By Joseph Weber
Special to the Voice
This is the third installment from the Rohna Remembrance Committee of West Haven. It was first reported that 75 years ago PFC’s Pacifico Migliore, John Cox and Pasquale Logiodice had lost their lives in a ship sinking on Nov. 26, 1943, in the Mediterranean Sea as a result of a direct hit by a new enemy munition. They were, among 1100 men lost, and a veil of secrecy shielded the details of the tragedy for 50 years.
The second installment told of the response to the hope for some memorial activities for these three “West Haven Buddies” and other victims and the 900 survivors. UNH, the West Haven Veterans Museum, and Mark Consorte and his social studies team at WHHS have all joined our efforts. We also thank Bill Riccio of the West Haven Voice, and Mark Zaretsky of the Connecticut Magazine, and Gabor Kantzner of New Haven Veterans Center.
We began this message with an appeal to West Haven and beyond for “West Haven Memories, “from the WWII days. If you have any memories of the soldiers’ families, let us hear them (Ward Heitmann House Museum P.O. Box 573). Cox lived at 746 Campbell Ave., Migliore at 62 Terrace Ave. and the Logiodice family had a small farm on Orange Avenue. We would appreciate memorabilia of the period for the Vets Museum exhibit in November.
Here, we pick up the story. The 853rd Aviation engineer Battalion (AVN) sailed from Virginia, after completing their training, in a large protected east-bound convey toward an unknown destination zig-zagging all the way to avoid submarines, Days later the troops were elated to spot land (eastern tip of hilly North Africa). After entering the Straits of Gibraltar, they headed for land at Oran, Algeria. Not a good 10-day stop: mud, freezing nights, bad food.
On Nov. 23, 1943, they boarded an old rusted ship named the HMT Rohna. The ship had been built in 1926 and was used constantly in passenger and freight travel in the UK-India travel routes. The British leased it in 1940 for the war effort. It had three original decks with cabins and when reconfigured with more decks, it could hold troops and military cargo. The ship was large: 461 feet long with a beam of 61 feet. In redesign many partitions were erected with wooden posts and wooden partitions. This would prove disastrous later.
It was crewed by 200 Indian seamen and had 12 gunners. As were all the ships, guns were mounted aboard. On that fateful boarding day, the Rohna departed Oran and formed up with another convoy. They headed due east toward the Suez Canal and to eventual duty in India building needed airfields. This must have excited them, working for the war effort at last. Nov. 25, Thanksgiving: canned chicken and spoiled bread. Nov. 26, early “abandon ship drill.”
At about 16:30, the convoy was attacked by approximately 20 German bombers; allied gunners opened fire (there were five armed escorts); soon the air was filled with allied fighters in what was called a confused melee. The Germans lost several bombers. Part of the reason was that the slower moving bombers had to go in a direct line to line up targets.
Observers noticed an odd small vehicle mounted under the bombers; they were airplane-like, with wings, rudders and a rear, rocket engine. In the action many soldiers were below decks, even playing cards. The observers noticed that the weapon could glide, do a circular pattern and alter direction. In time Darkness descended and a night of terror was also approaching.
At 17:25, a missile was launched at the Rohna, it dropped and accelerated and hit just above the waterline: a deadly strike! Piercing the outer plate, it went through the engine room and continued through the other outer plate and exploded with shattering force. Many bodies were carried out with the missile (men of the 853rd Battalion). A hole was left that you could drive trucks through. Utter destruction: power was lost; lights went out and seawater began flooding the ship. Approximately 2000 men were aboard: many without veteran experience. Pandemonium!
Fuel coated the sea; the swells increased to near 15 feet; the water was cold; temperatures were dropping; lifeboats were held in place by rust and paint; fire began to rage in the shattered wood stacks; with the explosion, large numbers were killed by weapon-like boards; life-belts were deflated; debris kept soldiers from finding exits in the dark: that was doom for many, caught in a fiery conflagration; some troops wore packs and helmets and in jumping to safety, sank immediately, for eternity.
Troops going into the water some other way found they were in a scene from hell, a watery hell. The debris was everywhere; they swallowed oil and water; non-swimmers thrashed and died; some heavy life rafts were cut loose, and in falling, killed people in the sea; there were countless cases of people holding onto something and reaching out to hold a swimmer; or conversely, pushing someone away in the panic. As the convoy passed eastward and disappeared, there was a sound-one of humankinds’ saddest. It was a terrified cry from all directions. It was the cry for “Mother.”
Death was everywhere; young men succumbing in Hanibal’s sea. But it wasn’t all horror. Authors write of the fact that in war, Americans are resourceful, adaptable (the land that produced the Wright Brothers, Edison, George Washington Carver).
In the maelstrom of nightmare there were 5 ships doing rescues. The most successful was a relatively small minesweeper, the USS Pioneer. Crewmen were jumping into the sea to save others. One young sailor, Harold Jones, a red-head, had a rope tied to his waist. T
aking to the water, he personally saved several hundred sailors. The pioneer saved 600; in all 900 were saved. Over time, the survivors returned to duty with their outfits. Our three “West Haven Buddies” were not to be among them. The war raged on and ended successfully because of the overwhelming Allied armies and the great industrial might of our country (Rosie the Riveter” and all).
Unfortunately, the bravery displayed that evening could not be recognized because of the secrecy. Years later, Charles Osgood, the newsman said, “It was not that we didn’t remember, it was that we never knew.”
A final word: our hearts command us to “remember.” Please join with us and spread the word about Pasquale, John and Pacifico and their fellow soldiers.