Thanks to Charles J. Williams of Orina, California for sharing his experience in the ROHNA sinking. Charles has recently found the ROHNA Survivors Memorial Association via this web site and would be very happy to hear from his old buddies. He was with B Company, 31st Signal Heavy Construction Battalion.
Here is Charlie’s account, edited slightly for this site.
When the guided missile struck, it sent a rumble through the ship similar to a California earthquake. Several seconds later you could feel the ship starting to list. When the ship listed everyone headed for the stairs immediately. One of the older men in the outfit named Sullivan yelled out “Easy, easy, walk, walk” or something to that effect. It calmed everyone down and we all just walked up the stairs.
We were up on deck about five/ten minutes when the order came “Abandon ship”. I walked up and down the deck looking for a friend, Marion Goracy and yelling his name. Marion was one of the replacements to Co. “B” during advanced training to bring the company up to full strength. Going over to Africa on the liberty ship we became good friends. The bunks on the ship were five high. He had the bottom bunk and I had the second from bottom. We talked for hours on end, and in Africa we buddied around together.
Not being able to find Marion I returned to the bow section of the ship over the hold in which we were quartered. There were a couple of men there from Co. “B”. One was named Leyden and the other Shambis. (ed, note, Sgt. Deloss H. Shambis, casualty) Shambis could not swim and refused to leave the ship. He evidently couldn’t swim. He refused our help and said he was going to stay with the ship until it went down. I have a feeling there were other men from Co. “B” in the area but I can’t remember who they were.
By this time most of the troops were going over the side, and were in the water. While the men were in the water right near the side of the ship, someone was releasing the liferafts. (The life rafts about 8’w x 10’l x 3’d) and heavy. The rafts were hitting the water right in the middle of swimmers. I personally did not see anyone hit by a raft, but I’m sure it was more than possible, and men probably lost their lives in this manner.
When I decided to go into the water I did two things; first I took off my shoes and jacket, and second, I blew up my life preserver manually to where it resembled a tight inner tube. The life preservers we were issued were about six inches wide and laid flat. The preservers had gas pellets built in, in time of emergency squeezing the pellet would fill the preserver with lighter than air gas. A short hose was attached to the tube, which allowed the tube to be filled with air and a shut off valve for sealing the gas or air.
Leyden and I went into the water together, I partially climbed down a rope ladder until I was 15′-20′ above the water and then jumped the remaining distance. A USN minesweeper, the “Pioneer” lay off our port 200-300 yards in the water. The current was sweeping the swimmers in a long line to the minesweeper. The minesweeper was perpendicular to the line of swimmers, and I headed for the ship.
Halfway to the minesweeper I passed a swimmer to my left; everyone was passing him for he was letting the current carry him. When I got approximately 10′ passed him I heard him softly calling “help, help me.” I felt I was in no danger, and I turned around and swam back to the GI. I asked what was wrong. He said, “I can’t breathe”. He had an O.D. shirt on, and the material in the collar was shrinking, slowly choking him. He had his hands out in front and didn’t dare move them. I got my hand inside the collar, and ripped the collar open. The GI let out a sigh of relief, and when I asked him if he was okay, he said yes. I said, “Fine, I’m going for that ship”.
When I started for the ship, he called out “Don’t go, stay with me awhile”. He was floating all right, but wasn’t sure of the water. When he called I didn’t know whether he was pleading or ordering me to stay. The minesweeper wasn’t going anyplace so I decided to keep him company for a short period of time. The man was a little scared and very anxious, but he kept his head and was calm. I had one eye on him, and one eye on the minesweeper. A few minutes later, he exclaimed “There is a hatch cover over there. Get me to it and you can take off”. So I dragged this man 20-30 yards to a hatch cover in the sea. When we got to the hatch cover, he grabbed on for dear life, and you could feel the tension leave him. After a minute or two he said “O.K. you can go, and thanks”.
I assured him he would be all right, and took off for the minesweeper. I got within 30 yards of the minesweeper, and it slowly started to move and then took off like a shot. I remember dog paddling in the water and cursing like hell. However in the long run I’m glad I stopped to help the GI. Even though he was in no man’s land, he kept his calm and composure. I am hoping he was one of the survivors. If he ever writes in about the incident, please let me know.
On the way to the minesweeper, I turned and looked back at the ROHNA. There was a hole in her port side, off centered from the center of the ship toward the rear. The hole was (best guess) 60’w x 25’h, and there was a raging inferno within.
I floated around for a time, and after about a half-hour I found myself at the bow of one of the ships in the convoy. A half-inch hemp rope line was hanging down from the deck. I yelled for help, which never came, but I had hold on that rope line. I was determined one way or other I was going to make it to the deck of that ship. The water was starting to swell, with the swells getting larger and larger as time went by. I was having no luck climbing the rope hand over hand. There were times when a swell would come and the ship went down at the same time. I timed one of these swells, and when the swell arrived and the ship went down, it lifted me 10′ relative to the ship. I wrapped the rope around my right wrist at the peak of the swell, and it left me completely hanging out of the water when the swell resided. My weight was too heavy and the rope was too slippery. I slipped back into the water and the rope cut a gouge out of my right wrist. I never made it up that rope.
The following day at a British rest camp, sick called was sounded. At that time my wrist was bleeding and sore and I reported to sick call to have it bandaged. Several months later all who reported to sick call on that day were awarded “purple hearts”.
