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A Thanksgiving to Remember
GIs, 25 November 1943: Off the Coast of Algeria
The men of the Rohna could see the shore of Algeria in the distance and watched with fascination as one town after another turned on its lights in anticipation of the evening. Many of the men were gathered on the shelter deck of His Majesty's Transport (HMT) Rohna this day for Thanksgiving dinner. The food had been bad enough on the Liberty ships that brought them across the Atlantic, through the Strait of Gibraltar, and to various staging areas in North Africa. Now they hoped for better, but they quickly discovered that such hopes were in vain.
Breakfast that morning should have been a dead giveaway. The passengers on the Rohna were American, the crew Indian (commonly called lascars), and the ship's officers British. For the American soldiers to expect any kind of down-home American cooking was foolish. Each GI was served a "large, greasy" sausage, about one-fourth meat and three-fourths soybean, accompanied by a plate of "slippery" fried onions, a slice of bread, and weak coffee. Perhaps the British and Indians would eventually remember the significance of this day and do better for the second and last meal, which would be served late in the afternoon.
The American officers on board the Rohna fared much better than the enlisted men. They, along with their British counterparts, were served tea an hour or so before the Thanksgiving meal began. They had cups of hot tea, scones, bread and butter, jam, and cookies. SomeAmerican officers commented on the "strict military class differences" in the British services: While they lounged in the ship's staterooms, hundreds of GIs literally were stacked on top of one another below decks. The officers also had the services of Indian "bearers" who shined their shoes, brought meals, and ran bath water for them. There was an officers' lounge on the promenade deck aft, equipped with an electric coil fireplace and cocktail bar. In fact, many officers, with their lodgings on the top deck, looked forward to a long and peaceful trip to India.
When Thanksgiving dinner eventually was served, any meat the enlisted men did get came from a can. (According to a widespread but unfounded rumor on the ship, the officers had fresh turkey, a perception that did not help the men's morale.) Some of the troops got a bit of canned turkey; most got canned, watery chicken. A few fortunate individuals received a smattering of giblet gravy, dehydrated potatoes, "doughy" biscuits, apple sauce, and fruit cocktail. For the most part, however, the only things that did not come from a can that day were hot dogs, prepared especially for the Red Cross personnel on board.
The lascars, who thought Western food was too bland to begin with (most Indian food being very spicy), were rather gleeful at the discomfort caused by the meal they served. And they did not help matters when they tried to bet several Americansafter hearing talk between British and American officersthat the ship would be "bombed tomorrow, somewhere between Algiers and Tunis." Rohna passenger William Quick had seen a German reconnaissance plane fly over Oran just that morning (in fact, there were several) as the men boarded the troopships tied up in Oran harbor, prompting a veteran British sailor to suggest that they were in for trouble because the enemy "knows our location." A crusty old American sergeant, however, tried to put his men's minds at ease by telling them that the "Krauts" had never sunk a troopship in the Mediterranean before and that they wouldn't start today. The Allied armies, in Operation Torch the year before, had for the most part driven the Germans out of North Africa, and the coastal defenses of much of the Mediterranean were handed over to the French. Many of the men and materiel from the North African Theater of War had been transferred to other locations in anticipation of the assaults on Anzio and Normandy.
But the sergeant's statement that the Germans had never sunk a troopship in the Mediterranean was, of course, untrue. On 3 November 1943 the transport Mont Viso from convoy KMF-30 (United Kingdom, Mediterranean, Fast), was sunk by a U-boat; on 6 November the transport Santa Elena was destroyed in an air attack, as was the Dutch ship Marnix Van St. Aldegonde from KMF 25-A, along with an American destroyer, the USS Beatty; on 11 November the transport Birchbank and the French oilers Nivose and Carlier were sunk; on 18 November Empire Dunstan, another transport, was fatally attacked; and on 20 November the destroyer HMS Jela was sunk. All in all, these incidents proved a deadly omen for the Rohna of convoy KMF-26.
