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New film details the strong Connecticut connections of America's worst at-sea naval disaster

More than a thousand people were killed when a German rocket bomb sunk the HMT Rohna, November 26, 1943.
Rohna Classified
More than a thousand people were killed when a German rocket bomb sunk the HMT Rohna, Nov. 26, 1943.

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November brings somber remembrances on Veterans Day and the warmth of Thanksgiving.

It's a month deeply etched with historical significance for those connected with an especially harrowing World War II disaster.

The sinking of the HMT Rohna claimed the lives of 1,015 U.S. soldiers on the day after Thanksgiving in 1943. Catherine Ladnier of Greenwich had an uncle, Bill, who survived that day. Many who did not survive had Connecticut ties.

“The largest unit on the HMT Rohna was the 853rd Engineers Aviation Battalion,” Ladnier said. “My Uncle Bill was a lieutenant. He met his men who came from Bradley Field (in Windsor Locks). The 853rd was the largest unit on the Rohna. They lost 62% of their men. There was another unit connected to Connecticut — not as large — which was the 322nd Fighter Control Squadron, who had actually trained at Yale.”

In all, Ladnier says 16 men who grew up in Connecticut died that day.

“West Haven lost three sons, all of whom were high school buddies who enlisted in the Army at the same time.,“ Ladnier said.

Despite the sinking of the Rohna going down in history as the worst-ever American loss of life at sea, the story remains largely unknown.

Filmmaker Jack Ballo is nearing completion of a documentary titled "Rohna Classified."

He sheds light on why.

"It was classified for decades after the war was over," Ballo said. "Some people would say it was due to confusion because it was a British ship with U.S. soldiers. Others say it was a war department covering up mistakes that they made."

Ballo reveals the grim details that unfolded on that fateful day: The ship was overcrowded, lifeboats were nonfunctioning, and soldiers were issued unfamiliar life belts instead of standard naval life jackets.

The War Department, eager to shield its mistakes, chose to classify the incident, leaving grieving families in the dark for an extended period.

Because the War Department classified information about the Rohna disaster, survivors like Ladnier’s Uncle Bill were sworn to secrecy.

"Uncle Bill would write home and say to my mother, 'Those questions you asked have to go unanswered,'" Ladnier said. Families faced immense difficulties in obtaining information about their loved ones. Letters sent to soldiers on The Rohna returned stamped "Undeliverable. Deceased," with no other information.

Reflecting on the government's decision to keep such catastrophes a secret, Ladnier understands the reasoning, but expresses regret.

"I wish that in the case of the Rohna that it hadn't taken so long for the families to find out what actually happened to their sons," she said.

Ballo, echoing similar sentiments, emphasizes the pain families endure when denied the truth.

"One thousand parents went to their own graves, never knowing how their boys died," he said. "You know, they just never came home."

Ballo’s film "Rohna Classified" debuts on Nov. 25 in New Jersey. Learn more about "Rohna Classified" at rohnaclassified.com.

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.

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