After twenty minutes of trying to climb that rope I decided it was a lost cause and stopped trying. The currents kept pushing me into the side of the ship, and I decided to swim around the bow to clear it. When I cleared the bow of the ship, I spotted a lifeboat off in the distance. I said to myself “great”, and swam for the lifeboat. The lifeboat was overloaded with men and taking water. When I started to climb into the boat, six pairs of hands grabbed me and threw me back into the water. Men were yelling at me, “You can’t get on this life boat. It is overloaded”. Since I wasn’t too uncomfortable in the water, I felt I might be better off in the water. The men on the boat were squeezed and crunched together, and looked extremely cold.
I was hanging on the gunwale of the boat and noticed a GI hanging on about 4′ to my right. The man was dead tired and he did not have a life preserver. There was a man in the boat helping him and encouraging him to hold on. The Good Samaritan or some one close to him was looking around and spotted a corpse in the water floating around with a life preserver. I don’t remember exactly what happened next but someone suggested the idea of somebody swimming out and getting the life preserver. Since I was the only one in the water, and they saw me swimming for the lifeboat, I was elected to go for the life preserver. It took about 15 minutes to swim out and drag the corpse and life preserver back to the boat. It was too difficult to get the preserver off the body out in the water so the Good Samaritan rolled the body over, and we managed to get the preserver off the corpse and onto the dead tired GI.
We went on like this for 1/2 hr – 1 hr, and then the lifeboat capsized. I pushed off from the boat, and watched the men and boat go down. First the boat went down, and then the men went down. First their chest and shoulders and then their heads and all in unison. It was like watching a bad movie. After the boat and men went down, I paddled around waiting for heads to pop up. There were 45-60 men in that lifeboat and I didn’t see anyone come to the surface. It was erie. I was trying to reason what would have caused all those men to drown. Since some of them went directly from the deck of the ROHNA. into the lifeboat, they probably had their shoes and jackets on which would make swimming very difficult. They were extremely cold and cramped, and maybe some had deflated their life preservers before or after getting into the lifeboat. Maybe some of the men who couldn’t swim grabbed on to others as they were going down.
If there a chance the Good Samaritan lived and told his Story, I would like to know whom he is.
After the lifeboat went down I started to drift with the currents again. I came across a group of men just swimming together. Three of the men were GI’s and one was an Indian seaman. One man was extremely sick from swallowing seawater, and the Indian seaman did not have a life preserver. The Indian seaman was weak from continually swimming, and constantly jumping on the weak GI who was wearing a preserver. The weak GI had a friend who was warding off the Indian, and trying to keep his mouth out of the water. The friend recognized I was a good swimmer and ask me for help in warding off the Indian seaman. We pushed away several times, and then agreed the next time the Indian tried to grab onto the sick GI we would push his head under water, hold him there to warn him what would happen if he didn’t stop. The Indian approached again and I grabbed onto his shoulder and pushed him down, and the other GI did the same. The Indian was extremely tired, and as I held him down I could feel him give up the struggle. I held him in place for a minute or two, and then released my grip and he slowly sank, rubbing against my leg.
The GI and I killed the Indian seaman, but we didn’t do it out of meaness, and it never bothered my conscience. It was like a case of triage. If there is a choice between a stranger and a friend in a critical situation, you always choose the friend.
After a time a raft from the ship came into view, and I took off for it. It seemed like a safer situation than the one I was in (just floating around). There was one man sitting on top of the raft, and several in the water hanging on to the sides. The man on top of the raft was Harry Taylor, the youngest man in Co. “B”, and he didn’t survive. The raft turned out to be quite dangerous. By that time into the night the water swells were getting rough, and if the swell was large and timed just right it would tip the raft end over end. The men in the water had to stay on the sides of the raft in order not to have the raft comes down on them.
We were with the raft for a long time until the minesweeper picked us up. The minesweeper appeared way in the distance. The only thing we could make out was a searchlight sweeping back and forth. It seemed like it took a long, long time before the searchlight started to approach us when the minesweeper pulled along side of the raft. The swells and the current started to crash the raft up against the side of the minesweeper, so we had to make sure we cleared the raft when we swam into the rope ladder on the side of the ship.
The minesweeper picked us up somewhere between 10:30—12:00 PM. About one hour after picking us up, the minesweeper took off for port. We landed somewhere on the African coast and stayed with a British army unit. We were supplied with British army clothing and shoes. All of the survivors were assigned to a large medical tent. There is one thing I remember about the tent, the following night when we were all asleep, one of the men let out a scream or holler. Every man in that tent sat up at it instantly.
The survivors of Co. “B” were gathered and shipped by rail to a rest camp near Bizerte. After the last straggler arrived, we were scheduled to ship to India. When we arrived at the boarding area to board ship, what did we see, but a sister ship that looked exactly like the ROHNA. You could hear the groan that went up.
Everything in this account is true, and I’m hoping you have heard from the three men involved; the GI with the choking collar, the tired GI without a life preserver at the lifeboat, and the sick GI and friend. They were good men, and I’m hoping I get a chance to meet them.
The sinking of the ROHNA. happened nearly 56 years ago, and remembering everything with clarity is difficult. If possible I shall try to attend the conference next month. When we were kids, my family used to take us to Rock-a-way Beach on Long Island. It used to be the roughest water you could find to swim in. The waves came in 8′ to 10′ high and would crash right in front of you. You learned to take them on by diving right into the wave. For many of the men who died on that fateful night, and for many of the men who survived, the night of November 26, 1943 must have been a harrowing experience. For myself, the minute I entered the water I felt safe, but for a long time I remembered the concern on Shambis’s face dealing with fact he couldn’t swim and wouldn’t accept help.