Jardine: Navy vet survived torpedo, escaped flashbacks

TURLOCK -- For one panic-stricken moment off the coast of Italy nearly 66 years ago, it seemed a tossup whether Robert Abbott would live to someday be honored as veteran or remembered among those who died in war.

His ship, the destroyer USS Rowan (DD-405), headed to the bottom after taking a torpedo hit from a German E-boat.

The suction pulled Abbott down with the ship, which sank in just over one minute. The 86-year-old Turlock resident can only guess how long he stayed under water, how deep he went or why the sinking ship's insistent pull suddenly let him go. He only knows that he had held his breath so long that his lungs felt as if they were about to explode before he could scramble to the surface.

Abbott knows he and 69 others lived and 204 of their crew mates died shortly after midnight on Sept. 11, 1943.

Many who survived World War II kept the horrors to themselves, never telling even their wives and children what they experienced. Only in recent years have some broken their silence about seeing so much death and losing friends. Yet others can't contain their emotions on Memorial Day, D-Day, Pearl Harbor Day or other days of remembrance.

Abbott, though, feels lucky in two respects. First, he survived that horrific day and later served in the Pacific campaign at Okinawa. Second, because of the way the Rowan went down and the injuries he suffered, he never saw any of his shipmates die. Consequently, he's never endured the flashbacks or the feelings that affected some other war survivors.

"I just don't think about it much, actually," Abbott said. "It probably would be different if I saw lots of bodies."

By September 1943, 19-year-old Abbott had been in the Navy for a year. On Sept. 11, a few minutes after midnight, he strapped himself into his 20 mm gun station down behind the Rowan's conning tower.

While cruising the Mediterranean on its way to the Algerian port city of Oran, the Benham-class destroyer encountered the German E-boat -- a bigger, faster version of the American sub chaser. The Germans owned the edge in maneuverability.

"We were running away, firing our 5½-inch guns at 'em," Abbott said. "The old man (Lt. Cmdr. Robert Ford) decided he wasn't going to run anymore."

Ford ordered the ship repositioned for a better shot -- the wrong call, as it turned out.

"We turned right into a torpedo," Abbott said.

The torpedo hit near the rear engine room, triggering a massive explosion.

"It probably hit a powder magazine," he said.

The blast slammed Abbott's head into the gun's sight. The impact left him bloodied, bruised and dazed. It shattered his eardrums and he briefly lost consciousness. Though in pain, he quickly came to and unhooked himself from the gun station as the ship began to sink.

"Right away, I had water up to my knees, and the next thing I knew, I was under water," he said.

Ultimately, that dreaded midnight watch became a big part of the reason he survived. Most of the 204 who died were sleeping below and never had a chance when the torpedo hit. They died instantly or drowned, trapped inside the ship as it went down.

When the suction finally released Abbott to the surface, he heard sailors' voices in a life raft.

"I hung on to that," he said.

Maybe an hour later, crewmen from a small boat pulled him -- so stiff and sore that he couldn't move -- out of the water and took him to the destroyer USS Bristol.

"I was black and blue, and my clothes were all ripped," he said. "We found out later that there were 10 men up there (in the gunnery position on the Rowan) and only three of us got off."

He spent weeks healing in a Naval hospital stateside, taking a permanent souvenir back with him into active duty.

"I've still got a piece of metal in my neck," he said.

Discharged from the Navy in 1947, Abbott came to the valley and worked repairing farm machinery.

For many years, he remained active in the USS Rowan survivors' group and attended his last reunion about 12 years ago. So few from the Rowan (DD-405) remained that they merged with crews from the fourth ship to bear the Rowan name, (DD-782).

"People were getting older and in ill health," Abbott said. "We couldn't continue on by ourselves.

Now, he and two others are the last of the USS Rowan (DD-405) survivors. Time has claimed the rest, with each passing noted in a survivors' newsletter.

Though many veterans and those who lost loved ones in battle will spend Memorial Day remembering and reflecting, Abbott probably won't.

"I never saw lots of dead," Abbott said. "I'm probably pretty fortunate that way."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or