Answers still sought about Rohna sinking
Special to the Lahontan Valley News
A long-time resident of a tiny community in the high Sierras near Yosemite National Park is on a mission to inform the American public about this nation’s deadliest disaster on the high seas and the U.S. government’s lengthy attempts to cover up the catastrophe.
Janet Sidoti Delude, 70, who lives in Coarsegold, Calif., also has a compelling, personal motivation for speaking up about the disaster: Her father was aboard the British troop transport HMT (His Majesty’s Transport) Rohna which was sunk by a German airborne missile during World War II, a holocaust that caused the deaths of 1,050 American soldiers, 124 members of the ship’s 195-man crew and two of the three Red Cross workers aboard.
Secretary-treasurer of the Rohna Survivors Memorial Assn., Delude said the organization at its annual meeting next year will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the ship’s sinking that occurred in the eastern Mediterranean, about 15 miles off the coast of Algeria, at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 23, 1943, the day after Thanksgiving.
“Many of the Rohna survivors, for years, have had difficulty convincing their families and friends that they were aboard the Rohna. I still receive letters from relatives of men who died or were injured on the ship, asking how, when and where they met death or were wounded. It’s a mystery why the government still won’t give us all the facts about a sea disaster that took place 74 years ago,” Delude said.
There’s no mystery, however, why U.S. military and civil authorities initially hushed up the Rohna sinking that fell nearly two years after the U.S. entered World War II following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
HMT Rohna, a 19-year old, 461-foot former passenger and cargo liner that saw service in India and the Far East and was appropriated by the British in 1942 to transport troops to Asia, was sunk by a radio-controlled so-called “glide bomb” dropped by a German “Heinkel” heavy bomber. “The fact that the Germans had developed this new technology was immediately kept secret by the U.S. and its allies as it was feared our military and civilian population would be demoralized by the news if it leaked out,” according to Delude.
“As a consequence, the Rohna’s survivors and the crews of the ships that rescued them were sworn to secrecy. They were forbidden to speak or write to their families about the guided bomb. They couldn’t even talk about it among themselves. They were told they’d be courtmartialed if they disobeyed,” she said.
“I understand the need for secrecy during the war, but the secrecy went on for many years after the war ended. And today, we still are stonewalled by the government when we try to get the complete story,” she continued.
As for the fate of Delude’s father, Army Air Corps Staff Sgt. Peter J. Sidoti, the middle of 10 children born in Cleveland, Ohio, to a bakery owner and his wife:
Enlisting in the Army at 22 and trained as a bomber tailgunner, he was one of the approximately 2,100 U.S. soldiers aboard the Rohna when it was hit and sank.
And he was among the estimated 800 who survived.
“My dad was playing cards when the bomb struck. There was a huge fireball that engulfed the ship, and hundreds were killed at once. Although he suffered a head injury and burns to the arms and legs, dad managed to reach one of the ship’s big guns and shoot down two or three German bombers. It may be the first time in history that an Army tailgunner shot down enemy aircraft from the deck of a sinking ship. Dad was a real hero!” she exclaimed.
The Rohna, which was named for a city in the Indian province of Punjab, immediately began to list, and those still alive struggled to reach the lifeboats, only to find most of them damaged by the German bomb or rusted to their davits. The survivors then jumped into the sea, many of them climbing aboard rubber life rafts that had floated free from the sinking ship, hatch covers or pieces of wood. “Hundreds more died in the water. It was a horrific scene,” Deliude said.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News & Fallon Eagle-Standard.