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Tom Chaney: It's Not That We Forgot - We Never Knew

Of Writers And Their Books: "It's Not That We Forgot.... We Never Knew." Tom says The Rohna was the first ship to become victim of a guided missile. This column first appeared 16 May 2010.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Though You Kill Me, I Must Bury My Brother!

By Tom Chaney

"It's Not That We Forgot.... We Never Knew"

One of the delights of running a bookstore is the occasional customer who comes in looking for something I've never heard of and together we find it.

Such is the case with this 2001 volume by Western Kentucky University historian Carlton Jackson [University of Oklahoma Press].

Jackson documents a terrible secret tragedy of World War II in his Allied Secret: The Sinking of HMT "Rohna". This book is an updated edition of an earlier work, Forgotten Tragedy published some five years previously.

The sinking of this British transport ship in the Mediterranean in late November 1943 resulted in losses eclipsed only by the loss of American lives aboard the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor in 1941. The sinking of the Arizona resulted in the loss of 1,103 lives.

When the Rohna went down she took 1,015 American soldiers, mostly of the 853rd Aviation Engineering Battalion, plus 134 British and Australian officers and Indian crewmen, to their death.

Jackson has sought out many of the survivors of that terrible day. And he has recreated the story of November 26, 1943 -- a story which was deliberately covered up by British and American officials for decades.

The main reason for the cover-up was that the sinking of that ship signaled the opening of a new era of aerial warfare. The Rohna was not sent to the bottom by a submarine or by other traditional artillery. She was the first ship to become victim of a guided missile.

The hole in her side was made by a Henschel Hs 293 guided bomb carried and aimed by a Heinkel He 177 Greif aircraft piloted by Hans Dochtermann, a 31-year-old major in the Luftwaffe.

Dochtermann survived and communicated with Jackson. The direct knowledge of the missile and its deployment contributes greatly to Jackson's account.

"There are actually no villains in my study of the Rohna, and many survivors of the blast feel much the same. All of the military personnel on both sides had taken an oath to fight for their respective countries," Jackson writes in his introduction.

"The big villain in this story is War itself. And 'War itself' is usually brought on by politicians, not military people."

But cover-up there was and for a number of reasons. In the first place the troops aboard the Rohna were not subject to any rigid military organization during transport on the way to the Pacific theater -- the final destination of the transport convoy. Divided as they were among several ships, records were haphazardly maintained at best. Notifications of "missing in action" were not modified according to regulations.

Military censorship was quite stringent. All references to the Rohna were deleted from V-mail even after contact by survivors with families was resumed from the Pacific.

Jackson's account is based in large part on interviews and letters of survivors. These reveal a tragic tale of heroism, selfishness, and ineptitude on the part of the ship's crew and the survivors.

The Americans were not instructed in the use of unfamiliar flotation equipment. The life boats were too few and inadequately maintained. In some cases the paint was so thick on their ropes, that they could not be launched. Apparently the boats injured or killed as many as they saved.

Men in the water behaved as men do -- some were heroic and saved lives; some lives were needlessly lost as drowning men fought for purchase on limited rafts.

The ship USS Pioneer rescued hundreds. Other ships were ordered not to lend any aid and sailed past knots of the drowned and drowning men.

Survivor John Fievet of Birmingham, Alabama, conducted a one-man crusade to "get the story of the Rohna public." He persuaded Birmingham reporter Jay Reeves to write a piece about the Rohna which was picked up by Associated Press and made its way to the desk of Charles Osgood.

Osgood carried the story on Veterans Day 1993 -- fifty years after the fact. In apology for the neglect Osgood said, summing up the account, "It's not that we forgot. It's that we never knew."

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney -

This story was posted on 2015-05-17 05:22:24
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