Friday, September 16, 2005


Nevadan recalls escape from WWII ship sinking that killed 1,138


Las Vegas Sun
By David Henley
September 14, 2005

The HMT Rohna.

FALLON, Nev. - Louis R. Phelps vividly recalls that terrible day 62 years ago.
He still hears his shipmates' screams and cries for help as their troop ship, hit by a guided missile fired from a German bomber, sank in 30 minutes, killing 1,015 American soldiers, 120 ship's officers and crew, and three Red Cross workers.

At 1,138 deaths, the sinking of the British Navy's HMT Rohna on Nov. 26, 1943, in the Mediterranean Sea off North Africa caused the greatest loss at sea of American military personnel in U.S. history.

Because the U.S. government didn't want the Germans to know how effective the early-generation guided bomb had been, details of the sinking did not surface until the late 1960s.

Congress recognized the Rohna disaster in 2000. Even today, few Americans know about the second-worst U.S. naval disaster of World War II, after the sinking of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.

But Phelps, who will be 84 on Dec. 6, still suffers nightmares and sleepless nights.

He was a military parts inspector at Oakland Army Base after leaving the service in 1948, and worked at Alameda Naval Air Station near San Francisco where he led a team of civilians inspecting aircraft parts and engines bound for Naval Air Station Fallon.

"My closest ties are to the state of Nevada," he said in an interview at the Las Vegas home he shares with his daughter, Carolyn, and her teenage son.

A native of Enid, Okla., Phelps joined the Army Air Corps in 1940 at age 18. He was trained as a radio operator and repairman and in 1942 was shipped to French North Africa where he was assigned to a U.S. air base.

On Thanksgiving Day 1943, Phelps and approximately 2,000 other U.S. soldiers boarded the British Navy's 46l-foot long, l7-year-old Rohna at Algiers. They were bound for Bombay, India to take up combat against the Japanese in China, Burma and India.

"The Rohna was a filthy, rusting bucket, full of lice and rats. The skipper was an Australian Navy officer and the crew were Indians," Phelps recalled.

On Nov. 26, he was serving as corporal of the ship' s guard, a position similar to the U.S. Navy's master-at-arms.

"I was on deck, near the ship's stern, when I saw a large plane coming closer and closer to us. It was a German Air Force Heinkel bomber. It circled our ship and then dropped a radio-controlled bomb on us. Most of our men were below deck, getting ready for the evening meal."

Phelps said the bomb hit the center of the ship, knocking him to the deck.

"It continued down into the engine room and there was a huge explosion. The ship began listing and smoke and flames were all over the place," he said.

Men were trapped below deck, while Phelps was able to crawl to the high side of the deck, find a rope and lower himself into the water.

"The men who managed to reach the lifeboats found them rusted and full of holes," he said. "I think that only one lifeboat got away from the Rohna, and most of its passengers were the ship's crew."

Phelps remembered hundreds of men in the water. Many were wounded and burned. He had three broken ribs and cuts on his legs and arms, but had a lifebelt on and managed to stay afloat.
After seven or eight hours, those in the water were rescued by the Clan Campbell, a British cargo ship converted into a Red Cross ship.

"There were about 900 of us rescued by the Campbell and other ships in our convoy. Those men told me stories about fighting their way to the deck through flames and burning debris. It is impossible to tell to what a horrible day that was."

Phelps said he stays in touch some survivors. They tell stories of heroism by shipmates who tried to release lifeboats that were rusted to the Rohna's side, and of men who took off lifebelts and gave them to others.

"When we got back to dry land, the Army leadership in North Africa told us not to mention the sinking to anyone under penalty of court-martial," Phelps said. "There was nothing printed about the sinking in the newspapers. It was if it had never happened."

In the 1970s, word began leaking out of the disaster, and reporters using the Freedom of Information Act discovered hidden-away accounts of the sinking. Congress recognized the disaster, relatives of the victims were notified why they died, and survivors such as Phelps received commendations and medals.

Following his rescue, Staff Sgt. Phelps served in India and China as a radioman until war's end in 1945. When the Air Force became a separate service in 1948, he transferred from the Army, retiring as a master sergeant after seeing service at U.S. air bases including Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas.

A widower, Phelps has suffered two strokes in recent years which caused blindness in one eye and reduced the vision in his other eye to about 16 percent.

He said he can still read somewhat, and the Veterans Administration has helped him get special glasses so he can use the computer. He also enjoys fishing at Lake Mead.

About 200 survivors of the Rohna sinking are alive, according to Pat Delude of Coarsegold, Calif., secretary-treasurer of the Rohna Survivors Memorial Association.

Two or three books about the Rohna disaster have been written in the past few years, and a History Channel documentary aired in 2002.

On the Net:
Rohna Survivors Memorial Association:


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