On the evening of Dec. 28, 1943, Mrs. Edith (Loucks) Coleman of Watertown received a telegram at her 124 S. Massey St., Watertown home. The dispatch said that her husband, Cpl. George E. Coleman, 37, was missing in action in the European theater during World War II.
The telegram gave no details about how her husband, a well-known and skilled local baseball player who before his induction had worked at New York Air Brake as an electrician, had been lost.
The telegram to Mrs. Coleman, an operating room nurse at Mercy Hospital, also read that any further details about the situation would be sent to her upon receipt by the War Department.
Hundreds of other families across the country would receive similar telegrams that December and in January of 1944 with equally sketchy information about the circumstances of the losses.
Loved ones were left wondering and waiting, and no doubt hoping that their soldiers would eventually turn up. But the War Department knew that they would not. There was no hope for the missing victims of the HMT Rohna transport ship. Most of the bodies in the waters, too cold for long-term survival, were not recovered. In most cases, there were no funeral services or burials for the soldiers.
According to a declassified “Secret” War Department message dated Jan. 10, 1944, the War Intelligence Division recommended that it was desirable to announce the loss of American lives due to the sinking of a troop ship. “Next of kin have been told soldiers missing in action. Believe it desirable to inform them soldiers were lost at sea otherwise they will continue to hope they may be prisoners,” the memo read. “Unnecessary to give name of vessel or date of sinking.”
Taking the cue, in February of 1944, the War Department reported a troop ship had sunk in European waters, with 1,000 American lives lost. Families were updated by telegram: “There is reason to believe the enemy does not know of the results of this attack and therefore the date is withheld.”
Six months after the Nov. 26, 1943 attack on the Rohna, families received another telegram. It confirmed the demise of their loved ones.
“It is regretted that for reasons of military security neither the name of the ship nor other details may be disclosed at this time,” the spring of 1944 telegrams about the incident read. “The exact location of the disaster cannot be given. However, the latest reports indicate that it occurred in the European theater and not in the African area as you were previously advised.”
His Majesty’s Transport Rohna went down in darkness and bad weather in the Mediterranean Sea about 12 miles off the coast of Djidjeli, Algeria (North Africa) following an air attack by German aircraft. But what specifically sank it was top secret.
Its sinking was the greatest loss of American lives at sea due to enemy action. The lives of 1,015 Americans and approximately 100 British and Indian crew members and Red Cross workers were lost.
The approximately 1,000 survivors would go on to serve in the China/Burma/India theater. But they were told to not to write home about or speak about the Rohna. Over the years, the story of the disaster became largely lost to history.
A documentary in development, “Rohna: Classified,” will “expose” the Rohna story.
“The next-of-kin of the Rohna heroes need to know the truth,” filmmaker Jack Ballo said.
According to files of the Watertown Daily Times, the following soldiers from Northern New York lost their lives when the Rohna sank:
n Cpl. George E. Coleman, Watertown, age 37, who was married to Edith L. Loucks.
n Pfc. Jasper R. Smith, 20, Stone Mills.
n Tech. 5th grade George L. Montgomery, 22, Massena.
n Cpl. Tech Russell E. Loft, 33, Adams/Watertown.
n Pfc. Herman C. Bishop, Cranberry Lake.
Reflecting the secrecy of the tragedy, the Times’ archive has no clipping file on the “Rohna” ship itself. In addition to the local people who died, files show a survivor of the sinking, Paul Flick Jr. of Watertown and Arcadia, Fla., who died in 2000 at the age of 78.
Eventually, details of the Rohna disaster were released under the Freedom of Information Act. In 1993, a Rohna survivor told his story to American History magazine in an article titled, “WW II’s Secret Disaster.”
“That got things started,” Mr. Ballo said.
A few weeks later, on Veterans Day 1993, Charles Osgood featured the Rohna story on his CBS radio program.
“That broke the story loose,” Mr. Ballo said. “A lot of survivors started to talk to each other. A lot of people came home and didn’t tell anybody. They didn’t tell their wives or children about it because it was so painful.”
On May 30, 1996, a memorial was dedicated to Rohna victims and survivors in Seale, Ala.
In 2000, Congress recognized and gave honor to all who were directly and indirectly involved in the Rohna disaster. On Oct. 10, 2000, a resolution authored and introduced by Congressman Jack Metcalf of Washington State was voted on in the House of Representatives and passed unanimously.
“The United States Government had not properly acknowledged this event,” Rep Metcalf said on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. “Because inadequate records were kept, some survivors had to fight for years to prove that the Rohna even existed, let alone that survivors might be due some recognition. ... Americans need to know about the Rohna. They need to know about the men, who died on board, sacrificing their lives in the fight against tyranny.”
