I was a T/Sgt. assigned to the 322nd Fighter Control Squadron on that fateful 26th November, 1943.
Our squadron had boarded the ship at Oran, North Africa a few days earlier and had been at sea only one or two days before the vessel was attacked and sunk.
To our inexperienced eyes, the convoy appeared to be a large one, and some of us landlubbers were looking around for our escorts.
We were steaming parallel to land, which we could see on the starboard side, although we were pretty far out. I think that fact gave us a secure feeling.
Once we were settled in, 1st Sgt. Dick Ekiss and some of the senior NCO’s made a tour of the ship, at the conclusion of which we all agreed it was a “bucket of bolts held together by rust”. We told some of our officers what we thought of the ship, but they didn’t seem too interested.
We had been issued life preservers of the type that buckles around your waist and looks like a deflated inner tube. It was inflated by a gas cylinder or cartridge attached to the tube. There was also a flexible hose attached that you could use to inflate the thing by blowing into it.
The Hindu crew (mostly Lascars) didn’t impress us too much either. The ship’s officers were English (the Captain was an Australian) as were the Naval Ratings.
I can recall no lifeboat drills, and we were never told where to report in the event of an attack or other emergency.
The attack occurred late in the afternoon, around 16:30 or 17:00 hours, I think. The weather was clear, there was some wind, and the sea was choppy.
A group of us were standing on a companion way a little forward of mid-ship on the port side, which in this case was the seaward side. I remember T/Sgt. John Haedel and S/Sgt. Jim Jokel were with me and also a couple of others whose names I don’t remember.
Someone pointed to the far horizon and remarked that it seemed like some aircraft were flying around. They were too far away to identify, but one of them seemed to be leaving a trail of smoke. Just then the air raid alarm sounded. As we moved towards the forward area an officer came up and told T/Sgt. Haedel to get all the men below as quickly as possible. Some of the men didn’t want to go below , and we had a bit of trouble convincing them it would be safer below than on deck. Finally the deck seemed clear so we all went down to the troop deck.
It was pretty crowded and there was quite a bit of milling around. Some were trying to look out the porthole to see what was happening above us. When the bomb hit, a lot of us were knocked off our feet — dust and all sorts of debris and other hard objects were falling from above. Men who had been hit by falling objects were yelling and calling for help. T/Sgt Haedel was struck on the head by a piece of chain or steel cable, inflicting a bad wound on the side by his ear. He was bleeding badly. S/Sgt. Jokel and I tried to stem the bleeding but with little success. He was groaning, and I could tell he was in pain.
The order came to abandon ship. There was a rush to the stairs and Sgt. Jokel and I, kneeling over the injured Sgt. Haedel, were bowled over. The ship was dead in the water and starting to list to starboard. Smoke was coming into the troop deck. When the rush to get top side subsided, we grabbed a couple of guys and got Sgt. Haedel on his feet and up the stairs and on deck. We sat him down on deck leaning against a cabin or something and we went to look for a medic.
Men were trying to get some rafts and lifeboats into the water without much success, and others were getting ready to go overboard. I saw two soldiers in full battle gear, rifles, bayonets, etc. I told them to shed all their gear and take off their helmets, jacket, and shoes before jumping overboard. One of them started to do this, but the other man went over the side with all his equipment on. I didn’t see him hit the water, but he must have gone down like a rock. Officers and NCO’s were shouting to shed all gear, shoes and jackets and go off on the high side of the ship, but a lot of them were going over on the low side. The sea was pouring through a large hole on the side of the ship and the current was sucking them through this hole and back into the ship. Some men had lost or misplaced their life belts. I saw on young soldier approach a Captain and I heard him tell the officer he had lost his life belt and asking him what he should do. The Captain gave the man his life belt. I never saw either of them again.
The vessel seemed to be settling and going down by the stern. I thought I had better get Sgts. Haedel and Jokel and leave the ship. I couldn’t find Sgt. Jokel, and Stg. Haedel wasn’t where we had left him. There weren’t many people on deck so I went to the starboard side, found a line hanging over the side, grabbed it and slid down. I had taken off my shoes and jacket earlier. The swells were lapping against the side of the ship and I tried to time my fall to meet a swell when it reached it’s apex, but my timing was off, and I must have dropped thirty feet before I hit water.
