This Day in History: HMT Rohna: “World War II’s Secret Tragedy”
On this day in 1941, HMT Rohna is commissioned. Her demise would be called “World War II’s Secret Tragedy.” More than 1,000 American troops would be lost—AND the entire incident was kept secret for decades.
But why? And what were American troops doing on a British ship in the first place?
Rohna was a passenger ship called into military service during WWII. By late November 1943, she was preparing to ferry nearly 2,000 American troops from Algiers to India.
That ship was no picnic for our troops. They were crowded; rats were everywhere—there were even weevils in their bread on Thanksgiving Day!
Yet things would get worse. The next day, thirty German planes were spotted. The Allied convoy employed evasive maneuvers and was holding up well. But the Germans had something new up their sleeve.
“[W]e could see this [German bomber] coming . . . ,” Major Joe Confer reported, “and we see this thing behind the bomber that looks like a small [fighter] airplane. . . . And all of a sudden, this thing that we thought was a fighter starts going down . . . . and we watched this thing all the way until it hit the side of the ship.”
It wasn’t a fighter plane after all. It was something new: a remote-controlled missile. Rohna had taken a hard hit. She wouldn’t survive.
“We jumped in the water and the force of the current would sweep you back toward the ship again,” survivor John Vangi remembered. He swam hard against the current and finally found a lifeboat. That boat capsized when too many people tried to climb in. Vangi was left stranded, hanging on to an upturned boat.
He was still one of the lucky ones. Some lifeboats were never launched. The chains holding them to Rohna had rusted and the boats wouldn’t come loose. And, of course, there were those that died in the initial blast. Others survived the first hit, but then they had trouble breaking free of the current; they kept getting sucked right back into the ship.
“I think the only thing that’s burned in my memory is looking back and seeing that huge hole in the ship, fire, and men still running to get out,” survivor John Fievet said. He “really thought that my number was up, and that worried me what Mother would do when she got the telegram.”
German airplanes returned and began strafing the survivors in the water. Thus, rescue ships worked in the dark so as not to entice more German planes into the area. But the darkness surely added to the desperation and chaos.
“Several hundred men swam over to the Pioneer and crowded around the ship trying to get on board,” Confer reported. “High waves were causing the Pioneer to pitch fore and aft, and when the aft end came up out of the water, dozens of survivors, clustered around that end of the ship, would be sucked in under the fantail. Then the fantail would come crashing down on top of them, killing them instantly.”
More than 1,000 Americans would die that night, but survivors were told not to discuss what had happened. The United States didn’t want Germany to realize how effective its new missile was. Oddly, though, the silence continued even after the war was won. Family members never really knew how their loved ones died. Finally, in the 1990s, one survivor told his story. Since then, many others have come forward.
Despite these efforts, most Americans still have no idea that on November 26, 1943, a ship named Rohna suffered roughly the same number of casualties as USS Arizona did at Pearl Harbor.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Carlton Jackson, Allied Secret: The Sinking of HMT Rohna (2002)
James G. Bennett, The Rohna Disaster (1998)
Michael Walsh, Rohna Memories: Eyewitness to Tragedy (2005)
Voices of My Comrades: America’s Reserve Officers Remember World War II (Carol Adele Kelly, ed.; 2007)