Story of Jacob Wilson Taylor—853 Engineer Aviation Battalion
We left Oran, North Africa, destined for CBI Theater aboard Troop ship Rhona. On the morning of November 26, as I waited in line for my turn at a sink to wash and brush my teeth, someone behind me put their hands over my eyes. As I said “I give up,” I turned around to see a friend from another outfit, Elmer Anjeski. We had been classmates and graduated from Elizabeth High School in PA in 1940.
Late afternoon we were ordered to our quarters because of a possible enemy air attack. We no sooner got to our quarters, third deck down, than everything broke loose. Anti aircraft guns were firing like mad and once in awhile our ship would vibrate from rockets being fired from top deck.
As it seemed as though this would go on forever, I laid my head down on a picnic type table that I was sitting at and the last thing I heard was a buddy of mine, Fordyce Carty from Ohio say, “Look at Jake, he doesn’t even care if we get hit.” WHOM, I find myself in mid-air coming down on all fours and the table smashed to pieces. I got up slightly dazed, looked around, and the area was in total darkness and there was a horrible smell of gun powder. I could see a dim light at the rear area and I walked over to see what it was. As I looked, I realized there was a large section blown out to the port slide of the ship and the area surrounding was cherry red. I then turned around and there was another section about the same size blown out of the opposite (starboard) side. I could see the sea and other ships in the convoy.
Realizing the seriousness of what happened, I ran to the stairs to get help for the wounded, not thinking the ship could be sinking. There I met up with a buddy (Harrington, WV) and he asked me to help him carry a wounded man to the top. When we got to the top deck, I met up with Lt. Brown, our platoon officer. He told me that orders were to abandon ship. I then climbed down a rope ladder but it didn’t go to the water line because the ship was listing badly and I had to jump the rest of the way down (maybe 10-15’), and swam away to get clear of the ship. I then looked up and saw a big, black, low-flying German airplane from the reflection of the ship’s fire. I thought OH NO they have come back to strafe us, but they must have been taking pictures of their kill.
I then found a raft. I climbed on the raft with another soldier, but we soon found out that we were better off in the water because the air was too cold. The see was rough and the waves were high. I told my companion to hold onto the raft, because if we let go we would drown. Soon we could see an outline of a ship (it seemed so far away). I thought, this is our chance, because now it was completely dark, so we kicked as hard as we could toward the ship. Something helped us because it seemed like it was no time until we were along the side of the Freighter Cambell. There was a lifeboat along side of the ship with other survivors. They were going up steps to the ship’s crew had lowered so everyone could reach the top deck.
We then got into the lifeboat so we could stand up to reach the bottom of the steps. AT that time someone said, “Hi Jake, are you all right?” I looked around and there was my friend Elmer Anjeski.
Once on board we were issued dry clothing and given chocolate to eat. I then met up with Lt. Brown and he was feeling very bad. He probably realized more than I did that the causalities would be high.
As for me I had mixed emotions. I was glad I was saved, but I could not help but thinking what about the other ones. There was a fellow named Dean, that I tried to help but could not. It took me a long time to get him out of my mind. About the last one to be picked up on our ship was Tony Biello from our company. He was burned badly and it seemed like a miracle that he survived.
As daylight approached we could see the shoreline of North Africa and were told we were going to Phillipsville. There we disembarked and were taken to a staging area. As we were ordered to fall in, I came to realize how horrible it was. Company Commander, 1st Sgt., Supply Sgt., and many other missing; 129 answered roll call. After the injured and wounded were released from hospitals, the survivors increased to approximately 200 out of a battalion of approximately 800. We were told that the ship had 2000 troops plus the crew, and 1,000 survived.
My eardrums were perforated from the explosion. Even though I stayed with my outfit going to India, I wasn’t with them very long. I spent most of my time in the hospital with otis media (infection of the middle ear). I returned to the states the same month we left, October, one year later.