When World War II broke out Nels Quam was 49 years old. He had served in the military in World War I and now again wondered what he could do for his adopted country. He was too old for the military. As a teacher and Superintendent of an Iowa school district he realized that some of his former students were on the firing line. Was there any way that he could serve them he wondered. He reasoned that if he couldn’t serve them, perhaps he could serve other American sailors and soldiers. This ultimately led him to apply to serve with the Red Cross. He was accepted and soon thereafter reported for training and assignments.
In his autobiography, Quam wrote, “In a few days we were on the ship in a convoy in the Atlantic. Everything went well all the way to Oran, North Africa. . . . .We landed in Oran, North Africa after eighteen days of travel. There we remained ten days before shipping out again. . . . . On Thanksgiving Day, we boarded an English ship, Rhona, with an East Indies crew that joined a convoy bound for India as our destination. The story of this travel I reported in a letter I wrote from Egypt to my sons, John and Paul.”
This letter, written exactly one year after the Rohna Disaster, November 26, 1943, is follows unedited.
Somewhere in Egypt , November 26 1944
Dear John and Paul:
A year ago today you and Mother were very much in my thoughts. I was worried lest I would not see you again. Many thoughts went through my mind as I was floating in the water, feeling cold, groping in the dark and hearing agonizing cries
The main thought was about you and Mother, if this particular struggle should turn out in such a way that a telegram would be sent to Mother by the Army – as the one sent to Mrs. Rekseen about her husband. I thought I could see you standing around Mother as she read the telegram. I knew it would be a very hard blow. One that, you being young, would recover from comparatively soon, but one that would grow on Mother and eventually hit her very hard. Young persons are that way and it is well that it is so.
I want to relate I want to relate this experience to you without revealing any military secrets which have not been released by the Army, as yet. You know you read about it in the newspapers, but, of course, it was only a small news item. It was not a small news item to those who lost dear ones.
War is that way. It strikes swift blows and it strikes into families that have much money, and it strikes into families that have little money. It brings sorrow to the educated person and to those less educated. It just does not play favorites.
Young men who leave home and families behind them, go into the service willingly drafted or volunteered, knowing that they might not come back—but they go regardless. To you they are heroes. But they do not think of themselves as being heroic. They are willing to take this chance rather than be forced under tyranny as the Jews, the Poles and the Norwegians have been forced to live these last years.
So, too, John and Paul, I was willing to do my share in the hope that you boys could live your lives without the constant fear of war.
While we were crossing the Atlantic , we worried about attacks from the U-boats, but when we had entered the Mediterranean and had reached Oran , we felt quite safe. But what we did not know was that we had just entered the hot zone. We rested in Oran a few days, and on Thanksgiving Day, we joined another convoy going east.
Four Red Cross men and an Army officer shared the cabin with me. The three Red Cross men never again will see their wives and children. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the red Cross men and I had just come from the dining room, where we had our English tea. We were walking on the deck.
Suddenly, we noticed one of the convoying destroyers crossing directly in front of us. It had nearly completed its crossing, when to our astonishment, we saw the ocean rising up in two huge geysers on each side of the destroyer. The water had scarcely settled back into the ocean when we saw two aft guns of the destroyer blazing away at the German bomber that had just dropped one bomb on each side of the destroyer.
The air alarm of our ship sounded immediately, and, according to previous orders, everyone was scurrying below. As we went below, the convoy was setting up a wall of shells around itself. It seemed to me that everything but the boilers was thrown at those jerries.
When I came to our cabin, the others were there. Nothing much was said. I took off my green blouse. I put on a light jacket, my life belt, the water canteen and my helmet.
On the wall was hanging one of my shirts, in the pocket of which I had put a little folder of snapshots of you and Mother. My little book of addresses was also in the pocket. Of course, some of the little nosey fishes of the Mediterranean are looking up those addresses now.
The noise outside was terrific! I just could not resist. This was too good a show. I had to see at least half of it. I looked out of the opened port hole and reported the battle, blow by blow, to the other men.
Bombs were dropped all over, but so far all were missed. That big destroyer, which I mentioned before, was encircling the convoy and really throwing some big ones at the bombers. The other protecting ships were weaving back and forth on the outside trying to dodge the bombs and at the same time trying to hit the Germans.
I saw one big bomber crossing over to our left. Only a few seconds later a column of water rose to the right of the ship that was behind us. That was a near hit.
It was quiet in the room. I turned around and saw that the men had left the cabin. I did not leave but kept watching.
Then I saw a destroyer firing on another bomber. Two shells exploded very near to the plane and it was losing altitude. I wanted to see him dive into the ocean but he passed behind the convoy and out of my view.
I then picked up another bomber coming our way. Right there and then, there was a terrifically sharp crash! I was thrown against the porthole so hard that the helmet cut my forehead. The room was pitch dark.
The first thing that I thought about was to get out! When I fumbled around in the dark, I found that the walls of the cabin had fallen down. I crawled out where the wall had been.
Now I smelled smoke and burnt powder!
When I came into the hallway, it was filled with boards, planks and beams. As I crawled over this rubble, I saw a ray of light to my right. I moved toward it and found that a port, used for disposing of refuse, had sprung open.
As I looked down the side of the ship, I saw heads of soldiers sticking out of the port holes. I will never forget the look on the face of that young soldier as he looked up at me and cried, ‘For God’s sake, help us! We’re trapped.’
I doubt very much if they got out. When I moved back into the hallway, I saw smoke and flames coming up the gangway.
