Remembering the HST Rohna
From NBC Nightly News, December 27, 2000

The HST Rohna, a British vessel carrying American troops, 
was hit by a German missile in 1943 off the coast of North Africa.

By Tom Brokaw

Dec. 27, 2000 —   Fifty-seven years ago, a ship went down off the coast of North Africa and the U.S. Army suffered it’s largest loss on the water of World War II. But most people have never heard of this tragedy. It’s been a deeply held secret until recently.

       THE DAY AFTER Thanksgiving in 1943, the HMT Rohna, a British transport ship carrying American soldiers, was hit by a German-guided bomb and sank off the coast of North Africa.
       One thousand fifteen American troops died that afternoon. The memories haunt the survivors of the greatest loss at sea of U.S. personnel in World War II.
       “I was glancing over where the bomb had hit and where there had been soldiers there was just a pile of ashes,” said Al Stephanoni who had never learned to swim and fought to stay afloat. “There were bodies strewn here and there.”
       Bill Caskey lost his five closest friends.
       “A lot of them were yelling for their mothers, ‘Mama, mama,’” he said, “and a lot of them were yelling, praying.”

       The packed ship - almost 2,000 on board altogether — was part of a convoy bringing troops to Burma when 35 enemy aircraft attacked.
       Hitler’s arsenal included a secret weapon.
       “I saw this projectile coming toward us,” said survivor Bob Brewer. “It looked like a kamikaze-type thing happening, but of course it was a guided missile being controlled by the bombardier on the aircraft above.”
The blast tore truck-sized holes on both sides of the ship and knocked out the engine room. More than 300 men died instantly.
       Help did arrive - an incredible rescue effort under constant air attack. In 15-foot seas the USS Pioneer, a minesweeper, rescued 606 survivors.
       “Out of nowhere that ship could have risen from the deep sea,” said Stephanoni, “or fallen out of the sky and a sailor threw me a rope.”
       The Rohna’s sinking ranks as one of the worst maritime disasters in history, but wartime censorship blacked out the news.
       “Hundreds never knew of their sons, their husbands, their brothers, their uncles,” said Brewer.
       Intended to prevent the Germans from knowing just how successful their guided bomb had been, the blackout kept the tragedy shrouded in secrecy for 57 years.
       “We are survivors,” Brewer said. “We lived to tell about it, to tell the public at large that it happened. A lot of people don’t believe it ever happened.”
       Brewer and other survivors mounted a crusade to remember the men on the Rohna.
       Finally, in October this year, Congress officially recognized the heroes of the Rohna, a tragedy in which 1,015 GIs lost their lives 57 years ago.

The Rohna Survivors Memorial Association

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