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Paekakariki when everything went wrong

By Frank Zalot, Jr

I was a signalman in the United States Navy aboard the U.S.S. American Legion during World War II: the ship-to-shore signalman from August 1942 through October 1943. The American Legion was a troop transport (AP-35) when I enlisted in December 1941 (right after Pearl Harbor) and was the flagship of a task-unit that brought reinforcements to Guadalcanal from August 1942 into January 1943. We made many landings during that period. In February 1943 the ship was reclassified as an attack transport (APA-17) and became a training ship. We picked up raw troops (marines) in Pago Pago, Samoa and then sailed to Upulo, British Samoa for landing exercises (April 10th – May 9th 1943). After Samoa we went to Wellington, New Zealand where on June 19, 1943 we took on newly-arrived marines and sailed 90 miles south to a place called Paekakariki.

The American Legion carried approximately 1600 marines. To get them ashore, we had 35 boats called LCVP's (landing craft, vehicle and personnel) that were manned by a Navy coxswain and a bowhook. An LCVP was equipped with a ramp that could be lowered to allow personnel to disembark or cargo to be unloaded. We also had two LCM's (landing craft, mechanized) which carried tanks, trucks, and jeeps ashore.

One of those LCVPs (PA17-6) was used for the landing party.As a signalman, I was an inherent member of the beach party, as was the radioman, who served as backup for the signalman. Our Radioman was Nick Pasquarelli. We provided the only communication between those on shore and the ship. Since radio communication would have intercepted by the enemy, we had to rely exclusively on visual communication for ship-to-shore or among all ships in a convoy at sea: flashing lights (morse code), semaphore (hand flags), or flag hoist. During landing exercises, ship-to-shore communication was through flashing lights and semaphore. (An LVCP had nothing to hoist flags on. Satellites and high-tech communication were decades away from being invented.) ("beach party") of about 25 sailors. In landing exercises the beach party went ashore before the marines in order to establish landing positions for the rest of the LVCP's. After all personnel were ashore, the LCVPs would then start bringing supplies: thousands and thousands of crates of food, clothing, medical supplies, gasoline and fuel for the vehicles, armaments and ammunition. These supplies sustained the troops for at least a two-week period. It was also the beach party's responsibility to unload all this cargo. And then after the landing was completed, the beach party had to wait for all the others to leave before they too could return to the ship: always the first to arrive and the last to leave.

The day after we picked up those newly-arrived troops on the 19th, we had orders to do landing exercises. It was June 20th -- summer for everyone back home in the USA, but winter for us down in New Zealand. And we had fierce weather that day: air and sea temperatures of 40 degrees (if that), a cold rain falling, and gale-force winds. It was a day where everything went wrong right from the start. Adding to our problems was the geography of the beach at Paekakariki: it gets deep gradually -- excellent for swimming, but very poor conditions for landing an LCVP.

It was still dark in the very early morning when our beach party left the ship. Seas were very rough, so we proceeded slowly. The spray of water coming over the bow was very heavy. We were getting wet from rain and from spray. Our foul-weather gear wasn't particularly effective. We were all wondering how anyone in his right mind could schedule landing exercises in that weather.

About 100 feet from shore our coxswain stopped the boat, lowered the ramp, and yelled "OK guys, get out!" Someone yelled, "Are you crazy? Do you know how cold that water is?!" The coxswain said it was too shallow for him to get any closer to shore. We were in water that was only 12 inches deep, but the waves behind us were breaking at 8 feet and pushing a 4-foot wall of water towards the shore – and us. We removed shoes, socks and everything from the waist down, held our clothes and equipment over our heads, and started for shore. We tried to get to shore before the next wave (and wall of water) could hit us, but halfway to shore, about 50 feet out, we were smacked from behind by a huge wave that put us armpit-deep in frigid water. When we finally made it to shore, we were cold, numb, wet, and in a very foul mood.

After dropping off personnel, the LCVPs typically return to the ship and start bringing the supplies. However, the tide had been going out and we were now at low tide. Combined with the gradually sloping beach, we were in the perfect situation for getting stranded. (The perfect storm was yet to come.) With propellers stuck in the sand, none of the boats 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. No supplies were delivered for that training exercise.

