Friday, December 1, 2017

An After-Thanksgiving Attack in "Suicide Alley," Part II

Editor's note: Over the 74 years since the British troopship Rohna was sunk by an advanced German weapon in November 1943, the lack of official support on the part of the British and American governments to detail the circumstances of its loss has left an information void that survivors and various authors have sought to fill, with uneven results.  

By Justin Hall
Curator, the National Museum of the American Sailor
In the months following the attack on Convoy KMF-26 and the sinking of HMT Rohna, next-of-kin of those who perished were notified that their loved ones were “missing-in-action,” with little to no elaboration on the circumstances. The American Graves Registration Service finally declared those who had not been recovered dead in 1949, yet the news of those adjudications were not passed on to relatives. Those who survived the attack were prohibited from writing the name of the ship they were on or details about what had happened to them within their letters home. An unclassified report released to the Associated Press and the United Press about the incident in mid-February 1944, and printed in the New York Times, stated that “One Thousand American soldiers have lost their lives in the sinking of a troopship after an enemy attack in heavy seas in European waters… details were withheld.” One clue as to why such obsessive secrecy surrounded the incident surfaced when the report stated, “there is reason to believe that the enemy does not know of the results of the attack and therefore the date is withheld.”

The perception on the part of American and British officers that the Germans didn’t know that their glide bomb had been successful turned out to be wrong, yet even after the war, many official Army histories still failed to mention the destruction of HMT Rohna.  Author Don Fortune surmised in his book Sinking Of The Rohna (1997) that in order to prevent demoralization, censorship prevented the release of details of the sinking. However, he questions why it took decades after the sinking before information was released to anyone, including family members of the deceased. Historians, survivors, and family members had searched for answers, but secrecy has resulted in speculation and scapegoating.

In 1998, James G. Bennett, whose brother, Private First Class Robert O. Bennett, died in the attack, wrote The Rohna Disaster, and in 2002 the History Channel released an episode of its History Undercover series, “The Rohna Disaster: WWII's Secret Tragedy,” that was based on Bennett’s book. Both alleged that the crew acted cowardly by abandoning ship and leaving the GIs behind. John Fievet was a soldier below deck with all of the other troops who were being transported when the vessel was hit. He recalled that the internal communication system ceased to work and Captain T.J. Murphy's order to abandon ship was relayed by word of mouth. Furthermore, according to Fievet’s account, Rohna's officers and crew remained on board to deploy as many life rafts as possible. If orders to abandon ship were relayed by word of mouth, then the officers of Rohna took responsibility to have the orders conveyed to all soldiers on board and did not abandon them. Additionally, former Rohna First Officer J.E. Willis’ report offered detailed information on the attack and contained information on how convoys should defend themselves in future attacks. This is evidence of an officer which remained composed during the engagement and contests Bennett’s accusations that the officers acted cowardly.

Another example of inference and fault that has come out of the Rohna disaster is that Bennett has blamed the lifesaving equipment. Again, Fievet’s account of that day gives another explanation. Damage to the ship was devastating and had trapped many men below deck and as Fievet recalled, for those that could escape, it took over 20 minutes for the men in lowest departments to reach the main deck. This is a significant amount of time and because the Rohna was sinking so quickly, many GIs had panicked due to their unfamiliarity with lifesaving equipment and the soldiers were not efficient in deploying the life rafts or their inflatable life belts. While Fievet’s is only one account, many recent publications of other Soldiers’ accounts have emerged and many of these survivors have come forward in an attempt to make sense of what happened on that day. In these accounts, some have repeated Bennett’s assertions, yet almost everyone of them maintained that due to their individual experience, they personally did not witness anything supporting Bennett’s allegations.

Unfortunately, an adherence to secrecy prevented an official account of events and caused the next of kin to rely on the stories from survivors, many of whom relied on each other’s stories in an attempt to form an understanding of what occurred. This failure has not provided a comprehensive account and its consequence is a patchwork of various stories that incorporate speculation and blame. One perfect example is John P Fievet, who has published his own account of events and who is a source which discredits Bennett’s claims. However, when Fievet provided a forward to a more recent publication, he repeated a story that was told to him by a fellow soldier, who had heard a story from yet another soldier who claimed that the Rohna crew were first to abandon ship.

One last concern with the top-secret status of the Rohna is that Soldiers and next of kin have become demoralized by not being informed and not having their story told. This is perfectly understandable because it contradicts the narrative of why we fight. These Americans were willing to sacrifice their lives to ensure democracy and freedom for all. Yet, when that sacrifice is not acknowledged, does it challenge our cause?

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