Tom Hollimon (Photo by Arthur D. Lauck, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
By George Morris
When the USS Arizona was sunk at Pearl Harbor, killing 1,103 American servicemen, it shook the entire world. When 863 perished with the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945, the nation was outraged.
When 1,015 died in 1943 with the sinking of the HMT Rohna in the Mediterranean, few knew. Seven decades later, not much has changed.
Tom Hollimon is an exception. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, resident survived the second worst naval incident involving Americans in World War II. He understands why so few have ever heard of it.
“They said it was hush-hush,” said Hollimon. “We didn’t talk about it.”
The Rohna was sunk on Nov. 26, 1943, by a German guided bomb, a forerunner to today’s cruise missiles. Not wanting to give the enemy any information about its success, the American and British military did not acknowledge the sinking.
The secrecy prevailed even after the war, causing many family members a long delay to learn what happened to their loved ones. For many years, hardly anyone who wasn’t in the convoy or part of the rescue effort knew what happened.
About 2,200 American servicemen boarded the Rohna in Oran, Algeria. The largest single unit was the 853rd Engineer Aviation Battalion, which was going to India to build runways. Hollimon was part of the 853rd.
Almost 2,400 soldiers and crew jammed the ship, which had been designed to carry 100 passengers in comfort, according to Carlton Jackson’s book, “Allied Secret: The Sinking of the HMT Rohna.”The Rohna left Oran and joined a convoy sailing from Great Britain. Since the departure was on Thanksgiving Day, the crew provide a holiday repast that didn’t stay down long as the ship rolled through the swells.
“We had Thanksgiving dinner, and everybody went and vomited,” Hollimon said.
Seasickness, however, would be the least of their problems. At 4:30 p.m. the next day, German bombers based in occupied France attacked the convoy.
The attack lasted for an hour, and most soldiers saw none of it. All were ordered below, in many cases levels below deck.
In additional to conventional bombs, German aircraft had Henschel 293 guided bombs. The large explosive was fitted with aluminum wings, rudders and rocket propulsion, and the bombardier guided it with radio signals. At about 5:15 p.m., a guided bomb struck the Rohna near the waterline on the port side, blowing a hole through both sides of the ship. It hit near where much of the 853rd was berthed.
Jackson estimates about 300 were killed by the blast itself. It is impossible to determine how many survived but couldn’t get out of the ship before it sank. Hollimon was close enough to the impact that he and everyone around him were knocked to the floor.
“They knocked the stairs down,” he said. “They knocked all the hatches, where they fell in. Some of the people sitting on those hatches went all the way to the bottom.
“The communication system was out. The lights were out. The boiler was blown up. It was on fire. There was no communication. What the captain wanted to get out was passed by word of mouth. You can imagine trying to get that from one end to another.”
Attempts to abandon ship were disastrous. Many of the lifeboats and rafts were frozen by rust or paint to their moorings. Instead of life vests, which would hold heads out of the water if the wearer was unconscious, soldiers had inflatable life rings. Many drowned while wearing them. German fighter planes raked the sea with machine gun fire.
“Everything that could go wrong went wrong,” Hollimon said. “We lost a whole lot more than we should have lost.”
Conditions complicated matters. Seas were rough enough to inhibit visibility, and night fell shortly after the attack. Hollimon had gotten aboard a lifeboat, but when it became overcrowded he abandoned it, found a raft occupied by two Indian crew members and climbed on. They picked up others from the water until there was no more room on the raft or on the ropes trailing from it.
“It was very cold,” Hollimon said. “Those that took off any clothes made a mistake, because you needed all the warmth you could hold to your body. Even though they were wet, your body wasn’t as exposed. I kept on a steel helmet, helmet liner and wool knit cap.”
And waited. Five ships criss-crossed the water searching for survivors, who bobbed in and out of sight of the searchlights. Hollimon said he was rescued after about 10 hours in the water, and even that was an ordeal. The British tug HMS Mindful threw Hollimon a rope, and he had to pull himself up until sailors aboard could grab him and lift him aboard.
“That was the most difficult assignment I ever had. I played a lot of football and baseball and thought I was a pretty good athlete.
“I was exhausted. I collapsed. They took me down and took all my clothes off and gave me a shot of something, bourbon. I never knew what it was. I went to sleep and stayed asleep until the next morning.”
The news was dreadful when Hollimon awoke. The 853rd had 30 officers and 793 enlisted men when the Rohna left port. Now, 495 were gone, and 147 of the survivors, including Hollimon, were injured. As well, 134 British and Australian officers and Indian crew members died. The total death toll was 1,149.
After recovering in British camps, the soldiers were put aboard train cars to Bizerte, Tunisia, and shipped, as planned, to India. They arrived on Feb. 1, 1944. That was Hollimon’s first opportunity to write a letter to his family.
Since military censors would not allow any mention of the sinking, Hollimon wrote that he’d “had some trouble” but was all right.
“We never did discuss it,” Hollimon said. “We just left it. In fact, we started having reunions of the 853rd in Springfield, Mo. We were on buses mixed together with replacements. All those who were on the ships were talking about what happened. The others said, ‘Hell, we lived with you a year and we never heard any of this.’ ”
After the war, Hollimon, a native of Ovett, Mississippi, moved to Baton Rouge, eventually becoming principal of several local high schools.