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Thursday, December 28, 2006

More about Tex Dyer and the USS Zeilin

This is one of those posts that I don't expect will be of general interest, but that I'm adding to my blog just because I want to memorialize some oral history from my family — specifically from my father — for my kids and, maybe, their kids someday.

Over the Christmas holiday just past, my four kids and I, along with my older sister and brother and their spouses, traveled to our hometown, tiny Lamesa in the Texas panhandle (about an hour's drive south of Lubbock). We were also celebrating the 84th birthday of my father on Christmas Eve.

During the course of the holiday weekend, my siblings and I prevailed upon my dad to tell us and my kids about his Navy days in World War II. I'd previously had a hard time getting him to open up about this — and indeed, he'd only done so at any length on one occasion, back when I was a high-school senior in 1974-1975.

This past weekend, though — assisted by a shoe-box full of photographs he'd saved from that period — he shared his memories from the war and the immediate post-war period.

The Zeilin en route to the Battle of Guam To supplement the little bit that I could remember from what he'd told me all those years ago, I'd done considerable online research about his ship, the USS Zeilin, for a long blog post that I wrote during the run-up to the 2004 election. During my father's recollections last week, however, I learned that I'd been mistaken in my assumption that he'd graduated from the University of Texas and been commissioned from the NROTC program into active-duty Navy service in May 1944. And I'd also assumed, again mistakenly, that he had joined the Zeilin at San Francisco in October 1944. Instead, due to an accelerated program designed to pump out junior officers at a faster clip, he received both his B.A. and his Navy commission on the same day in early January 1944. And after processing into the Navy, via other means of transport through Australia, young "Tex Dyer" — immediately so nick-named because he was its only officer from Texas, but known as "JoDo" (for his initials, "J.D.") by his hometown friends in Lamesa — actually caught up to the Zeilin in March 1944.

Because of my mistaken assumptions, in describing the Pacific operations in which my dad took part, my earlier post mistakenly omitted several. I did describe the Zeilin's activities after October 1944 and then throughout 1945, which included the landings on Luzon in the Philippines, the subsequent kamikaze strike on the Zeilin, and its participation in landing reinforcements at Iwo Jima. But here's what I mistakenly left out, as taken from the Navy's official history of the "Mighty Z's" activities during the March-October 1944 period:

For the next three months [after February 1944 operations in the Marshall Islands], the southwestern Pacific once again became her theater of operations. She carried troops and supplies for units operating in the Solomon Islands and for MacArthur's forces, then leapfrogging up the back of the New Guinea bird. During those months, she visited Guadalcanal and Bougainville in the Solomons, Espiritu Santo, Milne Bay and Cape Sudest on New Guinea, and the newly conquered Admiralty Islands. On 10 May, she returned to Guadalcanal to prepare for the invasion of the Mariana Islands.

Zeilin departed the Solomons on 4 June as a unit of the Southern Attack Force (TF 53) whose specific target was to be Guam. The transport — with marines of the 1st Provisional Brigade embarked — arrived near the Marianas at mid-month and waited in an area 150 to 300 miles east of Guam for its assault scheduled for the 18th, three days following initial landings on Saipan. The operation, however, suffered two postponements: the first caused by the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the second by the unexpectedly bitter opposition which the Americans encountered on Saipan and Tinian. Part of the force was dispatched to Eniwetok to await the arrival of the 77th Division from Hawaii to bolster the Guam force. Zeilin and her marines, however, remained in the Marianas area for another five days as a floating reserve.

When it became apparent that the 1st Provisional Brigade was not needed to bolster the Saipan force, those transports too headed for Eniwetok, departing the Marianas area on 30 June and entering the lagoon at Eniwetok on 3 July. Fifteen days later, Zeilin left the lagoon, rendezvoused with the transports carrying the troops from Hawaii, and shaped a course for the Marianas. Zeilin arrived off Guam on 22 July, the day after the initial assault on that island. She remained in the area only four days — unloading marines, equipment, and supplies — and then departed the Marianas. After an overnight stop at Eniwetok on 29 and 30 July, she continued on to Pearl Harbor where she arrived on 7 August. The attack transport remained at the Hawaiian base for three days, then headed for the west coast. On the 18th, she arrived in San Francisco where a three-month's overhaul restored her to top fighting trim by the beginning of the last week in October.

