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Aurelia veteran recalls WWII ship sinking

Monday, November 12, 2007

Forrest Kohrt
Forrest Kohrt 86, is well-known in Cherokee County as the former County Extension Director - a post he held for 31 years until his retirement in 1985. What many people may not know is that the Rock Rapids native considers himself heaven-blessed to have even been around to hold that post.

In 1942, Kohrt and a group of other young men from the area traveled to Des Moines to enlist in the service, on the heels of the Dec. 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. Kohrt was a student at Iowa State at the time, but admits today that he really didn't get into his studies much during the brief time he was at Ames, feeling it was more important to travel to Sioux City to visit his girlfriend Lois Follett, who was in nursing school there.

Kohrt was turned down when he first tried to enlist, because he told the examiners that his brother had asthma, even though he assured them that he did not have asthma himself. A short time later, they changed their minds and notified him that he had been accepted into the service.

Kohrt was initially stationed at the Naval base in San Diego, California, but was then reassigned to the Great Lakes Naval Base in Chicago for training. He studied aircraft mechanics and carburetors, and was assigned to the USS Yorkton. That ship was in dry-dock for repairs when he arrived in Astoria, Oregon, however, and he was reassigned to join the VC10 unit of the Navy Air Corps as a carburetor specialist, also stationed in Astoria. Kohrt and his new bride Lois (they were married in October 1941) enjoyed their time in Astoria, but soon the unit's planes were loaded aboard the USS Gambier Bay, a small aircraft carrier, and the carrier shipped out in April 1944, headed for the Pacific theater of war.

Kohrt remembers that there were "between 800 and 1000" sailors aboard the Gambier Bay. The ship was used to ferry planes to Honolulu and the Marshall Islands, and entered into the battle of Sai Pan in the Marianas. They were also involved in a battle in Palau.

Sinking of The USS Ganier Bay- This portrait re-creates the sinking of the ship Forrest Kohrt and hundreds of other sailors were aboard when she was sunk in December 1944. Photo submitted.
On a December morning in 1944, the Gambier Bay was involved in the second battle of the Philippine Sea, when they were struck by a shell from a Japanese ship. The shell took out the Gambier Bay's steam supply, leaving the sailors "sitting ducks." Forrest Kohrt said he was carrying a fellow sailor who had a piece of shrapnel in his lung to the ship's sick bay, and was talking to a buddy outside the sick bay, when Kohrt was hit by a piece of shrapnel himself. The shrapnel went through Kohrt's right arm, along an artery, and exited him, proceeding into the shoulder of the man to whom he was talking. One inch of bone in Kohrt's arm was blown away by the shell.

Eighteen more shells hit the ship, sinking it to the bottom of the ocean - the only American ship in WWII which was sunk by surface-based weapons. An estimated 200 sailors were killed in the attack. The order was given to abandon ship, and the survivors, including Forrest Kohrt, were left to fend for themselves in the cold South Pacific Ocean.

Kohrt and three other sailors, including the man who had the shrapnel in his lung, hung on to a 4' x 4' piece of board. Kohrt had placed a flat piece of wood on his arm to try and immobilize it, but when he got in the water the piece of wood started floating, so he took the wood off. To try and keep the injured arm still, he opened up his belt, put his arm through the opening, and cinched up the belt.

While the four men were floating, they noticed an object which looked like a barrel floating near them. It was indeed a barrel - of fresh water. They also found a supply of malted milk tablets - a kind of an energy tablet - and Kohrt feels the tablets and fresh water saved the men's lives. Three of the four survived, with the man who had incurred the shrapnel in his lung being a casualty.

One time, as they were out there o the ocean, Kohrt felt that one of the other survivors was bumping his injured arm, and was about to tell him to stop when he discovered what he was feeling was a shark's fin. "Apparently, " mused Kohrt, "he wasn't hungry."

After a time, Kohrt and his group got to a group of about 40 sailors who were hanging onto a cork net, and they joined that group. The next day, they spotted some ships coming towards them, and they figured the ships were picking up survivors. One of Kohrt's group swam to the lead ship and asked to be picked up, but was not allowed on the ship for some reason. Later that night (the night of their second day out), the group were rescued - by a ship which, ironically, was skippered by Cherokee's own Harlan Moen - although Kohrt and Moen didn't piece that information together until several years later.

Moen's ship took Kohrt and his shipmates to the hospital ship the USS Comfort, which took a detour to Sydney, Australia to pick up other casualties before returning to Oakland, California. Kohrt spent two weeks in the Navy hospital in Oakland, where the doctors got started on his arm, making sure it wasn't infected. He was glad when his request to be transferred to the hospital at Great Lakes - much closer to home - was granted. In Chicago, Kohrt was unable to straighten his arm out, and a specialist from Seattle was brought in to operate. Though he says it's a bit shorter than his left arm, and doesn't always function as he'd like, the injury was treated as well as it could be, and he is fully functional.

Kohrt recuperated in the hospital in Chicago for close to a year. Lois and their young son Bill got an apartment in Chicago, and after a while, Forrest was able to spend weekends there. He was there on a visit, in fact, when he heard the news that the war had ended.

Forrest was discharged from the Navy in November 1945. He and his young family, which eventually grew to include two other sons and a daughter, settled initially in Rock Rapids. Lois worked in the hospital until the fall of 1946, when Forrest returned to studies at Iowa State, a much more mature man thanks to his family and the war-time experience. Kohrt received his Bachelor's Degree in Animal Science in 1949, and started a career with Iowa State Extension, initially at Garner, then Knoxville. The family moved to a farm between Cherokee and Aurelia in 1955 when Forrest assumed his position as County Extension Director. Lois was actively involved in nursing at Sioux Valley Memorial Hospital, and the four children - Bill, Alan, Stan, and Cindy - attended and graduated from Aurelia High School.

After their retirement in 1985, Forest and Lois moved to a house in Aurelia to enjoy their retirement, and they did just that for twenty years, until Lois died in December 2005. Forrest still lives in the home in Aurelia, and is a regular at local coffee gatherings.

Of his war-time experience, Kohrt says he and his fellow sailors figured they would have to fight the enemy within the U.S. borders following the attack on Pearl Harbor. "We really didn't know what to expect - didn't know what it was like to be attacked."

Kohrt has been a member of the American Legion for more than sixty years, and is proud of the "sixty-year pin" he received from the Legion. He has also been active in his church through the years, and strongly believes that "the Lord was there the whole time" during the sinking of his ship, the long two days in the water, and the year-long recuperation.

As we celebrate Veteran's Day this week, we think of vets like Forrest Kohrt, who have been there throughout the years, doing what they had to do to keep the United States strong and free.

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