John Gardella ‘41N, an alumnus, a friendly face, and one of our Academy’s biggest fans leaves a legacy that will never be forgotten. It is with a heavy heart we share with you the passing of a man who literally gave his all to his alma mater.
“Fate is a Strange Hunter” – Remembering John Gardella, AFA ‘41
Article and picture credits: Erik Weber, The Riverside Signal
TOMS RIVER – On Sunday, October 4th, 2015, John A. Gardella, Jr., 92, a well-known, respected and celebrated luminary and graduate of Admiral Farragut Academy – formerly of Pine Beach on these waters, today enjoying renewed life in St. Petersburg, Florida – Class of 1941, passed away, leaving in his wake a life so vibrantly lived that to attempt to put it entirely in print would still miss 95 percent of it.
The Riverside Signal had the opportunity to sit with Mr. Gardella in April 2011 and learn that the most widely-shared attribute of his life – that he was roommate and friend of Alan Shepard, also AFA ’41, later the first American in space – was a blip on the radar of accomplishments, ranging from successfully navigating his platoon on a PT Boat for the Navy through deadly South Pacific waters in World War II to proudly raising his family, with activities and hobbies including photography, writing, skiing, singing and storytelling, among many more, in-between.
Honored in 2013 by his alma mater, academy officials wrote:
Devotion to cause, confidence, and loyalty define John Anthony Gardella. These words colored every choice he made throughout the years he bravely served his country and his beloved Farragut. Committed to Farragut’s Naval military model and core values Cadet Gardella never turned down a single request to serve and until recently…. never missed a single Farragut Homecoming.
In later years, John even stepped up and volunteered his time and energy as Farragut’s much needed Development Director in an attempt to keep the northern school open. In fact, for 72 years through good and bad times, John has remained a devoted Farragut cadet, alumnus, staff member, and friend.
It’s that same spirit of devotion to cause, integrity and honor that also defined John’s military experience. Following graduation John enrolled in LeHigh University where he became President of their Debate Team. As part of a competition that debated whether or not a student should leave college and join the war effort, he debated himself right into enlisting in the Navy! While in Boot Camp he was made a company commander over two warring groups of seamen, a group of Irishmen, and a group of Italians, both from New York! Once again he made lemonade out of lemons by teaching them how to “silent drill” thus winning the all important boot camp competition and creating a bond among his men.
Those same leadership skills, confidence and devotion to cause later motivated him to volunteer as an “expendable” which was the term that was given to those enlisted men that volunteered to man the PT boats during the war. Only one in five was expected to survive that assignment. But those odds didn’t deter John. John was confident he could make a difference, and he did. He was a WWII hero over and over again saving lives and repeatedly putting his own at risk.
At that time, three graduates of the academy – Don Schreiber ‘46N , Frank Wendt ‘42N, and Bob Matthies ‘67N [the “N” signifies northern campus, at Pine Beach], the latter the mayor of Seaside Park and also headmaster to the Pine Beach campus from 1979 to 1993 – wrote letters honoring Mr. Gardella:
“I know of no alumnus who has demonstrated and expressed his love and affection for Farragut more than my true friend John Gardella. He graduated 5 years before me but we are closer today than any of my classmates of 1946.”
Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “A friend is a gift you give yourself.” So I really spoiled myself when John came into my life as a fellow Admiral Farragut Academy cadet over 70 years ago. Our friendship was casual for several decades but increased over time as we pursued our business careers. John asked me to support the Alumni Association as he had been a longtime faithful member and his enthusiasm knew no bounds.”
My admiration for you began when you were President of our Admiral Farragut Alumni Association. I was impressed with your gentlemanly manner and unique leadership style. Everyone appreciated being in your presence and knew the welcome they received was genuine and sincere. Throughout any and all conversations, you would always focus or refocus on how each one of us could assist Farragut and help promote it’s mission. Your dedication to our alma mater by volunteering your services as Development officer… where you are always reminding us that one could never be certain where the next nugget of gold would be found… but nevertheless you had to continue to pan the stream in order to secure a discovery. Thank you for your devotion to Farragut, John.
Below we share part of that day spent with Mr. Gardella, originally printed a spring 2011 edition of the former print edition of the Riverside Signal, plus one of his many stories told and recorded about his time in the service during the war, “Fate is a Strange Hunter.”
Following that, the obituary published by his children and then one of his many poems, “The Thief of Time,” collected in a special 80th birthday booklet by his daughters.
“In December, 1942, I was sent to Green Bay Naval Training Station for boot camp. It was cold. When they checked my records and saw my military background both at Farragut and Lehigh [University, which he attended following one postgraduate year at Admiral Farragut Academy], they made me an apprentice chief petty officer in charge of the training of company 1937. I was a tough [drill instructor] but it paid off as we won THE ROOSTER, the top company at graduation from boot camp. I was selected as Honor Man of my company and as a result had my choice of service schools. I chose Quartermaster (Navigation) School at Newport Rhode Island.