The 8,602-ton Rohna was built in 1926 by Hawthorn Leslie and Company in Newcastle upon Tyne for the British India Steam Navigation Company and was registered in London. An oil-burning vessel, she measured 62 feet in width and 461 feet in length, with a top speed of slightly over 13 knots. She was 121 feet from the waterline to the top of her mast. She was armed with eight 50-caliber machine guns, six 20-mm Oerlikon cannons, and two Hotchkiss and two Twin Lewis 30-caliber machine guns. These were manned by sixteen naval and two army gunners.
As early as 1931 the English governmental director of sea transport had asked the British India Steam Navigation Company for use of four of its ships "in the event of a national emergency." By 1935 this number had increased to nine, and by the outbreak of war in 1939, the total fleet (some 157 ships), including the Rohna, was placed at the disposal of His Majesty's government. Almost all of these ships subsequently were put into service as troop carriers.
Bespeaking her former colonial grandeur, all the Rohna's inter-deck stairways were made of fine wood that at one time was kept highly polished. But the ship's decor had suffered as early as 1941 when she was sent as a relief ship to the besieged city of Singapore, picking up hundreds of Indian women and children and transporting them to safety. By 1943 the stairways had initials and graffiti carved into them by the thousands of troops she had already carried to various war-zone destinations. For some of the war to this point, the Rohna, in consort with the Varela and Fort Tadoussac, had searched channels for mines and carried men and supplies between Ceylon and Bombay, India. Long ago, the Indian crew quit selling chewing gum to military passengers because globs of it always were left on the decks and passageways.
And unlike in days past, the Rohna was no longer a picture of beauty and confidence. She now was painted black, with long streaks of rust from "stem to stern"; her decks were a drab, lifeless brown. According to many men, her appearance was so brutal that they boarded with deep apprehension.
For her previous civilian services, the Rohna had been outfitted for some 100 berthed passengers. On this particular voyage in November 1943, however, she had 2,193 military persons on board, most of them unberthed, plus a crew of 195. This total of 2,388 put the area per individual perilously close to the average for Scotch-Irish and other immigrant ships of the mid-eighteenth century (generally around two feet wide by four feet long), and it was nearly the same as the ships in the Middle Passage during the unspeakable slave voyages from Africa to the West Indies. But as long as the officers would allow it, men on the Rohna slept in their clothes on the top deck, using duffel bags as pillows. Others slept on decks (the allotted bunk space was used up quickly), in hammocks, and even on mess hall tables after the last meal of the day had been served.
Thanksgiving meal time seemed to go along well enoughat the very least it was a welcome relief to sit up on the top decks in the brisk fresh airuntil the men were served what passed for dressing: It and all of the rolls and biscuits were full of weevils. There were, however, ample dollops of camel's butter to put on them. Many GIs held their noses as they passed the camel's butter to one another. Everyone complained to anyone who would listen, but their NCOs always told them, "Quit your bitching. You need the protein." Wallace Mason noted that numerous cockroach colonies kept the men company at their meal. He mused later: "If it had not been for the great loss of life, that ship should have been sunk."
The quality of the meal itself was so bad that a few men were compelled to comment fondly on the plates of creamed beef on toast, commonly called "shit on a shingle," that they frequently had been served on the voyage across the Atlantic. Some soldiers pushed their Thanksgiving dinner aside in disgust and opened up cans of K rations. Many others, suffering from seasickness, did not eat at all, with the thought of any kind of food repelling them.
To make matters worse, the entire ship reeked of rancid engine oil, and the galley was home to several generations of rats and mice, despite the presence of the numerous cats brought on board by the crew. The Rohna long ago had lost any stability she once might have possessed, with the result that the creaky old vessel rolled from side to side even in calm seas. Her movements, coupled with the poor quality of the Thanksgiving meal, virtually guaranteed seasickness. Soon after dinner on the 25theven though each person had been issued a brown paper bag for seasicknessa large contingent made their way to the heads, and soon the smell of vomit competed with the ever-present odor of oil. "The Rohna," said a survivor years later, "was simply not fit for human habitation."
