Sotery “Sam” Zulia was only 17 when he enlisted in the Navy during World War II.
He lied about his age, saying he was 18 and eligible to fight. Given the military’s need for able-bodied young men, it didn’t take much to slip through the cracks.
The veteran, now 91, spoke with Langston Middle School students May 25 on his experiences as a radio operator aboard the USS Gandy, an escort destroyer that lost just one ship in seven trips across the North Atlantic.
“I remember hearing about Pearl Harbor in school,” said Zulia. “I couldn’t believe what happened. When President Roosevelt came on the radio and said we were going to war, my classmates started cheering. I just thought, ‘This isn’t good.’ I didn’t know why everyone was jumping around.”
John Georgiadis, a Langston sixth-grader and Zulia’s great-nephew, invited him to speak after completing studies on World War II and the Holocaust with language arts teacher Eileen Hickerson.
“We studied people in Europe who risked their lives to save others,” said Hickerson. “In the midst of all of that, the students have shown great interest in World War II. They love history. Some pictures brought in by other students spurred John to invite his great-uncle. He was the impetus for setting this whole thing up.”
After finishing his Naval training, Zulia awaited his first assignment in New York City only to learn his ship, the USS Bunch, had left without him.
“I waited around there from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” he said. “That ship ended up heading to Normandy, so maybe it was a good thing I missed it.
On April 16, 1944, Zulia and the USS Gandy crew carried out their most dangerous mission.
The SS Pan-Pennsylvania, a tanker, had just been torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine named U-550. In the aftermath, the Gandy carried out orders to ram the enemy vessel. The hit disabled the submarine’s machine gun and caused its crewmen to abandon ship. The Gandy suffered extensive damage to its bow and outer surface but all aboard survived.
The sunken U-550 was discovered July 23, 2012, about 70 miles south of Nantucket, Mass.
Zulia said blimps spotted as many as 30 German vessels off the coast of Rhode Island at various times during the war, some close enough to have the shoreline in view.
His two brothers also survived the war. Simon, Sam’s twin, fought in the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 and early 1945, one of the last major German offenses on the western front. John Zulia served in the south Pacific as an airplane repairman.
“Slim,” as Zulia calls his twin brother, was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
“Slim didn’t like to talk about what happened,” Zulia said. “He had a lot of stuff buried inside and he just didn’t want to discuss it. I imagine he saw a lot of horrible things on the ground over there.”
Their mother, Ergina Zulia, a Greek immigrant, was in the midst of trying to secure citizenship when a judge learned that all three of her sons were serving overseas.
He immediately made her a legal and permanent U.S. resident, Zulia said.
“He couldn’t believe it was even up for discussion with what her sons were doing,” he said. “That was that. It was done.”
Fear of the elements on the ocean and structural integrity of the Gandy were just as prevalent as worry of an enemy attack.
“The Gandy was named after a gunman of the USS San Francisco,” said Stas Georgiadis, Zulia’s nephew who assisted in the presentation. “He had died just before the Gandy set sail. That tells you just how quickly they were churning out these ships.”
“I don’t think anyone can comprehend how fierce it was in the Atlantic on those ships without having been there,” Zulia said. “I never had fear of the enemy. My fear was the ship would break apart during a storm. Many escort ships did break apart like that. They were only made of quarter-inch metal. We were just a bunch of kids trying to stay alive and do our jobs.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.