I remembered from our discussions when I was in high school that my father had told me he'd commanded landing craft taking troops from the Zeilin ashore, so I pressed him last week to tell us more details about that duty. I finally pried out of him his memories of the Battle of Guam in July 1944, which were particularly vivid. During it, my dad was indeed in command of a "Landing Craft, Mechanized." But there were offshore coral reefs several hundred yards out from the beaches — where the U.S. forces had only been able to establish a 2-km. perimeter. Amphibious vehicles could negotiate the reefs, but the Marines and soldiers not in those generally had to wade or swim in — and to do so while under fire.

At one point, my father saw two wounded Marines in the water just inside the reefs, where his LCM couldn't go — and none of the enlisted men under his command could swim. An Eagle scout, my dad could swim, and so he dove off to try to help the Marines across the reef. One of them absolutely insisted that my dad take the other Marine first, and even though that Marine seemed to be more superficially wounded, my dad reluctantly was obliged to comply. He returned for the second Marine, but found — as my father told us last week with tears in his eyes — that "he hadn't made it."

That probably would have gotten John Kerry the Navy Cross or maybe the Congressional Medal of Honor. What it got my dad was a severe chewing out from the Zeilin's "old man," who was absolutely furious that my dad had left the boat under his command even momentarily. (You'll perhaps recall that Kerry's Silver Star came from an engagement in which he also left the boat he was commanding, with considerably less justification.) The Zeilin's captain was regular Navy from before the war, and he was, of course, technically right. But my dad wasn't reluctant to talk about this episode because he'd been scolded over it. Indeed, he told us that if he had it to do over again, he'd make the same decision: in his estimation, a Marine's life was well worth his being in the captain's doghouse for a few weeks. Rather, it was just difficult for him to talk about the Marine who'd died in the water while waiting for my dad to get back. "He was a real hero," my dad said, and he repeated again something I've heard him and many other veterans say: "The heroes were the ones who didn't come back."

While young "Tex" was in the doghouse and restricted to bridge duty, however, the captain figured out that as a "college man," in addition to serving from time to time as officer of the deck, my dad could also write up much better-than-average log entries and other reports. That was useful and important administrative work, but it also (perhaps only incidentally) had the effect of making the old man look good — especially to the independently-operating brass who were also aboard the Zeilin in its role as a relief flagship for the Commander Amphibious Force, Pacific Fleet. So even after the old man had forgiven my dad, he never returned my dad to commanding the landing craft, and the Zeilin's bridge was pretty much where my dad spent the rest of the war.

Indeed, that's where he was when the Zeilin was struck by the kamikaze on January 13, 1945, which I wrote about at some length in my earlier post. Dad said that it was hard to tell whether the suicide pilot was aiming for the Zeilin's bridge or its smokestack and engine room. But as it turned out (again quoting from the Navy's official report): "[The kamikaze's] right wing struck the port kingpost and boom serving [the] No. 6 hatch, while the fuselage swung inboard under the radio antenna and crashed the starboard side of the housetop." A one-inch twitch on that pilot's stick might have meant the difference between me being here to write this blog or not. In my last post, I quoted at length from an account written by a man serving on another ship in the convey, the USS Block Island, who was trying to shoot down the kamikaze when he saw it hit the Zeilin. I've since found another description of the effects of the attack — this one written by a sailor on board the destroyer USS Saufley:

After departing Lingayen to Leyte Gulf as a screening ships for the transports, we picked up one survivor from a suicide crash on USS Zeilin. This man was so badly burned that his flesh was falling away. His face looked like an overcooked marshmallow that had turned black. One of our men who saw him later had a breakdown. We had worked with USS Zeilin in other places and felt this as a personal loss.

Among the pictures my dad showed us was one taken of him a few days later, standing under the kamikaze's mangled propeller as mounted on a wall painted with markers for each of the Zeilin's engagements.

