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The Death of the USS Rich
Lt. C. V. Ross

    None of our trips across the North Atlantic were fun. The last one was much better than the previous ones but let's face it, that part of the ocean never seemed to be a placid pond. We knew before we sailed with our last convoy that the buildup of material and troops would surely end in the invasion of Europe. Everyone was well aware that the odds were favorable for the event to occur when the weather was satisfactory. In retrospect it seems incredible that our ship and crew had progressed so rapidly and well in the few months we had been commissioned. No doubt all of us on board were proud of our ship. Both in appearance and action we were an efficient and happy unit.

    When we arrived in Londonderry there was no doubt something was going to happen. The scuttlebutt (gossip) was that the invasion was imminent. As far as we knew, we were scheduled to escort a convoy back to the United States. But then we were ordered to Plymouth, England, to replace a ship that was having mechanical troubles. We got under way immediately; sailed through the Irish Sea; steamed down the west coast of England and finally reached our destination at Plymouth. When we entered the bay at Plymouth there was no doubt that a big show was ready to begin. There were ships everywhere. Many, many LST's LSM's and LCI's were ordered to tie up alongside one of the troop transports. We were to act as a torpedo screen. That is, if a torpedo was fired at the troop transport it would hit us and not it. The transport was also the headquarters for the general commanding a segment of the invasion.

    We were told we could not go ashore or communicate with the shore. We checked all of our equipment and made sure everyone had a kapok lifejacket, a pneumatic self-inflating life belt and a steel helmet. We also had small lights to be attached to our lifejacket in case you were thrown overboard at night. It was extremely interesting to see the reaction by the ship's company to the news that we would be part of the invasion. The first effect was stimulating. There was much joking and horsing around on the decks. This was in contrast to the attitude of soldiers on the transport. Those troops had been in battles in Africa and Sicily and were hardened veterans. They sat about on deck either saying nothing or talking quietly. They had set faces with no emotion showing. Some were writing letters but all were tense and poised for the ordeal facing them.

    Some time before we sailed we received word that the invasion had been called off for a day because of bad weather. Gradually the excitement waned and you saw sailors thinking about the morrow. Many were reading Bibles and others were writing letters.

    In the wardroom there was none of the usual banter. There was some low key conversation but that was limited. Nearly everyone who was off duty was writing letters or censuring letters written by the crew. I went to my wardroom to read but couldn't get interested. I tried to sleep but couldn't. Then I wrote a letter home, but it was uninteresting because you couldn't really say anything. Finally, I lay in my bunk thinking. It wasn't pleasant contemplating the possibility being injured or killed. I had, however, decided a long time before that it wouldn't be a great tragedy if I didn't come through. I reviewed my life and decided it had been interesting and everything considered, a good one. I had been reared in a loving family and we had had some very good times. I thought about my experiences and decided I had had a wider variety and more of them than most people, thus if my life was about over I would regret it but it had been worthwhile to have lived. I was thankful for what I had received. On that note I slept and awakened at peace with the world. I was resolved to view the invasion as perhaps the greatest show I'd ever see and hope I could give a good account of myself.

    It is a good feeling to go into conflict with faith in your shipmates. This was a source of confidence to me. We had in less than a year learned how to operate the ship - actually we had become quite skilled in doing our jobs. We had come from many places and been welded into a team that could function efficiently and pleasantly. We liked and trusted each other. This feeling of unity stemmed mostly from the efforts of the Captain. He had worked tirelessly with great energy and determination to be a leader we admired and respected. He didn't attempt to gain our favor by being anything but fair and aggressive. He was, however, a kind and caring man. We knew he was more than the usual man when he was awarded a Navy Marine Corp Medal for the rescue of sailors stranded on a reef after a boat accident. He was highly religious as we could see, because he went to church when he could.

    At first I had my doubts about my feelings toward Capt. Michel. He surely rode me hard and was not in the least sympathetic when I had difficulties, but he did know how to make you feel good when you did things well. Increasingly, we had become more friend and we spent long periods of time discussing things that interested us. I was surprised at the breadth of his interests. He seemed to be genuinely concerned about the welfare of the officers and men. He told me on our last cruise he was proud of the ship and grateful for having such good people. He also indicated he would very likely be made Captain of a new destroyer when we returned to the United States.

    As I indicated, the Captain became more friendly as the ship improved. He used to come up to the flying bridge when I was on watch. He would walk back and forth and back and forth not saying a thing. He would be smoking his pipe and every time he would pass me he would let out a puff of smoke. He did this because he knew I hated the smell of tobacco when I was on the ship. He would knock out the ashes and ask me how I felt.

