William Lewis Brandon was born on August 20, 1907 in Parkman Township, Ellis County, Oklahoma to Sarah Florence Belle Throckmorton and William Franklin Brandon. William was their fifth child but first son. Five more arrived in the years to come. The children were: Lillie, Annabelle (d. 1903), Daisy, Rosie, William, Marion, Mary, Walter, Bernice and Orson. The family farmed in Oklahoma and later his father worked in the oil fields and as a teamster after they moved to Kansas sometime before the 1920 Census.
Bill, as he was called, was living with his Uncle’s family in Oklahoma during the 1930 census. In 1935, his parents moved to Provo Utah and he did also. He and his brothers were musically inclined and he played the guitar.
He married Maurine Johnson on April 15, 1937. He was twenty-nine and she was eighteen. They lived in Provo where he worked for the Mountain Fuel and Supply Company.
Bill was drafted into the Army on December 23, 1942, reporting on December 30. He trained at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis and was assigned to the Aviation 853rd Engineer Battalion. Incidentally, his brother Orson (who was younger by fourteen years) was in the military too.
By early November 1943, his wife received a letter saying he had safely arrived in North Africa. A few short weeks later, she learned he was “missing in action.” What exactly happened to Private William Lewis Brandon was not known for many years. His family was told he was on a transport ship and a submarine had sunk the ship.
While he was on the British transport ship HMT Rohna; it was hit by a German missile. According to his findagrave.org biography, “This was the first successful "hit" of a merchant vessel at sea carrying US troops by a German remote-controlled, rocket-boosted bomb, thus giving birth to the "Missile Age", and it resulted in the greatest loss of troops (1,015) at sea in U.S. history. Combined with the loss of ship's crew and officers, and three Red Cross workers, more lives were lost than on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. The "hit" was so devastating that the U.S. Government placed a veil of secrecy upon it.”
The 853rd’s website explains what the battalion’s mission was to be and the attack on the HMT Rohna. “As aviation engineers, their primary duty was to build runways for bombers of the XX (20th) Air Force throughout the Assam Region of India supporting missions flown over 'the Hump' into China. However, before they were positioned in India, the 853rd was decimated as the troopship they were on in the Mediterranean Sea was struck by a guided bomb. In the first few minutes of the attack more than 400 of the 793 men in the battalion were killed. Those who survived the initial bombing were not necessarily 'lucky' as they were then sent into frigid oil-drenched waters praying for the rescue ships that very few of them would actually live to see. In the end, they sustained losses of approximately 62%.” http://www.853rdengineerbattalion.org/home
This report of the sinking is on the Naval History and Heritage Command website: “On the late afternoon of 26 November, off Bougie, Algeria, Convoy KMF-26 was attacked by about 30 Luftwaffe bombers, mostly Heinkel He-177A “Greif” ("Griffin") long-range bombers, in two major waves. Four Free French Spitfire fighters put up spirited defense, followed later by several British RAF fighters. German bombers dropped many bombs in a horizontal mode, with the usual lack of success for that kind of attack. However, the He-177As dropped 42 Hs-293 radio-controlled, rocket boosted, glide bombs (also see H-Gram 021) against the convoy. (The Hs-293 had a 650 lb. warhead and a range of about 6.5 NM when dropped from about 4,600 feet, which achieved high speed with a 10-second burn by a liquid-fueled rocket motor, and was designed for use against unarmored ships.)
… At about 1715–1725, during second wave attacks, Rohna was hit by an Hs-293, the only one of the 42 launched to score a direct hit on its target, although there were numerous other near misses on the escorts and the convoy ships. The bomb hit Rohna’s port side, penetrated deep into the ship on delayed-fuse, and blew holes in the starboard side, quickly causing the ship to list to starboard. About 300 U.S. Army troops were killed in the blast or never made it off the ship. The bomb hit about 15-inches above the waterline, but nevertheless the starboard holes flooded the engine room, knocking out electrical power, including to the pumps, and set the Number 4 hold on fire. The blast also destroyed six of 22 lifeboats, and buckled plates on the port side so that no boats on the port side could be launched. Ultimately, only eight lifeboats could be launched, which turned out not to be in very good condition to begin with. All but two of the lifeboats that did get in the water were quickly overloaded, swamped and sunk. Although 101 rafts of various kinds (and condition) went into the water, most of the Army troops had to swim.”
In the words of Brandon Holveck, a Delaware News Journal reporter, “With nearly 2,000 American soldiers on board, many in their first days of action, the HMT Rohna left North Africa on Thanksgiving Day 1943 to support allied forces against Japan in what's often called the ‘forgotten theater.’
The next day, Germany launched its first radio-guided missiles as the Rohna made it into a stretch of the Mediterranean Sea known as "Suicide Alley." The British transport ship sunk. The attack killed 1,015 U.S. soldiers.” Besides the Americans, there were another 134 men killed that day and thirty-five later died from their wounds. A total of thirteen men from Utah died on the HMT Rohna.
Bill’s body was not recovered and his status remains missing in action/lost at sea. The official date of his death is November 27, 1943. His name is memorialized at the North African American Cemetery and Memorial in Tunisia. He received a purple heart posthumously.
This story is part of the Stories Behind the Stars project (see www.storiesbehindthestars.org). This is a national effort of volunteers to write the stories of all 400,000+ of the US WWII fallen here on Fold3. Can you help write these stories? Related to this, there will be a smart phone app that will allow people to visit any war memorial or cemetery, scan the fallen's name and read his/her story.
https://www.familysearch.org/tree/person/sources/KWJV-K52 William Lewis Brandon
https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XCQT-78R 1930 U.S. Census for William Brandon
https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s6w41kxg/22689350 Provo Evening Herald | 1937-04-16 | Page 3 Wedding license issued.
https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s62g1c1b/22688038 Provo Evening Herald | 1936-11-09 | Page 4 “Grand View”
https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s63n5tcr/22724474 Provo Daily Herald | 1942-12-24 | Page 11 “Provo Draft Board Inducts Largest Group of Men for Selective Service”
https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s6gt9c4w/22726618 Provo Daily Herald | 1943-11-15 | Page 3 “Arrives Safely”
https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s6gn1z9d/22726939 Provo Daily Herald | 1943-12-28 | Page 3 “Provo Resident Reported to be Missing”
https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s6f803jq/22727953 Provo Daily Herald | 1944-05-17 | Page 1 “Soldier From Provo Killed in Sinking of Allied Troop Ship by Submarine”
https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s6m07w7n/22707707 Provo Sunday Herald | 1945-08-05 | Page 13 “Gold Star Service Men to be Honored at Memorial Meet”
https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s6k94p6c/8817580 Pleasant Grove Review | 1943-01-29 | Pl. Grove News
https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s68d3m89/22728362 Provo Daily Herald | 1944-07-12 | Page 2 “Memorial Unveiled to Honor Provo’s World War Heros”