One crewman, Harrell Jones of the Pioneer, remembered by many survivors for his bravery, was affectionately labeled “the red-headed sailor.” Jones left his gunnery position to get in the water with a rope tied around his waist and fastened to the ship at the other end. For hours, he located survivors, encouraged them, and did what he could to help get them on board.
The following is Jonesy’s perspective on the events of November 26, 1943 as taken from an interview with the author.
“There were a lot of people out there…..prayin’ and screamin’ ”
“It happened real fast. No ifs, ands or buts about it. All of a sudden you find yourself with all these men in the water. . . And then you’ve got to get on the ball . . . I mean this is a matter of life and death . . . there’s no picnicking to it . . .you just do what you can . . .when you can . . .as best you can . . . and then get the hell out of there.”
In this interview, Jones described what it was like rescuing people from the water while at the same time being “in a combat zone like that, when you got all those planes comin’ on in . . . I don’t think anybody knows how many planes there were . . . there wasn’t anybody counting planes and there wasn’t anybody counting shells that were fired . . . you were too busy fighting for your life . . .
There were conflicting viewpoints about why the Pioneer left the scene when it did. Some believed it was under orders to leave while others thought it left because it was dangerously overloaded. Jones responded to this. “The Pioneer was a fleet minesweeper. She was always under orders . . . any navy ‘man of war’ is always under orders . . . you always got somebody at the top of the ladder telling you what to do. You don’t know what the reason for the order is . . . no one does . . . but I tell you what. When you got a convoy steaming ahead, and were standing by the Rohna and picking up survivors . . . the convoy kept going ahead at thirteen knots. The rule of convoy is to keep moving.”
This speculation was probably correct as it was also reported that during the PIONEER’S rescue assignment, a full sector of the convoy lacked its protective services.
“Six hundred and six . . . that’s how many we pulled out of the water . . . but when we entered port the next day to disburse them, you know . . . well I think there was five of them dead. But there was six hundred six total we picked up . . . we didn’t know their names, but we knew they were Americans, most of them.
“We didn’t know right off hand how many ships were sunk . . . but afterwards, after we entered port, we knew that there was only one ship that got hit. We knew that there were a lot of people wounded . . . shrapnel and that sort of thing. But only one ship was sunk at that time.
“There were planes attacking and it wasn’t a picnic, even from the relative safety of the ship. We never got a direct hit . . . but we got near misses where we lost three men . . . we had three injured from shrapnel, from the explosion of the bomb . . . Yeah, it got them.
“We used lights during the rescue. We saved a lot of people by using lights. We just took the responsibility of trying that. When you see a bunch of guys in the water like that . . . and you know they are going to die . . . you do everything you can. There were a lot of people out there . . . all of them people bobbing up and down . . . prayin’ and screamin’, you know you got to get to them and get them on board, and then get out of there. You got to get what you can.”
When asked about the condition of the men they hauled on board he said, ”Oh my God . . .They was all . . . some of them was in bad shape . . . some of them died.”
Jonesy spoke with pride about his old ship. “That Pioneer, she was a well built ship. I was in a typhoon in that thing . . . And I been in the North Atlantic . I stayed on the Pioneer from the time she was commissioned till after the war . . . through all the war days and served under three commanding officers on that ship, all during the war.”
“The Pioneer had four battle stars. She should have got something for that but she didn’t get anything . . . She should have got a fifth star for that conflict. None of the crew, we never got any commendation or nothing . . . We were all just kids, you know. . . Some of us just got out of high school when the war started. When they didn’t need us any more they sent us all back home.”