Betty Brown stood on Main Street blissfully unaware that in the next moment she would encounter the dashing sailor who, three months later, would become her husband.
“He came off of the USS Sarasota in 1952 and almost knocked me down,” Betty (Brown) Shilalie says, her eyes growing wide at the thought of the then-19-year-old John Daniel Shilalie. “I still wonder if he didn’t do that on purpose.”
Straightening himself, Shilalie politely apologized to the petite girl, whom he towered over by nearly a foot, and asked if she wanted to take a walk with him. The two strolled together until they found a nearby bench, where Shilalie learned the sailor was only in town for the weekend.
“We went to the movies — it was probably a love story — and then he walked me home,” Shilalie says. “We had a long ways to walk, and he said, ‘Can I write to you?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’”
The USS Sarasota was a 12,000-ton Naval attack transport ship in the United States Fleet named after Sarasota County. Having just returned from a six-month Mediterranean cruise, the ship departed from its anchored location two miles out from Lido Beach and cruised to just outside Norfolk, Va.
“Off and on he’d come here,” Shilalie says of her husband. “We wrote letters almost every day. He’d tell me he how missed me. Three months later, I got a letter that said, ‘Will you marry me?’”
Nicknamed the “SARA,” the USS Sarasota was built in California and commissioned Aug. 16, 1944. The ship served in the Southwest Pacific Ocean during World War II, and during the war, transported troops, defended itself against air attacks, aided wounded ships and engaged in assaults and landings on Iwo Shima, Japan; Okinawa, Japan; and the Philippines.
This week, a 30-person group of the ship’s former crew members and their wives are celebrating their reunion in Sarasota. Their first stop Tuesday was the Terrace Building to view the official model of the USS Sarasota.
Frank Cona, an original crew member, peers at the model. He points to a spot on the front of the ship where he manned a 20 mm gun and starts recalling dozens of memories from his adventures at sea. In a matter of seconds, Cona is surrounded by other crew members, who were stationed at various places on the ship, from the engine to the deck.
In August 1944, the ship commenced its shakedown cruise in the Pacific, off San Pedro, Calif., where it engaged in practice operations to prepare for duty in the war zones. Within weeks, the society of fighting ships devoted to fighting Japan accepted the USS Sarasota, and on Oct. 25, 1944, it steamed toward the Western Pacific as an attack transport.
In November, the crew — many of whom were first-time seamen — got its first taste of war.
“I remember leaving for the first time and going under the Golden Gate Bridge and the rolling fog coming in,” Cona says. “My first instance of war was off Manus Harbor, in the Admiral Islands, where a ship — the Mount Hood (an ammunition ship) — blew up.”
Cona remembers well the days he bathed in saltwater in the communal showers. Every food item they consumed — with the exception of cabbage — was powdered. The only thing that would keep was cabbage, so the crew ate fried cabbage, baked cabbage and coleslaw. Occasionally, they got lamb from Australia.
“Every time there was an invasion, we’d get fried eggs and bacon,” Cona says. “The troops used to say they were fattening us up for the kill, because we were making an invasion.”
In preparation for its first assault operations in December 1944, the USS Sarasota began loading Army troops off of the Second Battalion, 129th Regiment, 37th Division at Bougainville, Papa New Guinea. Throughout the month, the crew practiced rehearsal landings for the Lingayen Gulf invasion at Lae, New Guinea.
When the ship arrived Jan. 8, 1945, off the western coast of the Philippines, it, along with other ships in its convoy, were subjected to Japanese suicide torpedo boats and dive-bomber attacks. The only casualty was the Escort Carrier, Kit Kum Bay, which was hit and left in the water.
The ship sailed again Jan. 26, hauling the Second Army Battalion, 34th Infantry for the assault on San Antonio Beaches, Southern Zambales, in the Philippines. The troops disembarked at dawn Jan. 29 and again had no casualties.
In March, troops loaded up for Okinawa, Japan. By April 1, the invasion of Okinawa began. One thousand ships — battleships, cruisers, destroyers, subchasers and minesweepers — were launched in the waters off Okinawa.
The crew members spent 19 straight days in its general quarters, never leaving their stations.
“Every time we sailed, there were no lights, because we didn’t want the Japanese subs to see us,” Cona said. “I remember the first time after the war was over and the ship lit up.”
Battleships and cruisers opened fire on the shore, while the USS Sarasota and other transports prepped to off-load the troops. Men from the ship gained the first foothold in the fight for Okinawa and later began unloading cargo to the men who were fighting. But during the unloading operations, kamikaze “suicide” plans appeared in the sky and began making runs on the ships.
