BARRE GAZETTE, February 11, 1988 Eighty-Three Days And Forty-Five Years: Remembering Basil Izzi by Lester Paquin Before he joined the United States Navy in April of 1942, Basil Dom- inic Izzi worked at Chas. G. Allen's foundry on School Street in Barre, and was known for his determination and reserve. As distinguished as this spirited young man was to his family and friends, he remained yet another American teenager on the verge of going to war. When he completed his basic training in Newport in May of that year, Basil was assigned to merchant marine service. He returned home to Barre for two days' leave in July, then left to become a member of the Navy's armed guard, assigned to a Dutch luxury liner. His loved ones had no idea that his life was about to change forever. The next time they saw him, he would be a hero. The ship had been converted from passenger service to wartime cargo duty by the Allies, its once gleaming exterior now shrouded in battleship grey. Looking like any other warship of its day, Basil and his ship mates were stunned when they saw the interior of the ship.
Once inside, the liner still bore the embellishments of the prestigious transatlantic passenger trade it was created to serve. Fine woods and crystal fixtures surrounded crates of war materiel, sitting heavily on Oriental carpeting. The dining room stewards had been replaced by Navy seamen, their uniforms now hanging in closets designed for tuxedos and evening gowns. Still, the men were unhappy. Staterooms meant for two were now quarters for six, the food was awful and the bickering constant. The only escape from the boredom of passage was maintaining the ship's newly-installed artillery and an occasional leave in port. Basil had leave in South Africa before the ship left port, bound for New York. On Nov. 1, 1942 Basil and two other crew members were painting gun turrets on the port side of the ship. They assumed the plane which flew overhead was friendly, although they couldn't identify it. They finished their job, then went below decks to play cards before chow.
They did not see the plane return at 4:15 p.m., nor could they have seen the German submarine it foreshadowed. At 4:30, Basil and four friends tossed a fifth crew member out of their cabin for interrupting their game. This deed done, Basil was about to lay his winning hand on the bunk when a torpedo from their unseen companion slammed into the liner. The damage was extensive and fataI. Wreckage and sea water poured into the cabins and companionways below decks. Although there was much noise, confusion and fear, there was no panic. Basil made his way to the bridge where his gunnery officer, Ensign James Maddox, gave orders to his young crew to man their battle stations. The Captain then appeared, saying it was only a minor explosion in the engine room, not a torpedo. As Basil made his way toward his 'gun position in the stern, and as Ensign Madd0x began arguing the point with the Captain, a second torpedo struck the port side. All power was now lost, and Basil, still at his position in the stem, watched as the once sleek vessel, now twisted and awry, went down rapidly by the bow. A voice near him said "Let's get out of here!", and Basil ran into the ship's laundry and grabbed a shirt, then headed for the rail. He paused briefly, not knowing whether to jump or head some 30 feet toward the bow and just walk into the water. An explosion beneath his feet prompted him to jump, and once in the water he caught a piece of wreckage in time to see the proud ship descend vertically into the sea. The submarine surfaced, and four Germans appeared on deck and watched the men struggling in the water. They produced a machine gun, and Basil was certain they would use it on the survivors. They did not, instead returning to the safety of their vessel and disappearing beneath the waves, as silently as they had come. For two days Basil clung to wreckage, frequently exchanging it for larger, more substantial pieces. Near the end of the second day, nearly overcome with delirium, Basil spotted a large raft with four men aboard. He abandoned his section of bamboo, once used as decoration in the ship's elegant lounge. He swam toward the raft and was pulled aboard by Ensign Maddox, who greeted him with "Where have you been hiding?'
