Bill Norrod was 17 years old and living in Corpus Christi, Texas, when World War II began. He longed to sign up and fight, and begged his mother to lie for him so he could join either the U.S. Navy or the Royal Canadian Air Force. She wouldn’t. He eventually enlisted in the Army Air Corps on December 4, 1942, and was stationed stateside before being sent overseas. Living in tents for two to three months in Oran, Algeria—a spy city much like Casablanca—Bill and other American soldiers awaited their orders. When they learned they were to go to India, it seemed the Germans learned of it too.
To transport the soldiers, an old British cruise ship, the H.M.T. Rohna (built in 1926 for the purpose of carrying only 60 wealthy tourists), was pulled out of ‘mothballs’ to transport over 2,000 GIs, plus British and Indian crew. It was full of rats, bugs, salt water for everything but drinking, and boxes of Worcestershire sauce to drown the taste of their mainstay: Spam.
They left the day before Thanksgiving in a convoy with 23 other ships, and headed into the cold, rough waters of the Mediterranean. On the third day at sea, air raid sirens interrupted the voyage. The sky was full of flak as British Spitfires defended the flotilla from German planes and, after a fierce fight, a single Luftwaffe bomber made a final run. Armed with the latest technology, a remote controlled Henschel Hs 293 guided missile, it set its sights on the Rohna . . . and struck.
Many men were killed instantly by the bomb’s direct hit; but through a series of amazing events (which we perceive to have been God’s intervention), Bill survived. He and his best friend swam to the sister ship, the U.S.S. Pioneer. Though already crowded with a 107-man crew, it rescued 606 GIs.
One thousand fifteen U.S. soldiers went down with the Rohna. The total loss was 1,138 men, including British and Indians—but the exact number lost may never be known; as others died later from their wounds, the figures vary. The attack constitutes the largest loss of U.S. troops at sea in a single incident.
The sinking of the Rohna was kept secret until years after the Freedom of Information Act, when families finally began learning what actually happened to their loved ones. Tom Brokaw reported on the tragedy, the History Channel produced a feature on it, books were written about it, and annual Rohna reunions began occurring across America.
Having escaped with his life, Bill completed his tour of duty in the China/Burma/India theater, where he served as a high-speed Morse Code operator and cryptographer. Sergeant William A. “Bill” Norrod was honorably discharged in January, 1946, having been awarded the Asiatic- Pacific Campaign Medal, two Bronze Stars, the Good Conduct Medal, the Meritorious Unit Award, the WWII Victory Medal, the EAME Campaign Medal, and the Purple Heart.
The following year he married Mary Helen Edwards of Taft, Texas. Over a 20 year period, their family expanded to include four daughters, a son, and a niece who came to live with them. In 1959, while on the road as a traveling salesman, Bill heard broadcasts by the Radio Church of God, into which he and Mary were eventually baptized. They remained true to their faith for over 50 years.
Bill lost Mary, his wife of 63 years, to cancer in June, 2010. Nine months later, he passed away on March 16, 2011. Thanks to him and all our other military men and women for serving our country and helping preserve our freedoms!