    We were up long before daylight and were underway as a part of a submarine screen for the cruiser Augusta. When we finally got formed up, there was an endless line of ships stretching out in front and behind us. Each of the landing craft was towing a barrage balloon. Overhead there were many planes, all with white stripes painted across the fuselage and wings. At any time there were fighters patrolling in the area and many flights of bombers passed over us. When we got close to the French shore it was dark. All ships were darkened and it was eerie to realize that there were hundreds of thousands of men lying there waiting 'til the next day. You could barely see mine sweepers working in the area, but not a shot was fired.

    The evening wore on and we could hear bombers going over us. Then followed the grandfather of all fireworks. You could see the flares and hear the explosions quite clearly. The anti-aircraft fire was spectacular. The bombing seemed to go on endlessly. I didn't sleep much that night, I was too excited.

    At daylight we could see the congregation of ships that had come in during the night. It must have dismayed the Germans to see the water literally covered with all manner of ships. There, standing out because of her size was the sinister shape of the battleship Nevada and near her was the cruiser Augusta. Also in the area were some peculiar looking British weapons which were floating gun platforms which had been towed in during the night. Even before it was fully light the battleship and cruiser opened fire. We were doing a submarine screen but were far enough away that we could see the gun fire and actually watch the five inch projectiles as they traveled toward their target. They were bright like stars. The big guns were elevated and would fire with a sheet of flame. First there would be the shock wave then the tremendous sound of those mighty guns. We could hear the radio conversation between the spotters and the gun crews. The spotters would give the coordinates and you'd see the guns being put in position and then fired. It seemed they seldom needed more than two salvos on any target.

    Everywhere you looked there was action. Destroyers were over near the beach shelling pill boxes. Landing craft were going to and from the beach. PT boats were skittering about like waterbugs and there was constant activity overhead. Not much later we saw the first of hundreds of cargo planes towing gliders. This line of planes reached as far as you could see. Someone was always shouting for you to look at something interesting. "Hey! They are shelling that destroyer!" yelled a lookout. He was right. The Germans were on target and the ship was sinking. Someone else pointed out one of our cargo planes was in trouble and was landing on the water. About that time a PT boat came alongside and unloaded a dead body. The man was covered with a blanket and drew everybody's attention. Someone pulled back the blanket and you could see a horrible shrapnel wound above the right eye. His name tag said he was Theodore Fabrizak and he had been in the Army. That one body seemed to bring home to the crew that this was not a game but serious business.

    We were pulled off our patrol and asked to deliver a group of Army officers to a landing craft. There was a General and a Colonel whose name was Donovan. I thought it was interesting that the Colonel wore only one ribbon, a light blue one with white stars. It was the Congressional Medal of Honor. Later on we saw a ship blown up over near the beach. You could barely see Utah Beach but you could tell that there was frenzied activity there. It was with some relief that the day ended.

    There was much activity during the night. Bombers again worked over the interior and you could see the anti-aircraft fire. During the night German planes came over. We got off some shots at low flying planes and then were ordered to make smoke. We did a lot of dodging of ships as we and others laid the screen. We wondered at the time why there were no bomb explosions. The next day we learned the enemy had laid mines in the invasion area.

    The only action we had during the morning was an attempt to rescue a fighter pilot whose plane crashed into the water not far from us. We put our whaleboat in the water and went to the area and finally saw the pilot floating. We approached him and attempted to hook his clothing with a boat hook but the water was so rough we couldn't get him on the first pass. We circled around and before we could get to him he had sunk. I felt terrible that I hadn't jumped in to hold him up until we could pull him aboard. I had no idea he would sink. I have never been able to decide what I should have done. Considering the roughness of the water and the way I was dressed, it would have been difficult to get me back aboard, let alone someone who was injured.

    We returned to the ship and took the boat aboard. Then we were ordered to go over closer to the beach to stand by a destroyer, which had run into mines, to take off the crew. We approached the ship and stopped to lower our boat. We (were) working quickly when there was a violent underwater explosion very close to our ship. The whole ship was jerked to one side and a tremendous volume of water erupted nearby. Everyone was shocked. The lights went out and power was lost temporarily. From my station which was in the deckhouse mid-ships. we checked all damage control stations to assess the damage. We could detect none and power was restored immediately. I hurried up to the bridge and told the captain it appeared that we hadn't been damaged. I returned to my station and had no sooner arrived than there was another explosion that picked up the whole ship and shook it like a dog with a rat in his mouth. This explosion was accompanied by a rending, crushing, breaking sound that could only mean we were hit and damaged seriously. I went out on deck and could see that the rear 1/3 of the ship was missing. 

