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A Mile in Their Shoes

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©2014, Aaron Elson


A Mile in Their Shoes

The Online Version

© 2014, Aaron Elson

Tiger Burning

Angelo Crapanzano, LST 507, Exercise Tiger survivor

Page 2

    Aaron Elson: I know this is hard. What sort of things would you think of?

    Angelo Crapanzano: Hereís what happens ó oh, wait a minute, Iím ahead, Iíve got to tell you something else. Also, while weíre standing there, the gunnery officer says, "Here comes another torpedo!" Right? And we look over, and thereís this thing coming right toward the ass end of the ship, and missed us by about no more than ten, twelve feet. You know what kind of feeling that is? Your blood freezes. So then, we had to jump. You had to go...

    Aaron Elson: Just go back to that moment when that torpedo was coming. Do you remember what went through your mind? Was it terror?

    Angelo Crapanzano: No, your mind goes like blank. Because youíre almost saying to yourself, "Whatís this going to feel like when it hits? Iím dead. Weíre dead."

    Now weíve got to go, because itís getting worse. Itís like getting to a point where, I didnít notice it but a lot of guys would, who were up, there were a lot of guys, donít forget, there were a lot of guys on the front end of that ship, and the tank deck was burning right under that, and I had guys telling me that they hesitated, a lot of guys didnít want to jump in the water right away. I didnít want to neither because Iíll tell you why, let me tell you this story. It got so hot on the deck that their shoes started smoking, because donít forget, the tank deck was burning fiercely, and thatís all metal. Itís just like a gas jet stove. And all the heatís going up to the top deck.

    All right, so youíve got to jump. And I run to the railing and I look down and I see all these guys in the water already, right, now I say, "What am I gonna do, Iím gonna jump and Iím gonna hit somebody," or when I jump and hit somebody itís gonna hurt me.

    Then Iím saying ó this is all going split second, donít forget ó when I jump in the water somebodyís gonna jump on top of me. When I jump in the water how deep down do I go before I come up? Or do I come up right away.

    The thing I didnít realize is this. And nobody did. I knew, because in the engine room you had to take readings of a bunch of gauges like, seawater5 temperatures, oil temperature, because the seawater cools the engine. I knew that the reading on the salt water coming in was 43 degrees. But I didnít know what 43 degrees felt like. So when I hit the water, it took your breath away, thatís how cold it was. It was frigid. It was like unbelievable, unbelievable cold.

    It was cold, but you werenít thinking too much about cold anyway, youíre thinking about how do I save my ass? So I went for the back of the ship, and everybody was going to that back because that was the only part of the water that wasnít burning yet.

    Aaron Elson: When you hit the water, how deep did you go?

    Angelo Crapanzano: I went down I guess, I must have went down a good six, eight feet. Because this is a 40-foot jump. You had to climb up over the railing and then jump. But itís feet first, you get down nice and clean. But like I said, I was worried, youíre looking, and itís dark, and you say "I hope I donít hit somebody." All this shit. So I come up, then I was worried about the flames in the water, but they were further up, like I said, the whole ass end was good yet. So weíre all back there, right, a bunch of soldiers and all the sailors. And also there is this guy, my shipmate, John McGarigal. Now he was a storekeeper, and he was in the wheelhouse when this happened. Well, I met him over this weekend, and I asked him, because I wondered, I said, I knew that all these guys topside had to wear helmets, and then I knew that he had a gash in his head from here to here [the forehead to about two-thirds of the way back on the left side of the head], and he was bleeding like a pig. And I said to him, "Didnít you have your helmet on when the torpedo hit?"

    You know what he told me? He told me that at that moment, just before, he removed his helmet because he was sweating, to wipe his brow, and thatís when it [smacking his hands], so he had no helmet, and the concussion blew him from one side of the wheelhouse to the other and he banged his head. And the other I learned ó this is odd ó the other thing I learned yesterday is that, guess who was sending the speeds down from the wheelhouse to me? Him. He was in the wheelhouse, that was his job, right. I never knew it, fifty years I didnít know it. He tells me.

    So weíre all back there in the water, what the hell do we do now? And what the hell is going on? Who hit us? What was it? We didnít know.

    Then ó oh, then we see these large oval life rafts that every LST carries, about 12 of them around the outer rim of the ship. Now what happens is an abandon ship, the thing, the chief boatswainís mate is supposed to go around and cut them loose, and they slide right down in the water. But it didnít work that way. Out of the 12 life rafts that we had, they said only two or three got released, and we were lucky, we got one of them. And wait till you hear this. We see this life raft drifting towards us, it had gone through all the flames in the water, it was all burnt. The whole center was gone. Now these life rafts are big, theyíre like from here to the wall, and very wide, and the outer rim is about that big [a foot] around. Now all the life rafts are made with a little, in the center, is like a wooden platform, plus they have water, fish hooks, all this crap for survival, like if you get stuck out there, that was gone, that was all burnt away, and the outer rim was all charred. But it was buoyant and was floating. So when I saw it I said, "Letís grab this thing," and it was coming toward us. So I grabbed on, and McGarigal next to me, and nine soldiers got on it, thereís eleven, we started.

