Black-and-white images from a war movie lit up a Montana living room one night a half-century ago. Bombs exploded on the TV screen. Men dived overboard. Ships sank.
Fred Panion watched from the couch, his wife beside him. Their five children were all asleep. And he began to cry.
“Oh, Fred, it’s just a movie,” Darlene said.
But Panion couldn’t stifle the tears or the memory, and a secret he carried back from the war to the hills of Butte finally burst out.
“That happened to me,” he told her that night.
That’s how Darlene Berube learned her husband survived the sinking of the HMT Rohna, the greatest loss of troops at sea by enemy action in U.S. history. The British and U.S. military kept family members of the deceased in the dark for years about exactly what happened that late afternoon in the Mediterranean Sea. Survivors were threatened with court-martial if they spoke about the incident, their letters back home were read and censored, and most, like Panion, kept silent until they couldn’t.
“I still get choked up thinking about it,” Berube, 88, said from Butte last week.
The bombing of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in shark-infested waters in 1945 are seared into the public consciousness. One disaster forced the U.S into war, the other revealed how truly terrifying it could get. Lost between them was the Rohna, a cargo ship the British converted to carry troops, that was sunk in the Mediterranean off the Algerian coast by the Germans on Nov. 26, 1943. Nearly 2,000 people were on board that day.
Of the 1,138 dead, 1, 015 were Americans, mostly from the Army Air Corps. Others included British troops and Red Cross workers. Of those Americans, 95 were from Pennsylvania and 77 from New Jersey.
Six servicemen who died were from Camden, including Sgt. Lewis Riondino, who was 32. A small story in the Camden Courier-Post nearly four months after the disaster merely noted that Sgt. Lewis Riondino was among the “war dead.” Other news clips from the era said that the men were “missing” and that the ship was sunk with a torpedo, which wasn’t true.
“My dad went to his grave in 1998 really not knowing what happened to his brother, Louie, other than he died on a ship and he’s buried in Tunisia,” said nephew Marc Riondino.
The Rohna was shrouded in mystery because it was sunk with a radio-guided missile launched by a bomber squadron that attacked around 4:30 p.m. that Friday. The Allies had been searching for a way to thwart this new German technology and would eventually find ways to scramble the signals, but not on this day. The success of the Rohna attack was kept under wraps to prevent morale from plummeting at home, and the incident was classified by both the U.S. and British governments.
Author Michael Walsh, who’s written two of the four books about the Rohna disaster, said the shroud of secrecy simply carried over after the war, and the story was lost amid all the others. Today, there’s a small monument to the Rohna at the Fort Mitchell National Cemetery in Alabama, and many of the dead, if recovered, were interred in the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial in Tunisia.
Walsh, who has interviewed many survivors, said news of the Rohna came out “too late” to become common knowledge. “The information was so repressed for so long, and it never gained any traction.”
Walsh said he blames the British government more than the U.S. Research he’s done in the National Archives revealed several memos in which the British were reluctant to allow the information to be released. Walsh also said the Rohna was not in great condition, with many lifeboats inoperable. Many crew members, he added, abandoned ship rather than help the troops get off the boat. Hundreds were rescued by other ships in the vicinity. The USS Pioneer, a minesweeper, picked up approximately 600 men.
Lucille Weber’s late husband, Aaron, survived the Rohna. “At the beginning, he wouldn’t talk about it,” she said. “He had some friends he never talked about it to, either. He talked about it much more in later years than the earlier years.”
Weber, who lives in Plymouth Meeting, said her husband and other survivors began speaking out in the early 1990s, after another survivor, John P. Fievet, published a story in American History magazine titled “World War II’s Secret Disaster.” The Rohna Survivors Memorial Association was formed in 1999 and since then has held reunions every year all over the country, including Philadelphia; it is open to relatives of both survivors and victims, as well relatives of personnel who helped rescue the men.
The group even invited relatives of Hans Dochtermann, the German who piloted the bomber, to attend the reunions. In 2005, his son, Ludger Dochtermann, spoke at the Seattle reunion.
“I stand here because I want to apologize,” Dochtermann said, according to a Seattle Times article.
Each year, the number of survivors attending dwindles. Panion died in 2000, but his widow, Berube, is going to Virginia Beach next month, and while Weber is not, her daughter, Ellen, will be there. Aaron Weber attended several reunions before his death in 2016.
Weber said her husband, who was in the Army Air Corps, was playing cards on the deck of the Rohna when the missile tore into the hull. Calls were made to jump overboard, and Aaron always recalled removing his shoes before he jumped in. In the water, he was covered in oil.
As the hours wore on in the dark, starlit water, Aaron Weber said, many younger men were crying, pleading for rescue. None of the men he was playing cards with survived.
“There was a boy saying, ‘Momma, Momma,’ ” Lucille, 93, recalled her husband saying.
Janice Pumelia, secretary of the survivors’ group, said her father, Anthony Pumelia, felt guilty about making it out alive. He, too, recalled hearing screams through the night, from men with burns and others who slipped away beneath the water. He was also playing cards when the missile struck.
“He floated for an hour before the Pioneer picked him up,” Pumelia said.
Filmmaker Jack Ballo, of South River, Middlesex County, traveled to a survivors’ reunion last year in Memphis with his wife, whose uncle, Joseph Pisinski, died with the Rohna. Once there, Ballo was enthralled by the stories he heard and the interviews Walsh had conducted.
Ballo is now producing a documentary, Rohna: Classified, with the hope of getting more relatives of survivors involved in the group.