    Off a short distance you could see what was the stern half submerged and floating away from the rest of the ship. I didn't know why I wasn't paralyzed with fear. I was afraid but that was secondary to the sense of duty to see if we could save the rest of the ship. I looked at the damage and noted that the ship was floating well and that even though we were taking some water in the rear engine room we could probably control it with submersible pumps. I then went to the bridge and told the Captain we could save the ship. I noticed the pharmacist mates working over injured sailors and that many of the crew had left their posts and were congregated on the forecastle. The Captain said that we should try to keep the ship afloat and I returned to my station. As I was running down the passageway there was another explosion that was even greater than those we had undergone before. I didn't know exactly what happened to me but I must have been thrown all the way up to the overhead and briefly knocked out. I do remember thinking this must be the end of the ship. I opened the door and walked out on deck and found no one standing. The mast was lying over the bridge and the bow was partially submerged. The sailors on the forecastle were a tangle of bodies. I climbed up to the bridge by an outside ladder and everyone on the bridge was dazed and either lying down or holding on to something. The Captain appeared to be in shock. The Executive Officer was obviously dead. Paul Frazier was barely holding on to the edge of the front of the bridge. He looked at me and said, "For God's sake, Ross, do something."

    It is difficult to describe the total wreckage. There were all kinds of cables and lines strewn around. An electric bell on the bridge was ringing continuously. There was a sighing sound from air escaping from the ship. Everywhere there was groaning and crying for help. The ship was beginning to list to the starboard. There was no doubt in my mind that the Rich was going to sink and I could visualize that all of the crew would go down with her.

    The worst part of the situation was my feeling that I could do nothing. I went down to the main deck and by that time there were PT boats lying alongside. I went to the rail and told them to come alongside. When they did I demanded that they send everyone possible to help remove the injured. They came and began removing the helpless ones. I couldn't help but admire their courage and they worked frantically. They must have realized another mine could explode. Up on the forecastle there were literally piles of sailors. I noted that Chief Berry had been thrown at least 20 feet up to the gun shield and part of his uniform was missing. Fortunately the black gang in the engine rooms had escaped the brunt of the explosion. They helped take off the wounded. I could walk around but found I had little strength -- I could support people but could not lift them.

    All of the time we were working to get people off the sinking ship I was watching to see what was happening. There was no doubt we were slowly going down. As the ship tilted more and more I decided that I would swim off when the bridge went under water. Our Chief Yeoman named Balottie had two broken legs and couldn't move. I went to him and said I'd take him with me. No nightmare could compare with the next few minutes. The ship died groaning. By then it had turned over to the place that the bridge was touching the water. Balottie was a big man and he had no strength. He could only look at me and mumble. It was then I noticed he didn't have a life jacket on. It irritated me that he was so stupid not to obey orders. But then it was too late, we had to leave the ship. I pulled him into the water and began to swim. He was a dead weight and we made slow progress. Fortunately I had on a kapok life jacket and it could keep us afloat. I swam as hard as I could because I then remembered that a ship will drag you under when it sinks. I hoped we were far enough away to avoid the undertow. I glanced back and noticed that it was about to go under. I also observed that we weren't very far from it. The next thing I knew a force far beyond my expectations took hold of our bodies and dragged us irresistibly down. Balottie was a dead weight and made no move to swim. We went down until I was about to black out and I could hold him no longer. He slipped from my grasp and I desperately swam as hard as I could. 

    At last the pull was broken and I felt myself rising to the surface. When I came up the ship was gone and so were most of the boats. I was covered with oil, had a splitting headache and was furious with myself for not saving the Chief. I don't know how long I floated around. It didn't seem to make a hell of a lot of difference whether or not I was picked up. I was filled with sorrow for those wonderful people who were lost. I was angry with myself for my inability to do more. I felt like a failure. Eventually a PT boat came along and fished me out. They insisted that I remove my uniform, which was a mess and they gave me a set of sailor's dungarees to wear.

    The PT boat delivered me to a hospital L.S.T. and there were the survivors of our ship. I found the Captain and he was glad to see me. He was weak but he perked up when he saw me. Then he gave me the greatest compliment I've ever had. He said, "Ross, you were wonderful."

    Well, here I was on a relatively safe ship and I had no responsibilities. Instead of being able to relax and rest I had a horrible reaction. My nerves which had been so well under control became hypersensitive. I couldn't lie down or sit up. I trembled all over. I was wet with sweat and had a monstrous headache. My brain was filled with the gruesome memory of the piles of maimed and dead. I could still hear the deathly sound of the shock wave that preceded the explosions. I could not stand to stay below decks, even though the pharmacists mates tried to keep me in my bunk. I forced my way topside and found a seat on the deck.

