Monday, November 10, 2014

It's Veterans Day. Thank You For Your Service!

“LOST MUSKET DIARY” Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Low Clouds 69° F/ 21°C in Rancho Santa Margarita
                Every November 11th, amidst all of the “Veterans Day” claptrap of holiday mattress sales, and the rest of the marketing blitzes, I put on my history major’s cap and think back to 11 o’clock in the morning on that long ago day in 1918, when the guns along the Western front finally fell silent after four long, bloody years. World War I had come to an end and the warriors became veterans. I also remember a cold, clear December day in 1945 when my father came home from his Navy service at the end of World War II, and joined the ranks of veterans of another “Great War”.  One story he brought back with him was his account of a U Boat attack on his convoy, EBC 72, in the Bristol Channel between Milford Haven, Wales and Falmouth, England at 1654 hours on August 14, 1944.
LST 920 At Sea 1944
The bare bones of the story was that his own ship, the LST 920, came through the attack unscathed, but a British escort vessel, LCI(L)99 was blown out of the water and sank with most of its crew. The 920’s sister ship, LST 921 was hit by a torpedo and broke in two, the aft portion sinking with about half of its crew.
The LSTs 920 and 921 had been built at the Bethlehem-Hingham Shipyard in Massachusetts and commissioned only a short time before the U Boat attack in August; the LST 920 on June 17, 1944 and the 921 on June 23rd. In Navy parlance, they were sister ships. Their crews had trained together. Many of their crew members had grown up in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia and the vast majority of them had never served in the US Navy before the war.
Capt. Harry N. Schultz
Captain of the LST 920 was Harry N. Schultz, a petty officer in the peacetime navy.
Lt.(jg) Charles Botula, Jr.
My father, Charles Botula, Jr. was the Executive Officer. The captain of LST 921 was Ensign John Werner Enge, an Alaska fisherman. They had just crossed the Atlantic in a huge, one-thousand-ship convoy and were on route to take part in the support of the D-Day invasion of France. Ironically, the British escort vessel that also figures in this story, the LCI(L)99, had also been built at the Bethlehem-Hingham shipyard in 1942 especially for the British Royal Navy.
Ensign Don Joost, the 921’s Engineering Officer, had just left the engine room and gone to his quarters to rest for a while before chow. “I had just stretched out in my bunk,” Joost told me in 2003 when I visited with him in Walnut Creek, California. “The concussion lifted me right straight up and I hit the overhead. If I had still been in the engine room I would have died right then.” Joost told me that the torpedo was one of the new acoustic torpedoes the Germans had started using because it homed in on the target’s engine noise. The 921’s electrician, Lloyd Meeker and motor mechanic John Abrams were still in the engine room. “All of a sudden we were in the air,” Meeker said years later. “There was a flash from the switch board and the lights went out and the engines stopped running. The ‘Motor Mac’ (Motor Mechanic, referring to shipmate John Abrams) went in the air up over the engine and landed on the deck. I was in the air and landed on the deck and then was in the air again. We didn't know what happened, but knew we had to get out. The ‘Motor Mac’ headed for the port escape hatch and I headed for the starboard escape hatch. As I stepped in the hatchway a gush of diesel fuel and salt water washed me back in the engine room. The room was filling fast. The amazing thing was that the engine room became as bright as day. It was real bright with no shadows or blinding effects. I think the good Lord was looking out for me. I had to swim across the engine room and dive down to the escape hatch to get out. The ‘Motor Mac’ was already at the top of the ladder trying to get the hatch open. It was stuck and I was able to help get it open.” When I talked to Abrams in 2003, he was grateful that he and Meeker were able to escape. A lot of their shipmates weren’t so fortunate.
 Moments later, my father watched from the bridge of his ship as a torpedo wake streamed toward the LST 920. It would have been a direct hit, but the British escort ship LCI(L)99  had steamed between the oncoming torpedo and the LST 920. Seaman Joseph Wallace was also watching. “As I stepped thru the hatch, I heard the explosion… seconds later General Quarters sounded…I heard ‘hard right rudder,’ and I believe ‘starboard back full.’ The plan was to make a very sharp turn. As I completed the order, I tried to look out and see what was happening.” Seconds later, the torpedo that my father had seen from the bridge found its mark. Wallace continues.
Torpedoed: LCI(L)99
“At that point the LCI 99 came across our bow and was hit. I saw her rise from the water and break up. The LCI 99 was so close I thought we might ram her. If we were playing baseball, I could have thrown a ball on the fly to her. She must have been about 300 feet from us.”