    Now I said, "Weíve got to kick like hell, get the hell away from the ship," because when it goes down itís gonna suck us down with it. And also, weíve got to get through all this water thatís burning. So by kicking a lot and splashing we finally, little by little, we got to the outside of the flames. It was a matter of hanging on and surviving, and we drifted. And little by little we drifted away from the ship, and I watched, I could see my ship burning and little by little going down, even from a distance. But the thing is that, the bad thing was like the water was full of bodies, I mean I saw things that I couldnít believe. I saw bodies that were, whatís the right word, they were stuck all together and charred, they were like fused together and charred, and like all black. They had gone into the fire and never got out.

    Aaron Elson: Into the fire in the water?

    Angelo Crapanzano: Yeah. Floating.

    Aaron Elson: It was that hot in the water?

    Angelo Crapanzano: Because of the fact that No. 1, what killed the majority of the soldiers was the cold water, hypothermia. The other fact was that 95 percent of them had their life jackets on wrong.

    Aaron Elson: Explain to me, I read that they had them around their waist...

    Angelo Crapanzano: Instead of under their armpits. A lot of them jumped in with their packs on their backs, with their rifles, I donít know what the hell they were thinking of, you know what I mean, you donít carry any weight into the water. But it was a complete panic. They wanted to get the hell away from the ship. And like I said, the water killed more people than I think than the actual torpedo. I saw bodies with arms off, heads off, heads split open, you wouldnít believe what the hell goes on, I mean itís unbelievable, really.

    Aaron Elson: That would be from the impact from the torpedo?

    Angelo Crapanzano: Yeah. They were blown into the water, a lot of them. I understand that some soldiers got out of the tank deck through an opening in the side, now I donít know if this opening, this opening couldnít have been made by the torpedo, it could have been made by the concussion of the torpedo, it split open and a couple of, I donít know how many but some of the soldiers got out of the tank deck through this opening and stuff, and they were burnt before they even got into the water like, because thatís, the tank deck was an inferno, it was unbelievable. In fact, Iíve got a tape in there, last, when was that, when did we go to Philadelphia, last Thursday, well, Friday morning on the Today show, Channel 4, they had a short thing on Exercise Tiger and they had the ceremonies direct from England. The reason I knew about it, to watch it, was that the doctor that was on my ship, who lives in Wisconsin, heís Dr. Eckstam, you see him a lot like in interviews and stuff, he was like our guardian angel, and he was on his way to England last week and had a layover in Kennedy, he called my house, and I wasnít here, my wife spoke to him, and he told my wife about Friday morning, he said thereís gonna be the Today show, a portion on the cremonies from England, and maybe Angelo could tape it, and make sure you tell as many of the guys as you can about it.

    So what I did, I knew I wasnít going to be home, and I couldnít tape it, because from Philadelphia, we went right across to Long Beach Island, where Iíve been going for 39 years, my brother lives there. So we rented a place at the Ebbtide Motel in Shipbottom. They had a TV there and I watched it there, but I couldnít record, but what I did is I asked my neighbor across the street if he would tape it, and he did. Where the hell were we?

    Hereís another thing, to show you how cold the water was. I guess after I was in the water no more than an hour, I couldnít feel my legs anymore, itís like thereís nothing there. Then I was starting to really worry, because I used to read these stories about the Murmansk Run in the North Atlantic, where the ship got hit ó of course the waterís even colder up there ó so the ship got hit and the guys are in the water any length of time, they used to have gangrene, theyíd take their legs off. I didnít like that, I mean this is what kept going through my mind.

    Aaron Elson: Iíve heard of the Murmansk Run, but I donít know anything about it. What...

    Angelo Crapanzano: The Murmansk Run is the North Atlantic run that they took to deliver all the goods from here to Russia, we were supplying them with tons and tons of stuff. And the German U-boats, when the groups, what the hell do they call them, the wolfpacks, they had a picnic up there. You know how much tonnage we lost up there in the beginning because we didnít have a proper way to protect the ships, it was unbelievable. And the water up there is, itís got to be in the thirties, very cold, you canít survive in that too long. And if they do get you out, who the hell wants to live with no legs?

    Aaron Elson: So you moreso than most of the people had some knowledge of what was going on?