But a co-producer of “Rohna: Classified,” said the story of the disaster is still under appreciated.
“I have a friend, a professor who teaches at the Naval War College. He never heard of it,” said Michael Walsh, who also authored the book, “Rohna Memories: Eyewitness to Tragedy.”
“It’s amazing to me that historians and people who should be in the know haven’t heard of it,” said Mr. Walsh, who also authored “Rohna Memories II.” “It’s been under the radar. It’s occasionally gotten some local press about a local man, but the secrecy really worked.”
The HMT Rohna was formerly a British India Steam Navigation Company passenger and cargo liner that was built on Tyneside, England in 1926 as the SS Rohna. She was requisitioned as a troop ship in 1940. It was one of 24 ships in a convoy that on Nov. 26, 1943 was attacked by a wave of German bombers. At first, the convoy fended off the attack. But one German Luftwaffe Heinkel 177 bomber made a final run. It was armed with Nazi Germany’s latest technology: a rocket-powered, radio-controlled Henschel HS-293 glide/guided bomb. It was an offshoot of the regime’s V-2 rocket program. The bomber pilot, Hans Dochtermann, set his sights on the Rohna. He put the aircraft in position and his partner launched and guided the bomb that struck the Rohna’s engine room.
Timothy F. Sidoti, 68, of Camarillo, Calif., recalled the stories that his deceased father, Rohna crew member Army Air Corps Sgt. Peter Sidoti, shared about the tragedy. Timothy attended the first reunion of the Rohna Survivors Memorial Association in the mid-1990s. Tim said his father and mother divorced when he was 9.
“I always stayed with my father,” Mr. Sidoti said in a phone interview. “I was with him until the day he died. I heard the stories.”
But many people, including relatives, had doubts about those stories, Mr. Sidoti said. But they were confirmed when at the Rohna reunions, he met his father’s commanding officer and others who knew his father.
“All the memories of all the stories my father told me were confirmed,” Mr. Sidoti said. “I get emotional talking about it. I grew up with my dad hearing all these stories, but a lot of family members never believed anything my dad said. They were just war stories. People embellish. But I heard it all and I was hearing these stories and they were backing up my dad’s stories.”
The story of Sgt. Sidoti on the Rohna and what he was doing at the time of the attack can be traced back to his native home of Cleveland, Ohio. Sgt. Sidoti was a first generation Italian immigrant from Sicily. Before the war, he helped to run his family’s bakery. He was 5 feet-2-inches tall and was trained to be a turret gunner on a B-17 bomber.
“When he was on the ship, he was down in the galley baking bread,” Mr. Sidoti said. “He just liked staying busy. When they came under fire, they yelled down below, ‘We need gunners up here!’ He went up and strapped himself into a 20-millimeter gun.”
His father shot down two planes, Mr. Sidoti said.
“I remember my dad telling me he was shooting at this flying torpedo. It was about 5 or 10 feet above the waves. It was kind of like it was going up and down and they kept shooting at it when he realized he wasn’t going to shoot it down. Just before it hit the ship, he unbuckled his belt. The bomb went in and exploded. He somehow survived in the waters for 10 hours before being rescued.”
Mr. Sidoti said his father’s injuries caused him to be sent back home and he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder until his death in 1982 at the age of 60.
Brian Warren of Syracuse said that his father William S. Warren, 94, who has lived in the same house in Syracuse since 1937, was a medic in World War II and boarded the Rohna in Oran, Algeria.
The younger Mr. Warren said that his father’s hearing is terrible and it’s very hard for him to communicate.
“He told me these stories when he was younger. I don’t think he would remember most of it now,” Mr. Warren said.
Mr. Warren said his father boarded the Rohna on Thanksgiving day in 1943 and spent the night on the ship.
“The day the convoy was shipping out, an order came down that they were trading places with an Army Air Corps unit on the Rajula. They made the switch and the Rohna was one of the first ships to head out in the convoy.”
Mr. Warren said that his father, who became a TV repairman after the war, recalled the convoy traveling through a sea of dead bodies.
Of the convoy, the minesweeper USS Pioneer rescued most of the Rohna’s nearly 1,000 survivors.
Mr. Ballo, the filmmaker, said he was inspired to create a Rohna documentary after he discovered a box of letters in the attic of the home that’s been in his wife’s family for more than a century. The couple moved into the home about a decade ago.
The letters were by Sgt. Joseph Pisinski, who was writing home to his mother.
