Filmmaker highlights little-known WWII troopship sinking
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Two famous shipwrecks mark the beginning and end of America’s involvement in World War II: The USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the USS Indianapolis in July 1945 after delivering components of the atom bomb to Tinian.
But a third sinking in the middle of the war, worse than the second and nearly as bad as the first, remains largely unknown.
This was the loss of the troopship HMT Rohna, a converted British cargo ship sunk in 1943 off the African coast by a German guided missile at a cost of 1,015 U.S. soldiers.
Among them were 95 men from Pennsylvania, including 19 from Allegheny County, three each from Washington and Westmoreland counties, two from Fayette County and one each from Beaver and Armstrong counties. Many of them had served with the 853rd Aviation Engineer Battalion.
Now a New Jersey filmmaker, in conjunction with a survivors’ group, is hoping to raise awareness of this great sea disaster by finding the families of the dead all these years later.
Jack Ballo, a documentary producer, and several partners have spent the last year working on “Rohna: Classified.” They launched a Kickstarter campaign on Memorial Day weekend to raise money for the film and hope to eventually air it on PBS, Netflix or some other outlet.
In the meantime, the film’s outreach program is searching for the families here and across the nation, a mission shared by the Rohna Survivors Memorial Association.
Ballo is focused on those who died and the association represents the 966 who survived, only a few dozen of whom are still alive, but both want to build a database of information about everyone aboard on Nov. 26, 1943.
“A lot of these families don’t even know about the Rohna,” said Ballo. “Some don’t even know they had, say, a great-uncle in World War II. We’re getting several generations away now from the men who were on the ship. A lot of these people are great-nieces or great-nephews, or great-great-nephews, and they don’t even know anything about their family member who was on the ship.”
The survivors group holds reunions but each year but the list has dwindled as the World War II generation dies out. Hundreds used to attend. At next month’s event in Virginia Beach, one is expected to make the trip.
As for the families of those lost, Rohna association secretary Janice Pumelia said it’s been difficult to find them. About 35 families nationwide have been located.
“When we do reach them, reactions are mixed,” said Pumelia, whose father Anthony was among the survivors.
Some are interested, some say it’s ancient history, and some had no idea they had a loved one on the ship.
“We’re getting the full range,” she said. “My father spoke about this every Thanksgiving. We considered it dad’s war story. So it was in the family but we didn’t think much of it at the time.”
Ballo’s website, https://rohnaclassified.com, lists the hometowns of all the casualties and a next-of-kin form for families to fill out to submit more information.
“I think knowing what happened and how their family member had died in the war is important,” Ballo said. “That’s why I think this documentary will have an impact.”
His own involvement with the Rohna began last year when he found a box of 1940s letters in his attic from Sgt. Joseph Pisinski to his mother. Sgt. Pisinski was the great-uncle of Ballo’s wife.
Ballo had married into the family and never knew the history.
“I barely heard a word about this great-uncle she had,” he said.
He did some Googling and discovered that Sgt. Pisinski is mentioned in a book of Rohna survivor interviews written by Michael Walsh, past president of the Rohna association. Walsh had hired a film crew to record some of the interviews and posted them on YouTube. Ballo saw them and then traveled last year to the association reunion in Memphis, where he met Walsh.
They decided to team up on the film, joined by veteran producer Bill Jersey. The target for completion is late 2020.
The project intrigued them because of the Rohna’s relative obscurity. Even among World War II buffs, the story is not widely known.
“Everyone says ‘Rohna? Huh?’” said Pumelia.
While several books and newspaper accounts have appeared over the years and The History Channel did a segment, the Rohna doesn’t seem to have registered in the popular consciousness.
“It’s out there, but it doesn’t stick,” said Pumelia.
The ship left north Africa on Nov. 25 on its way to India with 1,981 U.S. soldiers aboard.
The next day a swarm of German bombers descended on the convoy. One of them launched a radio-guided bomb, among Germany’s secret weapons. It smashed into the side of the Rohna. Some 300 men died outright. Hundreds of others died trying to escape or succumbed in the water waiting for rescue. The ship didn’t carry enough lifeboats and most of the ones aboard were non-functional.
Rescue ships saved 966 people. But the incident remained classified because the War Department did not want the Germans to know the extent of damage caused by the world’s first smart bomb, Ballo said.
The families of those lost were not told what happened at the time beyond telegrams noting only that their loved ones had died and no information was available.
The new documentary aims to tell a complete story, not only from the viewpoint of soldiers on the ship but also from the perspective of Herbert Wagner, the scientist who designed the bomb, and the pilot who launched it, Hans Dochtermann.
Wagner was later smuggled out of Germany to work on the U.S. rocket program, as did other German scientists.
The pilot’s son, Ludger, an Alaskan fisherman, made news in 2005 when he attended the 10th reunion of the Rohna survivors group in Seattle and apologized for what his father did.
Ballo has been in touch with the families of both.
He said his goal is to give the Rohna the recognition it deserves as one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history.
In terms of wartime losses, it ranks second only to the sinking of the Arizona, which claimed 1,177 lives. That wreck is a famous war memorial.
The Indianapolis, while not unknown after the war, entered popular culture 30 years later when actor Robert Shaw delivered a monologue about it in the 1975 movie “Jaws.” It gained a new measure of fame two years ago when a team led by Microsoft founder Paul Allen found the wreckage at 18,000 feet in the Philippine Sea.
That sinking cost 880 lives.
The Rohna was worse — yet who knows about it?
“People love this story,” Ballo said. “People can’t get enough of World War II.”
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com