Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father’s Day 1944!

MikeBo’s Blog!
Soleggiatio e caldo 88°F/31°C in Roma, Lazio, Italia
Cloudy 77°F/ 25°C Cedar Park, Texas
Fatherhood is great because you can ruin someone from scratch!  Jon Stewart
Father’s Day, 1944 also fell on Sunday June 18th. And, while I had to look up the date, I can assure one and all that a new necktie or a pair of argyle socks or new golf clubs was the farthest thing
Lt. Charles Botula, Jr. 1945
from my dad’s mind back in 1944. Charlie Botula had already been outfitted with a new wardrobe by Uncle Sam, the crisp white uniform of an officer in the United States Navy, and he spent that Father’s Day on the bridge of his brand-new ship, LST 920, as it embarked on its shakedown cruise following its commissioning the day before. I remember the day vividly although I had not yet reached my fourth birthday. It’s one of my earliest childhood memories. It was also the last time I would see my father for almost two years. It’s another vivid childhood memory that many of my contemporaries did not share, because their fathers did not return from the war.
While he was away, it fell to my mother to be both mom and dad to her only child. (My brother Packy would not join us until late the following year). While dad was in the navy, Mary Botula moved back to Jamestown, New York to be near her parents and siblings who lived in western New York State.  It was a life faced by millions of other American families. Dad was away in the service.   Not until he came home and he was able to show us the photographs from his ship’s clandestine dark room did we get to see where he had been and really share his experiences.
Dad, Mom and Me - June 17, 1944
LST 920 Commissioning
Dad was in the service and mom was back at home working to keep the family ties together. Everywhere he sailed, my father kept a small leather folder with photos of his family. My mother had my dad’s pictures in frames all around our second-floor apartment. We made regular trips to the photographer’s studio, so my father would have pictures of his family back home to go along with the frequent letters that Mary would send him. While her letters were full of news about the family and frequently accompanied by family snapshots, dad’s letters home showed the impact of wartime censorship. Geographic locations were vague: somewhere in England, somewhere in France, somewhere in the Pacific.
Now, I could bore you to tears with stories about my dad’s influence on my life. He guided my brother and I as we grew up and influenced us as we reached adulthood. He led the way with compassion and honesty and a firm hand. And, while I have many warm memories of both my parents, it wasn’t to be for many years after his death that I really began to get to know him, and concluded that he and I could have become best friends. Retracing his steps through the two years that he was absent from my life, sparked a journey of my own.
Every journalist takes on the task of getting to know the person whose story they are telling. It’s a key part of the job. When my father, died in 1965, I became heir to boxes of his personal papers books, photographs and other documents. I kept them in storage for many years until my own retirement. My brother and I had grown up listening to our father’s stories about his Navy service in World War 2. One evening as I visited an internet site devoted to World War 2 history, I left a note in the site’s comments section. My father Lieutenant (jg) Charles Botula Jr., served as Executive Officer aboard LST 920. I would like to contact any former officers or crew members who served with him. It was done impulsively, without any expectation of a reply. To my surprise, I received a reply a few days later. Mike, I was with your father on the commissioning crew of LST 920, served with him during all his time on the ship in Europe and the Pacific, and took his place as Exec when he left. Let me know how to get in touch! Don Reed. That exchange of messages started me on a journey that lasted well over a decade and came into fruition when my book LST 920: Charlie Botula’s Long, Slow Target! was published by Amazon Books, last August.
LST 920: Charlie Botula's
Long, Slow Target!  1944