When I wrote my original post, I also hadn't realized that my dad — as one of the more junior officers, and thus one of the last to be released from active duty — had stayed with the Zeilin until early 1946, after it had transported American occupation troops from the Philippines to Korea, and then steamed through the Panama Canal en route to Hampton Roads, Virginia. While in the Canal Zone, my dad got to watch the N.Y. Yankees in a spring training exhibition game at Balboa Stadium featuring (the just returned from the service) Joltin' Joe DiMaggio.

Also among the pictures in the shoe-box was a 1946 picture of my dad in his dress whites, standing under the canopy in front of the Biltmore Hotel in New York with an absolutely gorgeous babe. (His younger sister, my aunt Tennie Marie, was then studying piano at Julliard and had set him up on a blind date.) "Wow!" said my 11-year-old daughter Molly when she saw this picture, "You were really handsome, G-Pa, before you got so old!" (That of course provoked a big laugh from everyone.)

My older brother's son David is finishing up at UT-San Antonio's dental school, and will begin his commitment with the U.S. Navy at the Marine Base in Twenty-Nine Palms, California, this summer. Similarly, my brother was an Air Force orthodontist stationed in Wiesbaden, West Germany, in the late 1970s. So overall, my family's pretty proud of its contributions to our armed forces over the years. As for my dad, he continues to insist that he was no hero in World War II — but that he certainly served with heroes. With each year that passes, fewer and fewer of them are left among us.

But among my own Christmas blessings this year was the fact that my kids got to hear from their G-Pa about his service to his country in a time of great peril. They got to see, and hear him reminisce, not just about battles, but also about pictures of him among a group of admiring junior NROTC cadets that he was responsible for training, and at his "ring ceremony" at U.T. when he was commissioned, and then among friends aboard the Zeilin — and even the touristy photos he took while he was in the Philippines (including a few of a water buffalo). One set of photos was of an equator-crossing ceremony held aboard the Zeilin that included sailors in ridiculous drag as King Neptune's mermaids; another showed him being hazed as a newbie making his first trip across the International Date Line. I think my kids got some sense of what this now-84-year-old man was like when he was just slightly older than they are now. And I believe he also sensed that, both during and after our discussions. My kids' and my and my siblings' respectful and deserved attention — plus the knowledge that his own history won't be lost when, someday, we lose him — certainly meant something very good to him as well. I'm a fortunate man to be his son.

Posted by Beldar at 09:21 PM in Family | Permalink

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Comments

(1) Bob Young made the following comment | Dec 29, 2006 10:06:47 AM | Permalink

Thanks for sharing this.

(2) DRJ made the following comment | Dec 29, 2006 1:00:09 PM | Permalink

They were the greatest generation. God bless them all.

(3) Beldar made the following comment | Dec 29, 2006 8:02:31 PM | Permalink

I'm always semi-worried that interesting webpages I've linked in posts like this one may disappear, so I'm taking the liberty of quoting a couple here that I've already linked above.

One such source is a description of a trip on the Zeilin from the standpoint of John Richard Annis — a fellow Texan who one of the soldiers being transported in October 1944, while my dad was a junior officer. (I have no idea whether my dad ever met the late Mr. Annis, but I'm almost certain that the ceremony he described upon crossing the equator corresponds with my dad's photographs that I saw again last week.)

At last the overseas orders came and we went by truck down to the boat dock at the Sacramento River. At the dock we boarded a big, two deck ferry and went down river to the ship docks in San Francisco bay. There in early afternoon we boarded the USS Zeilin, formerly an old President liner, but know converted by the navy into a troop transport. I lost my sea legs before we ever left the dock and by the time, later that afternoon, we sailed under the Golden Gate bridge I was too miserable to care. For the entire voyage of three weeks I was never sick enough to vomit, just sick enough to want to. There were a few good moments, of course, but for most of my waking hours I was pretty woozy.

