Friday, December 1, 2017

An After-Thanksgiving Attack in "Suicide Alley," Part II

Editor's note: Over the 74 years since the British troopship Rohna was sunk by an advanced German weapon in November 1943, the lack of official support on the part of the British and American governments to detail the circumstances of its loss has left an information void that survivors and various authors have sought to fill, with uneven results.  

By Justin Hall
Curator, the National Museum of the American Sailor
 
In the months following the attack on Convoy KMF-26 and the sinking of HMT Rohna, next-of-kin of those who perished were notified that their loved ones were “missing-in-action,” with little to no elaboration on the circumstances. The American Graves Registration Service finally declared those who had not been recovered dead in 1949, yet the news of those adjudications were not passed on to relatives. Those who survived the attack were prohibited from writing the name of the ship they were on or details about what had happened to them within their letters home. An unclassified report released to the Associated Press and the United Press about the incident in mid-February 1944, and printed in the New York Times, stated that “One Thousand American soldiers have lost their lives in the sinking of a troopship after an enemy attack in heavy seas in European waters… details were withheld.” One clue as to why such obsessive secrecy surrounded the incident surfaced when the report stated, “there is reason to believe that the enemy does not know of the results of the attack and therefore the date is withheld.”

The perception on the part of American and British officers that the Germans didn’t know that their glide bomb had been successful turned out to be wrong, yet even after the war, many official Army histories still failed to mention the destruction of HMT Rohna.  Author Don Fortune surmised in his book Sinking Of The Rohna (1997) that in order to prevent demoralization, censorship prevented the release of details of the sinking. However, he questions why it took decades after the sinking before information was released to anyone, including family members of the deceased. Historians, survivors, and family members had searched for answers, but secrecy has resulted in speculation and scapegoating.

In 1998, James G. Bennett, whose brother, Private First Class Robert O. Bennett, died in the attack, wrote The Rohna Disaster, and in 2002 the History Channel released an episode of its History Undercover series, “The Rohna Disaster: WWII's Secret Tragedy,” that was based on Bennett’s book. Both alleged that the crew acted cowardly by abandoning ship and leaving the GIs behind. John Fievet was a soldier below deck with all of the other troops who were being transported when the vessel was hit. He recalled that the internal communication system ceased to work and Captain T.J. Murphy's order to abandon ship was relayed by word of mouth. Furthermore, according to Fievet’s account, Rohna's officers and crew remained on board to deploy as many life rafts as possible. If orders to abandon ship were relayed by word of mouth, then the officers of Rohna took responsibility to have the orders conveyed to all soldiers on board and did not abandon them. Additionally, former Rohna First Officer J.E. Willis’ report offered detailed information on the attack and contained information on how convoys should defend themselves in future attacks. This is evidence of an officer which remained composed during the engagement and contests Bennett’s accusations that the officers acted cowardly.

Another example of inference and fault that has come out of the Rohna disaster is that Bennett has blamed the lifesaving equipment. Again, