Robert J. Porter
Army Air Corp Airways Communications System
756 AAF Base Unit (126 AACS Squadron)
On July 4, 2004 Robert J. Porter, my father and namesake, finally succumbed to the debilitating effects of Congestive Heart Failure and Leukemia. He fought the good fight for fifteen months, before his body could fight no more. This is his story. He started to tell us this story in little pieces, at first, starting five years ago. Once his condition became grimmer, the flood gates opened and he wanted to make sure we knew everything he remembered about that horrible day of November 26, 1943.
Robert J. Porter was born on September 9, 1922, the youngest son of a musician and piano salesman. He was left fatherless at the age of thirteen. Having three older sisters and one older brother, who was fourteen years his senior, Dad had no one to guide him during his formative years. By the age of sixteen, he was working and pretty much on his own. He became the incorrigible, lost child of the family.
And so Dad went from being the lost child, to nearly becoming lost at sea in the Mediterranean Sea. After Dad completed his basic training at Jefferson’s Barracks near St. Louis (where, ironically, his great uncle, Bela W. Porter, a forty year old private in the Union Army, died after two years of confinement as a Confederate Prisoner of War), he went on to Airways Communication School. After completion of this stage of his training, he took his leave to return to Gloversville, NY to marry his high school sweetheart, Jean Fox, before leaving for Norfolk, VA. From there he was to board a Liberty ship en route to a staging area for Allied troops in Oran, Algiers, North Africa, before heading east to the China-Burma-India Theater of Operation.
In Oran, Dad and two thousand others were boarded on to a converted, forty year old cruise ship named the HMT Rohna. The Rohna was a jointly owned British and Indian ship pressed into service to ferry troops around to their ultimate destinations. It had originally been built for sixty luxury passengers and forty crew members. It now held over two thousand individuals. One of the senior NCOs described the ship as “a bucket of bolts held together by rust.” The ship was barely seaworthy, many of the lifeboats were frozen to their housings with rust, and there were inadequate medical supplies, food and life jackets on board. All of these factors would serve to conspire against these troops in just a few short days.
On November 24, 1943, in the midst of much fanfare and cannon salute, the Rohna and here twin sister ship, the Rajula departed Oran to join up with the convoy KMF-26 heading east through the Mediterranean Sea toward the Suez Canal, and eventually, India, where they would be deployed to stop advancing Japanese incursions into China, Burma and Nepal. Two days out at sea, and in its place in the convoy, they were attacked by German fighter planes and short range bombers at 4:45PM, just as it was turning dusk and the setting sun would be in the eyes of the shipboard anti-aircraft gunners as they reeled around to face the aircraft attacking their rear from the west. Here is where the story takes a tragic turn.
The Germans had developed the capability of retrofitting Heinkel 177 bombers with the first air to surface, guided missiles to be used in combat. Fortunately for the convoy, the pilots had not yet perfected the use of the joy stick employed to guide these “glide bombs” to their targets, or most certainly, the outcome of this battle, and ultimately, the war might have had a more sinister, and deadly outcome. In all, over twenty of the missiles were fired at the convoy. Only one struck it target, the HMT Rohna.
Witnesses say the bomb hit the Rohna amid ships and blew a hole in her large enough to drive several trucks through. Dad, five decks below, performing KP, was suddenly in a fight for his life. The full force of the blast was only twenty-five feet away, outside the bulkhead door leading into the galley. Everyone Dad remembered in there was killed instantly by the blast. How Dad, only ten feet further away, survived is almost unexplainable. It took him almost fifteen minutes to climb over dead comrades, twisted metal, waiting for stairwells to clear above him, and avoiding fire. The ship was taking on water rapidly, and beginning to list severely to stern.
At the rail, up top, he encountered Pvt. Thomas Mershevski from NYC, who did not know how to swim, and was refusing to jump off the ship. Dad, who had taught life saving at the Gloversville, NY YMCA prior to the war, continued to exhort him to jump and promised to stay with him until he was picked up.