    An LST is a shallow draft vessel which has a lot of space below decks. It is designed to carry tanks and thus is not like a Destroyer Escort, which has many compartments. The vessel, because it had such a lot of open space, carried sound much more acutely than other ships. There seemed to be much clanging as the anchor was weighted to get underway. Every time there was another sound I jumped and was fearful we were being torpedoed. There were many wounded soldiers on the deck. Many of them were paratroopers who had been dropped in the interior of France. They told me many hair raising tails of their experiences. We talked all the way across the channel to Portland were we docked.

    When we got to port we were unloaded and put on a train. I was still extremely nervous. Every time the train made an unusual noise I tried to get out of my bunk. I felt cooped up and stifled. That train ride was the most miserable I ever had. It was a relief to leave it. There was an Army officer in charge of loading patients on trucks. I went up to him and asked him where we were and our destination. He looked me up and down in a superior way and said: "Look, it is not for you to ask questions, just do what you are told and be quiet."

    I suppose I didn't look too good with oil all over my face and in my hair and the dungarees must have made him think I was an enlisted man. But it really made me angry and I remembered him. We finally got to the hospital, which had recently been constructed. It was staffed by Army personnel and was just getting organized. They put us to bed immediately and I fell into exhausted sleep. About all I did was sleep for two days. I felt numb and depressed. No matter what I was thinking I couldn't get over the fact that I had not done as well as I should. The terrible loss of those wonderful people haunted me. I kept remembering that less than a week before so many of them had been vibrant with life. People like Pearson who was anticipating being the skipper of the Rich. Heyman who had a brilliant mind. Obenaur who was bright and ambitious and the many men who had worked so hard to learn their jobs and had just become proficient.

    At last time, the great healer, came to my rescue and the horror of the sinking faded to the extent I could talk to my shipmates. We then began to try to account for those who were lost. We made a list and that helped because we began to get inquiries about individuals. I received letters from home which I answered immediately. I didn't realize the Navy had notified my folks that I was injured until I received a letter from Zelma.

    Within a week I was physically healthy but still depressed. It helped to talk to the soldiers who were in the hospital. Many of them had been paratroopers and they told some harrowing tales. One Captain who looked like Cary Grant told of having his chute collapse when it was hit by a cargo chute and grabbing for the shrouds and riding it down. He had both legs broken and injuries to his spinal column. Another captain had been wounded in the calf of his leg. He kept telling the doctors he was ready to return to duty. He told me he felt like he was letting his buddies down. No matter how well they treat you in a hospital it is not usually a happy place to be. I became impatient to be released and they at last complied. A group of Navy personnel were sent to a naval base at Plymouth.

    The train from Civencester only took an hour and a half to reach the station in Plymouth. We left the train and were trucked to the barracks. En route we could see the devastation caused by the German bombs. Most of all the buildings had been knocked down or burned. It didn't seem possible that so many people could have survived the obvious devastation.

    The personnel at the base were friendly and helpful. I was asked to list my losses and was reimbursed. I purchased uniforms which fit reasonably well. I really preferred khaki work clothes but could only get grays. My blues were complete except for the star which was sewn above my two gold lieutenants stripes. There was nothing to do but wait for transportation home. I got acquainted with a number of other officers who were in the same situation. Among the officers were many Navy doctors who had been on hospital LST's. One of them was from St. Louis and had been in my English course at the University of Missouri. He was friendly and one day he asked me if I would like to go on a pub crawl.

    I discovered that was an operation in which you started at one end of town and had a drink at every bar you came to from one end of town to the other. I don't know how many we hit but was enough that at last we were put in a truck by the Shore Patrol and delivered to our barracks. When we returned to our quarters we found that the doctors had been drinking an old University of Missouri beverage called Purple Passion. I believe this was made from grape juice, grapefruit juice and medicinal alcohol. This was a super potent drink. Many of them had passed out and there were many sick people. I didn't need any more to drink and went to bed and didn't wake until late the next morning. Never have I seen so many king-sized hangovers. All anyone wanted was tomato juice and black coffee.

    We went to see some of the resort towns on the coast. Exeter and Torqui were nice little towns on the coast and were lovely. This was an enjoyable diversion. There was a golf course near the barracks and I played a round or two. Unfortunately, I lost my wallet with $94 in it. I had carried that wallet for more than a year. I put it in my shirt pocket when I changed to dungarees on the PT boat after I was picked up. I had been very careful to keep it safe but somehow I lost it. I felt bad about losing the money and the contents, but then it occurred to me that my luck had been too good to grieve over such a small loss.

    It was impossible to get any word about the condition of my shipmates at the Army hospital, so I went to the CO of the barracks and asked if I could visit the hospital. He was a friendly and sympathetic officer and loaned me a jeep and driver. We drove to the hospital and visited the Captain, Paul Frazier and others who were still there. It made me happy to see that they were on the mend and were in good spirits.

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