But in truth, the Thanksgiving dinnerand the way it was preparedwas not very different from the food routinely served on the Rohna and, presumably, all the other transports in the convoy as well. On the lower decks there were wooden tables, each of which seated twenty-four. At meal time two men took two four-gallon buckets and one flat metal pan up to the second deck, where the buckets were filled with whatever food was being served and the pans were loaded with bread. When the food was brought back to the lower decks, it was ladled out with big spoons into individual mess kits. Once, John Smith ventured up to the galley and saw the food being prepared in huge steam vats. "The inside of the vats appeared clean," he said, but on the outside, "food had been allowed to boil over and dry," with an accumulation "several inches thick." It was odd seeing all this, Smith reported, "because the U.S. Navy kept things so clean." James Pope equally condemned the food that day: "I had rather eat slops!"
In direct contrast to the experience on the Rohna, not all that far away from convoy KMF-26, in Cairo, a far better Thanksgiving meal was being served. President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill were on their way to the Tehran Conference and were meeting with their joint chiefs of staff, with Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek as the guest of honor. The president toasted everyone present (the only female in attendance was Churchill's daughter, Sarah) and then told the history of Thanksgiving. After dinner, a band struck up "The Marine Hymn," with the president singing along heartily. Later, he wrote in his diary: "Yesterday was a real Thanksgiving Day. The Chiangs to teaand the British to dinner." Author Paul Mayle reported Churchill as saying, "This jolly evening and the spectacle of the President carving up the turkeys stand out in my mind among the most agreeable features of the halt at Cairo." And Roosevelt told a reporter that his Thanksgiving dinner "was the most enjoyable" he had spent in a long time."
Later that same evening, President Roosevelt's Thanksgiving message was broadcast over the Armed Forces Radio to all American troops throughout the world. "All of our American boys," he said, "are having turkey with all the trimmings on this special occasion." John Harding, on the Banfora, heard the president's report (as did all the other ships in convoy KMF-26) and said recently, "I swear every Arab between Algiers and the Suez Canal could hear all the hoots and catcalls emitting ... that night" as the convoy plied its way eastward, hoping that its escorts were up to the task of protecting them from the enemy.
KMF-26 possessed more surface escort because many convoy-supporting aircraft in the Mediterranean had been moved to the British isles in anticipation of Operation Overlord (leading up to D-Day in June 1944). Geography played a factor also. Since KMF-26 and all the other convoys came through the Mediterranean so close to the North African and French coasts, many Allied commanders believed that if these convoys were attacked at all, it would be by submarine; the Germans, they felt, would not risk being countered by the Royal Air Force (RAF). Apparently this Allied belief, in part at least, caused the RAF to downgrade air support for convoys going through the Mediterranean. Well before the attack on 26 November, one skeptical British sailor had already said, "Blow up your life belts. That's the only air support we will have."
The GIs on board the Rohna belonged primarily to the 853rd Engineer Aviation Battalion (793 men); others belonged to the 44th Portable Surgical Hospital (36 men); 31st Signal Construction Battalion (259 men); and 322nd Fighter Control Squadron (285 men). The remainder were replacements, primarily for aircraft support groups and at least one infantry unit (the 705th Infantry Replacement Battalion) for the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of War. Interestingly enough, however, much of the American equipment went by rail to California, then across the Pacific Ocean to various destinations.
The 853rd was on its way to India to build runways for B-29s as well as hangars and other airfield structures. This battalion had been organized on 9 January 1943 in Dyersburg, Tennessee; its motto was Honesta Quam Splendida ("How Illustrious are Honorable Deeds"). Their first major assignment as a military unit was in the spring of 1943 when the Mississippi River flooded the Tennessee town of Lenox. The 853rd worked twelve hours a day shoring up levees and repairing those that had already broken. When one levee broke, the 853rd stopped work to rescue stranded citizens and even some livestock.
