Survivor's 68-year nightmare stops

Intense moments: Frank Zalot, subject of a short documentary by Kapiti film-maker Linda Niccol.
Intense moments: Frank Zalot, subject of a short documentary by Kapiti film-maker Linda Niccol.

Kapiti film-maker Linda Niccol edged into new territory last week with a rapid-fire shoot in Paekakariki of a short documentary for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

The Secondhand Wedding creator said the film about the experiences of WWII US Navy sailor Frank Zalot was her first documentary.

Most of the shooting for the seven minute film was done over two days, with voice-over from Zalot combined with black and white re-enactments of key scenes.

Despite its rapid shoot and a modest budget the film will try to pack in a remarkable amount of incident from a tragedy off Paekakariki in 1943 that killed 10 US Navy sailors.

Zalot, who lives in Massachusetts, served in New Zealand in support of the 15,000 marines stationed in three camps in Kapiti from 1942 to 1944. He returned last month to take part in a two-week programme marking the 70th anniversary of the marines' arrival here.

He spoke to the Kapiti Observer last week from a home in Ames St, Paekakariki, that was serving as a base for the shoot.

Zalot was one of 25 navy personnel in the beach party, whose job was to guide the other 34 landing craft bringing 1600 marines ashore at Paekakariki. His landing craft was the last to leave the beach to return to the ship at about 9pm. While being towed out to sea huge waves smashed into the boat, capsizing it and drowning the 10 men.

Zalot was rescued after about 45 minutes - and never forgot the horror of the scene after the boat capsized.

"I've had this nightmare for 68 years. Before I fell asleep every night I could hear the men screaming, and I would see silhouettes of heads and arms flailing. The screaming: It isn't a normal scream, like you hear people scream, it's 'help, I'm dying', 'help, I can't swim'; women can't scream like men can - it's a terrifying scream, it lives with you forever."

The nightmares stopped, Zalot said, after he heard the victims had been officially named in a ceremony held last year.

"These weren't screams I was hearing all these years - it was a message from these guys: 'tell our story - we died in a far off land and they don't even know our names'."

The ministry paid $4725 for the film, which will tell the story through its NZHistory website as part of a feature on US Forces in New Zealand during the war.

Producer Shona Jaunas said the short film would hopefully be the forerunner to a full length documentary, with interviews already in the can of two other US servicemen who returned for the anniversary.

In the meantime, Niccol, Jaunas and cameraman Mason Branch are set to have Frank Zalot, A Survivor's Tale completed by the end of this month - including footage shot in the waves from a head- mounted camera.

The single, headmounted camera shoot was just part of filming on a budget, Niccol said.

- For more information on the history of the US Marines in New Zealand, see us-forces-in-new-zealand.

Kapiti Observer