United States Navy tragedy at Paekākāriki

USS American Legion APA-17.

This account of the tragedy at Paekākāriki is by US Navy veteran Frank Zalot Jr.

Paekākāriki: everything went wrong

‘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, [American] Samoa and then sailed to Upulo, British [Western] 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 30 miles [50 km] north 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 (“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 LCVP’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.

‘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 been 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 LCVP had nothing to hoist flags on. Satellites and high-tech communication were decades away from being invented.)

‘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 [fahrenheit, ie 4 degrees celsius], 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 resembled 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. No one was on the beach.

'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.

‘Waves were running 8 to 10 feet high. Since we were being towed stern first, it was 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. About 200 feet from shore we were hit by the first breaker and our boat took on a 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 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. No one could see what was happening given the stormy surf and the pitch darkness.  I don’t know if anyone on the LCM saw my signal light and if that is why the LCM didn’t cut the engine/motor between waves. 

'After about 5-7 minutes of being pulled through the pounding waves, we encountered the breaker that capsized our boat and dumped us into the cold, angry sea.  We were then about half a mile from the ship.

'I don’t remember hitting the water, but suddenly I was back in my hometown of Hadley, Massachusetts.  I got on a bus at the corner of West and Russell Streets and traveled west for a half-mile.  The bus stopped in front of my house.  I got off, walked up the driveway, and up the porch steps to the kitchen door.  As I raised my arm to knock on the door, I felt a kick to my head and said, “I’m under water.”

'My survival instinct kicked in and I started to swim to the surface, grabbing a shipmate’s belt-buckle on the way up.  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.” He grabbed a life-jacket that was floating by, slipped his arm in one of the arm openings, and then I did the same through the other.  Next I started stripping off the heavy gear that 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.”

'I was facing the shore and noticed a light on the beach pointing out to sea.  In size and intensity it resembled the headlight of a vehicle, but with only one beam.  Through the light I could see the heads and flailing arms of my shipmates silhouetted against the light. They screaming, “Help! Help! I can’t swim!”  These were screams of panic, fear, and dying.  This scene became a nightmare that has haunted me ever since.

'Mulchay and I struggled to get to the shore, but the tide was going out and was very strong. We found ourselves drifting further and further out to sea.  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.

'The roar of the wind and sea was very loud and it was still pitch dark.  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.

'In the meantime the LCM came alongside the American Legion’s gangway with our LCVP in tow – upside-down.  The towline was still attached, but was straight down into the water – our boat had sunk as soon as it stopped moving from the tow.  Only then did anyone realize what had happened.  A general alarm sounded on the ship, and all available boats were launched to search for survivors. 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 also 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 rescue-boat was tossed about pretty badly by the rough seas, and every time water broke over the bow, it would come crashing onto my face. I couldn’t move my arm and therefore,  couldn’t cover my mouth 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 was coming over the bow and onto my face, and so he put a 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 angels. After 68 years that image is as clear now as it was then.

‘Ten men drowned: one officer and nine enlisted men:

Herbert 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)
Dale G. Cox (Seaman 1st Class)

‘*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 sad 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 [a] 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.’

On 28 May 2012 a memorial was unveiled at Queen Elizabeth Park, near Paekakariki, to mark this tragedy. Frank Zalot Jnr was among those who attended the ceremony. A short documentary about the tragedy was published by Manatū Taonga shortly afterwards.

Community contributions

4 comments have been posted about United States Navy tragedy at Paekākāriki

What do you know?

Rosalind Austin

Posted: 12 Feb 2014

I lived in Paekakariki as a child. I was born in 1961 so long after these events. I never knew the details but I did know men had been drowned. The community never forgot the horror of this event or of the battles these men were in. In the mid 60s a new street was development and named Tarawa to remember those who died there. Paekakariki did not forget the American serviceman.

Eleanor Creon (Winfrey)

Posted: 26 May 2013

Frank, I have not heard from you so I pray all is well with you. I was told someone might make a documentary of what happened. I am feeling better now and plan on doing some investigation on the commander. I want the world to know, not just a few people. This is a tragedy that never should of been covered up. Yep, one pissed off daughter. I come from a long line of military men and really am upset about what happened to my dad.

Kathy Butcher

Posted: 29 Nov 2012

Frank,I met you & Ted a few years back and you explined exactly how he died during this incident. Thank you for writing your story. People have contacted me about this and I always give them your name. You give the details so much better than I do. I am proud of my Grandfather, Herbert C Winfrey and all the men he served with!

Georg Mackay

Posted: 29 Jan 2012

My uncle is the young seaman whose body was never recovered. It wasn't until my daughter and her partner took an interest that I finally found this webpage and got the whole story. My mother is his sister and at age 91 is still living in Boston. Due to wartime censoring my grandmother was told his ship went down and all lives lost. I don't think she was ever given full details. It is wonderful to finally know the real story.