“Every day I would see, at about four in the afternoon, eight to twelve PT boats gliding down the river fro their night time training sessions. They looked great. At my graduation from Quartermaster School, I volunteered for PT service. You had to be in the top five percent of your class to be eligible. I was accepted and traveled a mere eight miles to Melville, the PT training base.
“Five months later, I found myself on the Admiral Greer, a transport, on my way to the Pacific. The Greer had to drop out of the convoy four days out of ‘Frisco with a burned out bearing and without escort. It took us 61 days to reach New Caledonia, and from there an army transport to Guadalcanal. I awaited my boat and squadron on the island of Tulagi and enjoyed my first air raid the first night. The next day I was a member of the crew of PT285, and that night had my first combat patrol off Savo Island, the path the Tokyo Express took to reinforce its troops on Guadalcanal. Saw action there, then at Rendova, Munda, and the “Big One,” Bougainville.
“Went into Bougainville with the invasion, which was comprised of a couple of cruisers, several destroyers and two squadrons of PT’s. After the landing, the big ships pulled out and left the PT’s there as the sole defense of the island. We took terrific losses.
“From there we went to Emirau (Green Island) and patrolled the coasts…”
Here we pick up Mr. Gardella’s detailed written account, “Fate is a Strange Hunter.”
In 1944, I was crew chief and navigator of PT-285 attached to Squadron 23. We were stationed on Green Island (chart name Emirau). Green stood off the northern tip of Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. The capture of Green Island was part of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s plan to leapfrog up the Pacific chain, bypassing many of the then Japanese-held islands. Some 150 miles to the west lay New Ireland, an island still held by the enemy.
Months earlier, our PT had been refitted with much extra armament specifically for those missions no other boat could hand, ‘nor wanted!’ Japanese float planes, each carrying a 500-pound “daisy cutter,” a bomb designed to explode on the surface of the water and spray shrapnel in all directions, had been giving our patrols a rough time, particularly in the Kavieng area on New Ireland.
One dark February night, in a deliberate effort to lure out a bomber and try to knock him down, we were ordered to act as a wounded duck, as “bogey bait,” in the area of Dolomakus Bay near Kavieng.
My best friend aboard PT-285 was our “chief motor mack,” Navy jargon for the chief motor machinist, and the petty officer in charge of servicing and maintaining our engines. My friend was a man of high religious principles who firmly believed his God would watch over him and would return him home unscathed. He never questioned the beliefs of his faith.
Twenty minutes before our patrol was to leave base for Dolomakus, my friend suffered severe abdominal pains and suspected a ruptured appendix. He was placed ashore at the base hospital and a relief engineer came aboard in his place. Ironically, the replacement had been taken off our boat some months earlier and put on shore duty with the base force because of his uncontrollable fear of being killed in action. The fear was rational but it made him unreliable and a danger to the rest of us. However, this was an emergency and neither he nor we had any choice.
We made the three-hour run to Dolomakus and arrived on station at 2100 hours (9 pm). We lay to, engines idling, and, in plain language radioed for help because of a supposed problem with our engines.
In no time at all, signal lights started blinking from one end of the bay to the other, a sure sign that it would not be long before the bogey (Japanese plane) would arrive. And arrive it did.
With his engines cut so we couldn’t hear his approach, he glided in for the attack and, for a brief moment, was silhouetted against a sliver of moon, giving us an opportunity to open fire – belatedly – with everything we had. Our radar, unreliable at best, had conked out minutes before, denying us a precious few seconds of early warning.
Simultaneously, the bogey dropped his bomb and our tracers found their target. The bomb exploded close on our starboard side, rocking the boat and shredding our hull with shrapnel. The floatplane went down in flames a mile away.
Our mission completed, the skipper signaled the engine room for all engines ahead, but there was no response. Our relief engineer had been struck in the groin by a 7-inch piece of shrapnel and was bleeding profusely.
We pulled him up on deck, but because of the location of the wound, there was no way we could apply a tourniquet to stop the hemorrhaging. I called our base repeatedly for medical help but could get no response. Unknown to me, shrapnel had also riddled our radio transmitter and our message never got out.
The three-hour run home in rough seas must have been agony for our wounded shipmate. To make matters worse, our starboard fuel tank had been hit and we had 900 gallons of high octane gasoline in the bilge. We secured our generator, radar and radio to reduce the chance of an electrically caused explosion and, thundering on through the night, trusted the reliability of our compass. Our wounded engineer died from loss of blood 15 minutes before we reached base. Had my message gotten through, a relief boat could have met us halfway with a medic and plasma, and the chances are that he would have lived.