“They were so personal and sad in many ways,” Mr. Ballo said in a phone interview from his home in South River, N.J. “He got on the Rohna for his first official day of war and his ship was attacked the next day. After all that training, in his second day of war, he was killed.”
Mr. Ballo said he’s been in his wife’s family for 30 years and the letters were the first he heard about the soldier.
“I only once vaguely remember she had this great uncle who died in World War II,” Mr. Ballo said. “Except for knowing that, no one ever spoke of this man.” Intrigued, he did a Google search with Sgt. Pisinski’s name and military ID number. He then discovered the “Rohna Memories” books by Mr. Walsh.
Mr. Ballo also discovered that Mr. Walsh regularly went to Rohna reunions and was filming the stories of survivors and their relatives. The recordings have become the basis of his “Rohna Memories” books.
Mr. Ballo attended the 2018 reunion in Memphis, Tenn., and sought out Mr. Walsh and to pitch the idea of a documentary to him.
“Meeting Jack was the best thing ever,” Mr. Walsh said from his home in Newport, R.I. “I’ve had this documentary in my head for a while. But I didn’t have the means to do it. Jack has the heart to do it, he wants to do it and he’s pulled together a team. He’s a real action kind of guy.”
A third co-producer on the documentary team is William Jersey, who has been producing documentaries for broadcast television for over 50 years, including for all the major networks.
“If we don’t document this, if we don’t pass it on, it will be lost forever,” Mr. Sidoti said. “Not too many young people are interested in war stories.”
The Rohna Survivors Memorial Association has been a great resource for the filmmakers. Its annual reunion, also for convoy members and all relatives, is June 6 to 9 in Virginia Beach, Va.
Mr. Walsh said he started going to the reunions in 2001 with his stepfather, who had been a sailor on the Pioneer, but not at the time of the attack. Mr. Walsh, a photographer and video producer by trade, had read the book “Forgotten Tragedy” by Carlton Jackson, published in 1977.
“I didn’t expect anything,” Mr. Walsh said. “I was just going with my stepfather. I read the book and thought it was interesting.”
But he also found the stories shared at the reunions interesting. He hasn’t missed one since 2001.
“I had my video camera and started interviewing guys in my hotel room, just because I felt like their stories needed to be recorded,” Mr. Walsh said.
He has approximately 38 hours of interviews with survivors and family members. He had transcripts made of the interviews, which form the basis of his two books, with the first released in 2005. Those interviews will be incorporated into the documentary.
“A lot of these guys never let their story out,” Mr. Walsh said.
He gave two examples: n “One man had not thought about it,” Mr. Walsh said. “But when 9-11 came about, there was something about the trauma of seeing the airplanes going into the towers that brought back the missile going into the side of the ship.”
n Another man was moved while watching television decades after the sinking.
“It was a military movie and a ship was sinking,” Mr. Walsh said. “His wife looked over and he was crying. She goes, ‘It’s just a movie, what are you crying about?’ And he goes, ‘That happened to me.’ It was the first she heard about it.”
Mr. Ballo said there is a couple of reasons why he thinks the government kept secrets around the attack of the Rohna.
“The main reason it was classified is because they didn’t want the enemy to know how effective the missile was,” he said. “They didn’t want them to know they did so much damage to the U.S. with one missile.”
The other reason, Mr. Ballo said, was that the government may have thought that the knowledge of the specifics of the attack would have deflated morale of the Allies.
“They both make a lot of sense to me,” Mr. Ballo said. “The problem is, they didn’t declassify it at a certain point, or when the war was over.”
The first telegrams on the matter gave false hope, the filmmaker said.
“They were interesting telegrams because the War Department knew they had all died. The water temperatures were so cold and the experts said there was no way anybody could have survived through the night and into the next day.”
“The reason they didn’t tell the parents? I don’t know, maybe it’s normal or standard procedure,” Mr. Ballo said. “I’m not saying that’s right or wrong. But it took them a month. And then they didn’t tell them they were presumed dead until told they were missing.”
The six-month gap of not knowing the truth must have been grueling for families, Mr. Ballo said.
“In those six months, imagine how many letters and telegrams were written to the War Department, saying, ‘What’s going on with my son? What have you heard?’ That’s really the greatest sin of this whole disaster — what they put these families through.”
“Of course, they knew the truth, but the war was still going on. Maybe that was normal,” Mr. Ballo said. “I don’t see that as morally wrong if that’s what standard procedures were. But they didn’t declassify it. So the parents of these soldiers, most young kids, they went to their own graves never knowing the truth about what happened.”