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World War II, HMT Rohna and a Young Man from Pangala...
By H R Alva
H R Alva is the Proprietor of Maria Advertisers, Mangalore.

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.

 

Reference:

^ 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.

External links

The Rohna Survivors Memorial Association site

Rohna Memories, Eyewitness to Tragedy

Rohna convoy

Glide bombs

Troopships

KMF-26 & HMT Rohna

WORLD WAR II – Ship Diseaster Rohna.htm

 

 

READ 'EXCLUSIVE ARCHIVES'
Comments on this article
Sr. Neeta Alva, PangalaWednesday, November 28, 2012
Dear Jaku,thanks for your good wishes to my dad.I still relish the sweet memories of our togetherness.Kindly send me a mail.Jessie.
Comment on this message

Jacob Mendonsa, BangaloreTuesday, November 27, 2012
Dear H.R.
Thanks for the information.Being your
immediate neighbour,I was very close to your Dad,when ever he is to come on leave.I wish Thomas bab long life & wish to celebrate his 100th birthday.
Convey our regards to your sister Jessy.
Regards

Jacob mendonsa
Bangalore
Comment on this message

Sr. Leena Njaliath H.C., BangaloreTuesday, November 27, 2012
Congrats to you Mr. H.R.Alva for going back to the W.W.II and getting this very inspiring and touching incident of your Dad.He is truly a hero of the time.I am a companion of your sister Sr. Neeta ( Jessie Alva)
Comment on this message

Nisha D'Souza, BangaloreTuesday, November 27, 2012
Wonderful first-person account of memorable experiences of World-War II, which is quite rare to hear these days. Wish Good health & God bless.
Comment on this message

sr jyothi fernandes, UFS, mudarangady/mysoreTuesday, November 27, 2012
Harry, congratulations for such a great brave story of your dear dad during the world war II. Your dear dad is a hero for the younger generation. i wish him good health and God,s choicest blessings.
Comment on this message

shivanand R.Shriyan, MALPE [Udupi]/JEDDAH,KSATuesday, November 27, 2012
Heart touching information, God bless you all..
Comment on this message

Marian Peres Bhatt, Mangalore / PhilippinesTuesday, November 27, 2012
Great piece of information. God bless U all.
Its a matter of pride and honor to all of us, hope our young siblings,look at the glory of the past and follow their noble steps in their future life.
Comment on this message

Tauro john, Mangalore/malad/nigeriaTuesday, November 27, 2012
H R, chilling story of your dad, really he is a hero.I wish him good health and long life.
Comment on this message

Dewakar Alva, Mangalore/DubaiMonday, November 26, 2012
Great piece of information & thank you for giving us such touching information about your Dad.

Bst Wishes from
Dewakar Alva & fly .......Dubai
Comment on this message

JeryMary, RiyadhMonday, November 26, 2012
Great!I know you since long time.But i never knew this very interesting article.Nice to hear.GOD Bless you & Mr Thomas alva.
Comment on this message

lloyed , Mangalore Monday, November 26, 2012
He good to hear his story I knw him personal since childwood his one bro late Albert Alva frm udupi Live long .............
Comment on this message

shalinisra, jinja, UgandaMonday, November 26, 2012
Dear H.R. Alva, thank you for giving us such touching information about your Dad. Truly, he is a great man. May he complete hundred years!
Comment on this message

Monica Dantis, moorukavery, Muscat, OmanMonday, November 26, 2012
Very thrilled to hear uncle Thomas's life story. ( like titanic)

May God grant him good health to have century celebration. Belated birthday wishes to uncle Thomas and congrats to family members.
Comment on this message

Henry Martis, Pangala/MuscatMonday, November 26, 2012
Great information from a Great Man.Hats off to you.
Comment on this message

GEORGE PAUL MATHIAS, PERNAL, SOODAMonday, November 26, 2012
Thank you Brother H.R. Alva for your
Information n Nice Article. i am happy to read about Uncle Thomas alva Experience in real life..Thank u..n.God Bless you.
Comment on this message

ASIF, MANGALORE/ABUDHABIMonday, November 26, 2012
Thank you Herald.R.Alva for the great piece of information,may god bless you,Alimighty give your father long life,good health,looking forward to receive more articals from you
Comment on this message

Sachidanand Shetty, Mundkur/DubaiMonday, November 26, 2012
Now a day, for our new generation History starts when they start memorizing the incidents happened after their birth. Because we have seen many History related stories cum incidents twisted by various Scholars according to their religious faith or mindset. Again it has been modified by concerned Educational Ministry of different Political Party to best suit their ideology. Here we can see and hear the story of Second World’s one such incident with living legend from none other 90 years old Great Shri Thomas Alva. Long live Alva Family
Comment on this message

Janet Fredrick, MangaloreMonday, November 26, 2012
Salutations Sir Alva. You are a hero. From death to life, Poverty to Popularity, you have conquered and your little sacrifce will always be cherished. Hats off to you. Thanks H.R.Alva for the article. It speaks volumes.
Comment on this message

Fredrick Correa, Pernal/MumbaiMonday, November 26, 2012
Great piece of information. May God bless this "Young man" from Pangala.
Comment on this message

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