Remembering the Fallen on Memorial Day

Posted by Adrian Pratt
May 28, 2012
Memorial Day Commemoration for USS American Legion in New Zealand

Today Frank Zalot Jr. came back for the first time to the place he saw 10 of his shipmates drown on a dreadful day in 1943.

This Memorial Day the people of Kapiti Coast on the North Island of New Zealand unveiled a memorial to the 10 U.S. sailors who died during a training exercise while trying to come ashore on June 20, 1943. About 350 people, including Charge d'Affaires Marie Damour and a U.S. Marine Color guard, were there for the dedication of the memorial, sculptured into the shape of a landing craft, close to the waters where the tragedy occurred.

The story of the drowning only recently came to light. At last year's Memorial Service, Kapiti Mayor Jenny Rowland read out the names of the dead for the first time. A world away, in Massachusetts, that reading had a profound effect on Zalot.

"For 68 years I had this nightmare," the still spritely Zalot said. "I could hear the men screaming."

After the Memorial Day service last year, Zalot went to sleep, expecting again to hear the screams of his drowning friends. But the nightmare did not return. "I realized it wasn't their screams I'd been hearing. It was them yelling, 'tell our story.' I've not heard their screams since."

Seventy years ago, on June 12, 1942, the first U.S. servicemen began arriving on New Zealand. Most of the Kiwi troops were fighting World War II in Europe and North Africa. The country felt vulnerable to attack after Pearl Harbor. Between 1942 and 1944 more than 150,000 U.S. troops were deployed to New Zealand, to train and then depart for the bloody battles of the Pacific. Close bonds were formed between New Zealanders and their American guests.

The weather off the Kapiti Coast on that day in 1943 was fierce, with a cold rain driven in on gale-force winds. Frank Zalot Jr., a U.S. sailor who'd enlisted in the Navy right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, was a long way from his small-town home in Massachusetts on that day, the day "everything went wrong."

On what would turn out to be a fateful day, about 1,600 U.S. Marines were to be brought to shore on 35 landing craft (LCVP) from the troop transport ship the American Legion, Zalot's ship. After dropping the Marines about 100 feet offshore into frigid waters being pounded by waves, the 35 LCVPs tried desperately to get back to the ship. But the ferocious conditions along with a falling tide left all of them stranded.

After the other 34 vessels successfully re-launched later that day, the mission scrubbed, it was discovered that the engine on Zalot's LCVP was dead. They would require a tow, stern-first, back out to the American Legion. The weather had not abated. It was dark now, after 11:00 p.m., and the breakers were roaring in at eight to 10 feet. Being towed backwards, the boats did not cut through the waves. Rather, they smashed through them violently and were deluged by walls of water. After a merciless pounding one monster wave capsized the boat, still about half a mile from the relative safety of the American Legion. Men in their heavy equipment hit the waters and began immediately to sink.

Zalot was in the freezing, violent water for a long time that night.

“It was still pitch dark and the roar of the wind and sea was very loud,” Zalot wrote. “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."

Coming back to New Zealand after all these years has been "overwhelming," Zalot said. The people of New Zealand have made a fuss over him and the memories from long ago have come back strongly.

Ten U.S. servicemen drowned off Paekakariki on June 20, 1943; 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).

And today they were officially remembered. And the screams in Zalot's head have gone.

Editor's Note: You can read Zalot's full story on U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand David Huebner's blog. View photographs of the event on the embassy's Flickr Photostream.Stay tuned to U.S. Embassy New Zealand's website and Ambassador Huebner's blog for additional historical anecdotes, personal remembrances, and information on upcoming events as the embassy commemorates the 70th anniversary of the arrival of American forces in New Zealand after the outbreak of World War II.

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