Catoosa County’s Floyd Peters, a Korean War veteran, would like to know more about what happened to his older brother Odus.
Born in August, 1920, Odus J. Peters grew up on the family farm in Pleasant Valley in Catoosa County, Ga., and attended a two-room school house — Pleasant Valley School.
In his late teens, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and worked in Washington state. As the momentum of World War II grew overseas, the U.S. Army drafted Odus into the Army Corp of Engineers.
During Thanksgiving holidays, 1943, Odus and hundreds of other soldiers boarded the troopship HMT Rohna heading to the Burma-India-China theater of WW II.
On the day after Christmas, 1943, the Walter Peters family is still bustling with the festive spirits of the holidays when the taxi from Ringgold pulls up in the yard. The driver knocks at the door with a telegram informing them that Walter and Alice Peters’ son Odus, technician fourth grade for the Army Corp of Engineers, was missing in action.
A Jan. 3, 1944, letter from Maj. Gen. J.A. Ulto reads:
“I know that added distress is caused by failure to receive more information or details. Therefore, I wish to assure you that at any time additional information is received it will be transmitted to you without delay, and, if in the meantime no additional information is received, I will communicate again in three months.”
“We were planting cotton that day,” said Floyd, who lives close to Chickamauga.
“Back then we didn’t have telephones in the Pleasant Valley. Anybody who got a telegram, a taxi from Ringgold had to bring it out. The telegram told us that (Odus) was presumed dead.”
That spring day in 1944 was the last information the family received until the military asked them if they wanted Odus’s body returned to Ringgold in 1946.
Floyd gives a tearful description.
“(Kenemer Brothers of Dalton) brought the casket to our home about a quarter mile from the (Friendship Baptist) church, and then of course they came back at the funeral and took the casket to the church and then to Anderson Cemetery,” he said. “Some way or another my daddy knew that his death happened at sea.”
An accidental discovery
Fifty-nine years later, Floyd’s niece Thelest Stewart and sister Elizabeth Blansett were conducting genealogical research in California and discovered that Odus’s death had been part of what some believe to be the U.S. government’s biggest misinformation campaign — the sinking of the HMT Rohna, a British troop transport ship. The two entered his military identification number into a computer search engine which led them to the Rohna Survivors Memorial website where they found him listed as a casualty — shocking considering the family had never reallyn known how Odus had died.
According to the website, the attack in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Algeria was the first successful “hit” of a merchant vessel at sea carrying U.S. troops by such a device, thus giving birth to the missile age, and resulting in the greatest loss of troops at sea in U.S. history. The use of the weapon was so devastating that the U.S. government placed a veil of secrecy over it that continued for decades until recently, when documents were released under the Freedom of Information Act.
“We were waiting 59 years before we knew actually what happened, and this was classified because they did not want the Germans to know how successful they had been,” Floyd says.
With the discovery, the Peters family found Congressional recognition and first hand accounts of what happened aboard the HMT Rohna.
In a Sept. 12, 2000, speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, former Congressman Jack Metcalf of Washington describes the grim story:
“Mr. Speaker, the greatest naval disaster in the United States during World War II was the sinking of the U.S.S. Arizona; 1,177 were killed. The Arizona has been memorialized in the national consciousness. On Nov. 26, 1943, however, a loss of American military personnel of almost identical magnitude occurred when the British troop transport ship, the HMT Rohna, was sunk by a radio-controlled rocket-boosted bomb launched from a German bomber off the coast of North Africa. By the next day, 1,015 American troops and more than 100 British and allied officers and crewmen had perished. The U.S. troops aboard the Rohna have been largely forgotten by their country.”
“The United States Government had not properly acknowledged this event,” Congressman Metcalf said. “Because inadequate records were kept, some survivors had to fight for years to prove that the Rohna even existed, let alone that survivors might be due some recognition. “
The battle begins
Clyde L. Bellomy, GM1C, was aboard the U.S.S. Pioneer, whose crew rescued hundreds of the Rohna’s survivors.
“As I remember it, we had just come off watch and sat down for our dinner when we heard the call, ‘General quarters, all hands man your battle stations,’” he said. “We left our dinner which went all over the mess hall. It was an attack on the convoy (KMF-26) by German bombers. They were using a new radio-controlled bomb being launched from the plane and guided by radio control. We manned our battle stations and started pouring lead. The Germans released a bomb, and it headed straight for the Rohna with some 2,000 men aboard.
“The men who were able abandoned the ship by any means they could,” he said. “Some jumped overboard and others tried to lower the lifeboats, but that was impossible because all the lines and pulleys were rusted, making them inoperable.”
Raymond Cecil Taylor of the 853rd Engineer was aboard the Rohna.