Later in the day the other 34 boats were rescued by a machine that had huge rubber tires and basically a crane on wheels. It picked up the boats, marines and all, and deposited them into deep water. (The machine was provided by a New Zealand civilian company.) This was a slow process, made even slower by the number of boats that had to be moved. By the time it was our turn (always the last to leave), it was well past 9:00 p.m. and had long been dark. The tide was back in, so we had enough depth to move on our own without the assistance that the other 34 boats needed.

We were good to go. But the motor was dead. It was that kind of a day. Another of our LCVP flotilla, manned by Coxswain Jim Pauls, noticed our predicament and tried to tow us out. All their attempts failed, however, because the strongest and thickest rope they had was a 1" line that kept snapping under the heavy load. We had to wait a couple of hours more before a larger, more powerful boat (LCM1) arrived with a heavy-duty towline (an 8" hawser), which they attached to our stern. We were being towed stern first – backwards.

About 200 feet from shore we were hit by the first breaker. Breaking waves were running 8 to 10 feet high. Being towed stern first made it very 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. Chief Bosun's Mate Mulcahy yelled, "For God's sake, Zalot, tell them to stop!" I jumped atop the motor deck and started sending "dit dit, dit dit" ("Attention!") on my signal gun, but the LCM kept on going. Had it had paused between swells, there would have been enough slack in the towline to allow us to climb up the swell and ride on the surface of the oncoming wave -- instead of being crushed by it. And that next wave was big: we were immediately capsized and dumped into the frigid, angry sea. We were about ½-mile from the ship when we capsized. Our boat was then towed upside-down until it reached the ship, at which point it (our boat) sunk. No one could see what was happening given the stormy surf and the pitch darkness. I don't even know if anyone on the LCM saw my signal light. At least I hope that's why the LCM didn't stop between waves.

I don't remember the capsizing or hitting the water. The next moment I was back in my hometown of Hadley, Massachusetts where I boarded a bus at the corner of West and Russell Streets and traveled west for a half-mile where the bus stopped in front of my house. I got off, walked up the driveway, up the porch steps to the kitchen door, and raised my arm to knock. Right then I felt a kick to my head and I said, "I'm under water." I started to pull myself up to the surface, grabbing a shipmate's belt-buckle on the way up. When I broke the surface there was a scene that became a nightmare. Men were screaming, "Help, help! I can't swim!" Before this I naively thought that only women and girls screamed, but I quickly learned that men can scream too – scream as they are dying. I took a deep breath and went under again. When I came up the second time, Chief Mulcahy yelled, "Hang on, Zalot – we'll make the beach." Mulcahy grabbed a life-jacket that was floating by and slipped his arm in one of the arm openings, then I did the same through the other. Next I started stripping off the equipment I was carrying: a back-pack, a canvas sack containing two heavy cell batteries for my signal gun, and a pair of binoculars. The first to go was the binoculars. As I dropped them, I remembered Quarter Master Archibald's warning when he issued the binoculars to me that morning, "These cost 125 bucks. Don't come back without them."

The tide was going out and it was very strong. Struggle as we did to make shore, we found ourselves drifting further and further out to sea. In the meantime, the LCM towing us came alongside the ship's gangway. The towline was straight down now: our boat was still attached, but had sunk. A general alarm sounded on the ship, and all available boats were launched to search for survivors. As Mulcahy and I drifted out we would sit on the crest of the wave for a couple of seconds and then quickly swoosh to the bottom of the swell up to the next crest. Those swells were 10 feet high.

After about 30 minutes our life-jackets became water logged and we were no longer above water when the waves would crest. As waves broke over our heads, we had to use our free hand to cover mouth and nose, trying to keep from swallowing or inhaling water. We were too exhausted to hold our breath. It was still pitch dark and the roar of the wind and sea was very loud. Suddenly the clouds parted and the moon came out. I desperately started looking for a pencil, paper, and a bottle. I knew I was dying and wanted to write a note to my mother to tell her that I was thinking of her right to the very end. Then I passed out. I don't remember hearing or seeing the rescue boat. One of the sailors in the rescue boat said he saw my hand sticking up from the water and threw a life-ring over it; then he pulled me over to the boat.

