Bruce Rohn served as fire control officer aboard the USS Tennessee after the World War I-era battleship, sunk by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, was raised from the bottom, repaired and sent to war. The 95-year-old Venice, Fla. resident and the Tennessee (BB-43) saw action at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and numerous other engagements before World War II was over.
In 1937 Rohn shook hands with Hitler, competed in whale boat races against members of the “Master Race” and beat them every time. It happened on a European summer cruise before the war aboard the Battleship New York when he was a plebe at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
“I was born in the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Nov. 17, 1917. My father was a marine engineer working on the Battleship New York. World War I was still on,” he recalled.
“On that plebe cruise in ’37 I wound up as coxswain on a racing whale boat that competed against German racing whale boat crews. Twice a day all the way across the Atlantic Ocean they put us overboard in the whale boat to practice rowing.
“By the time we reached the Kiel Canal in Germany we had an unbeatable crew. The year before, during the Olympic Games held in Germany, Hitler had been very nasty to Jessie Owens, our star athlete in those games. The State Department suggested to the admiral in charge of our cruise that we accept all whale boat challenges we got from Germany.
“Our magnificent crew not only beat the Germans decisively every time we raced, but every time our whale boat crew competed with anyone we never lost a race during the cruise that summer.”
In addition to racing whale boats, Rohn and his fellow plebes were wined and dined during their tour of Germany. In their finest naval uniforms, set off by rows of gold buttons, they became U.S. ambassadors that summer in Europe.
“One morning we met at 10 a.m. in our blue service uniforms in the lobby of our hotel. We were bussed to the Reichstag and marched into Hitler’s formal office. His office was half the size of a basketball court, but contained little except a desk, a podium and Hitler,” he said.
“In a reception line I got to shake Hitler’s hand along with the rest of the plebes on the tour. I got a greeting in German and that was it. He didn’t impress me very much because he didn’t look that interesting. I was a lot more interested in the good times we were having and the German girls,” Rohn said with a smile.
“In 1940 I graduated from Annapolis, but I failed the eye exam during my senior year in school which disqualified me for regular duty in the Navy. I got my diploma from the Naval Academy and received a reserve commission which I didn’t think much of at the time.
“When the war started I ended up at a desk job in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Half way through the war I’d had enough of land duty and told my commander I wanted to go to sea,” he said. “When I got my sea orders I had been transferred to the Battleship Tennessee in the South Pacific as its fire control officer.
“I went aboard the Tennessee about the time it was headed for Gen. MacArthur’s Philippine invasion in the fall of 1944. I watched him wade ashore twice. He waded ashore the first time and then did it a second time for the cameras.
“I didn’t think much of MacArthur at the time. But I have to say he was probably the bravest man on the beach that day. While Japanese planes were strafing him he marched ashore with his little swagger stick under his arm as bullets hit all around him.
“Several days later the Japanese sent four different task forces to clean the U.S. out of the Philippines and stop the landing.”
Dubbed the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” it was here the Japanese Imperial Navy lost most of its carrier air force. It would never recover from this decisive engagement. It spent the remainder of the war fighting defensively. More than 350 Japanese planes were shot out of the sky the first day of the battle.
The Tennessee and seven other old WW I battleships together with two dozen small jeep carriers were ordered to remain near Leyte.
“We picked up the Jap fleet as it sailed into the Surigao Straits with our superior radar in the middle of the night and ‘Crossed the T’ on them. Adm. Jesse Oldendorf’s old battleships and the Jeep carriers sunk their southern fleet,” he said. “We had used up all our armour piercing shells. The only thing that stood between us and the Jap’s huge northern fleet was a bunch of little destroyer escorts and our small Jeep carriers.
“The DE skippers were the heros of that battle as far as I’m concerned. They saved my life. They sailed into the middle of the much larger Jap fleet, made smoke, shot up everything and caused all kinds of confusion. The Japanese admiral with his big battleships turned around and left.”
After the major engagement off Leyte, the Tennessee sailed back to Bremerton, Wash. for repairs. She returned to the war zone in time for the Battle of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
“On D-Day at Iwo Jima the Tennessee’s job was to silence the Jap artillery
batteries hidden in caves atop Mt. Surabachi. These batteries were set up to rake our Marines as they came ashore,” Rohn said. There were eight batteries dug in the rock. The only way we could silence these guns was to put a 14-inch shell through a door-sized opening in the coral from two miles off shore.
“We put our big gun shells through seven of these openings in the coral. However, we had to give up on the eighth opening because it was too low for our guns to bear. So we raised our sites and brought the mountain down on the opening burying the gunners in the cave,” he said.
“At Iwo Jima we didn’t have too much trouble with kamikazes. Three of them took a run at us aboard the Tennessee. Our five inch guns fired one round at them. We hit the middle kamikaze in the nose and blew it all to hell. The other two that survived turned around and left.
“We weren’t as lucky at Okinawa. We were jumped by five kamikazes. We shot down four of them, but the fifth suicide plane’s wing hit our bridge and took out a 40 mm gun emplacement manned by Marines. It killed 20 of them and an additional 100 were wounded,” he said.
“The Tennessee was in Buckner Bay off Okinawa when the Japanese surrendered aboard the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. I got our skipper to give me orders to immediately return to the States. I had promised my wife I’d be home by our wedding anniversary on Sept. 28, 1945.
“A few days before our anniversary I reached San Francisco, but I needed a train ticket that was almost impossible to acquire to cross the U.S. and get home in time. By chance I ran into a WAVE I had as a bridge partner on the train two years earlier heading west to war. She was running the Port Directors Office and she got me the ticket I needed.”
Rohn and his wife, Betty, celebrated their fifth anniversary in style in Washington, D.C where he was discharged from the Navy in 1945. He worked for G.E. and several other big industrial firms as a factory manager for decades after the war.
When he retired in 1983, the couple moved to Venice and eventually lived in the Jacaranda Trace retirement complex. His wife of 73 years died this year.
Rohn has two children: Marie Anne and Bruce, better known as “Skipper.”
Name: Bruce Arthur Rohn
D.O.B: 17 Nov. 1917
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Currently: Venice, FL
Entered Service: 1937
Discharged: September 1945
Unit: USS Tennessee
Battles/Campaigns: American Theatre, South Pacific – Leyte – Surigao Straits, Samar, Iwo Jima and Okinawa
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, July 29, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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