Naval Tragedy Survivor Passes On

And that next wave was big: we were immediately capsized and dumped into the frigid, angry sea. Signalman, Frank Zalot Jr. United States Navy

A long life after nearly drowning in New Zealand

By Roger Childs

Frank lays a wreath in 2012 at the memorial for the sailors in Queen Elizabeth Park

Frank Zalot Jr. passed away in Springfield, Massachusetts, on January 10, aged 90. More than seventy three years earlier, he had narrowly escaped death off the Kapiti Coast.

He was one of only two survivors after a landing craft overturned in a naval training exercise in June 1943. It occurred in stormy seas, off a beach close to the US Marine Camps.

10 sailors were drowned, but because of wartime security, details of the tragedy were embargoed. It was not until Frank returned to the Kapiti Coast in 2012, that the full story was told.

A teenager in the war

Frank was born on 7 December 1924, in Hadley, Massachusetts, the son of Polish immigrants. Seventeen years later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Frank immediately enlisted in the US Navy.

Frank Zalot (centre) in Wellington during the early 1940s

He became a ship-to-shore signalman on the U.S.S. American Legion. The ship performed various functions during the war:

~ as a troop transport in Pacific war theatres

~ setting up landings in the Islands

~ bringing Marines to camps in New Zealand

~ as a training ship, especially for landing exercises.

It was on a landing expedition north of Paekakariki, that Frank nearly lost his life.

Tragedy off a Kapiti beach: June 1943

John Porter was a Paekakariki school pupil at the time.

LCVP landing craft

There were three landings, and tragedy struck the third. On Monday June 21, I was walking along the beach with my friend George and came upon a landing barge beached high and dry.

We were possibility the only New Zealanders so see the barge. Former Paekakariki Fire Chief, Colin Gibson, recalls seeing small bulldozers struggling to push barges back into the surf line, the previous day.

The next day, pupils at Paekakariki School were told there had been drownings and the beach was out of bounds until further notice.

For many years local folklore held that possibly a hundred or more Marines may have perished in the exercise.

Frank Zalot Jr. told the full story when he returned to Paekakariki in 2012.

The crew of the U.S.S. American Legion were ordered to carry out landing exercises in atrocious winter weather…

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.

34 LCVPs (Landing craft, vehicle and personnel) ran aground and were later rescued. Frank’s landing party from the 35th had to wade ashore because their LCVP couldn’t get close to the beach …

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.

With the tide coming in, Frank’s LCVP could have returned to the ship under its own steam, but the motor was dead. So they were towed. But the tow ropes snapped and eventually an 8 inch hawser was used. But the towing LCM boat went too fast and couldn’t see what it was doing in the pitch black.

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.

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. (It was 11.17pm)

The memorial to the ten sailors (Photo Pam Childs)

Helped by Chief Bosun’s Mate Mulcahy, Frank tried to get to the beach but they never made it.

We were too exhausted to hold our breath. It was still pitch dark and the roar of the wind and sea was very loud…

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.

Tragically, 10 men were drowned as a result of a landing exercise that should never have been attempted.

(To read Frank’s full account, go to http://marinenz.com/USS+American+Legion+at+Paekakariki)

A long life well lived

After the war, Frank returned to the States and married Marion Kokoski in 1946. They had four children and lived in their home town of Hadley, Massachusetts.

Frank worked on farms and later became a carpenter. Then in the 1960s he became postmaster of Hadley. A position he held for over 20 years.

Throughout his life he was involved in a wide range of community activities: church affairs, education administration, sport, fund raising and 53 years of ice skating!

However, his near death experience off the Kapiti Coast haunted him until he and shipmates/friends (Ted Picard and Ray Plante) were honored in New Zealand in 2012 during the Memorial Day and 70th anniversary of the “friendly invasion” of US forces.  Frank also is on a NZ commemorative stamp for that 70th anniversary: a fitting honor for a former postmaster.  (Daughter, J.M. Stowe)

Frank’s return to the Kapiti Coast in 2012 was a great thrill for the Kapiti United States Marines Trust.

(To honour his memory, the Trust will hold a short informal Memorial Service for Frank Zalot Jr. at the U.S. Marines Memorial in Queen Elizabeth Park at 1pm (sharp) – 2pm tomorrow Tuesday January 17.)