In 1942 Dan Middleton joined the Army Air Corps instead of the Navy because he didn’t want to be sunk at sea.
A year later, on Nov. 26, 1943, the day after Thanksgiving, he was aboard the HMT Rohna, an English ship with an Indian crew, on his way to the CBI (China, Burma, India) Theater of Operation. The transport was hit by an experimental German guided bomb off the coast of Algiers in the Mediterranean. A total of 1,149 servicemen lost their lives.
The Rohna’s sinking was the largest loss of American lives aboard any transport ship during World War II. Only the USS Arizona sunk at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese surprise attack that launched the United States into WWII had a higher loss of life. Forty six more sailors died aboard the battleship.
Middleton, who winters in Englewood, Fla. was one of the lucky ones. He was one of the 1,015 survivors aboard the Rohna.
“We were sailing from Oran, Algiers, in late November 1943 when the Germans got word we were headed for the CBI,” he recalled. “There were more than 2,000 GIs aboard ship and half of them didn’t make it.
“I was up on deck when the action started. I saw a dogfight between a couple of planes. Then I saw another plane go down with smoke behind it,” he said. ” About that time we were ordered to go below deck. I went below and got into a card game.
“Then all of a sudden–POW! the thing hit us and everything went dark. The hatch covers were blown off from its force. The bomb made a huge hole in the side of our ship.
“I was three decks down,” Middleton said. “I had to get up on deck the best way I could. I had to climb up a ladder and through a hatch because all the stairs were blocked.”
When he got topside there was pandemonium. People were running around in the fading light of day trying to figure out what to do.
“I saw soldiers go over the side with their helmets on in full field gear and drown,” he said. “The Indian crew wasn’t much help. They were scared too.”
They were trying to lower men into the sea in wooden lifeboats, but the pulleys on the divots were rusted.They broke and dumped the soldiers into the dark water below.
“I went down a cargo net on the port side and jumped into the water. I tried to get as far away from the ship as I could,” he said. “We had round, tube-like life preservers that clipped around the middle of us. I had to keep blowing up the preserver by mouth to stay afloat during the night.
“I took a life preserver off of a couple of soldiers who had drowned. I figured they didn’t need them anymore,” he said. “I put one under my legs and another under my seat. They helped keep me afloat.”
Many of his shipmates weren’t as fortunate.
“Seven or eight of us fellows got together in the beginning and held on to each other. By daybreak, they were all gone. They floated off during the night. I never saw them again. I figured they drowned,” Middleton said. “A lot of the guys aboard ship were westerners. They would swallow saltwater and get cramps. I guess they died, too.”
In a way, he was lucky. Neither he nor any of the other men on the Rohna were bothered by sharks. Middleton attributes their good fortune to the water temperature.
The ship went down 15 miles off the Algerian coast. The Germans could attack the Rohna from bases in Italy, or Gen. Erwin Rommel’s North Afrika Korps could hit them from the air.
“When you’re floating in the water, you can see a ship’s lights and you think it’s right near, but it may be miles away,” he said. “Several times during the night I yelled and hollered, but I couldn’t get their attention.”
Hours went by as he floated in the dark. The black sky above him was gradually starting to turn gray.
Off and on during the night he thought about his wife and daughter, Carol, who had just been born.
“When I left my wife and went to war, she was pregnant. I did a lot of thinking about them while I was in the water,” he said.
“I didn’t do any praying during the night, but toward the end, as dawn broke, I said a prayer. Almost instantly a searchlight hit me in the face. HMS Holcombe (a minesweeper) pulled alongside and a sailor jumped over and got me.
“When I got aboard, they said, ‘Would you rather have Cocoa or rum?’ I said, ‘Cocoa.’ I just got the words out of my mouth and that was the last thing I remember until I woke up in an English hospital in Bougie, North Africa. I must have passed out from exhaustion.”
He spent a few days recovering. Then Middleton was sent to New Delhi, India his destination. He was the chief radio operator at the airfield in New Delhi for the last two years of the war.
Although he says he never signed a form agreeing not to mention the Rohna disaster, most of the survivors aboard the ill-fated ship did. For some unexplained reason, the federal government wanted to keep the incident under wraps even after the war.
For decades the government was successful. It wasn’t until John Fievet of Alabama, who was aboard the ship, spoke up a few years ago. His story was printed in his local newspaper. This got the word out about the long-ago sunken ship.
James Bennett, whose brother lost his life aboard the Rohna, found out years later about the incident and started looking into the matter. After he discovered what happened, he convinced a TV production company to produce a documentary on the sinking of the Rohna.
As a result, U.S. Rep. Jack Metcalf, R-Washington, sponsored a resolution honoring the 1,015 Americans who survived the disaster.
Because of the relatively recent publicity on the Rohna, a survivors group was formed. Those interested can find out more about the incident and the group by going to an Internet search engine and type in: “HMT Rohna.”
Sitting in his Englewood home thinking about the disaster so many decades ago, Middleton said, “It wasn’t fair to the people who lost their loved ones, what the federal government did. A lot of families received ‘Missing in Action’ notices. They never knew what happened.”
The old soldier, who turned 86 on June 2, 2002, plans to be at the next meeting of the survivors group.
“I’ve never gone to one of these meetings before. But I’ll be at the next one, the good Lord willing.”
*Author’s note: Click here to view the official Rohna Survivors Memorial Association page.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2002 and is republished with permission.
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