Don Reed was the LST 920’s Communications Officer, serving from its commissioning on June 17, 1944 at Hingham, Massachusetts until July 8, 1946 when the ship was decommissioned in San Francisco Bay. Mr. Reed was the LST 920’s last commanding officer. He became my guide and mentor as I retraced my father’s footsteps through that part of our lives. Except for distant, fleeting memories, my father was just a black and white image looking out at me from a picture frame on the mantel during that time of my life. But, to the men who served with him aboard ship, he was a daily presence. Charlie and I got to be pretty good friends, former Ensign Jerry Gerard told me. Gerard was the ship’s engineering officer and an aspiring artist before the war. Among my dad’s papers was a pencil sketch that Gerard had done of him, dated 1944. We used to talk
Gerard's Sketch of Dad
a lot about our families while we were at sea,
he told me. I still had career aspirations to become an artist after the war, and I asked if I could practice on him. He agreed and when I was done with the sketch, I gave it to him as a souvenir. I’m flattered that he kept it all those years. Jerry Gerard is gone now, but, I still have the sketch he did of my dad, and I plan on passing it along to my own son.
Because he was on board the entire time that dad served, Reed was the officer who knew him best. In a letter to me in 2003 Reed said, His age must have been around thirty when we formed up our crew, and our Captain was around the same age, which made them the two real ‘old men of the crew, and the only married officers. As Executive Officer, he was not required to stand watches, but he volunteered into it. So, I spent a lot of watches with him, including night watches in fierce Atlantic weather. I remember your dad as being calm and stable, even-tempered, a kind man, Ensign Reed said.  Part of his job was to support the Commanding Officer and see that the crew   carried out the captain’s orders. With your dad’s temperament, he was a good buffer between the captain and the crew. As Executive Officer, he was Captain Schultz’ right hand man and enforcer of the Captain’s leadership, Reed said.  So, the junior officers started to good-naturedly call him ‘the Sheriff’ and he good naturedly did not object. I’m sure that Reed had added the good -naturedly to his description, only because he was telling the story to the son who had grown into adulthood under the tutelage of The Sheriff! As the son of a man who could be a very strict father, Reed’s comments made me smile. 
One of dad’s war stories was his account of a Nazi U-boat attack on his convoy and the sinking of
Michael and Mary Botula
the LST 920’s sister ship. One torpedo had broken the back of the LST 921 and sent the aft section to the bottom of the Dover Channel along with half of its crew. Another torpedo blew a British escort vessel out of the water as it steamed between the U-boat and dad’s ship, as he watched from the bridge. As I read the other eyewitness accounts and talked to survivors of the attack, I became aware for the first time of the depth of courage that he possessed. That courage was displayed in smaller ways as well.
I came down with Yellow Jaundice in the middle of the Pacific, ex-Seaman Larry Biggio told me in a telephone conversation. I was sick as hell. Could’a died for that matter! But, the Jaundice was extremely contagious and none of the other guys would come near me. Your old man was the only person I saw between the time I got sick enough to be confined to quarters, until I was evacuated to the hospital on shore. The exec checked on me several times a day and made sure I had what I needed. Seaman Biggio was evacuated from the ship and spent several months in the hospital before being sent back to the states. I never saw your dad again after I left the ship, Biggio said, but, I think about what he did to help me to this day. I owe him a lot. I owe him my life!
One of the great tragedies of the war, is the fact that so many returning veterans, declined to share their experiences with their families. Those that survived the long road through Hell, simply put their experiences behind them and tried to resume their normal lives. My brother and I are fortunate in the fact that our father freely shared his wartime experiences with us, and they were blended in with the other life experiences that our mother and father drew upon as they raised us. As a journalist, I understood that my father had played a part in one of the greatest historical events of the 20th Century. But, even as those experiences unfolded, he had no way of knowing the true impact of his small part in that drama. He was a great story teller, and, his memory inspired me to put my skills to work to tell his story. Charlie Botula had no way of knowing what happened to the survivors of that U-boat attack, or what happened to the survivors of the LST 921 that were rescued from the chilly waters of the Dover Channel by his crew. It was up to me to retrace his steps and reach out to the people and events along his path, and eventually tell his story.
One of the people he met along the way was former Ensign Don Joost, the Engineering Officer of the ill-fated sister ship, LST 921. I spent an afternoon with Don and his wife at their home in Walnut Creek, California, talking about the U-boat attack on his ship and the rescue of his shipmates by the  crew of their sister-ship, LST 920. The captain of your dad’s ship, Harry Schultz, disobeyed a standing order to come back and get us, Joost recounted. That took a lot of guts on his part, and he was court-martialed for it! In fact, the whole crew showed a lot of courage, because after the torpedo attack, that U-boat stayed in the area looking for another kill. Badly injured in the attack, Ensign Joost was evacuated to a hospital in England where he recovered from his injuries, and was decorated for bravery for rescuing many of his shipmates from the sinking LST 921. Eventually, he was assigned to another ship. After the war, Joost transferred to a submarine and saw service during the Korean War. I asked him if he knew my father.
LST 921 Survivor
Ensign Don Joost 1944
Oh yes, he replied. We both served on sister-ships. The ships themselves were built in the same shipyard at Hingham, Massachusetts, and we were both commissioned in the same week. The crews trained together at Camp Bradford, Virginia. There was a very tight bond between the crews of the two ships. Yes, I knew your dad, Mike. There was a slight pause in the conversation, and then Joost said, And you certainly favor your dad! It was a very proud moment.
 After its duties in Europe, the LST 920 sailed back across the Atlantic and, after refitting, went on to the Pacific.  My father came home in December 1945 and together my parents lived a full life until cancer took her from us in 1961. After that he was a ship without a rudder and he followed his “Skipper,” as he affectionately called his wife Mary, in 1965.
Now, half a century after his death, I still rely on his example to set to set my own course through life. One of my favorite teachers told me time and time again, By example, you teach! I certainly had a great role model. Happy Father’s Day, Charlie Botula!  
Grazie mille, papà!
© Mike Botula 2017