    Angelo Crapanzano: A lot of it is just common sense. So I knew about hypothermia. When I started to feel this sensation like this, the nine soldiers are still on the raft, and I kept saying to them, "Donít fall asleep, whatever you do. If you fall asleep youíre dead. Keep kicking your legs. Sing. Talk. Do anything, but donít fall asleep." And, you know, little by little, kicking, there was conversation, but then after a while it started like into a lot of praying and yelling and, because I heard it going on all around me, guys screaming and...

    Aaron Elson: What kind of conversation? Would people try to keep each otherís spirits up?

    Angelo Crapanzano: Yeah, yeah. But then when the mood changed, because we started to realize that, you know, hey, weíre gonna be here a long time. Like who the hellís coming back? Is anybody coming back? Then I started to worry about, will these E-boats come around and maybe take us as prisoners of war? And all these things go through your mind.

    So what happened after a while, I guess after about two hours, three soldiers, they said, "Weíre gonna make a swim for it."

    I said, "Youíre crazy. What do you mean, make a swim for it? You donít even know where you are. You donít know what direction youíre gonna go. Suppose you go the wrong direction." They went, and thatís it. Those three, gone. They went. And then a little while later, I had an Army lieutenant on my raft who went completely berserk. Yelling and screaming and lets go, and heís gone.

    Now thereís five soldiers left.

    Aaron Elson: What sort of things would he yell, would he say anything?

    Angelo Crapanzano: He went out of, I think, he wasnít even making sense. I had nothing to do with what was happening. He went completely berserk. And little by little, time went on and on and on.

    Aaron Elson: The Army guys, do you know what outfit they were from? Were they engineers?

    Angelo Crapanzano: I donít really remember. They know what groups were on these ships, and I know what outfits we had on our ship, but I donít remember offhand. Thatís another thing thatís in my memorabilia book. I know that there were some kind of engineers. There was also, what the hellís this other outfit, there was also a chemical something group, and I think there was some kind of medical, some of them carried ambulances and what do you call these in the Army, medics. But I couldnít tell you what kind of outfit these guys were in.

    Aaron Elson: So now, the three...

    Angelo Crapanzano: They go. The Army lieutenant goes nuts, he lets go. Thatís five left. And me and McGarigal. Now weíre going onto three hours in the water.

    Aaron Elson: So for two hours you havenít been able to feel your legs?

    Angelo Crapanzano: After one hour in the water, from then on. And in the course of the next period of time, like from, in other words, after the lieutenant went, every half hour or three quarters of an hour, one of the other guys would just fall asleep and slip off. Now youíve got to understand that as time goes on, Iím not feeling so great neither, you know what I mean? Iím losing a lot of my strength. You lost a lot of your ability to think straight, too. And little by little, all the soldiers went. That was it. They were gone. It was just John and I.

    Now itís got to be close to dawn. Itís still dark.

    Aaron Elson: Did you have your watch on?

    Angelo Crapanzano: Yeah, you know what? Jesus, I had my watch in my memorabilia book because the whole thing was busted. Iíve got it in there, the whole face was gone. That was the only thing that I had on me when I jumped, and a pair of, a set of feeler gauges on my belt, they used them to check clearances on engines and stuff. They got from like two three-thousandths of an inch thickness all the way up. And I took them all apart and I put them in my memorabilia book, and I wrote out, US Navy 507. I made it with these things. Towards the back of the book.

    Now, like I said, itís getting close to dawn. And now Iím in bad shape. And McGarigalís been unconscious for two and a half, three hours already because he lost a lot of blood. He had some gash.

    Aaron Elson: So are you holding him and propping him up?

    Angelo Crapanzano: I was holding myself with my left hand and I was holding onto him with my right hand. And then, it got to a point where, I must have went in and out of consciousness myself. And then what happens is this: You see, youíve got to know something else that happened before this to get the idea of what itís all about. Are you familiar, you see for forty years after the war, this was a complete secret. The only guys that knew was the survivors, and not even their families. Because I didnít even tell my wife about this or my kids or nothing. They knew I lost a ship and they knew I got the Bronze Star medal, but ... [choking up] So, oh yeah, so after what happened, when the 20/20 show appeared in 1984, it was May 3rd, I happened to, this is another weird thing happened to me, I have to tell you this because itís important. After I came out of the service I worked in Paterson for a folding box place, I was in the die-making department. So I had to start as an apprentice, worked myself up, I became an aide die maker, and after a while I became lead man in my department. So then when my foreman decided he was going to retire, the company offered me the job. So I figured itíd be crazy not to take it, more money, better pension, bonus at Christmas, the whole bit. So theonly gimmick was they told me that I had to get out of the union and get into management. So all right, what the hell do I care. So thirty years in the union, so I became the foreman, so I was in management. Six years after I took this job, my boss decided to sell the business. So the new guy, the guy that was going to buy the business, when they were negotiating for price, he wanted to see all the books and all the problems. So when he came to thedie room he said to my boss, "You know, you run this die room the wrong way, itís costing you much too much money." So Ben Lessinger said, "What are you talking about? My father ran it like this for forty years and I had no problem."