The LST 920’s captain, Harry Schultz had defied standing Navy orders that all ships in a convoy stay in formation under all circumstances. If a ship became disabled, it was left behind to the tender mercies of the German wolf packs.  Those same orders stipulated that in the event of an attack on the convoy, none of the ships could break formation to render assistance.  Radioman Fred Benck was on duty when Captain Schultz and Ensign Donald Reed came into the radio shack. Benck recalled, “I was ordered to send this message to the Commander of the convoy: "WHO IS PICKING UP SURVIVORS?” The message that was returned was "DO NOT BREAK CONVOY" This message was delivered to the captain, Benck continued. “In about two minutes he came in the Radio Room and said ‘Benck send that message again.’ “This time he waited for the answer which was the same.  "DO NOT BREAK CONVOY!" “H. N. SCHULTZ then used these words “TO HELL WITH HIM” and we pulled out of convoy to turn back and pick up survivors! A message came from the Commander of the convoy to get back in the convoy, this message was never answered!”
                Had Schultz not disobeyed the order, all 107 crew members of the LST 921 would have been lost. He was later court-martialed for his action, but found not guilty. In his after-action report, Captain Schultz praised his crew, “Boat Officers crew did an outstanding job. Ensign Harold Willcox dove into the water several times in picking up survivors, many of which were litter cases. He also dove to clear the boat propeller which had become jammed up with the sunken ships' debris. Ensign J.J. Waters also dove in to pick up survivors. These officers were ably assisted by their boat crews in swimming out, picking up survivors, going aboard the remainder of the hulk of LST 921 knowing it may be very hazardous with submarines in the vicinity. Both officers did a fine job in directing the rescue of survivors.” Captain Schultz noted in his report that 48 survivors had been picked up by his sailors. One of them was the brother of one of the LST 920’s sailors. Many years later, in 2003, long after my father’s death, I began my own research into that transforming event in his life. I think it most appropriate to share it on this Veterans’ Day.
Neither my father nor Captain Schultz knew about the German submarine that attacked them or what happened to it after that. That would only come to light many years later by research into official reports and the archives of the US and the German Navy, the Kriegsmarine. A German submarine had been seen on August 14th and engaged by the RAF. It had even been reported as sunk. But, it was not the U 667, which had made its getaway and set a course for its home base at La Rochelle, France.
U 667 Crew
The U 667 had been commissioned in 1942 and went to sea under Oberleutnant Heinrich Schroteler, taking part in five Kriegsmarine “Wolf Pack” operations from 1943 to 1944 in the North Atlantic. In March of 1944, it was refitted with the Schnorchel (snorkel) undersea breathing apparatus and went back to sea under Kapitӓnleutnant Karl-Heinz Lange. Only a week before the attack on LST 920, U 667 had torpedoed the Liberty Ship SS Ezra Weston and sank a British escort Corvette, the HMS Regina on August 8, 1944. U 667 was a proven killer whose next target was the hapless Landing Ship 921.  Earlier, under Schroteler, U 667 had engaged in several battles with pursuing warships and aircraft, and survived several Allied depth charge attacks. But, it’s only “kill” prior to August 8th was an RAF Lancaster bomber which was lost as a result of the skirmish. U 667 did not register any “kills” against Allied cargo or warships until Karl-Heinz Lange took command in July 1944.
U667 Skipper Lange
Following the afternoon attack on August 14th on LST 921 and the destruction of LCI(L)99, U 667 stalked the LST 920 throughout the night and part of the next day but did not renew its attack. Finally, Captain Lange ordered his ship to head back to its home base at La Rochelle, France to celebrate the successful mission. The U 667 never arrived at its destination. Instead, on August 25, 1944 as it threaded its way through the minefield Cinnamon, it struck a mine and sank to the bottom of the Bay of Biscay, a short distance from its destination. Captain Lange and his entire crew of 45 submariners is entombed in the hulk of their ship, which is now a war grave. Captain Schultz’ defiance of orders paid off-his ship rescued 48 of the survivors, while several others were picked up by British vessels, but 43 of their shipmates were killed. Schultz continued in the US Navy after the war and retired as a Commander.
Ens. Don Joost, Capt. John Enge - LST 921
Captain Enge went on to serve aboard the LST 78 in the Pacific. His new ship and the LST 920 took part in the invasion of Okinawa, the last invasion of the War in the Pacific. Enge died in 2010 at the age of 95. My father mustered out of the Navy in December 1945 and moved his family back to New York. He never went to sea again. And, today, on Veterans’ Day, I am grateful that they served.
Ciao, Mike Botula

