November 26, 2012
My father Thomas Alva, now 90, a resident of Pangala Village in Udupi district was in the service of merchant navy for 4 decades. Retired in 1981, he now lives in Mariapura, Pangala, and often recounts his professional life and shares his sailing experiences with visitors and relatives. Very important among them is an incident when his ship was bombarded during World War II, more than a thousand people (most of them American soldiers) fell into the ocean and died, while he had a miraculous survival, which was a literal rebirth.
Before I explain the incident, some information about my father’s association in the incident:
Thomas Alva is the eldest son among 8 children of Lazarus (the late) and Magdalene (the late) Alva of Hithlu hamlet in Pangala village of present Udupi district. Born on June 20, 1923, Thomas Alva left for Mumbai at an early age of 13 in search of employment in order to support the family. He worked as domestic help in a Pharsee bungalow for 3 years.
World War II had already begun and the British rulers in India were inducting young men into the military who would directly or indirectly constitute the necessary work force. My father got inducted into the British India Steam Navigation Company as a ship worker in 1941. During those war days ships belonging to British Government were called ‘His Majesty’s Troupship’ (HMT) After 9 to 12 months of service on board the employees were given 2 to 3 months of leave but they could not command it. They had to go back to work whenever called for. Thomas Alva had 2 uneventful spells of trips. The tragedy struck in 1943 during his 3rd trip onboard.
To put it in my father’s own words:
“It was the time of World War II. I was only 20. British and other friendly nations’ ships were moving in a convoy in fear of attack by the enemy camp. As I was unaware of the war I had no fear. My job was to assist the officers and follow their commands. During leisure time I loved coming over the deck and watch the vast ocean and blue skies. I had seen several war planes flying over the oceans.
It was the year 1943, I had completed 2 years of my service in the ship. After 2 months of vacation in Pangala, I boarded the ship HMT Rohna in July. It was a huge vessel meant for transportation of cargo but modified to carry soldiers and ammunition. British Government had designated our ship to carry soldiers and military equipment. In November 1943, HMT Rohna loaded with men and material started out from port Oran of Algeria towards port Karachi in the far east (then a part of India).
It was November 26, 1943 evening, I was on the deck during my free hour watching the vast ocean and sky, as usual. I saw 4 war planes flying very close over the convoy of our ships. I ran to the lower floor, the place of my work. Later I came to know that the planes belonged to German camp. Within minutes our ship was bombarded and engine room got damaged. Large number of soldiers and staff fell into the sea. Before batting of the eyelid I was in sea too. For my good luck I got hold of a floating plank of the broken ship and started floating. After long time, I caught a rope thrown by some other ship in the convoy, they pulled me over board and I was rescued. But my company was not aware of my rescue by the other ship.
My employer company sent a telegram to my parents breaking the news of sunken ship and the possibility of me downing in the sea. My parents were devastated with the news. The telegram news was informed to the church and mourning bell was rung. It took a few months to reach the news of my survival to my parents. By the grace of God Almighty I survived but it is very sad that more than a thousand American soldiers and the ship crew could not be rescued.”
I have heard my father narrating this story several times since my childhood. I have documented this in my Konkani book ‘Moje CYM Dees’ brought out in January 2007 during the Diamond Jubilee of Catholic Youth Movement of Mangalore Diocese (In pages 3 &4).
This tragic incident had taken place in 1943. My father married Maria Castelino in 1948. My sister Jacintha (Sr Neeta, Counselor – Mercy of the Holy Cross Sisters – Karnataka Province, Bangalore) was born in 1953, brother John Baptist (working in Bahrain) in 1955 and I was born in 1959. If my father had not survived we would not have come to this world. We celebrated 90th birthday of our dad in June 2012. Out of curiosity I browsed the internet for information on World War II, the bomber attacks and sunken ships, particularly the one with which my father was associated. To my surprise, there was reams of material from which a bit is as follows.
The ship was HMT Rohna (His Majesty’s Troopship Rohna), belonging to the British India Steam Navigation Company. The length of the vessel was 141 meters and named after a village in Sonepath province of Punjab. When the tragedy struck, it was carrying American soldiers and ammunition as a part of convoy KMF 26 from port Oran of Algeria to port Karachi in far east via Suez Canal. It was attacked by German bombers, Dornear DO 17, on November 26, 1943 in Mediterranean sea towards the north of Algeria.
On that unfortunate day 2388 people were on board including 195 members of crew. Among them 1018 soldiers and 120 crew members drowned in the sea. Among the survivors 35 American soldiers died of wounds later. The tragedy has been recorded in history as the largest loss of U.S. troops at sea in a single incident.
There was huge ammunition in secret chambers of HMT Rohna and America feared that the enemies would have their hands on them if the news of ship capsize was made public. Therefore the news was not published for quite sometime. By February 1944 the US Govt. had acknowledged that over 1000 soldiers had been lost in the sinking of an unnamed troopship in European waters due to a submarine attack. By June 1945, the government had provided accurate casualty figures, the ship had been identified by name as HMT Rohna and the cause of sinking had been identified as German bombers. The details of the loss were fully revealed in 1967 following the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act in America.
American historian Carlton Jackson undertook a detailed study of HMT Rohna and the tragedy of November 26, 1943 and brought out a book named ‘Forgotten tragedy: the sinking of HMT Rohna’ in 1997 which is well appreciated worldover.
^ Jackson, Carlton (1997). Forgotten tragedy: the sinking of HMT Rohna By Carlton Jackson. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-55750-402-9.
^ Wise, James E.; Scott Baron. Soldiers lost at sea: a chronicle of troopship disasters. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-59114-966-8.
^ "Rohna, ( British India Steam Navigation Co Ltd ), 1926-1943". merchantnavyofficers.com. Retrieved 8 Dec 2010.
The Rohna Survivors Memorial Association site
Rohna Memories, Eyewitness to Tragedy
KMF-26 & HMT Rohna
WORLD WAR II – Ship Diseaster Rohna.htm