As transports go the Zeilin was nothing like the Queen Mary, but it was a lot bigger than the Liberty ships that transported most of the cargo, in convoys, to both wars. I think there were four decks for troops, maybe only three. I bunked on the third and it was at, or just below, sea level and it was easy to hear the sound of the water against the ship. Bunks were stacked up everywhere, three deep. Luckily I got a middle one but it was next to the outside skin of the ship. I never knew if this was a good or bad location, since no location would be very good if a torpedo hit us. The bunks were so close together, top to bottom, there was not enough headroom to sit up; if you tried to sit up you had to put your feet over the edge and bend at the waist so your head was sticking out in the aisle too. The bunks were made for lying down and not much else. On the entire voyage I was most comfortable when sacked out on the bunk, but I could never spend much time there. A little while after the morning mess (breakfast, to you land-lubbers) and you were just getting comfortable on your bunk, the ships horn would blast your ear with "Now hear this, now hear this, clean sweep down fore and aft." Then everyone had to go up on deck so the swabbies could sweep out your deck. I never understood why we troopers didn't have to clean up after ourselves, maybe it was because I never asked or complained. We were permitted to spend some time below on our bunks, but never as much time as I would have liked. So with everybody up on deck, you were lucky to find a comfortable place to sit down and as a result I spent a lot of time walking. The space below decks was only dimly lighted and at night at "lights out," all lights were turned off except for one small red one on each ladder (stairway). The few dim red lights scattered around really gave me a strange feeling.

Our ship had one advantage that we gave thanks for each day, and that was speed. The word was that she was too fast for any submarine to catch, so we had no worry from that quarter, but what we did worry about was that some sub was lying in wait, ready to intercept us. The sailors were on lookout twenty four hours a day and we continually sailed a zig-zag evasive pattern too.

When I felt up to it I love to prowl the ship, but I couldn't go far because of the restricted areas. For instance we couldn't go into the crews quarters, or the officer's quarters, or up on the bridge. What I really wanted to see was the engine room but I was only able to get a glimpse through a doorway. I did get a brief look at one of the propeller drive shafts, though, and I knew it was a solid steel shaft, however it looked like an eight inch black pipe lying along the bottom. It was slowly turning so I knew it was no pipe.

The big event of the three week cruise happened when we crossed the equator; which we did on October 30, 1944. If one had crossed before it is no big deal; however for the sailors crossing for the first time there is a big ceremony with all the gobs participating in an initiation with a lot of hazing for the new ones. For the landlubber soldiers there was no hazing; I suspect it was because we far outnumbered the hazers. They gave us all copies of the cables to King Neptune asking permission for the crossing, and each was given a certificate of passage, with the name of the ship and the date, signed by King Neptune. Everyone had a lot of fun and the excitement helped to break the monotony of the crossing.

At night there was not a light showing on the deck, not even the glow of a cigarette. This was to prevent a sub from seeing us, of course, but it gave a strange, furtive sensation. The sight of the florescence at the surface of the water, caused by the ship's motion, was spectacular at night and I spent a good deal of idle time watching it. We saw no submarines or other ships on the entire three week journey, but there were a few false sightings that gave us all a scare.

Another bit of text, the preservation of which I want to ensure here, is from Time magazine's edition from Apr. 8, 1946:

Giuseppe was a changed man. One day this week, his shoe-button eyes agleam and his squirrel teeth clamped, Giuseppe stepped up to bat. A pitched ball hit him, but he spurned the umpire's offer to take first base. Then he banged out homer No. 14 high over the centerfield fence, 402 ft. away. Everybody was beginning to talk, too, about his superb fielding, running, throwing. Such spring training carryings-on were usually reserved for rambunctious rookies—not the great Giuseppe Paolo ("Joe") Di Maggio of the New York Yankees.

The Army must have done it. The Great Di Maggio, who once made news if he showed up for any spring hitting at all, hadn't changed much physically. The sheen of his black hair was flecked with grey; his weight (a prewar 205) was down to 190. But his disposition, like his ulcers, was better. He still knew that he was the greatest baseball player alive, but now he talked as if he were only as good in his business as many others are in theirs. He no longer called himself the "Great Di Maggio," now resented conceit in other ballplayers. He was actually getting to be good company.

One good proof that Di Maggio had hot lost any power since he played in the '42 World Series was one terrible wallop he took at a ball in a Panama exhibition game—it landed 476 feet, 10 inches from homeplate and rolled another 101 feet.

I'm not sure that that homer was at the same game my dad saw, but I need to remember to ask him.

(4) wtxsungoddess made the following comment | Jan 2, 2007 4:56:38 PM | Permalink

Thank you so much for sharing this. What a wonderful gift to have given your children this Christmas! They will never forget it.

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