Saul Gurman will soon turn 97, and he spends his days at the house where he has lived for 62 years overlooking Lynch Park in Beverly. But at some point this Monday, on Memorial Day, Gurman will pause and remember the muffled cries of the wounded, the faces of the dead, and the darkness that fell on the cold waters of the Mediterranean where he clung to life one late November evening 77 years ago.
The son of a kosher chicken dealer, Gurman grew up in Chelsea and began plucking feathers at his father’s shop as a child. After graduating from Chelsea High School, he joined the Army and was trained as a propeller specialist. By late November 1943, he was aboard the HMT Rohna, a British coal-burning cargo ship that had picked up 2,000 U.S. Army soldiers in Algeria and joined five other troop transport ships en route to India. His final destination would be China, where the U.S. planned to station its new B-29 bomber, which would be used to attack Japan.
“We didn’t have anything close enough in the Pacific to make the round trip to drop bombs on Japan,” said Gurman.
On their second day of the voyage, Gurman and the other 2,000 U.S. soldiers celebrated Thanksgiving in a makeshift mess hall aboard the Rohna. The meal was mostly watery canned chicken and weevil-filled bread. “The funny part was some of the guys were singing ‘Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die,’” Gurman recalled. After the meal, the food was cleared and the soldiers climbed aboard the tables that served as their beds.
The following day was Nov. 26, 1943, and everything seemed normal until around 4 p.m. Gurman was on the bow of the ship and noticed German planes flying toward the vessel. “I looked up and I could see Swastikas on the planes, and then a British officer said, ‘You better get below Yank, we’re in for it.’ Those were his exact words.”
Around 20 minutes later, at 4:30, a Nazi plane guided a radio-controlled bomb that slammed into the Rohna and blew up seconds after it landed in the vessel’s engine room. “It felt like a hand lifted the whole ship out of the water,” Gurman recalled. “It was timed not to go off on impact. About 300 officers were killed right away in the upper portion of the ship.”
Gurman climbed up to the deck and began helping soldiers put on their lifebelts, telling them to take off their helmets, shoes, and jackets and abandon ship. He spent the next hour launching life rafts – most of which did not float properly – and was one of the last six soldiers on the vessel when the same British officer approached him and told him it was time to abandon ship.
As the Rohna was going down, Gurman stood at the edge of the deck and prepared to die. Thousands of miles away from his family and his high school sweetheart Eva Zecker, Gurman removed his helmet, jacket, and shoes and stepped off the boat.
“I must have dropped 50 feet and I went down, down, down and I never thought I was going to come up. And that was the only time that I thought I wasn’t going to make it,” he said. “When I came up I was under a bunch of heavy ropes that had been dropped and I started thrashing around like a meshuganah and while I was thrashing around, I thought ‘What is Eva going to say when I don’t come home?’ I had become engaged to her during the war.”
Gurman was able to break free from the tangle of ropes and began to dogpaddle in the cold waters when he heard a cry for help. A soldier told him that his legs had broken, and Gurman removed his lifebelt and wrapped it around the wounded man. The two floated for about an hour before they saw a red light bobbing up and down.
“By the time we got there, there were a bunch of kids hanging onto the rope of a lifeboat that was upside down. Most were 17 or 18, It was so cold I lost my high school graduation ring – it slid off of my fingers,” said Gurman, who spent almost six hours treading water and clinging to the small boat while focusing on keeping the wounded soldier alive.
At around 11 p.m., the soldiers spotted another boat in the convoy, the Clan Campbell cargo ship, which had dropped rope ladders for the soldiers to climb. Gurman was somehow able to get the wounded soldier up the ladder, but while climbing he noticed that one of his best friends – Robert Flores – was too weak to make it to the deck. Gurman, a Chelsea Jew and Flores, a Mexican-American from San Antonio, looked at each other a final time before Flores fell back into the sea. Gurman finally reached the top of the ladder and was pulled by his hair onto the deck.
“I was stripped of my clothes, and handed a mug of hot rum,” said Gurman, who never again saw the wounded man whose life he helped save. Gurman was taken to a British field hospital and was soon discharged and brought to Bizerte, Tunisia. Once there, the 715 surviving Army soldiers took an oath of secrecy to never mention the most deadly US disaster at sea: 1,149 dead, including 1,015 Americans. The U.S. did not want to disclose to the Germans that their remote-controlled bomb had worked.
“They got us all together and made us raise our hands and swear that we would never speak about it for life,” said Gurman, who was later interrogated by a secret serviceman that he recognized. “I said, ‘Revere Beach, I remember you working the Game of Chance with the baseball, and pyramid of wooden-shaped milk bottles.’ He turned beat red.”
Plans for the B-29 air base in China were scrapped, and Gurman shipped out to India where he helped run a military oxygen plant. He was discharged in late 1945 and made his way back home on a ship that sailed through the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, and into the Mediterranean and the Atlantic before landing in New York.
“I came up the Henry Hudson seeing the Statue of Liberty and the tugboats spraying water on January 1, 1946, with the band playing on the dock and the Red Cross was there with coffee and doughnuts and what a wonderful day that was,” Gurman recalled.
He returned to Chelsea, and on March 17, 1946, married his sweetheart, Eva. Gurman said the war and the training he received boosted his confidence. “It strengthened me. Mentally, I was cool as a cucumber when the thing happened to the ship. I took command of people and helped save a life,” he said.
After the war, he started a family with Eva, moved to Beverly, and raised two sons and a daughter. Eva died in 2012, and a son, Steven, passed away in 2017. He has two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Gurman also earned a spot in history for his business, and is credited with creating the trailer hitch. After the war, he started a custom trailer hitch company that grew to be the largest in the U.S. “I was known nationally as the Hitch King,” said Gurman. He worked until last year, deciding to retire when he turned 96.
The Pentagon kept the story of the Rohna tragedy classified until the early 1990s. Gurman was given a Purple Heart for his service but stayed silent about the bombing until the account was published by the media in 1993.
Years later, Gurman learned about an annual reunion that had been taking place for Rohna survivors, and he went on to attend several. At one, he was met by the nephew of Robert Flores and was able to describe what his friend meant to him.
Snapshots of the tragedy flash through Gurman’s mind on Memorial Day and every Thanksgiving. “I think about all those guys who could have lived to 96,” he said. “They could have raised families.”
Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.