The Rohna tragedy: remembering a forgotten WWII calamity
“I thank God, because I should have been dead.”
So said Frank E. Bryer, survivor of a World War II catastrophe we might simply call the Rohna tragedy—a calamity kept secret for decades.
The HMT Rohna was a massive British ship transporting a mostly American crew to the Far East theatre. It went down November 26, 1943, the day after Thanksgiving, off the coast of North Africa, the victim of a German missile. But it wasn’t just any German missile. This was, it seems, the first successful “hit” by a German rocket-boosted, radio- controlled “glider” bomb. It was a guided missile, and the Nazis had achieved it first.
The result? Catastrophic. The Rohna Survivors Association claims more lives were lost on the Rohna than on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
Over one thousand men perished, and their government kept the entire episode secret out of fear of information being leaked about the power of the German missile. The government feared the effect on the morale of the U.S. military and wider population.
“The ‘hit’ was so devastating,” states the Rohna Survivors Association, “that the U.S. government placed a veil of secrecy upon it. The events which followed were so shameful that the secrecy continued for decades until recently, when documents were grudgingly released under pressure of the Freedom of Information Act.”
It is very sad that only now, long after the few survivors are even fewer, the Rohna survivors are attempting to hold reunions, nearly 75 years after the event.
The secrecy was so tight that Frank Bryer’s daughter, Mary Jo, spent painstaking years trying to tug out details. “Dad was haunted frequently by this,” Mary Jo told me, “but it was not so much the sinking of the ship, but his inability to save men.”
As the ship burst into a fireball, Frank manned the ropes of a lifeboat packed with injured soldiers. He was ordered to hold the ropes tight and lower the boat into the water below. This was no simple task, especially in a chaotic situation. A lifeboat filled with men isn’t light. That was proven quickly as the ropes broke and Frank watched the men plunge into the sea. The image of those men slipping from his hands into the abyss horrified him…
The nightmares would come later. In the meantime, Frank, too, was forced to abandon ship, which submerged within an hour. For his own crowded lifeboat, he and five other men seized a floating wooden bench. As the darkness slowly enveloped them, amid fears of still more German missiles, Frank led the group in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Frank would later call it the “Long Night.”
“Other German planes flew over with orders to kill men floating in the water,” recalled Frank.
“I was sure it was the end. I told the men we better start to pray…. We were scared, shaking and moaning. It was dark and we couldn’t see anything. We could only hear others yelling and crying for help.”
They say there are no atheists in foxholes. And there were none on that floating bench either. “Two of the men didn’t think that they would go to Heaven, but I told them they would if they asked God for His mercy and forgiveness,” said Frank. “We would wrap around each other and I would say the Our Father and Act of Contrition.”
The boys ached for their families and talked about home. Frank told his crewmates about his youth living at the Villa Maria convent in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he spent much of his time because of a difficult family life. He later laughed at how the guys “didn’t understand how I could be living with nuns.”
To their great fortune, they spied a rescue boat just as the sun started to rise. They were saved.
“I thanked God for saving us,” said Frank.
But sadly, the men couldn’t share what they went through. They were ordered not to write or talk about the HMT Rohna with their family or even among themselves. The military censorship was so strict that they were threatened with court martial if they disobeyed.
And for Frank, there was still less comfort: “All I could think about was the wounded soldiers that I could not save.” For the rest of his life, he was tormented. It haunted him for years, all the way until his death at age 92 on January 4, 2016.
It was a tragic situation, from start to finish.
How can we pay homage to Frank Bryer and his shipmates? We can do so by at long last remembering the HMT Rohna and what they went through. L
DR. PAUL KENGOR is professor of political science at Grove City College. His latest book is A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century.