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Opinion

Reader Report: Survivors of a WWII at-sea disaster still seeking whole truth about what happened

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Staff Sgt. Peter J. Sidoti, one of the men rescued from the sinking HMT Rohna, is shown in the flying suit he wore as an Army Air Corps bomber tailgunner.
(Photo courtesy of Janet Sidoti Delude)

A long-time Huntington Beach resident 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 also has a compelling, personal motivation for speaking up: 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, an event 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. Nov. 23, 1943, the day after Thanksgiving.

Although the passage of the Freedom of Information Act in 1967 forced the government to make public previously censored news of the tragedy, “complete details still are not forthcoming,” said Delude, 70, a retired manicurist who, along with her husband, Jim, a retired aerospace worker, divide their time today among Orange County, Long Beach and Coarsegold, north of Fresno.

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“Many of the Rohna survivors, for years, have had difficulty convincing their families and friends that they were aboard the Rohna,” Delude said. “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.”

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 WWII 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 “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 court-martialed if they disobeyed.”

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“I understand the need for secrecy during the war, but the secrecy went on for many years after the war ended,” she continued. “And today, we still are stonewalled by the government when we try to get the complete story.”

Delude’s father, Army Air Corps Staff Sgt. Peter J. Sidoti, was 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.

Janet Sidoti Delude, the daughter of U.S. Army Air Corps Staff Sgt. Peter J. Sidoti, who was rescued
Janet Sidoti Delude, the daughter of U.S. Army Air Corps Staff Sgt. Peter J. Sidoti, who was rescued from the stricken troopship Rohna, holds a photo of the ship taken two or three years before it was sunk by a German glider bomb.
(Photo by David C. Henley)

“My dad was playing cards when the bomb struck,” she said. “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!”

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,Deliude said. “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.

“My father passed out on deck and was tossed into the sea. A shipmate was able to pull him aboard a big floating piece of wood.”

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The ship sank about an hour after it was hit, and the USS Pioneer, a 221-foot minesweeper, and several British warships protecting the Rohna and 24 other ships in a convoy that was heading to Asia, rescued Sidoti and the others. No other ships in the convoy were hit. It took many years for the crew of the USS Pioneer, like the dead and injured aboard the Rohna, to win recognition from the U.S. government.

Sidoti was transferred to a military hospital in the Algerian port city of Phillipeville, where he lay unconscious for three days. After awakening, he was shuttled to nearly a dozen hospitals in North Africa and the U.S. He received a medical discharge and got married three months after returning home.

“He suffered PTSD, vision problems, constant headaches and had a metal plate put in his head by the surgeons,” said Delude, a mother of three and grandmother of five. “He found it difficult to hold down a job. But he joined the Air Force Reserve when he came home, and he did his best for his country. My father died in 1982 at the age of 60.”

After government censorship decreased, Sidoti and the other survivors, and those killed aboard the Rohna, eventually received, posthumously, medals for their service. Several monuments honoring the ship and crew have been erected across the nation and congressional resolutions have honored them as well.

When the Rohna Survivors Memorial Assn. holds its meeting in Memphis in 2018, Delude hopes at least two of the estimated 20 living survivors will be able to attend the 75th anniversary of the disaster.

“Of the 20 we believe are still alive, hardly any can travel. They’re too old, ill or both,” she said during an interview at the Laguna Woods home of Jo and Rod Duplechin, who formerly lived across the street from her family in Huntington Beach’s Huntington Village neighborhood near Marina High School.

At the organization’s meeting next year, Delude hopes attendees will join her in signing a petition asking the government to provide complete information about the disaster. It’s difficult to believe the Pentagon is purposely hiding the complete facts about an event that happened so long ago, she said.

Contributor DAVID C. HENLEY lives in Newport Beach.

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