Saturday, November 1, 2014

El Día de los Muertos-Day of the Dead

“LOST MUSKET DIARY” Saturday November 1, 2014
Cloudy with Showers 63°F/17°C in Rancho Santa Margarita, CA  
Today is the first day of November, 2014…the day after Halloween….All Saints Day. It is also El Día de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead. It’s a national holiday throughout Mexico, and it’s widely observed in California as well, particularly among our Hispanic population. It’s a time to honor and pray for family members who have died. The celebration takes place on the first day of November, in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. Traditions include putting up private altars honoring the deceased and decorating them with sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed. Families of the departed also visit their relatives’ graves with these as gifts. They also leave possessions of the deceased.

September 27, 2013 - Roanoke Avenue Cemetery, Riverhead, New York
I had been gone from this place most of my adult life. I had come here one day in April of 1961 and another day in November of 1965 to bury my parents. Following their funerals, my brother Packy and I set to the task of closing up the home where we had grown up and get it ready to be sold. Then we both moved on with our lives.
My parents: Charles and Mary Botula
Now, on this sunny day in September “Skip” and Charlie Botula are still resting in their quiet place marked by two granite headstones, their repose shaded by an old oak tree. It’s not quite November 1st, but this is now my own personal
Día de los Muertos. After visiting my parents graves, I walk along the path through the cemetery.  My stroll takes me on a tour of my childhood. Across the way from mom and dad is “Papa Nick,” the smiling Greek man whose family still runs the confectionary where we used to gather after school. Down the way is my third grade teacher. Around the bend is my old scoutmaster. Across the way, in a plot marked by a tall granite monument lie my parents’ best friends. Glancing down at the headstones as I walk along, I see so many family friends.
Maybe it’s because of my own love of history, but I love to visit old cemeteries. There are so many stories there. The catacombs and church crypts of Rome, colonial era cemeteries along the eastern part of the United States, Gold Rush and Frontier cemeteries in California, Nevada and Arizona. Our own Arlington National Cemetery. There is the small family gravesite behind an old Victorian mansion in Mariposa, California. The family that now owns the house inherited the small family cemetery when they acquired the property and now care for the burial ground with the same loving care as if it sheltered members of their own family.
After all my adventures in life, I now understand that this is where I must return some day, even as a symbolic gram or two of ash. Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem comes to my mind.
''This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.''

October 31, 1992 Halloween
Now, let’s go back to a sunny Saturday afternoon on Halloween weekend 21 years before. My wife and I are on a guided walk through the old, historic cemetery in Santa Ana, California. Our walk takes us past the graves of many notable local historical figures. There are mayors, prominent members of the clergy; a famous Sheriff is buried here, too. The headstones read like a “Who’s Who” of our county. As we walk along, we notice something else. Here and there, people have gathered for what appears to be a picnic. They’ve spread blankets at the gravesites and set down their picnic baskets. Most of them have placed bouquets of flowers at the headstones with lighted candles. I see them praying, saying grace and then lifting glasses in their toasts. Curious, I approach a family gathered around one of the graves. “Good afternoon,” I greet them. “Nice day for a picnic, isn’t it?” They smile and nod. My curiosity knows no bounds at this point. “But, why a picnic in a cemetery?” I ask.
“This is El Dia de los Muertos,” the woman said in a soft voice. “The Day of the Dead.”  Today, we come to the cemetery to honor members of our families who have died and to pray for them.” She continued. “We want to let them know that even though they have left this life, they are still part of our family.” I didn’t know what to say next. I had never heard of such a custom. The woman went on to explain to me that it is a holiday in Mexico and more important to Mexican culture than Halloween itself. I was quite moved.
In our society, visits to loved one’s graves can be infrequent and generally very brief. Flowers can be placed at the headstone and a prayer said. But, long spans of time can pass before a return visit is made, if ever. Gone forever and easily forgotten. At that moment, I realized that I had not visited my parents resting place in more than 30 years. Our cemetery walk this day took place on Halloween. The next day would be the first day of November, All Saints Day and El Dia de los Muertos. I could feel the connection here. I could almost hear the grandmother talking to her family as they picnicked six feet above her. I could feel the love and respect these family members were showing their loved ones. Later, as we continued along our walk, I thought of my own parents who were buried far away from where I lived now and made a promise to myself to honor them one day in the tradition of El Dia de los Muertos.
Eleven years later I kept that promise during a reunion of my high school graduating class. I had taken my new fiancée and my son back to my home town to join me in reconnecting with old friends and classmates that I hadn’t seen in 45 years. For my son, the trip gave him a chance to connect with a family that he had only heard about, or seen snapshots of, or read about. My wife-to-be said it gave her a chance to know me a little better. It took about forty five minutes to find the gravesite and then, we placed a bouquet of roses between the headstones. I put my arm around my son’s shoulder as my lady hung back a few paces and together we bowed our heads. “Mom. Dad.” I said, “I’d like you to meet your grandson. I’d also like to introduce your new daughter.” We stood in silence for a few moments and then I said, “I’ll be back.”
In that moment, I truly understood what the Mexican woman had told me in the Santa Ana Cemetery years earlier. Five years later when I returned for our next reunion, I went to the cemetery with a blanket, a bottle of wine, three glasses and two rose  bouquets. I brought some family pictures and spent an hour trying to tell them everything important in my life since they had left me. I poured each of us a glass of California Zinfandel, set a glass at each of their headstones next to the rose bouquets and splashed a bit of my wine on each of their graves, toasting them as I did. This has now become part of my own family’s tradition, although my trips back to my home town usually don’t coincide with El Dia de los Muertos on the first of November. But, it has more meaning for me than the Halloween celebration.

Ciao, MikeBo