There was a booming sound, and suddenly Revere’s Michael Giarla was awakened as he sat at the lookout post on his Navy PT-110 boat.
An instant after the boom came a powerful explosion, throwing Giarla through the air – still half-asleep – and depositing him in the ocean where he floated helplessly in the waters of the South Pacific Ocean soe 100 miles off the coast of New Guinea.
The boat was blown to smithereens. Nothing was left of it. Everyone was likely dead, he thought.
He couldn’t feel or move anything below his chest, and he began to sink.
Using his arms, he pulled himself up to the surface and lay in a dead man’s float while saying what he thought were his final prayers before death.
As he pleaded with God there in the tropical waters on Jan. 26, 1944 – he harkened back to just about two hours before the explosion, when his shipmate and friend, Howard Wollman, had implored him to stay awake after his lookout shift and remain on deck to prepare for a submarine bombing later that morning.
Had he ignored Wollman and gone below to sleep – as he wanted to do after his shift finished at 2 a.m. – he’d have surely died with all the others.
It was at that moment that he realized that Wollman had saved his life.
“I was off-duty and had worked the 12 to 2 shift and was going under to hit the sack,” Giarla, now 89, said from his home last week. “As I was headed down, Howie told me to stay up and put on a life preserver because we were going on a run for a submarine. So, I went up and sat down at my post and fell asleep. The next thing I knew there was a loud crash, and then a few minutes later an explosion completely blew up the boat. I immediately thought that the Japanese had blown up our gas tanks. I ended up in the water and was paralyzed. I could move my hands and was able to swim up and get some air.
“I just lay there and said my prayers and did the dead man’s float,” he continued. “That’s all I could do. Lo and behold, a boat came by and threw me a lifejacket. I held on to it and they took off. Awhile later they came back and scooped me up. They gave me a shot of morphine and covered me with a blanket and the next thing I knew, I woke up in an Army Hospital. I never saw Howie again. We got separated, but I realized that he had saved my life because I was going down to the quarters and everyone down there drowned. I would have died too. I needed to thank him.”
Little did he know, it would take a lifetime to say ‘Thanks,’ to his friend.
For years and years, Giarla thought about his friend Howie, but for some mysterious reason he had never seen him after the explosion.
The two of them had been in recovery at the same hospital, but had been separated. Giarla said his one wish was to reunite with Wollman before they left the hospital, but they never got to do that. In fact they went their separate ways and lost touch for decades.
Giarla moved back home to the North End of Boston and began raising a family.
When his family outgrew their small apartment some 55 years ago, he bought some land in West Revere and moved his wife, children and in-laws to Revere – on Grover Street, where he still lives to this day.
He raised his six children, became an avid gardener and embarked on a successful career as a master plumber.
Life sort of slipped by, but one thing that he could never get out of his mind was that night in the South Pacific and how his friend had saved him.
It almost haunted him, he said, until just last month.
Near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in late August, Wollman and Giarla reunited in person after reconnecting by phone about 15 years ago. It was a very emotional time, he said, even after so many years.
“We’ve been talking by phone for about 15 years now,” said Giarla. “Every Jan. 26th I would call him, but we never got to meet in person. This year I felt it was time that we get together. I remembered Howie as a big, strong guy, but to me he looked like an old man when we reunited. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Mike, I lost all my hair.’ I said, ‘Yea, I lost all mine too.’”
“That explosion should have never happened,” said Giarla. “We had no business making a run on a submarine. No one knew what they were doing. The whole thing just ended up just being a mistake.”
During his hospital stay, Giarla said he was briefed on what had happened.
Apparently, another PT boat, the PT-114, had made a mistake in its coordinates and had slammed into the PT-110 that night. The collision had knocked all the depth charges (explosives) off of the PT-110. Such an action should have been inconsequential, but in this case the safety mechanisms had been removed from the depth charges by some unknown crew member – probably to save time.
With the safety mechanisms missing, all of the depth charges exploded at once, annihilating the PT-110 and sending Giarla and those on deck flying into the water.
Everyone else died; only four of 15 survived.
“Normally, when the two boats crashed, nothing should have happened and the charges would have gone down into the water and nothing would have happened because they are all equipped with safety mechanisms,” said Giarla. “Someone took the safeties off. Someone had been ordered to do so. It doesn’t matter who did it. It was just an accident.”
A Cover Up
Though the reasons for the disaster had been disclosed to Giarla, something still didn’t make sense.
Most everyone else in the hospital recovered with other members from their units or ships, but Giarla’s unit had been carefully separated. It was so deliberate that it almost seemed as if the military didn’t want the PT-110 crew to see each other.
Then there were the inaccurate press accounts of what had happened that night in the water.
Releases by the military and coverage in the media had indicated that the boat was chasing a Japanese submarine and was destroyed in combat; that everyone had died honorably during a skirmish.
It certainly wasn’t what Giarla had been told. Though it puzzled him, life moved on.
Then, in the mid-1980s, the publisher of a military magazine specializing in the Navy contacted him about a potential cover-up by the Navy in regards to the PT-110 explosion.
Apparently, the nephew of the Vice President of the United States – and Ensign Gardner – had been on the crew of the PT-110 with Giarla and Wollman. At the time of the explosion, the military and the White House did not want information out there that Gardner had died in a tragic accident. So, they controlled the situation and reported that he had died in combat.
Later, using Giarla and others from the crew as sources, she was able to prove the discrepancy.
“Everyone was sent different places and we didn’t know why,” recalled Giarla. “They got rid of everybody and we could never figure out why. It turns out they were afraid of putting the news of the VP’s nephew having died, so they separated all of us. They didn’t want the news to get out. They put out a statement that he had died honorably, without suffering, in a skirmish with the Japanese. The write for the magazine got a letter from them saying that was not the case, and told her the real story. That was 40 years later though.”
Haunted By That Night
Cover up or no cover up; accident or battle. Either way, Giarla said it is a moment in his long life that he has never been able to escape. Though it comes and goes, he said he can never lose the vividness of the memory and the event – and he said that for the longest time he has been searching for closure.
“This is something I have just never been able to get out of my head,” Giarla pined. “Year after year; things come and go but this one has always stayed with me. Maybe this story will do it. Maybe this will be the one to make me stop thinking of that night. I hope so, but probably not.”