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Pioneer to the rescue: in November 1943, off the coast of North Africa in the Mediterranean Sea, the crew of the USS Pioneer saved the lives of hundreds of men from the bombed troopship Rohna.

Quartermaster 1st Class Ron Wright took the wheel on the USS Pioneer bridge on Nov. 26, 1943, expecting another humdrum day in the Mediterranean screening for transports.

The minesweeper had joined the 27-ship, India-bound convoy KMF-26 the day before on Thanksgiving Day at Oran, Algeria. There, American soldiers boarded three British and one French transport headed east for Suez and Bombay.

At 4:40 p.m., the Pioneer sailed 37.06 North, 05.56 East, in the Gulf of Bougie, 15 miles off North Africa, guarding P Sector on the convoy's port beam.

Suddenly, three Luftwaffe squadrons roared out of the sun without warning. Heinkel 111s and 117s, Dornier 217s, Junkers 88s and Focke-Wulfs swung wide of the convoy, concentrating fire on the escorts.

Several aircraft carried highly secret rocket-propelled, remote-controlled Henschel Hs-293 glide bombs. Winged like planes, the air-to-surface missiles packed 1,100 pounds of explosives.

Bombs fell as Pioneer gun crews sprinted to battle stations.

Scrambling from North Africa bases, RAF Squadron 153, USAAF 350th Fighter Group and the Free French 1st Fighter Group engaged the Germans.

Pioneer Capt. LeRoy "Cowboy" Rogers directed action from the flying bridge. Gunners sent up a blistering barrage from port and starboard 20 and 40mm guns, and from the 3-inch/.50-caliber gun on the bow.

Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class Wayne Dana, gun captain on a 40mm gun, "was ready to fire on what looked like a small plane, but somebody said, `don't fire, it's a bomb.' It's a good thing I didn't fire, because it would have burst in air. It jarred the ship, and three men in our crew were hit, but recovered."

The 3-incher crew, Coxswain Harrell Jones in charge, filled the air with lead.

The War Diary reported the ship fired 59 rounds of 3-inch shells, 222 rounds of 40mm, 950 rounds of 20mm and 150 rounds of .30-caliber machine gun fire.

ROHNA TRAGEDY

Close by, the British transport Rohna, with almost 2,000 American soldiers aboard, ran out of luck.

A Heinkel 177 bombardier targeted Rohna with a secret missile--Hs-293. The bomb fell behind the mother plane, overtaking it as its rocket ignited. The nose glowed red; fire blasted from the tail. Moving the joy stick, the bombardier swerved the bomb into Rohna's port side. It exploded in the engine room, gouging a truck-sized hole on both sides of the ship.

Rohna lost all power, caught fire and began listing heavily to starboard. Hundreds died instantly. The 853rd Engineer Aviation Bn. lost 67% of its force. By nightfall, 1,015 GIs had died, the greatest loss at sea of U.S. Army personnel in WWII. Three American Red Cross men, five Rohna officers and 115 native crewmen died also.

Few lifeboats were seaworthy. The Mediterranean filled with soldiers wearing life preservers fighting for room on boats, rafts or bits of wood.

At 5:45 p.m., convoy escort commander HMS Slazak ordered Pioneer to stand by Rohna to protect soldiers from strafing. Convoy ships continued eastbound.

Soldiers fought to survive, heads bobbing up and down, bodies plunging into deep troughs, then rising to the crests of the waves in cold, choppy Mediterranean waters.

Pioneer crewmen dragged waterlogged, bone-tired, dazed and seriously injured men out of the sea. The rescued included three American Red Cross men.

Sgt. Vincent Fonte, shrapnel in both legs, said Pioneer men "were crazy, jumping in the water to fish us out as we were being strafed."

Gunners Mate 3rd Class Clyde Bellomy was one of those "crazy" sailors. Survivor Cpl. John Canney wrote: "You were one wild kid. I saw you jump in the water about a dozen times without benefit of any rope and the final time in defiance of an order from the bridge."

Pvt. Sherman "Toby" Almond grabbed a fire hose thrown to him. He also found his cardboard meal ticket--Rohna Mess #96--for a dinner never served.

Pfc. Bill Caskey found he had all the sevens from a Fan-tan game he was playing when the bomb hit. "I never saw again the three men in that game," he recalled. "They lost their lives."

"I reached the Pioneer only to find myself too exhausted to hold on to the ropes," Cpl. Jim Clonts said. "I came to lying on the deck. One face came back to me, a sailor with red hair." Fifty years later, Clonts met his rescuer, Harrell Jones.

"I swam through rough seas trying to reach the Pioneer," Capt. Clifford Hewitt, Air Force chaplain, said. "Someone pulled me aboard by the seat of my pants."

After his rescue, 1st Lt. Gus Gikas "saw many acts of heroism that night ... One sailor went into the water to save a man who didn't have the strength to come up the ladder. He nearly didn't make it, but he saved the man and himself."

Cpl. Al Stefenoni said a sailor stuck his leg in the water. "I grabbed it. Another sailor helped pull me aboard and draped me over the railing. Then, two men slid me face down on the slick deck."