After Dyersburg, the 853rd shipped out to Brookley Field in Alabama, where they received training in camouflage and heavy construction techniques. In September they went by train to Camp Patrick Henry, near Newport News, Virginia, and in early October they boarded a Liberty ship, the Lambert Cadwalader, to join a convoy of seventeen ships as they crossed the Atlantic into Oran, Algeria.
Landing in North Africa on 23 October 1943, many of the 853rd suffered culture shock. Instead of the romantic "One Thousand and One Nights," they were greeted with cries of "Chewing gum, Joe?" "Bon bon, Joe?" and "Hey Joe, cigarette?" In the place of "fine robes and white Arabian horses," which many of the men apparently had expected, "there were only old GI mattress covers draped around" the natives' shoulders, "and broken down mules."
The 322nd, like the 853rd, had traveled in convoy in early fall 1943 across the Atlantic on the William Rawle, Booker T. Washington, Nicholas Gilman, and Betty Zane. These ships also transported the 31st Signal Heavy Construction Battalion. The trip was uneventful until the vessels reached the Strait of Gibraltar, when tension set in. One passenger saw a glow on the horizon, indicating some kind of military action. Others wondered "how many German spies are watching us, and reporting our progress."
But before the 322nd Fighter Control Squadron could dock, they learned that Oran was filled almost to capacity, so they disembarked at Arzew, thirty miles down the coast, and were placed in a staging area known as CP-2. For the next three weeks the outfit slept in tents, on the ground, or in sleeping bags. The climate was miserable; according to Carl Schoenacker, it was usually 100 degrees each day at noon and around 30 or 40 degrees at night. Daily temperature fluctuations of 60 to 70 degrees were not unusual. The night cold came in under the cots, and the "fleas and lice came with it!" Some GIs bought straw from local farmers to try to stay warm, while others put newspapers underneath their sleeping bags. The cold night air caused bladder problems for many of these men; thus, "bedwetting in the cold was very common." Smith, corroborating much of Schoenacker's observations, was trucked to a "field of weeds" upon which tents were erected. After the second night dysentery set in, making the GIs' lives even more miserable. "We had no lights, no flashlights to find our way to the latrines that were about a block away. It was raining ... and the soil would stick to one's shoes until you could hardly move." It is easy to understand the "confusion of 200 plus men scrambling in the pitch dark trying to get to the outdoor 20 holers in a hurry." Smith also said there was no way to take a bath except in cold water the men collected in their helmets. In Smith's opinion, the dreadful conditions in Oran and surrounding areas created such "mental and physical wrecks" that morale was nonexistent when they boarded the Rohna; this may have contributed to the great loss of life when the guided bomb struck.
About CP-2 Ernest Horton recalled that "the nightly poker games, lit with grease supplied by the cooks in a 'C' ration can, were the high points.... When we left the area I'm sure all the excess rope on the tent flaps was used up for wick duty." Mason and his comrades in the 705th likewise were moved away from Oran to a tent city known as Mountain Lion.
While some replacement units were on board the Rohna, many had already been in Algeria for some time, along with the 44th Surgical Battalion, waiting for others to arrive before shipping out any farther. Most of these American soldiers did not like the areas around Oran, except for an Algerian cafe named "Sloppy Joe's," which bore a sign that proclaimed it was the only place in North Africa where one could buy American beer. They came down with physical ailments such as diarrhea, and in some instances dysentery. They also were afflicted with other maladies such as smallpox, malaria, and sandfly fever. And even those who weren't ill were for the most part restricted to quarters by their commanding officers, thus hindering fraternization with the local populacemuch to the chagrin of numerous GIs looking for female company. Despite these restrictions, however, there were still a few reported cases of gonorrhea.
