Any veteran of World War II can tell you stories. But for Frank E. Bryer, his story—one he could never forget—was a terrible one. It began the moment his ship, called the Rohna, was sunk. When that ship went down on November 26, 1943, Frank’s life changed forever. And very few people beyond the men tossed into the sea ever knew what happened.
The HMT Rohna was an 8,600-ton British troopship carrying mostly an American crew to the Far East theatre. It went down the day after Thanksgiving, in the Mediterranean, off the coast of North Africa, the victim of a German missile. But it was not just any German missile. This was, it seems, the first known successful “hit” of a vessel by a German rocket-boosted, radio/remote-controlled “glider” bomb—i.e., one of the first true missiles used in combat. It was, in effect, a guided missile, and the Nazis had achieved it first.
And the results were immediately destructive: According to the website that today serves as the official online gathering spot for the Rohna Survivors Association, more lives were lost on the Rohna than on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
Over one thousand boys lost their lives, and their government kept the entire episode a secret out of fear of information being leaked about the power of the German guided missile. The government feared the effect on the morale of the U.S. military and the wider population.
“The ‘hit’ was so devastating,” states the Rohna Survivors Association, “that the U.S. Government placed a veil of secrecy upon it. The events which followed were so shameful that the secrecy continued for decades until recently, when documents were grudgingly released under pressure of the Freedom of Information Act. The government still does not acknowledge this tragedy, thus most families of the casualties still do not know the fate of their loved ones.”
The German attack was such a terrible success, and the American tragedy so severe, that what happened with the Rohna was completely hushed up during the war and still has not made its way into history books. Only in the last decade or two is it starting to get attention. A Wikipedia page exists, which is better than what existed only a few years ago—which was nothing. History.com has a short entry on the calamity. A search at Amazon yields a few self-published memoirs or small-publisher historical works.
It is very sad that only now, long after the few survivors are even fewer, the Rohna survivors are attempting to hold reunions, over 70 years after the event.
The secrecy was so tight that Frank Bryer’s daughter, Mary Jo Palmer, spent painstaking years with her dad trying to tug out details and piece together what occurred. “Dad was haunted frequently by this,” Mary Jo told me, “but it was not so much the sinking of the ship, but his inability to save many men.”
Those awful moments of fire remained seared in Frank’s brain. As the ship burst into a giant fireball, Frank manned the ropes of a lifeboat packed with injured soldiers. He was ordered to hold the ropes tight and lower the boat with the soldiers into the water below. This was no simple task, especially in a chaotic, panicked situation. A lifeboat filled with men isn’t light. That was proven quickly as the ropes broke and Frank watched the men below him in his care fall to their death in the sea. The image of those men slipping from his hands into the abyss horrified him.
But the nightmares would come later. In the meantime, Frank, too, was forced to abandon ship, which submerged within merely an hour. For his own crowded lifeboat, he and five other men seized a floating wooden bench. As the darkness slowly enveloped them, with night setting in, and with the fear of still more German missiles, Frank led the group in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Frank would later write of this dark evening:
Destroyers were ordered to put thick smoke screens up to help camouflage the area. Other German planes flew over with orders to shoot to kill men floating in the water. I can remember as we floated in the ocean watching other soldiers hanging onto the ship for dear life. We watched as the ship went down to the very end. The back of the ship went down first and the bow (front) was pointed straight up sky. It then just went down slowly until we could no longer see it. It is something that I will never forget.
There were other ships in the convoy that passed by, not seeing or hearing Frank and his crewmates. “It was the worst feeling you could possibly have,” said Frank. “I was sure that it was the end. I told the group of men that we better start to pray…. We were scared, shaking, and moaning.”
Those that had survived the explosion were scattered everywhere, yelling and crying for help. “My mind was on the life boat that fell into the ocean,” said Frank. “All I could do was ask God to take them fast so that they would not have to suffer.” He and his group with their floating wooden bench took turns—four of them would float on the bench and two would hang on the ropes.
They feared not only Germans but sharks, and for good reason. Anyone familiar with the horror story that was the USS Indianapolis knows how the sharks slowly but steadily devoured the boys floating in the water over a course of several long days.
This time alone in the water at night was a “hard time,” said Frank. They ached for their families. They talked about home. Frank told his crewmates about his time in his youth living and working at the Villa Maria convent in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he spent much of his time because of a difficult family life. He later laughed at how the guys “didn’t understand how I could be living with nuns.”
They say there are no atheists in foxholes. And there were none on that wooden bench in the water that night either. “Two of the men didn’t think that they would go to Heaven, but I told them they would if they asked God for His mercy and forgiveness,” said Frank. “We would wrap around each other and I would say the Our Father and Act of Contrition. We just talked to God. It was a long night.”
The crew of six tried to get some sleep while floating in the cold water, but couldn’t. They needed to stay focused on holding on to their floating device—the bench. To their great fortune, they were in the water only for about six hours. Just as the sun started to rise, they spied a rescue boat on the horizon. It was a Minesweep that picked them up.
“I thanked God for saving us,” said Frank. “I asked the men if they thought that our prayers had been answered.”
They were taken to a facility in Algeria to recover. But for Frank, there was little emotional comfort. All he could think about was the wounded soldiers that he could not save: “I thought of the pain they must have endured. A sergeant told me that there was nothing that I could have done. I couldn’t sleep and had bad dreams, sometimes jumping out of bed and yelling for help.”
But worst of all, Frank could not share what he was going through. They were ordered not to write or talk about the Rohna with their family or even among themselves. The military censorship was so strict that they were threatened with court martial if they disobeyed.
And like so many World War II soldiers, Frank’s ordeal did not earn him a ticket home after having experienced enough trauma for a lifetime. He was ordered to heal up and return to the service, which he did through the duration of the war, and then some. He was officially discharged on March 21, 1946 after an endless bout of island-hopping throughout the Pacific theater.
That, too, was no day at the beach.
“I thank God that I am still alive because I should have been dead a hundred times,” he said in his 90s.
Frank Bryer died on January 4, 2016 at age 92, seven decades after the sinking of the Rohna. He now at long last rests in peace. And perhaps only now has he been reconciled with those wounded boys who lives plunged to their death below him on November 26, 1943.
—Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book (April 2017) is A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century. He is also the author of 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.