The following story was written by Marvin Marx, survivor (deceased) and was donated by his son Michael Marx.
THE REAL THING
Written by Marvin A. Marx
26th Fighter Squadron
5th Fighter Group
CACW 14th Air Force
On the second day out, on what was to have been a 40 day voyage from Oran, Algeria to Karachi, India (now Pakistan) we were given instructions as to what to do in case of emergency, such as an air raid by the enemy. The alarm signal was sounded, so that we would recognize it if we heard it again, and the final words were: “The next time you hear this alarm, it will be the real thing!” This was November 26, 1943, the day after Thanksgiving.
We had boarded His Majesty’s Troopship ROHNA on November 24, . . . and got under way during the night. The Rohna was part of a large convoy of allied ships . . .
. . . Early in the afternoon, after the briefing, a kid still in his teens was heard to say that he “wanted to see some ACTION.” A master sergeant assured him that he may see more than he would like before he returned home. Soon after that we heard what sounded like machine guns strafing nearby, and bombs exploding in the distance. I saw the kid in a corner by himself, crying.
At about 5:30 P.M. that day about 20 of us were lined up below the main deck, preparatory to marching through the engine room where we were to have eaten dinner before going on guard duty at 6:00 P.M. The strafing and bombing had continued, off and on, during the afternoon, but now, suddenly it was louder, and we knew, closer. The ship was rocking more violently.
Orders to march into the mess hall were never given. One bomb rocked the ship more violently than any of the others, and we concluded that we had been hit. We were ordered up the companionway to the main deck; then ordered back down, then up again.
What met our eyes and ears was mass confusion!
The crew of this ship were natives of India; the officers were British. (Editor note: and the Captain Australian) Members of the crew were in lifeboats, pleading with the GIs (who were strictly passengers) to operate the mechanism which would lower the lifeboats into the Mediterranean . Someone tried to lower the lifeboat, but due to faulty equipment, only one was lowered, and the Indians tumbled haphazardly into the sea. Later observation showed the mechanism for some of the lifeboats was rusted to the deck! . . .
NO ONE SEEMED TO BE IN CHARGE! No one was giving orders. We observed the captain of the ship at his post, smoking a pipe and saying nothing.
I saw an American soldier climbing up through a burning hold, from below, his face bloody, no doubt from being thrown against a portion of the ship. Of course, he was not the only one injured in this manner. And no doubt, some were so severely injured in this manner that they couldn’t climb up. Others probably were killed instantly by the explosion.
An American Lieutenant ordered a group of us to throw overboard life rafts, wooden planks, and anything that would float, as a large number of GIs had jumped into the sea, some of whom could not swim. W began rushing to the rail, dropping everything overboard without looking to see where it was landing. “It’s not Thanksgiving-it’s the Fourth of July!” we shouted, hoping to boost the morale of some of the others. Soon we were told to look first, as some of this material was landing on the heads of the men who were close to the side of the ship.
We learned later that some of these men, panic stricken, had jumped overboard fully clothed, with helmets in place, straps under chins, a full pack on their backs, and/or rifles in their hands! Their chances for survival were nil.
All this while the fire was raging below deck.
Finally, there was only about fifteen of us left on deck; the guys who had been throwing floatable stuff overboard. Collectively and individually we decided that it was time for us too, to unofficially abandon ship.
I swam to the nearest life raft, already occupied by several Americans, and we all held on, literally, for dear life. I was determined that no telegram from the War Department would be sent to my bride of 20 months.
We could see a hole in the side of the ship, large enough for an automobile, or a truck to drive through. Later, some of us saw the ROHNA sink, stern first. . .
. . . I do not know for how long we clung to the life raft, but during that period the sun sank, and the moon and the stars came out . . . Some survivors later claimed to have been in the water up to 12 hours.
The rescue ship that picked me up had only two rope ladders, and when a crewman lowered a length of rope, I grabbed it eagerly enough but was so exhausted I did not have the strength to pull myself up hand over hand, as some of the younger men did. I just held on to the rope and two sailors pulled me up.
I had to lie down on the deck for 15 or 20 minutes before I could summon the strength to climb down a ladder into a hold, to an extremely warm room. There, other survivors had removed their clothing to dry out by hanging on any available hook or nail.
After a while, a sailor came around with a pot of coffee and one cup, serving coffee one cupo at a time to those who had not as yet had any. No doubt, other sailors were doing the same thing in other parts of the ship.
After putting on our dry clothes, we slept wherever we could, or we didn’t sleep, as the case may be. Next day, after we disembarked near Phillipsville, Algeria, British lorries . . . took us to a British rest camp, within sight of the Mediterranean Sea. Some of us went swimming in our underwear . . . Others didn’t want to see anything but dry land for quite a while! After a few days here, we went to an American rest camp near Bizerte, where we had soupy weather most of the time for the three weeks that we were there . . .
I believe that all who survived the panic, and who were able to reach and cling to a life raft, a plank, etc. long enough, were rescued by either the American mine sweeper, or the Red Cross rescue ship which picked us up from the sea.
First rumors after we were back on land were that 1800 out of 2400 on board had lost their lives; later this was reduced to 1200 out of 1800. No definite fact of this tragedy were published until several years after the end of World War II. At that time it was declared to have been the worst marine disaster in history.
It was also later learned that the bomb (or aerial torpedo) had struck in the engine room, next to the :mess hall” in which we guards were to have eaten our dinner!
Signed, Marvin A. Marx