Capt. Rogers observed:

With a small sea running toward us, which seemed to assist the survivors in their attempt to get to us, we tried to maintain a relative position in their path, with engines stopped. As we closed, all gunners were given permission to secure guns and go to the main deck where rope ladders and cargo nets were put over the side.

When it became apparent that some swimmers were not able to climb, what seemed like half my crew poured over the side to give them a hand, a line or a life preserver. Of course the other half of tire crew was pulling them up by the hair or tire lines or by the hand if they could be reached. Shortly, we noticed that the convoy had moved on (standard procedure) and we were detached to stay and search for other survivors.

The bombers had also come down and were flying back and forth looking for other targets and becoming tempting targets themselves, but our gun crews were much more profitably engaged.

A `HELLISH SCENE'

A makeshift hospital set up in the galley by Pharmacist Mate 2nd Class Richard M. Wilson became a hellish scene of horrible burns, broken bones and hypothermia.

Wilson worked desperately to save the worst cases. Red Cross man Jeff Sparks, Sgt. Daniel J. Pawlak and Cpl. Jere Killian assisted.

"We pooled our efforts in a critical situation where medical supplies were limited," Sparks said. "Men with third degree burns, hands charred to formless masses, faces burned deep with cinders, cracked skulls, men as stiff as rigor mortis with shock. We took first those who had a chance to survive--suturing heads, making compresses and administering morphine and blood plasma available."

"They brought an Indian with his hand mangled and ribs broken," Killian said. "Three fingers had been cut off and were bleeding like heck. We wrapped bandages and sulfa powder on them and they taped his back up. The stench of bloody and burned bodies was awful.

"Fellows were being brought in with ugly cuts and bruises and several soldiers came in that had been burned all over the face and body. One GI had a broken back. I don't see how he made the trip from the Rohna."

Caskey said: "It was tough to hear them pray and call for their mothers. The skin hanging off some guys looked like black adhesive tape--two and three feet long."

"We did anything we could to get those men out of the water," Dana said. "All we could think of was to get those men on board our ship."

Tirelessly, Coxswain Jay "Moose" Curfew grabbed men with both hands and deposited them on the slippery, overloaded deck. "He'd just pick them up and throw them on deck like he was hauling fish," said a shipmate.

"Something I will never forget was bodies everywhere, and wishing you could save all of them" Seaman 1st Class Herbert Dawes said. "I can still hear the calls for help."

"Hundreds of heads were bobbing in the rough sea" Radioman 3rd Class Ed Linville said. "We could only grab someone when the ship rolled to starboard. I will never forget when a spotlight was shone on a soldier who seemed to have a full field pack on ... We could see him slowly going down in the water and moving his arms and legs ever so slowly. He finally sank out of sight."

Shipfitter 3rd Class Duane Essenpreis said, "It was a very disheartening sight to see the wounded men die before your very eyes and be so helpless. It was gruesome ... So many were so weak and wounded that they couldn't climb. The sea was very, very rough. Men would climb to get aboard and a huge wave would wash them back into the sea."

Wright recalled, "When darkness came, we were still bringing people aboard. So the skipper ordered our lights turned on! The calculated risk paid off in numerous rescues."

SPECTACULAR EXPLOSIONS

Near midnight, 1st Lt. Don VanSickle found himself near the Pioneer. He rode the crest of a wave, trying to time it so he could grab a ladder rung, but he missed and banged into the side of the ship. He made it on his second try.

Survivors watched spectacular explosions shake the doomed Rohna, tracers lighting up the sky like the Fourth of July. They watched as Rohna, bow pointing skyward, disappeared, taking with her so many young American soldiers.

"The sailors went out of their way to be great that night," Killian said. "They gave up their beds for the wounded, brought out extra clothes for the wet and cold, and brought out their cigarettes and candy rations for us. They opened their food lockers and made sandwiches and hot coffee for us."

The overladen Pioneer finally turned her bow toward North Africa at 1:45 a.m. on Nov. 27, 1943, after the last survivor sighted was brought aboard. The ship sailed flank speed for six hours until reaching Philippeville (Skikda) in Algeria. There, 601 survivors and five dead were disembarked.

Confirmation of Pioneer firepower came from a Royal Navy signalman aboard Atherstone: "Is that all the guns you've got? I've never seen so much fire come from so few!"

Sparks took charge of clothes and effects. "I nearly wept over the rosaries and personal photos, slimy with sea oil, and the little mementos of life," he said. Finally, Sparks broke down and wept like a baby.

Pioneer won four battle stars during WWII, but not for its incredible Rohna rescue.

DON FORTUNE, a Sonoma, Calif.-based free-lance writer, was an editor and reporter at the San Francisco Examiner for 27 years. His unit was bumped from the Rohna that fateful day.
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Title Annotation:rescue at sea, World War II
Author:Fortune, Don
Publication:VFW Magazine
Geographic Code:0MEDI
Date:Oct 1, 2000
Words:1800
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