My name is John Groopman. My father was in the Army Air Corps, medical corps in route to China. The following is the only story of the sinking that he wrote down.
Story written by John Groopman, Medical Corps
This story only dates from the boarding of the troopship HMT Rhona at Mers-El-Kabir in North Africa. We boarded the vessel at about 1630 hours on November 24, 1943. She was moored alongside of her sister ship at the quay. Immediately on boarding her I was approached by the ships captain, an Australian, and asked to inspect the medical stores. These were found to be totally inadequate, so the next morning I visited several US Naval auxiliaries in the harbor and scrounged- obtaining a few supplies which were far short of the need. At this point it was discovered that even the life-belts were insufficient. Requisition was made and some secured – but the number were still inadequate.
The belt itself was of rubberized cloth belt-like, fitting around ones mid-riff like an ordinary trouser belt. They had 2 compartments that were inflatable by means of cartridges similar to our Air Corps “Mae Wests”. However they were not vests but belts and played a great part in the ensuing disaster.
Our vessel departed the port under a fanfare of anti-aircraft bursts that somehow sounded reassuring then. Even the rocket guns were fired, making a great noise, scaring most of us with their novelty. Thanksgiving Day passed with very little observance of the day in the good old American fashion. Everyone heard rumors about an apparent attack and several boat drills were held that were inadequate, ill timed and disappointing.
November 26th came on – as we passed slightly west of Algiers. Some of the convoy dropped out on the way to that port. We saw no aircraft as escort – there possibly were some but we did not see them. One of the British officers then ventured the statement that we would be attacked that day. In fact several wagers were made – but the payments, I’m sure were never made.
Tea-time was called at 1630 hours and we all had our tea. For hundreds this was to be their last hot drink in life.
I was lying in my bunk reading Forrester’s book, “The Gun” when I heard a loud explosion. I ran to the porthole and saw the water (from the explosion) splash over the escort vessel on our starboard side. Then another occurred just on the other side of the same destroyer escort. I then knew that we were being attacked. I ran topside to watch the show. Many of the pilots were on deck and we watched some 20 or 24 aircraft that silhouetted Ju-88’s at about 4000 feet and some 4 miles distant circling the entire convoy. They were deliberately attacking the escort vessels – with vertical bombs and possible some of the radio controlled glider bombs. (We did not discover this until later.) It was a grand show, lasting some 10 minutes. Then another batch appeared out of the sun and made a run for us. There were no fighter aircraft to be seen. All this must have occurred at about 1710-1715 hours.
Then “battle-stations” was sounded and I went aft, below decks to the ships hospital. I was assigned this post as the senior medical officer aboard. The anti-aircraft guns were popping away merrily, and occasionally the rocket guns went off. I must admit that I was scared, more from the novelty that actual apprehension. Everyone seemed calm, and one saw the pilots aboard twitching their fingers wishing that they were in fighters to go up and do battle.
Arriving at the hospital I immediately ordered the enlisted medical men to remove all loose boards from the walls and secure stretchers for the patients. There were 10-11 of them – none of whom was seriously ill. However, they all remained in their bunks. Then I asked the British medical attendant to demonstrate to us the use of the British Indian fire-extinguishers. We were listening to him intently, most of the men kneeling about him. I stood a little way to the side near the wooden panel door. The gins were blazing away top-side made a staccato rhythm.
Just then at approximately 1720 hours or thereabouts, the loudest, god-damnest noise I ever heard in my life went off. The lights went out. I was blown through the door into the companionway outside the hospital.
Just how long I lay in the hallway I’ll never know. All I know, or can remember clearly is that when I came to, the walls of the companionway were blazing merrily and the pungent smoke was choking me. There was blood over my face and down my leather jacket. It was impossible to open my left eye or breathe through my nose. The pain was excruciating. The fire however was a great stimulus to getting to my feet. I returned to the hospital where I found all of the occupants dead. At least everyone I found with the emergency light through that dense, pungent cordite smell were dead – with fractured skulls or crushed thoracic chest walls.
Departing the hospital I attempted to get back to the stairway (the one with the teakwood crewels). There were planks and debris and fire blocking this path, so I turned back. It was strange that at no time was any panic present although again I admit I was plenty scared. Turning back to the starboard side, I noticed that one of the escape hatchways was open, with one of those iron-rung ladders leading to the top. I could hardly make it because of my size, but I did.
Reaching the open air, aft deck one could only hear the screams and agony of the burnt soldiers and the shouts of men directing this or that.
This is all he ever wrote about the sinking, but he was awarded the Silver Star for continuing to provide aid to the wounded before the ship sank. A Purple Heart was also awarded and as a result of this action he never regained sight in his left eye from the head injury that he sustained.