“At 4 p.m., I had just completed a day in the bakery keeping fire in the oven,” he said. “Shortly after I had gone below deck to my dining table, an alarm sounded alerting us that there were enemy aircraft above. All soldiers were ordered below. Our quarters were just aft of the engine room on the starboard side of the ship.
“The next thing I can remember is that everything was dark,” he said. “Off to the port side of the ship I could see some light and the dining table had fallen on my leg. I pulled myself from under the table and walked in the direction of the light. There was a large opening in the side of the ship where just a few minutes before had been a solid wall.
“The dining area that had been filled with soldiers was now only dead bodies and debris,” he said. “I felt as though God was leading me to the opening in the side of the ship. The hole was large enough to drive several trucks through at the same time. I paused just long enough to inflate my life belt. It felt as though someone or something was telling me to jump, so I did. It was 10 to 15 feet to the water.
“As I came back up to the surface of the water, I looked up to the top of the ship and saw two soldiers pointing to an object beyond me,” he said. “It was a life raft about (four feet by six feet) in size. I made my way to it, got on and looked around. I could see the ship’s propeller. The momentum of the ship was taking it away from me, which was good. The last sight I had of the ship it was in flames. I did not have any idea that it sank. I also had no idea that the sky was full of enemy airplanes.
“I was alone on the raft until just before dark,” he said. “I pulled two soldiers on board with me and we rode that raft for a long, long night. The sea was very rough, and it kept knocking us off. We would get back on and huddle together trying to keep warm until we were knocked off again. After what seemed like an all-night ride, our prayers were answered. The ship was the Pioneer.”
Marvin A. Marx of the 26th Fighter Squadron, 5th Fighter Group, CACW 14th Air Force was below the main deck when the missile hit the Rohna.
“Early in the afternoon after the briefing, a kid still in his teens was heard to say that he ‘wanted to see some action,’” he said. “A master sergeant assured him that he may see more than he would like before he returned home. Soon after that we heard what sounded like machine guns strafing nearby and bombs exploding in the distance. I saw the kid in a corner by himself crying.
“At about 5:30 p.m. that day about 20 of us were lined up below the main deck, preparatory to marching through the engine room where we were to have eaten dinner before going on guard duty at 6 p.m. The strafing and bombing had continued, off and on, during the afternoon, but now, suddenly it was louder, and we knew closer. The ship was rocking more violently.
“Orders to march into the mess hall were never given,” he said. “One bomb rocked the ship more violently than any of the others, and we concluded that we had been hit. We were ordered up the companionway to the main deck; then ordered back down, then up again.
“What met our eyes and ears was mass confusion!” he said. “The crew of this ship were natives of India; the officers were British. (The captain was Australian.) Members of the crew were in lifeboats pleading with the GIs (who were strictly passengers) to operate the mechanism which would lower the lifeboats into the Mediterranean. Someone tried to lower the lifeboat, but due to faulty equipment, only one was lowered and the Indians tumbled haphazardly into the sea. Later observation showed the mechanism for some of the lifeboats was rusted to the deck!
“No one seemed to be in charge!” he said. “No one was giving orders. We observed the captain of the ship at his post, smoking a pipe and saying nothing. I saw an American soldier climbing up through a burning hold from below, his face bloody, no doubt from being thrown against a portion of the ship. Of course, he was not the only one injured in this manner. And no doubt, some were so severely injured in this manner that they couldn’t climb up. Others probably were killed instantly by the explosion.
“An American lieutenant ordered a group of us to throw overboard life rafts, wooden planks, and anything that would float. A large number of GIs had jumped into the sea, some of whom could not swim,” he said. “We began rushing to the rail, dropping everything overboard without looking to see where it was landing. ‘It’s not Thanksgiving; it’s the Fourth of July!’ we shouted, hoping to boost the morale of some of the others. Soon we were told to look first, as some of this material was landing on the heads of the men who were close to the side of the ship.
“We learned later that some of these men, panic stricken, had jumped overboard fully clothed, with helmets in place, straps under chins, a full pack on their backs, and/or rifles in their hands! Their chances for survival were nil,” he said.
“All this while the fire was raging below deck,” he said. “Finally, there was only about 15 of us left on deck — the guys who had been throwing floatable stuff overboard. Collectively and individually, we decided that it was time for us to unofficially abandon ship.
“I swam to the nearest life raft, already occupied by several Americans, and we all held on, literally, for dear life,” he said. “I was determined that no telegram from the war department would be sent to my bride of 20 months.”
“We could see a hole in the side of the ship large enough for an automobile or a truck to drive through. Later, some of us saw the Rohna sink, stern first,” he said.
Trying to survive
“Hundreds died when the German missile struck,” Congressman Metcalf told Congress. “ The majority, however, died from exposure and drowning when darkness and rough seas limited the rescue efforts. Less than half, over 900, survived.