Other "passengers" on the eight by ten foot wooden hatch cover were a third American, sailor George Beezley, Cornelius van der Slot, an oiler on the ship and Nicko Hoogendam. Beezley and Hoogendam had been tor- pedoed once before, and were passengers on the Dutchship on its return to New York. For the next 83 days, their lives would hang in the balance. The readership of the Barre Gazette was made aware of Basil Izzi's plight for the first time in its issue of Thurs., Nov. 19, 1942. The small article appeared at the top of the last page, sandwiched be- tween an advertisement from the New York Central Railroad (which iron- ically discussed the Nazi threat to ship convoys), and an offer from the Coronado Hotel in Worcester of Thanksgiving Dinner for $2, including parking and entertainment. Thanksgiving in the South Atlantic, however, came and went without notice aboard the raft, nicknamed by its occupants "The Shark's Pit." Thirty days into their ordeal, Basil had his 20th birthday, serenaded by his fellow survivors. Twelve days later, the Ensign turned 30. James Maddox was the kind of man you would least expect to find in military conflict. A professor of speech at Purdue University and an ordained minister before the war, Maddox was soft-spoken and gentle, extremely well-mannered and beloved by the men with whom he served. His quiet sense of humor and deeply held religious convictions provided the emo- tional strength he and the others needed to sustain them throughout their ordeal. Each man on the raft harbored at least one treasured thought -- some- thing to look forward to when this was over. For Basil, it was an endless feast of his mother's spaghetti and meatballs. For Jimmy Maddox, it was being reunited with his young wife. When be had sailed away, his wife had placed her wedding hand with his on his finger -- he would kiss them each night before he went to sleep. When their struggle began, the raft contained two pounds of chocolate, nine cans of milk, two dozen hard-tack biscuits and 10 gallons of water. These rations were gone 19 days later -- they gave most of the hard-tack to the birds because it made them thirsty. With nothing to eat, creative invention became necessary. The men caught a four-foot shark using their dangling toes for bait, an improvised lasso for capture. The next day, they saw a ship and hailed it, but it disap- peared half an hour later on the horizon. Another ship was sighted the day after, with the same disappointing result. On the 24th day, their water supply ran out. It rained three days later, and they captured rainwater by making a canvas trough. Basil's birthday produced one of their heartier meals when a school of small fish sought refuge under the raft. Caught barehanded, they were eaten bones and all. Birds landing on the raft to escape the chop of the sea were also fair game, and their entrails were used as bait for larger fish. The survivors' clothing began to rot on the 40th day, and Basil made himself a new pair of shorts from his life jacket. Beezley lost sight in one eye, deafness followed on the 66th day. He then developed severe stomach pains, which lasted two days. Delirious, he raved about his girlfriend and died during the night. Ensign Maddox performed the funeral service. As Beezley's body was lowered over the side of the raft, Maddox commented, "I hope I won't be the next one." In Basil's words, "Lieutenant (he was posthumously promoted) Maddox went like Beezley on the 77th day." Before he died, he murmured about his wife as he fondled their wedding rings. They buried him at sea using prayers he had taught them. Now there was three -- van der Slot, Hoogendam and Basil. Crew member van der Slot was nearing 40, Nicko Hoogendam was all of 17, and Basil was now 20. The spirits of the men were now at their lowest point. Jimmy Maddox, their conscience and symbol of their human dignity and hopefulness was gone -- without his optimism and encouragement to keep them going, Basil and his Dutch comrades now pre- pared themselves for death. Back home in South Barre, Basil was, to many of his friends and rela- tives, already dead. Only his mother Rose steadfastly believed he would return, to the point Where she mobilized her daughter Angela to pressure the government for information and response. Angie wrote letter after letter, at the same time trying to raise a young family of her own. Basil was the first-born son in the Izzi family, making him the precious center of his close-knit Italian relatives. His absence from them was painful enough, his loss was incomprehensible. To avoid having to deal with the increasing fear that he was indeed gone, all talk of him in the household ceased. Each of his brothers and sisters sustained themselves with their own memories of their "favorite brother," remembering his gentle laughter and ability to keep a secret. Angie remembered the in- teraction between Basil and his mother, especially at mealtimes. Due to the hours he kept and the jobs he was doing, Basil would often miss meals with the family. Rose would always cook for him, no matter when he chose to eat. She would sit right next to him as he ate, watching his every move with admiration and respect. As you might im- agine, it drove Basil crazy. It was this particular memory which Basil recalled most often during his days and nights at sea.
Eighty days had passed when the men on the raft spotted a plane, but it didn't see them. They laughed, cried and prayed, but could not sleep that night. Early the next morning, another plane flew overhead. Then they saw four more. The miraculous rescue of the three survivors is best recalled in the words of Seaman Izzi: "We were holding Van around the knees so he could stand up. Suddenly he shouted (that) he could see smoke on the horizon. Sure enough, it was a convoy with escort vessels. A PC boat headed straight for us. The first thing I saw on the PC boat was an officer with a shell in his hand -- in case our raft turned out to be something else. We thought we could walk the minute we set foot on deck -- we found we couldn't. We hollered for good old Navy beans, but they gave me a bowl of peaches.first, and then the blankets were ready for us." It was now Jan. 24, 1943. The survivors gained their weight back quickly aboard the rescue vessel. They were brought first to a hospital in Brazil, then to the United States Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. Once in Bethesda, Basil wrote to his family and assured them of his good health and safety. The Izzi family found out that Basil was safe not from the government, but in the morning newspaper. The War Department still maintained that his well-being could not be verified, but that soon changed. A terse telegram finally arrived at the Izzi home, stating that "...Sea- man Basil Dominic Izzi, U.S.N.R., previously reported missing following action in the performance of his duty is now reported to be a survivor. The