Memorial Day remembrance: Clayton vet recalls The HMT Rohna disaster

Memorial Day remembrance: Clayton vet recalls The HMT Rohna disaster
British Troopship, HMT Rohna (Photo courtesy KCTS-TV, Seattle, WA)

On Memorial Day we honor our lost veterans. We remember their bravery, celebrate the survivors of war and mourn those that didn’t come home. This year, The Pioneer reprints a story we published in 2003 that recounts the events of the worst troopship disaster of World War II. Bill Casky, who shared his story with us in 2003, died several years after the Pioneer interview. To read the original story from our PDF archives, click here.

November 25, 1943, Thanksgiving Day, Army Air Corpsman, Corporal Bill Casky and 1,980 other American soldiers boarded His Majesty’s Transport Rohna, “a dark gray, spooking looking,”  rusty, coal burning British troopship and set sail in a 24 ship convoy bound for bases in China, Burma and India. For 1,015 GI’s that day, a meal of canned chicken and weevil infested biscuits would be their last Thanksgiving dinner.

At dusk on the second day out, the Rohna, was hit by the world’s first guided missile. Within an hour, the ship sunk. Six hundred men died instantly. The rest died on the decks, or were battered by malfunctioning lifeboats swinging uselessly on rusted and jammed cables against the side of the Rohna, or were burned to death in the flaming waters, or were killed by gunfire as the Germans strafed the drowning men. Many got too tired and cold to hold on to whatever piece of debris they had been able to grab onto and simply let go, rolled over and drowned. It was the greatest loss of American personnel at sea during World War II.

‘I saw the bomb being released.’

Bill Casky in 2003.

Casky, a long time Clayton resident, was one of the luckier ones that night. He was playing cards, fan-tan (7UP) with five friends on the third deck down when the attack began and immediately got up on deck where he watched the radio-guided bomb leave the German Heinkel 177. “I saw the bomb being released,” recalls Casky. “I didn’t know exactly what it was. I didn’t know it was radio controlled. There was no way in the world that it could miss.” The bomb hit the Rohna, cutting through the engine room and leaving a “hole the size of a house” in each side of the ship—where it went in, and where it came out–and over 600 dead soldiers in between.

A sweet natured, unassuming man with an impish smile, Casky’s throat still tightens and he swallows hard when he talks about the night the Rohna went down. Everything went wrong, he remembers. There weren’t enough lifeboats, and most of them were useless. The men were never shown how to use the life belts. Most wore them around their waists instead of up under their arms, causing them to tip over in the water. Casky’s life belt didn’t inflate and he had to blow it up by mouth. When the bomb hit, he scrambled up top and “got the hell overboard,” lowering himself over the side and dropping 30 feet into the freezing, oily water, where he clung to a six foot piece of wood and listened as his shipmates died. “It was lonely,” says the soft-spoken man. “You’d drop down between the swells and there was nothing…just black. It was scary as hell. You could hear men screaming for their mamas.” Then the rolling sea would raise him back up where he could see the stars and the lights of the minesweeper, USS Pioneer, which had stayed behind after the rest of the convoy had gone ahead. Crewmen of the Pioneer were jumping into the water to save the injured and exhausted soldiers. Casky, his hands bloody and cracked from smashing against the side of the rescue ship was pulled to safety after five and a half dark, cold hours in the water. In the pocket of his flight jacket were three of the four sevens from the fan-tan game.

A secret kept for 50 years

The 1,015 soldiers, together with the five British officers, the 115 Royal Indian seamen, and the three American Red Cross men who all died brought the total dead to 1,138. More men died in the Rohna disaster than perished on the USS Arizona. But, unlike the Arizona, the sinking of the Rohna was kept secret by both the United States and the British governments for 50 years.

“The government didn’t want anyone to know about the glider bomb,” says Casky. “It would be bad for morale.”

In “The Sinking of the Rohna,” a definitive account of the disaster, former SF Chronicle reporter Don Fortune writes, “Military Intelligence…knew the Rohna had sunk with heavy loss of life, but withheld this news from reporters…Following standard procedure, the British Admiralty and the United States War Department immediately stamped the sinking TOP SECRET.”

And top secret it stayed, for the duration of the war and for 50 years after. Families only knew that their loved ones were “missing in action.” With no records available, survivors found it impossible to get anyone in the government to believe it had happened. It wasn’t until 50 years later, when a few survivors began to search for crew members of the rescue ship, Pioneer, that the story of the Rohna saw the light of day. In 1993, survivors of the disaster, crew members of the Pioneer and family members of those lost, 106 in all, gathered for the first time in an emotional reunion in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. There have been many reunions since 1996. Every year, there is another opportunity for those who were rescued to embrace those who rescued them and for family members to learn a little more about the night that claimed their husbands, fathers, grandfathers, uncles or brothers.

Casky lives in Dana Hills with Maddie, his wife of 56 years. The two met in 1944 when Maddie was singing with the Happy Holidays USO tour at Casky’s air base in Malir, India. They were married in San Francisco in 1947. A well known performer in local theater, Maddie last appeared in No, No Nanette and 42nd Street with the Diablo Light Opera Company. Casky retired in 1970 from the import/export business. [Madeline Casky died in 2012.]

‘I went in a boy and came out a man.’

Asked how his feels his experience on the Rohna shaped his life, Casky answers, “I went in (the army) a boy, and came out a man. I lost five very good friends that night and I think about them every day.”

In 1996, at Fort Mitchell Cemetery in Seale, Alabama, a granite memorial was dedicated to those lost in the attack on the Rohna. And finally, on October 10, 2000, the House of Representatives unanimously passed House Concurrent Resolution #408, “Expressing Appreciation for U.S. Service Members Aboard HMT Rohna When It Sank.”  All of the men injured on the Rohna have received the Purple Heart.

In May of 2004, Bill Casky traveled to Washington D.C. where he and other survivors of the Rohna were honored in ceremonies at The Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institute and the World War II Memorial, as the sinking of HMT Rohna took its official and rightful place in history.