My friend of strong faith returned to duty shortly after and today lives in Washington State.
I have wondered for over 60 years if what happened on that night was the result of fate, or whether my friend’s faith was rewarded by the God he believed in.
It seems ironic that the one man frightened more than the rest of us – and we were all frightened – was killed during the only combat patrol he ever made.
Fate is a strange hunter; faith, a strong ally.
John A. Gardella, Jr., Age 92, of Toms River, passed away on October 4, 2015.
Our father lived a good and long life. As a boy he sailed his first boat on Polly’s Pond, learned the value of hard work helping his father and grandfather in the family grocery business and developed a love of reading and learning from his mother. He graduated from Admiral Farragut Academy in Toms River with honors and began his college education at Lehigh University. When World War II began he enlisted in the Navy for duty on a PT boat and successfully navigated his platoon through the horrors of war in the South Pacific.
On his return he married our mother, Marilyn Lennon (deceased), and the three of us came into this world. We are Christine Gardella Schadler, 67, Betsy Gardella, 64 and Cynthia Gardella, 60. He will be missed and always loved by his wife, Barbara Millington, and her daughter Lori and granddaughter Carly and grandson Christian, by his granddaughters Kylee and Katy, his grandson Nate, his step son Robert and Mark and his great granddaughter Amala.
Our father was a golfer, sailor, photographer, downhill skier, tennis player, ham radio operator, avid reader, dog trainer, (an unabashed promoter of the golden retriever as the ultimate field trial dog), and fantastic story teller. His memories of life and the colorful characters living in Sea Bright can be enjoyed in his book “Green Bananas and Loose Grapes”. Our father could also sing. He was a bass crooner for the Bamboo Butlers, a barbershop performance group which entertained from Rumson to Vermont. We kids sang their Honky Tonk songs around the dinner table at night along with some colorful Navy ditties that at our tender ages we never quite grasped. And our father could dance, sort of. Our first ‘waltz’ and foxtrot took place gliding around the kitchen standing on his giant feet. We thought of him in Homeric proportions.
His great loves were his family, books and his dogs, perhaps not in that order. But his most fierce commitment was to his country – represented by the Admiral Farragut Academy. He volunteered for the Academy as Development Director and kept the Toms River campus afloat for a number of years before the school focused its resources on the Florida campus.
There is an emptiness in our hearts where our father used to be. He was an amazing man in so many ways and he carries our love as long as we live. We learned the value of hard work from him. We loved him differently, each of us, Chris, Betsy, Cindy and Barb, for what he was able to give us and we pray God welcomes him.
Visitation will be on Thursday, Oct 8th from 6 to 9 p.m. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated on Friday, Oct 9th at 11 a.m. at Holy Cross Church in Rumson. Interment to follow at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Middletown.
In lieu of flowers, please consider a gift to the John A. Gardella Scholarship Fund at Admiral Farragut Academy, 501 Park St N, St. Petersburg, FL 33710.
The Thief of Time
by John A. Gardella, Jr.
I don’t know how they came so swift,
These passages of time,
It seems it was just yesterday
That I was in my prime.
There’s nothing that I couldn’t do,
No task that was too new,
That will and might, that will to fight
Would always see me through.
And now I look back through the years
And see the thief at last
Who seemed to take them all away,
The laughter and the tears.
So silently he did steal
My youth, my strength, my life,
But not my cherished memories,
My loves or even strife’s.
Of loves there were so many,
How fortunate for me
My first, my dearest was my Mom
And always she would be
The center of my secret heart
Would that I had her now
So she could share my memories,
The ones that I’d allow
For there were some
I’d have to say,
Of which I was not proud
And but for times relentlessness,
I’d be beneath the shroud
Of deeds I’d done or should have done
Of good works gone astray,
Whose memories will not ever fade,
For the Thief will have his say.
As well I know we can’t go back,
But it doesn’t seem quite fair
That we can’t ever rectify
Can’t make it all come square.
Just one more chance we’d like to say
To right each slight or wrong.
Our Thief just smiles a wicked smile,
And hurries us along.
My daughters filled my heart with joy,
I loved them, oh so much,
The tenderness they did bring forth
Each kiss a tender touch
Upon my cheek, a sweet caress,
No Thief can take from me
Those moments of a father’s joy,
For all the world to see.
There have been times the Thief’s been close,
I’ve felt his clammy breath
But those I loved have brushed away
This silent wraith of death.
Another time, another time,
Some soundless voice would say
And I would rally, gather strength
To live another day.
I’ve lived through war and sickness,
Through happiness and sorrow
And I’m ready for this meeting,
And whatever is to follow
For my Thief is getting closer,
We are coming to the end,
His hand is on my shoulder
Soon I’ll turn and greet my friend.