I remember two sailors hanging over the side of the boat, trying to lift me into it. One yelled, "We can't budge him!" Someone else yelled, "There's a guy hanging onto his leg." Two other sailors grabbed Mulcahy and pulled us into the boat. I was thrown into the bow like a sack of flour, landing on my back. The rough seas were tossing the boat pretty badly, and every time that water broke over the bow, it would come crashing onto my face. I could no longer cover my mouth because I couldn't move my arm. I could see and hear, and I knew exactly what was going on, but I couldn't move, I couldn't talk. I was effectively paralyzed. But my mind was very clear. I was lying there thinking, "They pulled me out of the ocean and now I'm going to drown in the boat!" One of the sailors approached with a hot cup of coffee. The boat lurched. He lost his balance and spilled the coffee on my face. Of course I didn't feel it, my body being numb. But he did see that water coming over the bow and onto my face, and so he put life-jacket on my face and that kept the water away.

Upon arriving at the ship, I was immediately taken to sick bay. The doctor gave me a glass full of Three Feathers whiskey and put me to bed. Lying there I would shake violently for a few minutes and then stop, and then start shaking again. All I could hear was men screaming. Two of my closest buddies sat by my bedside all the time. After a while I started talking, but I was still unconscious. I could hear my voice – very strange. It took several hours for me to regain consciousness. My friends said, "Boy, were you having a conversation. Who were you talking to?" I was talking to God. He was on a white cloud, flanked by two angles. After 68 years that image is as clear now as it was then.

Ten men drowned: one officer and nine enlisted men:

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)

Thatcher is the tenth victim, but is often not counted among the drowned because his body was never found. All the other drowning victims had washed ashore. A note of irony: Lorbietski was an excellent swimmer – the best of our crew, and yet he drowned; Mulcahy couldn't swim at all, but he saved me from drowning. In a ceremony some time later aboard the U.S.S. American Legion, Chief Bosun's Mate Mulcahy was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for saving my life.

Because of the tragedy, training exercises were cancelled and we returned to Wellington, New Zealand. Wellington was our home base for more than a year. I met a girl there and soon became an adopted member of her family. When we got there, I said to the doctor, "I know this is the last time we will ever be in Wellington." The war was getting closer and closer to Japan, and military bases were moving with it. Wellington would become just too far away. I wanted to go ashore to say good-by to my adopted family, the O'Briens. The doctor said, "If your temperature drops to 105, you can go." And I said, "If it goes up to 125, I'm still going." He said "Go ahead. I won't stop you."

The O'Brien family ran a milk bar – a drug store that also served food. When I arrived at the milk bar, I was met by Mrs. O'Brien. She said, "Did you hear about that awful thing that happened in Paekakariki last night?" I said, "Did I hear about it?! I was in it." Then I told her the story. She didn't say another word. Two weeks later I received one-page letter from her:

My Dearest Frank,

On the night of the 20th I was very tired and retired early. I had a dream that you were in terrible danger. I got out of bed, onto my knees and prayed to God to see you safely through your danger. I prayed on my knees for a very long time, at least 45 minutes. It was midnight when I got back into bed. I couldn't tell you this that night at the milk bar. But I wanted you to know.

Your loving New Zealand mother,

Jean O'Brien

We capsized at 11:17 pm and I was rescued at midnight. (Our watches had stopped at 11:17; they weren't waterproof.) Did God really hear the prayer of a loving mother whose son was in terrible danger or was this just a coincidence?

A Board of Inquiry was formed about two weeks later aboard ship to investigate the Paekakariki incident. It was chaired by Lt. Commander Jensen. When I testified before the Board, he pressured me to place all the blame on Lt. Jg Ackerman, the officer in charge of the beach party. I insisted that Ackerman was not responsible. The findings of the inquiry were that no one was responsible for the disaster -- it was just a series of events where everything went wrong. The only positive result from all this horror was that from then on, all members of a shore party had to wear life-jackets while in the boat.

Many years later at a WW II ship's reunion in Minneapolis, I was having breakfast with Grady and Betty Brooks. Betty said, "You know, Grady knew an awful lot about boats before the joined the Navy. He worked in a marina in Virginia. He was the coxswain of the boat that pulled the boat off the beach in Paekakariki in New Zealand." I said, "What?! I've been trying to find out who that coxswain was for the last 50 years!" Grady said to Betty, "Frank is blaming me for the deaths of those ten men." I said, "No, I'm not. I just want to ask you one question: Why didn't you stop after the first breaker hit us?" He said, "I did, but Lt. Com. Jensen was in the boat and he ordered full-speed ahead. I had to obey orders."

The person who headed the inquiry into the capsizing of our LCVP and the drowning of 10 men was the very same person who was in command of the LCM towing us and 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.

Frank Zalot in 2012

USS American Legion at Paekakariki

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