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68 years later - U.S. signalman recounts tragic wartime drownings on Paekakariki beach

MEDIA RELEASE: 30 May 2011

A first-person account from an 86-year-old survivor of the tragic drowning of ten WWII US sailors has now come to light, thanks to the efforts of the Kapiti/US Marines Trust. The collection and preservation of stories like this – connecting the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Kapiti locals – will be celebrated today (30.5.2011) at a short  short flag-raising ceremony at the Marine's Memorial in Queen Elizabeth Park.

Memorial Day is the United States equivalent of ANZAC Day. Between 1942 and 1944, more than 15,000 American Marines were stationed at Camp Russell (now Queen Elizabeth Park), Camp Mackay (now Whareroa Farm) and Camp Paekakariki.  

On June 19, 1943, American signalman Frank Zalot Jr sailed from Wellington on the U.S.S. American Legion.  The ship had picked up 1600 US Marines in Wellington, delivering them to Paekakariki.  The American Legion had 35 landing craft (LCVP’s) on board, each equipped with a ramp that could be lowered to allow personnel to disembark or cargo to be unloaded.

Frank Zalot was one of 25 sailors in what was known as the Landing, or “Beach Party”.  Its job was to go ashore first and establish landing positions for the Marines. However, freezing sea temperatures that day (June 20), cold rain and gale force winds, meant that “everything went wrong right from the start… setting the conditions for a perfect storm,” according to Mr Zalot. Further, the geography of the beach at Paekakariki made for very poor conditions for landing LCVP’s, he says.

“We were in water that was only 12 inches deep, but the waves behind were breaking at eight feet and pushing up a four-foot wall of water towards the shore and us.”

The 35 boats were all landed on the beach, but their propellers were stuck in the sand and none of them could back out.

“What a strange sight: 35 LCVP’s high and dry on the beach with the edge of the ocean about 100 feet away.”

Later in the day, the 34 boats carrying the Marines were rescued by a machine Frank Zalot describes as a “crane on wheels”. 

“It picked up the boats, Marines and all and deposited them into deep water.”  It was a slow process made even slower by the number of boats that had to be rescued.  

“By the time it was our turn, (we were always the last to leave), it was well past 9pm and had long been dark.  The tide was back in, so we had enough depth without the assistance that the other 34 boats needed.  We were good to go, but the motor had died – it was that kind of a day.  We had to wait another two hours for a larger LCVP to tow us out stern-first backwards.

“About 200 feet from the shore we were hit by the first breaker. Breaking waves were running eight to ten feet high.  Being towed stern-first made it difficult for our boat to ride the waves: instead of rising and falling with the wave we could only smash into it and get deluged. Our boat took on a solid wall of water.

“.. we were capsized and dumped into the frigid angry sea about half a mile from the ship.

“Men were screaming, ‘Help, help! I can’t swim!’  Before this I naively thought only women and girls screamed, but I quickly learned that men can scream too – scream as they are dying…”

Mr Zalot, now lives in Hadley Massachusetts and joined the Navy on his 17thbirthday – the day Pearl Harbour was bombed.

He says he has only ever told the Paekakariki story twice before. “It was a difficult experience and very difficult to tell.  The men who died and those who survived had been very close.  We made many landings together in Guadalcanal, Samoa and Wellington.”

Mr Zalot says nine men and one officer in his boat were drowned in the tragedy, 15 survived, nine of whom swam ashore. The other six were picked up by rescue boats.  He says Alden Thatcher was the only man drowned whose body was never found. There were also five sailors in the boat that towed the capsized LCVP back to the ship.

Those who drowned were: H.C.Winfrey (Ensign), Howard J.Britton (Seaman 1st Class), Joseph P.Lorbietski (Seaman 1st Class), William 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) and … Cox (rank and name not available).

Its understood the men were initially buried in the Mackay family cemetery – alongside State Highway One in Queen Elizabeth Park.  Their bodies were later repatriated to the United States.

Mr Zalot says because of the tragedy, training exercises were cancelled and the group returned to Wellington, which became their home base for the next year.

He appeared at a Board of Inquiry, chaired by Lt. Commander Jensen, on board the ship, two weeks after the incident and says he was pressured to place all the blame on Lt. JG Ackerman, the officer in charge of the beach party, but he didn’t believe Ackerman was responsible. 

The finding of the inquiry was that no one was responsible for the disaster -- it was just a series of events where everything went wrong. 

“The person who headed the inquiry…was the very same person who was in command of the LCM towing us…who ignored pleas, including from his own coxswain, to stop/pause so that our boat could handle the waves better.  Why the Board of Inquiry found no one responsible is now perfectly clear,” he says.

Former Paekakariki resident and historian John Porter remembers the drowning. He was about 11 years old when he saw a stranded barge on the beach, and was told some men had died. (He will talk about the event at the Memorial Day Service.)  

This is the second Memorial Day Flag Raising the Trust has hosted to commemorate the lives of nearly half a million U.S. service men and women who lost their lives in World War II, and acknowledge the relationship Kapiti had with the US Marines, while they defended the country and prepared for the war in the Pacific between 1942 and 1944.

Kapiti Mayor Jenny Rowan, who is also Chair of the Trust, says: “Frank Zalot’s story is very moving and significant. “This is one of the biggest tragedies in Kapiti in the past century and it’s a story many of us know very little about,” she says.

Ms Rowan says the Trust will be talking to the Greater Wellington Regional Council, the Friends of the Park and other interested parties about building a suitable memorial to honour the ten men.

68 years later US signalman recounts tragedy

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