Gerard E. Zinser – Chief Petty Officer, United States Navy

From a contemporary press report:
Saturday, August 25, 2001

Last survivor of JFK's ill-fated PT-109 dies
Ties to vessel gave Orange Park man his own place in history

It was almost six decades ago that a Japanese collision with his boat clinched Gerard E. Zinser's slot in history.

He went on with his life, carried mail in Winter Park, Florida, raised eight children — seven of them girls — retired to a life of fishing in Naples and, later, slowly fell into the fog of Alzheimer's disease.

But the story of PT-109, and the young Navy Lieutenant named John F. Kennedy who skippered the ill-fated vessel in 1943, never truly faded away.

And the 82-year-old Orange Park man, the last survivor of the patrol torpedo boat when he died Tuesday at Orange Park Medical Center, never forgot.

“He had a picture of Kennedy in his room,” Mark Zinser said yesterday of his father. “You could ask him questions on his personal life and he couldn't answer you. But you point to the picture and say, ‘Do you know who that guy is?' and he'd say, ‘Well, hell, yeah. That's the skipper.'”

Mr. Zinser was a 24-year-old motor machinist new to the boat when PT-109 was shredded by an enemy warship August 2, 1943.

He had been sleeping on deck when the boat, patrolling quietly in the Ferguson and Blackett Straits about 2:30 in the morning, was sliced in two by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri.

Burned on his chest, arms and face by flames, Mr. Zinser was knocked out by the impact. Two other crew members — including the man who had relieved Mr. Zinser after his shift — were killed in the attack, and Kennedy further injured a bad back.

The future president ordered his crew to swim for Cross Island, where the sailors were rescued five days later.

Born in 1918, Mr. Zinser lied about his age to a Navy recruiter in Illinois, his son said, “just to get three squares.”

He would spend 20 years in uniform, eventually retiring and taking a job carrying mail in Winter Park.

Mr. Zinser moved in with his only son and his family in 1998 after Mark Zinser decided he couldn't leave his father in a nursing home.

“Dad is going to come stay with us for a  weekend,” he said he told the staff. “And they never saw him again. I think that gave him a couple more years.”

In addition to his son, Mr. Zinser is survived by seven daughters: Jerilyn Dill of Castleberry, Carolyn Pickard of Lakeland, Patricia Vriesenga of Orlando, Rosemary Shiftlet of Winter Springs, Pamela McLin of Clearmont, Marcia Cristell of Longwood and Margaret Zinser of Warrenton, Va., 24 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Zinser will be cremated and his ashes buried in early October with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia.

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  • DATE OF BIRTH: 05/31/1918
  • DATE OF DEATH: 08/21/2001

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