anxiety caused you by the previous message is deeply regretted." Basil's mother Rose was so grateful that she kept a promise she had made to herself to walk to St. Thomas-a-Becket church from the family home on Powder Mill Road in her stocking feet (bearing in mind that it's January). The priest met her at the door and offered her assistance inside. She refused, marching instead to the altar to give thanks for her son's miracle. Basil finally came home to Barre on Sun., April 11, 1943, three weeks before Easter that year. The "Barre Gazette" of April 8 had contained explicit instructions on parade participation. As Frederick Hiller, Barre Gazette publisher, also served as the "Izzi Welcome Home" committee chairman, the story now ran on page one. The train bearing the young hero reached Union Station in Worcester at 2 p.m. that afternoon. The fit and trim sailor stepped from a private railroad car and saw his parents for the first time in nearly a year. When the emotion of the moment had subsided a bit, official greetings and addresses of welcome were delivered by a host of dignataries. Governor Saltonstall and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands had been invited to attend, and both sent official representatives. Her Majesty praised Basil's heroism and expressed the gratitude of her nation for his courage. At the conclusion of the official welcome, the Barre Brass Band struck up "Anchors Aweigh" and the parade began. The motorcade, made up of cars festooned with signs and bunting, left the train station and proceeded down Main Street and finally out of the city, eventually traveling to the Clubhouse at High Plains Field -- still the longest parade on record in the Commonwealth. Once back in his native South Barre, Basil graciously accepted the praise of his friends and neighbors. More prayers, speeches and musical selections followed, to be repeated yet again on the bandstand in Barre Center later in the afternoon. By available accounts, Basil heard the Star-Spangled Banner four times that day, the Navy Hymn six times. No less than 14 speakers praised him and all spoke eloquently of his ordeal, fueled by the fury of the war overseas. When it ended, Dominic Izzi invited all who wanted to join them to come back to the family home. Following this, a formal reception was held at Florence Hall in South Barre, complete with a Grand March and the presentation of many gifts to the handsome young symbol of our national pride and defiance against the enemy. A long day of thanksgiving and celebration was over. A committee of 63 Barre citizens, each being assigned different tasks for the occasion, had overwhelmed their war hero on that Sunday, and although it was now over, Basil's next duty to his country was just beginning,
Now especially valuable to the United States Navy as a morale booster, Basil began to tour defense plants throughout the country to tell his story, He enraptured audiences everywhere he spoke, managing to intersperse occasions of ceremony into his touring schedule. He received numerous medals and commendations, visited Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City, several senators and congressmen, and other Americans of prominence.
Basil's most important and poignant visits, however, were to the families of Jimmy Maddox and George Beezley. Basil was never far from tears when he talked about these men, and he was especially moved when he met his officer's wife and parents, returning the two wedding rings to Maddox' young widow. He gave each of the families of these men a gold watch from the townspeople of Barre, and spent many hours recounting their times together for those they left behind. Once he had satisfied his obligation to the Industrial Incentive Division of the United States Navy and the war effort in general, Basil returned to Barre where he would live out the rest of his life. He sel- dom spoke of his ordeal after the war ended, saying it made him uncomfortable because "so many boys' didn't come home." Basil was a quiet, unassuming man who was strengthened beyond measure by his experience in the South Atlantic. Those of us who were fortunate enough to have known him remember the gentle peace in his eyes and warmth of his smile. The young sailor with the reassuring face grew into a man whose pleasures were simple and who suffered beyond our ability to comprehend. Seeing pictures of Basil as he toured the country after he came home, we are struck by his apparent patience and purpose. He became everyone's younger brother, someone America could see, touch and hear -- someone we all admired and could identify with. While we may not have been able to empathize with the scope of his suffering, we could see him now -- strong, healthy, charming and symbolic -- and claim him as the best we had to offer, and consequently the best we were, and the best we had to give. The illustration of this young man's endurance as the price we must be willing to pay for freedom was a powerful and effective one, bringing a hit of light and hope to a war-weary country when it needed it most. Basil lzzi's life ended on July 2, 1979, 36 years after he had faced death for the first time. His mother died four months later, again never believing that he had gone. Basil Izzi brought a distant war home to Barre and we have no concept today of how deeply this country was touched by the second world war, nor can we fully understand the jubilation when Basil came home to us. Victory gardens, rationing of food and gasoline, war bonds, and scrap metal and silk stocking drives in Barre are foreign concepts now, and today our definition of war and its deprivation causes us to look to places like Beirut or the Persian Gulf. In 1943 the war was here, with us. So was Basil Izzi, reminding us of the price we must pay for freedom, and the commensurate joy we expe- rience when that rare occasion arrives when we can welcome such as he home and express our gratitude. Basil gave us a special gift -- that of himself. Through his suffering and pain we were made to appreciate our lives and good fortune. Once Basil's sister Angela had gently chided him for his not going to church on a regular basis -- thinking that if anyone needed to be grateful, he did. His response was that he and God knew and understood each other very well, that God knew where to find him -- "Remember,'' he told her, "He did once -- and we've been together ever since."
Here ends the story of Basil Izzi, perhaps one of the best and most true depictions of Basil's rescue and his impact on Barre's citizens. He is, and always will be, one of Barre's citizens. He is, and always will be, one of Barre's greatest heroes. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Lester Paquin and Angela Whigham, Basil's sister, for providing this newspaper with such outstanding account of Basil's rescue and return back to Barre.
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