Then, suddenly, I thought of the flashlight I had in my suitcase. It was an old one that my friend, Rekseen, had given me. The day I left Oran I had gotten batteries for it. At that time, I never thought it would save my life.
It was so dark that I could not locate my cabin. Suddenly I remembered that I had a book of matches in my pocket. I lit a match and saw ONE board standing! And that board had on it, the number of my cabin.
I knew where my bed was. I reached over it, got my suitcase, opened it and the first thing my hand touched was my flashlight.
You’ll believe me boys when I say I was overjoyed!
With the aid of the flashlight, I managed to get on deck. There Reckseen was the first one to greet me. He asked calmly what we should do. I told him we better wait for orders to abandon ship.
I saw a minesweeper standing by some distance from our ship. I was wondering how we would get over to it. Then when I turned around to look for Reckseen, he had disappeared in the crowd and I never saw him again.
I walked over to the railing and saw the soldiers go down the rope netting, and also, I saw what happened to the soldiers as the lifeboats hit the water!
I decided it would be safer to go down one of the ropes hanging over the side. Then I’d swim over to the minesweeper. So I climbed over the railing and went hand over hand down the rope. I soon found that I was too heavy to go hand over hand, so the rope slid through my hands.
I had only gone a short distance down when the friction of the rope burned my hands, so I let go and dropped twenty feet into the water.
When I hit the water, I really went under! I was so far down that I thought I’d never come to the surface again, and feared I was sucked under the ship.
As soon as I got to the surface, I started to swim against the big waves toward the minesweeper. A soldier passed me in the Weismuller fashion. He called out,” How goes it, pop?”
I was out of breath when I got to the minesweeper, but I thought I could get on board. There was no netting on the side for me to climb up on. There were only a few ropes hanging on the sides.
I was hanging on one of these ropes but I was unable to pull myself up on deck. Then several soldiers came along and hung on to the same rope. I didn’t feel safe with so many trying to hang on to the same rope. I was afraid that I might be pushed under.
I let go and drifted by the bow of the ship.
After floating around for a while, I saw something that looked like a box. I went for it and found it was a raft from the ship. It was one of those that barely floats on top of the water. By the time I reached there, several soldiers were there.
It was now becoming dusk and we drifted away from the ship. We could now see that our ship was burning. We also heard airplanes coming very low towards us. Their machine guns were barking.
More soldiers came to our raft. We were holding onto small ropes and it became very crowded. I was worried lest I be forced against and under the raft by those who were crowding in. I, therefore, dropped away and let others in. Again I reached for another rope and hung on.
As time went on, I heard fewer cries for help and saw fewer flashes from flashlights.
Those who were by our raft were a curious group! Some prayed, others cursed. Some crowded in, disregarding everyone else; others helped the weak and exhausted.
In the distance, occasionally we saw a search light beam. When ever we saw it, cries for help went up all over the water.
Several times this beam seemed to come towards us, but then it went away! As it turned away, many of the soldiers became more discouraged, and that again brought more prayers and more curses.
It was now pitch dark. There was no moon but the stars were bright. We could not see any of the ships, only a few rafts. Everywhere else we could hear cries for help. Here and there we saw flashes from flashlights.
I was feeling very cold now and I started to vomit as I had swallowed so much sea water.
A life boat loaded with soldiers came along side of us. Most of the men from our raft swam for it and attempted to get into it. The struggle ended with the boat turning over!
Those who were not pulled under came to our raft again. Again I let them crowd in. It was very difficult to hang on as my hands were very cold and tired!
Every time the search light turned away, I wondered if we would be discovered. Then I thought of you and Mother. It seemed so very difficult to let go of you. I wanted to come back to you, but it did not look too promising.
FINALLY, the search light came our way and we could see the ship: It came directly at us and we feared it would run over us. I left the raft because the sea was rough and I feared I would be crushed between the raft and the ship.
All men were helped on board. I was out there alone but I knew they saw me. A rope was thrown me but when they tried to life me out of the water, I was too weak to hang on. Then they threw me a life buoy and pulled me over to the side of the ship. When I was half way up, a big wave came and pulled me back into the water.
Now, for the first time, I lost my calmness. I was so weakened from the struggle that I didn’t think I would be able to climb the net. The, too, it seemed I was drifting to the aft and into the darkness.
Again they threw me a buoy and pulled me into the net. I started to climb again when the waves threatened to wash me back, but now I felt hands on my shoulders and before I knew it, I was on deck!
It was now ten o’clock – five hours since I went down the rope from the stricken ship.
No one will ever know what a feeling of relief comes to a man in a case like this, unless he has had a similar experience. Over and over again I thanked the sailors who pulled me up, and over and over again I thanked God, whose protecting Hand had been over me. Again, John and Paul, I thought of you and Mother.
I was taken below by the sailors, undressed, dried with big fluffy towels, and tucked into soft, snowy white blankets. Then they gave me hot coffee and sandwiches. Those sailors were marvelous! I shall never forget their kindness!
Our ship was loaded to capacity, and it headed for the North African coast. We docked at Phillipville at 7:30 in the morning.
Well boys, that’s the whole story – at least most of the details. There must have been Unseen Hands holding me up and giving me strength and courage. Perhaps these Unseen Hands were sent by yours and Mother’s prayers. I thought of your folded hands as I was out there, and they were a consolation to me.
So, as you wait for me to come home, pray for my safety, but better than that, pray for yourself and for those whom you hold dear, and even for those who may consider themselves your enemies.
Praying hands are beautiful hands. With love, Your Daddy