with the Governor General, various local and national politicians and other dignitaries attending,” Webber explained in an email to Stowe. “At this ceremony, we expect to plant a memorial grove of trees and to open a new memorial to the U.S. sailors who lost their lives on our coast. This is where Frank and his buddies will certainly come into the picture. We are also planning a memorial dinner the following night, and are hoping the Government will host an event at Parliament for the veterans who come over.”

“I’m the only one alive who really knew them and who was in the boat with them when they died. So, to me it’s a big relief I guess to know that the story finally came out. I had no idea that they didn’t have a record there of what happened,” said Zalot. “I had the first eyewitness story to that event, and this is why they were thrilled to receive it.”

During the whole time Zalot fought for his life off the New Zealand coast, the mother of a woman he was dating on the mainland sat by her bedside praying furiously. Jean O’Brien woke from a terrible dream the night of the incident and sensed Zalot was in some kind of danger. She wrote him a letter after the accident explaining how she reached out for divine intervention until around midnight, just about the time Frank’s rescue ship plucked him from the water.

He’s not overtly religious, but Zalot admits, “I should be. I’m a believer. Was it just a coincidence that she had this dream when we capsized and was on her knees praying for 45 minutes until I was saved? That can’t be a coincidence. There had to be something to it. And I can still hear myself, even though I was unconscious, talking to God. And I can still see him on a cloud flanked by two angels. And we had a long conversation, so did the mind play tricks on you, or what? Is there something in the supernatural? I have no idea. And why were these guys screaming for 68 years if it wasn’t something from the supernatural?”

Zalot is a natural story teller who says he’s not overtly religious, but listening to his account of his life and times it’s easy to wonder if there’s a guardian angel looking out for the proud 87-year-old veteran. He survived epic battles in the South Pacific during his teen years, a fatal cancer diagnosis nearly 30 years ago, and even a heart valve replacement in 2005.

Talking to Zalot it’s clear there’s a reason he is still around to tell the tales of life sailing all around the world on the American Legion. Zalot seems born to pay attention to details. One of his chief duties at sea was to actually pass the signals from ship to ship and ship to shore. That task required him to be the messenger, and he took it seriously, studying and memorizing all the different configurations of semaphore and Morse Code. He volunteered to take on the signalman duties after the ship’s original signalman was injured in the Guadalcanal invasion.

Before that Frank also served as a trainer on the attack transport’s 3-inch 50mm cannon where he experienced his proudest moment of combat in shooting down a low -flying Japanese bomber trying to strafe the Legion off the shores of Guadalcanal. The ship also hosted War Correspondent Richard Tregaskis during the Guadalcanal invasion. Tregaskis wrote “Guadalcanal Diary” based on his war coverage. The resulting 1943 movie based on the book featured a strikingly accurate portrayal of life aboard ship and the battles waged to occupy the island.

Frank returned home to Hadley after the war and became very active in his community as a building inspector, selectman, school committee member, and restaurant operator with his father Frank, Senior. He was also the postmaster for the town he’s lived in nearly all his life and a past commander of his local American Legion post (Post 271).

Zalot spent more than four years in the Navy. He wanted to stay in the service longer, he insists, but the loss of his brother Edward put too much strain on his family. Ensign Edward Zalot perished in a plane crash while flying off the USS Cabot in the South Pacific just 13 days after his 20th birthday on September 18, 1943. Frank and his family took the loss hard, but he has mostly fond memories of his own wartime service.

“You join the Navy to see the world and you really do,” he recalled. “I mean, just about every island in the South Pacific, Wellington, Auckland (New Zealand), Brisbane, Melbourne (Australia), San Diego, Frisco, all those places, and it’s just, you’re moving, you‘re constantly moving. You’re at home, but your home is moving with you. It’s kind of exciting. For a young man it was exciting. I was very young and right off the farm. You never left home and all of a sudden you‘re traveling around the world. We had a lot of fun, because we were like McHale’s Navy, not battleship Navy.”

Frank also experienced painful casualties of war outside of the accident he survived. A good friend of his was just about cut in half by a strafing attack on a ship to shore boat in Bougainville. He stood right next to someone who had his jaw shot off in combat. He walked through fields where hundreds of enemy soldiers lay dead. He described going through the motions of combat himself as being similar to starring in an old “cowboy western” movie where bullets are flying but none of the main characters are really getting hit. Somehow he endured it all and lived to tell the story of what happened to those who died at sea, those who needed a narrator to describe their final tragic moments with a certain dedication to accuracy and honesty.

For Frank Zalot, death screams have turned to cheers of triumph and remembrance as he prepares to return to New Zealand one more time. The torment is gone. History stands corrected, and the 87-year-old signalman is coming out of retirement to hit the same Paekakariki shore he left so long ago.

“It will be a relief for me to go there and see the beach one more time, walk on the shore and look out,” Zalot said. “It’s not botherin’ me in any sense. I’m looking forward to it as a matter of fact.”

His two good friends and fellow USS American Legion ship mates Ray Plante and Ted Picard will be by his side to give one last salute to those sailors who made the ultimate sacrifice and died at the mercy of the unforgiving sea.

Names of Fallen:

H.C. Winfrey (Ensign)

Howard J. Britton (Seaman 1st Class)

Joseph P. Lorbietski (Seaman 1st Class)

William D. Roundtree (Seaman 1st Class)

Alva L. Skoog (Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class)

Kenneth G. Snow (Seaman 1st Class)

Alden P. Thatcher (Seaman 1st Class)

Charles F. Vetter (Seaman 1st Class)

Walter J. Yanghis (Seaman 1st Class)

Cox (first name & rank not available)

Pertinent Links: (Memorial Day, 2011 story)


Dan Rom said...

My father, Major Joseph Rom, arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on April 24, 1940, aboard the American Legion. Major Rom was a medical officer for the duration of WW2.

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