I was a fairly good swimmer, so I got away from the stricken vessel as quickly as possible. There were men in the water all around me, and also what appeared to be bodies of some who had already drowned. Some men nearby were trying to get to a raft, but there were too many around it, so I stayed off. As I swam away, someone called to me to try dog paddle, saying I would make better progress. And you know, it worked! By this time the swells were bouncing me around pretty good, but I was still making headway towards a ship I could see in the distance. The men around me had also seen it and some were swimming towards it, but others looked like they were exhausted and just waiting to drown. I started shouting for them to swim to the ship. We could now just about see it in the fading daylight. I think mostly I was shouting to keep up my spirits, but I like to think I was trying to get some of the more fainthearted ones to keep going. I could hear some praying and another man was actually crying. Ahead of me, two men appeared to be trying to get a life belt off a drowned soldier. Don’t know who they were.
What with the swells pushing me around, and doing the same to the others nearby, it wasn’t long before we were becoming separated. The calls for help were faint and shouts for assistance were becoming fainter as the distances widened. My attention was focused on that ship I was trying to get to, and as the darkness became deeper, I was beginning to wonder if I would make it before she moved away.
Others had also seen it and we were all swimming furiously towards it. It seemed like ages before we got to it; actually it was probably about an hour or so. Water sodden men were all around it, grabbing for the lines that had been thrown over the side. Some were swarming up like monkeys; others, like myself, were just holding on to a line trying to regain strength. I’m almost certain I saw a sailor jump into the sea to help an injured man up. I was never able to verify that, but I swear I saw it. I finally tried to climb up, but kept slipping back. Eventually, I found another line, much thicker and with this line I was able to shinny up onto the deck of the ship.
A sailor asked me where I was hit and I said I didn’t know I had been hit. It was dark and I couldn’t see very well. He indicated the area around my right buttock. He pulled my pants down and saw they were bloody. Someone took me below and they stuck a towel on me and told me to hold it until the bleeding stopped. A soldier sitting next to me said “You must have got it when they straffed us”.
At this point I must ask a question. Were we straffed when we were in the water or were we showered with falling shrapnel from the ack-ack put up by the convoy escorts? After we were landed, and later in the rest camp, I heard several survivors say the Germans had straffed us while we were swimming away from the stricken ship. I neither saw nor heard any aircraft make any pass near us — let alone shoot at us. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that what they thought were bullets fired from straffing aircraft were actually falling shrapnel from the ack-ack put up by the convoy’s escorts. I’m still of the option that what hit me was a piece of shrapnel from the”friendly fire” ack-ack.
The ship that rescued us was, of course, the minesweeper USS PIONEER, which saved over 600 men from an unfriendly sea. We were landed at Phillipsville, a small town on the Algerian coast. After receiving treatment for my wound, we were sent by rail to a rest camp near Bizerte where all the survivors of the 322nd were reunited and our losses tabulated. We counted about 100 survivors out of a squadron of about 400 men. Some officers from the AGO (Adjutant General’s Officers) came to see us with forms to be filled out regarding IDs of any MIA or KIA we might be able to identify. At no time, then or later, were we told not to tell of our experience or what had happened. Most of us wrote letters home, but these of course were subject to Army censorship, so anything they didn’t want known was cut out.
I don’t know if anyone else has remarked on the following, but here is a little human interest item. When in the rest camp near Bizerte prior to our shipment to India and ultimately China, we could see the harbor below. We heard that the USS PIONEER was docked there. Our Squadron, along with some other survivors, invited the Officers and crew of the PIONEER to share our Thanksgiving dinner with us. They accepted and we had a real good time. Somehow, some GIs had gotten a German army vehicle, a version of the U.S. Army jeep. It was decided to give this vehicle to the Captain of the PIONEER as a gift. The day the PIONEER sailed, we all stood on the hill overlooking the harbor and watched her steam out to sea with the German vehicle lashed firmly aboard the back of the funnel.
My son, who never knew of this incident until he saw the film on the History Channel, has asked me several times what my thoughts were while in the water. I found it hard to answer.
It’s a terrible thing to seem to be alone in an unfriendly ocean with no one around but some bodies floating by in the swells, but the thought of drowning just didn’t enter my head. Even when the rescue ship appeared to be moving away, and I was getting colder by the minute, I don’t recall thinking my time on earth was up. I just felt sure I would be picked up. I’m not trying to sound like a hero, far from it, I have often said I would much rather be a live coward than a dead hero. I guess it’s because of my religion; I’m an Orthodox Coward.
The 322nd Fighter Control Squadron went on to India via the Suez Canal, across India to Assam, India; then via C-47 aircraft over the notorious “Hump” into China where we were based at Kunming, assigned to the 14th U.S. Air Force, also known as the “Flying Tigers”.
In June of 1945 I was returned to the U.S. and got my honorable discharge under the Army’s “Point System”.