[Mike Botula is the author of LST 920: Charlie Botula’s Long, Slow Target!  (Amazon Books)  MikeBo’s Blog is a subsidiary of  Mike is on FacebookTwitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus!] Mike’s book is available from or Barnes and Noble Books.

Monday, June 5, 2017

June 5, 1944: The Forgotten Day!

Rome Diary III
Monday June 5, 2017
Partly Cloudy 85°F/30°C in Roma, Lazio, Italia
Buongiorno amici miei!
The first of the Axis capitals is now in our hands. One up and two to go!” Franklin D. Roosevelt
The whole world remembers what took place on 6 June 1944! What took place the day before
was eclipsed by the Allies’ invasion at Normandy. If 6 June 1944 is The Longest Day, as author Cornelius Ryan called it, the day before – il giorno prima- has become Il giorno dimenticato - The Forgotten Day! While everyone remembers General Dwight Eisenhower as the commanding general of Allied forces at Normandy, the American commander of the forces that liberated Rome has been overshadowed as well.  In leading the U.S. Fifth Army in the liberation of Rome, General Mark Clark had disobeyed his orders to cut off retreating German forces and instead marched into Rome. Ask what happened on 5 June 1944 and who was in charge and you will draw a blank. But, if you ask any Roman, or any Italian, for that matter, 5 June 1944 was the day that freedom returned to the Eternal City.
In persuading FDR to launch an offensive from North Africa, British Prime Minister Winston
The Coliseum June 5, 1944
Churchill referred repeatedly called Italy The Soft Underbelly of Europe. But, as U.S. Fifth Army Commander Mark Clark would write in his memoirs that “soft underbelly” turned into a tough, old gut!  The Allies launched their first Italian invasion, Sicily in July 1943. When they landed on the Italian mainland at Salerno in September, the Italian Army surrendered, but the hard-fought battles between Allied and German forces continued. Both the Allies and German forces suffered heavy casualties along the roads to Rome, and it took the Allies four major offensives between January and May 1944 before Rome was in their sights.
After the fall of Mussolini, Italy came under the complete control of Nazi forces and any Italian resistance to German control was ruthlessly dealt with by the forces of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring. Numerous atrocities were committed by Nazi troops against Italian civilians, and it was feared by many that the Germans would destroy the historic city rather than surrender it intact. Field Marshal Kesselring had earned his reputation as being a ruthless soldier, but he had displayed
Rome Liberated - June 5, 1944
a sense of history, and he seemed to understand the historical importance of Rome. By the time that American forces under General Clark had reached the outskirts of Rome on June 4th, 1944, Kesselring had declared it an Open City. Beginning on the fourth of June 1944, Allied troops were pouring into Rome for a victory celebration before continuing northward for the bloody battles that would lead to the liberation of all of Europe.
While June 5th 1944 is forever etched into the memories of every Italian, General March Clark’s moment of glory was soon overwhelmed by the events of the following day when General Dwight Eisenhower gave the order and initiated the largest seaborne invasion of human history at Normandy.
[Mike Botula is the author of LST 920: Charlie Botula’s Long, Slow Target!  (Amazon Books)  MikeBo’s Blog is a wholly owned subsidiary of his web site