    He says, "No, thereís a new thing now. They developed in England a method of making dies with laser beams." And he said now thereís an outfit in the middle of the country thatís making all these dies. He says if I buy the business, all the dies are gonna be made outside and shipped in here. You only need two guys to run that department." And when I was there, I was the foreman and had five guys, four guys on days and two guys on the second shift. So I didnít know this.

    We got wind of it, I came home one day and said, "My boss is going to sell the business."

    So she says to me, "Oh, is that going to jeopardize your job?"

    I said, "No, how could it?" Iím there 36 years, Iím a foreman, there were no problems. This guyís name was Chandler, and him together with two lawyers from Washington who had the money, he sold the business for $14 million. He had the largest folding box plant on the East Coast independently owned. So sure enough, one day he made an announcement, at 4 oíclock everybody go to the plant office. So we go there, and my boss comes out, and he makes a speech and says he decided to sell the business, and this is the new owner, he wants to talk to you. And this guy made a nice speech and said, "The reason we bought the business is we know you people are doing very fine work, and we have no intention of changing any of the personnel. Everything will be cozy, cozy."

    What happens is, this is August of Ď82. The week after Labor Day, Ď82, September, on a Friday my plant manager calls me up on the phone and says, "Do you want to come into my office a minute?:" So Iím walking to the plant office. I go and he says, "Close the door and sit down." I sit down. Heís sitting right across from me. He looks me straight in the eyes, this is at noontime on a Friday, he says, "I donít know how to tell you this but weíre gonna have to let you go." Thirty-six years, Iím 59 years old. I put my blood in that place. And I not only gave them 100 percent, I gave them 120 percent, because there were plenty of times when they used to call me up...

    They terminated my job. I got six monthsí severance pay spread out over a year, and all my benefits for one year. I didnít realize what happened for about two weeks, and then it hit me. Iím sitting here and saying "Holy Christ, what do I do now?" I couldíve went, I was so bitter after that.

    Aaron Elson: Now the book said that you got real depressed...

    Angelo Crapanzano: Oh yeah. That was not really the bad session. I started to develop a problem of depression in 1961. Even the doctor didnít realize, I was going to a psychiatrist, and he didnít realize in the beginning that all my problems were connected to what happened to me in the service.

    Aaron Elson: Did you tell him about that?

    Angelo Crapanzano: Yeah, but he didnít, you see, he said, "No, I donít think so." But you know what happened? In the Vietnam War, they had suddenly understood, they called that post traumatic stress disorder, but these guys, they got hit with it maybe ten, twelve years after they were out of the war it hit them. This is what happened to me. I know now, looking back, No. 1 I was never the same guy again. And then, after I got married I had two daughters, I couldnít get into the happiness things of life like. This thing was smoldering inside of me. I couldnít talk about it, and I didnít realize what the hell was happening. In 1961 I got hit the first time with it, and I ended up in the hospital.

    When this happened to me in 1982, I, naturally I started to feel that way again, but I had medication, and I said I hope this thing is going to hold me up now. But I was in bad shape.

    Aaron Elson: What kind of medication was it?

    Angelo Crapanzano: I had lithium. I forgot the name of the other one. Now theyíve developed stuff like Prozac and a lot of improvements have been made on antidepressants. Anyhow, I was in such bad shape that I was ashamed to go out in the street and have people see me not working. I wouldnít even goout for the mail until I heard everybody leave the lobby, and then I would go out for the mail. Thatís the kind of shape I was in, and itís unbelievable what it does to you. So this is when I said to my wife ó like I was saying, I could have went out the following Monday, because thereís a lot of folding box places. I worked in Paterson, I used to travel 200 miles a week. I could have went out the following Monday, because I had a good reputation, and I could have walked in a place probably and took the foremanís job, but I knew that if I walked into a place and took the foremanís job, the guys that are there would resent me. If I go into a place and take a job as a die maker, Iíd most likely end up on the second or third shift, and as soon as they get slow, whifft, Iím out. So I says the hell with it, I donít want nothing to do with it. I was really bitter.

    I said to my wife, I think Iím gonna join the VFW. I never belonged to any military organization in my life, for 40 years. I said this way I get out of the house two nights a month, and talk to people, and have a drink, and this and that. I figured it was good for me, and really it was. So I did. I joined the VFW in North Bergen. I liked it. I used to go religiously, never missed a meeting. The point Iím getting at is this: This particular night that the 20/20 show is on, I didnít know about it. Weíre eating supper, and I said to my wife, "You know, I donít feel like going to the meeting tonight, I think Iíll just stay home and watch TV." So I got up from the table, come in here, and open the paper ...


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