Gun crews attacked from all sides, and one ship on the USS Sarasota’s starboard side was hit by a kamikaze. On April 4, the ship attempted to relieve the USS Henrico but found it dead in the water. The Sarasota crew spent the next four days unloading troops and cargo from the Henrico. Although three more ships were hit by kamikazes, the Sarasota was not hit.
Although the ship was decommissioned in 1946, it was ordered re-commissioned for the Korean War in 1951. It was that year, on the ship’s way to its new home in Norfolk, Va., that Sarasotans invited the USS Sarasota to help the city celebrate Independence Day.
Because of its nearly 10,000-ton displacement, the ship had to anchor at least two miles off Lido Beach when it arrived. Crew members from World War II and the Korean War reunited for weeklong festivities, including a fish fry at Bayfront Park and dancing at Sarasota Yacht Club. The highlight of the week was when troops “invaded” Lido Beach as if it were Okinawa, and took residents for tours of the ship. They carried thousands of people between the city pier and the ship, and the visit proved so successful that the ship returned the following Independence Day. It was during that visit that the Shilalies met; the couple settled in 1985 in Sarasota.
In 1991, John Shilalie (who died in 2004) and Sarasota residents Jack Hoffman (an ex Navy man) and Dick Clark organized the first USS Sarasota reunion, held in Sarasota.
This week’s reunion marks the 20th year of their first reunion, and the second time it has been held in Sarasota. The group will host its reunion dinner Thursday, with Betty Shilalie as its honored guest.
As part of the week’s scheduled events, members of the ship’s crew and their wives — among them, Shilalie — crowd around the glass-enclosed $250,000 model of the USS Sarasota ship. With help from John Shilalie and Hoffman, the wood-and-brass model was moved in 1989 from the Naval Museum, in Washington, D.C., to Sarasota. At 4 feet tall and 11.5 feet long, the ship was built to a precise 1/48-inch scale.
After recounting stories from their service days and pointing out various spots on the ship that hold the most memories, the men drape their arms around each other’s shoulders, uniting for a photograph. One of the men pulls Shilalie in with them.
A few minutes later, she pulls out her own photo, a black-and-white picture of herself and her sailor.
By the numbers
8,500 — amount of horsepower on the ship
350 to 500 — number of crew members
10,000 — displacement in tons in 1951
10 — number of decks on the USS Sarasota
17 — speed in knots
3 — number of battle stars earned during World War II
2 — number of boilers
1 — number of propellers
1 — main engine
0 — number of crew members killed during the invasion of Okinawa, Japan
1941 — USS Sarasota is commissioned and acquired by the U.S. Navy.
June 14, 1944 — The ship is launched under the command of James I. MacPherson.
1945 — The ship transports troops to “blue beach” west of San Antonio, in the Philippines.
April 1945 — The ship lands the assault troops from the 96th Infantry Division off the coast of Okinawa, Japan.
August 1945 — The battle at Okinawa ends, and the ship earns three battle stars during World War II.
Aug. 1, 1946 — The ship is decommissioned and berthed with the 19th inactive fleet.
1950 — The ship is ordered into activation with the outbreak of the Korean War.
February 1951 — The ship is re-commissioned, undergoes alterations and is assigned to its new home in Norfolk, Va.
1951 — The ship visits Sarasota, anchors off Lido Beach and plans to “invade” the beach in a simulated assault for Sarasota residents.
1952 — The ship visits Sarasota for a second time.
Sept. 2, 1955 — The ship is decommissioned and remains in reserve until being transferred in June 1966 to the Maritime Administration. There it remains in custody as a unit of the National Defense Reserve Fleet.
1982 — A model of the ship is discovered in Massachusetts by former crew member John Shilalie.
Aug. 1, 1983 — The U.S.S. Sarasota is sold for scrap to Spanish Company Balboa Desguace.
April 1984 — U.S.S. Sarasota is scrapped.
1989 — Shilalie and Jack Hoffman, both Sarasota residents and ex Navy men, raise enough funds to bring the ship model to Sarasota and display it in lobby of the Sarasota County Administration Building.
May 17, 1991 — The USS Sarasota former crew hosts its first reunion, held in Sarasota.
April 2011 — The 20th anniversary of first U.S.S. Sarasota reunion is again held in Sarasota.
Contact Loren Mayo at [email protected].