Bolstered by confidence from our father, Pvt. Merchevski jumped into the sea with Dad close at hand. True to his word, Dad kept him afloat and swam with him until they reached one of the life rafts that had actually made it into the water. Unfortunately, only one half of the available life boats ever made it into the sea that afternoon. Being that there was only room for one of them in the life raft, Pvt. Merchevski was hoisted aboard and Dad kept swimming in the fifty-five degree water for another quarter hour or so, heading in the direction of the USS Pioneer, which had been ordered out of formation to rescue survivors. For those who had successfully cleared the ship, their ordeal was not yet over, as they now had to avoid a phalanx of German fighter planes which were flying low, strafing the swimmers with machine gun fire. Hundreds died from this murderous barrage. Fortunately, four of the planes were shot down by anti-aircraft gunners on the other ships in the convoy, alleviating the slaughter.
Hundreds more were to die when they employed their flotation devices. These devices, unlike the Mae West variety, more commonly used, which were worn like a jacket around the upper chest, these were more like a donut worn belt-high around their waists. Once inflated by the gas cartridge on the belt, the soldiers that had made the mistake of jumping into the sea with their gear, created a high center of gravity, which forced many of them under water, head first. Being exhausted, they were unable to right themselves and drowned.
The USS Pioneer ultimately saved the lives of six hundred and one of the men in the water. Survivors, including my father, recalled the efforts of a large, red-haired man they referred to as “the red-headed angel”, who, tethered to a long rope, tirelessly swam out from the Pioneer, time after time, dragging exhausted survivors to the waiting crew aboard ship. That man, Harrel Jones, was believed to have rescued no fewer than thirty men that day.
En route to the waiting rescue ship, Dad latched on to another man who was swimming just a few yards ahead of him. He had been swimming fine just a few seconds before, but suddenly stopped. Not realizing the swimmer had received a mortal gunshot wound, Dad thought he had just tired. So he grabbed hold of his shirt collar and headed in the direction of the Pioneer once again. When he was told by the crew members of the Pioneer that the man was already dead and to release him, Dad refused, telling the crew that it wouldn’t be right to just leave him for the sharks. So, Dad hoisted the dead man on his shoulders in a Fireman’s Carry, and struggled to climb the cargo ladder draped over the side of the ship. Seeing Dad’s determination and weakening leg strength, two men shimmied down the ladder and carried the dead soldier on board. Dad made it another two rungs of the ladder before the effects of exhaustion and hypothermia caused him to collapse into the ropes. Two other men came down the rope ladder and assisted him the rest of the way on board. And so, both men were now on the Pioneer.
Within thirty minutes of being struck, the Rohna was completely submerged, taking many wounded with her as she sank. By the end of the day, one thousand, fifteen U.S. servicemen had lost their lives on the Rohna, along with thirty-eight British and Indian Crew, and a handful of International Red Cross workers. It was the largest loss of life in American maritime history, even surpassing the Arizona in Pearl Harbor, and the sinking of the Indianapolis near the end of the war. Nine hundred one men ultimately survived, including our father and Pvt. Tom Merchevski. I can’t believe that Tom Merchevski ever cared that Dad was an incorrigible kid. Facing machine guns, a rapidly sinking ship, and a menacing sea, it didn’t matter that Dad was a Christian and he a Jew. There was no time to process the fact that facing only one seat in the life raft, Dad swam on while Pvt. Merchevski was hoisted aboard. It only matter that, in the face of imminent death, Dad had an incredible and convincing will to live. Tom Merchevski, and the others in that life raft, would spend a harrowing seven hours in darkness and raging seas before being rescued the next day by another Navy ship. Pvt. Merechevski has had the opportunity to grow to be an old man too, with children and grandchildren of his own. We would see a lot more evidence of Dad’s will over the last months of his life.
After two weeks in a British field hospital in Tunisia, Dad was once again deemed “fit for duty,” and returned to the docks to continue on to India. At the docks he must have experienced the most sickening bout of Dejas Vu as the survivors were to be loaded on to the Rohna’s twin sister ship, the Rajula to continue their journey, through the same seas, to India. Mercifully, the men were taken off the vessel and allowed to board another ship to complete their journey. Thankfully, the latter trip was uneventful, and Dad was to see no more combat during the war, as his job as Master Telegrapher, kept him behind the battle lines. He never told us stories about the war, as I am sure, the horrors of that day, were better left undisturbed in the recesses of his mind. In his last, painful days, all he wanted to do was talk about that day. He would well up with tears as he mentioned the names of men who could not swim, who gave up their flotation devices to others, so they would have a chance to live. There were many heroes of that day that none of us will ever know. Their valor went down with the ship. I trust that their God has rewarded them handsomely for their deeds.