American, British and French rescue workers worked valiantly to save those Rohna passengers and crew who made it off the ship and into the ocean. The U.S.S. Pioneer picked up two-thirds of all those that were saved — 606 GIs. Many of those in the water had to endure hours of chilling temperatures before being picked up. As the evening moved into the middle of the night and the early morning hours, some men were speechless with the cold. Many died deaths of unbelievable agony.”
Charles J. Williams, B Company, 31st Signal Heavy Construction Battalion, of Orina, Calif., was one of hundreds who jumped overboard to save themselves.
“By this time most of the troops were going over the side and were in the water. While the men were in the water right near the side of the ship, someone was releasing the life rafts,” he said. “(The life rafts were about eight feet wide by 10 feet long by three feet deep) and heavy. The rafts were hitting the water right in the middle of swimmers. I personally did not see anyone hit by a raft, but I’m sure it was more than possible, and men probably lost their lives in this manner.
“When I decided to go into the water I did two things; first I took off my shoes and jacket, and second, I blew up my life preserver manually to where it resembled a tight inner tube,” he said. “The life preservers we were issued were about six inches wide and laid flat. The preservers had gas pellets built in, in time of emergency squeezing the pellet would fill the preserver with lighter than air gas. A short hose was attached to the tube, which allowed the tube to be filled with air and a shut off valve for sealing the gas or air.
“I partially climbed down a rope ladder until I was 15 to 20 feet above the water and then jumped the remaining distance,” he said. “A minesweeper, the Pioneer, lay off our port 200-300 yards in the water. The current was sweeping the swimmers in a long line to the minesweeper. The minesweeper was perpendicular to the line of swimmers, and I headed for the ship.
He said he stayed in the water and in a raft a long time before the Pioneer picked him up.
“Parents of virtually all of (the victims) died without learning how their sons had died, because this was something that was not made public,” said Rohna survivor John Fievet, director emeritus of the Rohna Survivors Memorial Association. “Their brothers and sisters, wives and children need to hear their story. All Americans need to learn of their bravery and sacrifice.”
According to Fievet, it was on Nov. 11, 1993, that Charles Osgood brought the story of the Rohna to America. Osgood revisited the subject two weeks later. According to Osgood, “It is not that we forgot, it is just that we never knew.”
Since that time, the story of the Rohna has been featured in dozens of news stories around the country, but still there are people like the Peters family who do not know what happened to their loved ones.
It has been 59 years since Maj. Gen. Ulto promised the Peters family of Catoosa County more information. Floyd Peters said his parents and most of his siblings have passed away not knowing what happened. If it had not been for some genealogical research, the remaining family members would still be in the dark.
Peters is still hopeful that there may be a Rohna survivor somewhere who might remember an encounter with his brother Odus that could give the family insights into his final hours.
“It was a shock to realize what we had been told in the past was not true,” he said. “If they had declassified this right after the war, then we could have made our adjustments back then and it would not be like living through it all over.”
I’m sure my brother knew how to swim ‘cause we were raised out in the country; swimming came as second nature,” he said.
“Some way or another my brother survived the ship sinking because his body was brought back here,” he said. “My brother did receive a Purple Heart that meant he was wounded, and according to reports of other survivors he must have lived to reach sick call.”
Survivors reported that anyone who reported to sick call following the incident was awarded the Purple Heart.
“We do not know how he survived,” he said. “His death must have come rather quickly as his death is listed as Nov. 26, 1943.”
“I’ve enlisted the aid of the Veteran’s Administration to find out where they would have picked his body up,” he said. “There were some 800 of these boys that went down to the bottom of the sea.”
“I remember seeing him listed as missing in action in the local Chattanooga newspapers along with quite a few soldiers from LaFayette and Dalton, but I think he was the only one from Catoosa,” he said. “Anyone who had a loved one reported missing Dec. 26, 1943, I would be interested in hearing from them.”
“It is important that history be chronicled, and that this story, an important part of our history, be told, heard, taught and remembered,” said James Bennett, Ph.D., author of “The Rohna Disaster, WWII’s Secret Tragedy.”
“It is also important that those who played roles in this incredible drama; the survivors, rescuers and casualties, be given their due honor and recognition, and that the families of those who perished, have a right to know what happened to their loved ones,” he said.
On Memorial Day, 1996, a monument was dedicated at Fort Mitchell National Cemetery in Seales, Ala., to the memory of the 1,015 men who lost their lives in this incident.
Four years later, the Rohna Survivors Memorial Association was more formally organized.
For more information about the tragedy check its website at http://www.whidbey.net/rohna/rohna.htm.
The Catoosa County News would like to thank the Rohna Survivors Memorial Association for assisting with this article and providing survivors’ stories.