Time, therefore, passed slowly for the GIs in Algeria. More and more, they wanted action. They played many softball games and occasionally were allowed to go on sight-seeing tours of Oran and surrounding cities. For other entertainment, however, they relied on themselves. In fact, on the night before sailing to Bombay, they staged a show in a quonset hut. One performer, a corporal named J. Freeman, played the piano and "sang as though he were a professional." As it turned out, he was the nephew of entertainer Ted Lewis (whose actual name was Theodore Friedman). Corporal Freeman played and sang "I'll Be Seeing You" (which had not yet become very popular). After he finished this song, Axis Sally, a notorious Nazi propagandist, interrupted over the shortwave, announcing that the Germans knew the whereabouts of convoys in the Mediterranean and that they (the convoys) definitely would be bombed. The GIs continued with their show, and to close the festivities the corporal sang the Lord's Prayer. Rohna survivor Eugene Breedlove later said the song "left all of us in a very quiet and thoughtful mood." Corporal Freeman was one of the many on the Rohna to be killed.
When orders for the 322nd and 705th to board the Rohna finally came through, they rode in trucks to the outskirts of Oran in a blinding rain, then marched two miles with full packs until they got a glimpse of the Rohna, tied up at a pier in the Mediterranean. Unlike many of the 853rd (James Loper's first impression of the Rohna was "this has got to be the oldest ship afloat in the world, with riveted hull construction and teak wood decks"), the men of the 322nd and 705th were comforted when they saw the initials HMT on the side of the ship; that meant, they believed, that the vessel was English and that they would be well cared for. "What a good deal," exclaimed one GI, while another remarked, "God it looks big and safe." It did not take long for their opinions to change.
The men were marched on board the Rohna (many of them bent over and kissed the ground goodbye), and eventually even the officers in charge saw that she was becoming dangerously overloaded. Company "A" of the 31st boarded (two other companies of the 31st remained), but they, like dozens of their mates, were ordered off onto a sister ship, HMT Rajula. Thomas Conway noted that the Rajula was tied up at the pier with the Rohna outboard of her. Conway and his platoon boarded the Rajula, crossed over her decks, and climbed on board the Rohna. "We had full field packs, gas masks, rifles, and bazookas, and getting down three decks with full equipment was murderous with everyone bitching all the way." But as soon as Conway and his men got settled on the Rohna, he and half of them were ordered back to the Rajula. And so the men, still with full field packs, laboriously wended their way up the ladders and once again stepped onto the Rajula. At the time, of course, they had no way of knowing how fortunate they were in leaving the Rohna. Milton Garret and his shipmates on board HMT Egra also got a reprieve without realizing it at the time. At about 11:00 A.M. on the 26th Garret noticed that the Rohna and the Egra, for some inexplicable reason, had switched positions with each other. These incidents were not the only "lucky breaks" on that voyage: Men whose names began with A-I generally were placed in the forward parts of the ship, with T-Z in the middle and J-S in the stern. The Rohna was hit just astern, behind the funnel.
As others boarded the Rohna, they saw several British officers and Indian crew members bring animals on board, prompting seamen's superstitions of doom. The officers brought dogs, and the lascars, goats; someone actually led a small horse up the gangplank. A GI from the nearby Rajula heard a dog howling on board the Rohna, reminding him of another old sailor's superstition that such an occurrence was an omenthat it would cause the ship in some way to be destroyed.
Even the captain of the Rohna, an Australian named T. J. Murphy (who, presumably because of his love of potatoes, was affectionately nicknamed "Spud"), was accompanied by his black and white pet goat, "Neville." The goat pranced around as though it had the run of the shipwhich in fact it did. One GI jokingly asked a British sailor if the goat were a mate on the Rohna. The tar replied somewhat disgustedly that the goat, in the captain's mind at least, was the first mate. In fact, there had been at least one confrontation in the past because of Neville's behavior. Apparently, it was partial to hats and once ate a passenger's capa passenger who just happened to be a Hussar, and very proud of his head covering. He complained to Captain Murphy, explaining that his cap's side buttons were made of gold. Unsympathetically Murphy suggested that the disaffected passenger keep a close watch on Neville for the next few days, "as he felt certain that, sound though its digestion was, the goat's stomach might be unable to assimilate the precious metal."
Excerpted from Allied Secret by Carlton Jackson. Copyright © 1997 by Carlton Jackson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.