John Adolphus Zehner was born in Athens, Alabama, on 29 May 1914, son of Mark and Hattie (Clark) Zehner. He attended Athens High School and enlisted in the US Navy on 25 October 1933. He advanced from Apprentice Seaman to Chief Boatswain (W-4), and was commissioned Ensign on 15 May 1943. Through subsequent promotions, he attained the rank of Commander, to date from 1 November 1957.
Throughout his entire period of enlisted service, during combat and after the end of World War II, Commander Zehner was attached to the USS New Orleans. As an enlisted man he had deck and gunnery duties, and after he was commissioned, he served as First Lieutenant and Damage Control Officer of that cruiser from 15 September 1943, until 9 November 1946. The New Orleans saw action from 7 December 1941 (Pearl Harbor, Midway) through many major operations in the Solomons, Gilberts, Marshalls, Marianas, Carolines and the Philippines (Leyte), and finally Okinawa Gunto. She won sixteen battle stars, and lost her bow back to turret II in the Third Battle of Savo.
He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, “For heroic service while in charge of the Deck Repair Party of the USS NEW ORLEANS, in action against enemy Japanese forces off Guadalcanal on the night of 30 November 1942…” The citation continues: “When a torpedo explosion in the forward magazine and gasoline tanks blew off the bow of the ship and caused a large fire, Lieutenant Commander (then Boatswain) Zehner proceeded to the scene of the fire and took charge of the firefighting operations. Since the fire hydrants in the vicinity were inoperable and much of the fireman was damaged, he lead hoses from more distant hydrants and rigged a submersible pump which, within forty0five minutes, had extinguished the fire. Working throughout the night and the following day, he cleared away wreckage, stopped leaks and drained flooded compartments, thereby contributing materially to saving his ship…”
He also received a Letter of Commendation, with Ribbon, from the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, for “meritorious service in connection with operations against the enemy during the period 7 December 1941 to 19 June 1945, while serving as a Division Officer and then as Damage Control Officer of the United States Cruiser NEW ORLEANS…(when) he organized the ship’s Damage Control and Repair parties into a team…(and) contributed to the fighting efficiency of his ship…”
On 9 November 1946, he assumed command of the USS Nespelen (AOG-55), and remained at sea in that command until 2 December 1947. He then became Officer in Charge of the Damage Control School at the Fleet Training Center, Norfolk, Virginia. That tour completed in March 1950, until 11 August 1952. He next served as Harbor Operations Officer on the Staff of Commander Military Sea Transportation Service, North Pacific Sub Area, Headquarters at Seattle, Washington, and on 9 February 1954, was transferred to duty as Executive Officer of the Military Sea Transportation Service Office, Kodiak, Alaska.
Completing his tour of duty in Alaska in August 1956, he assumed command that month of the USS Escape (ARS-6). He was then under orders of 3 February 1958, to Twelfth Naval District Headquarters, San Francisco, California, and further assignments.
In addition to the Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V”, and the Commendation Ribbon, Commander Zehner has the Good Conduct Medal with two stars; the American Defense Service Medal with star; the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three silver stars and one bronze star (16 operations); the American Campaign Medal; World War II Victory Medal; Navy Occupation Service Medal; China Service Medal (extended); National Defense Service Medal; and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon, with two stars.
He was married to the former Delores L. Brady of San Francisco, California, on 11 December 1945, and they had two children. Commander Zehner died on 28 February 2005.
He died on 28 February 2005.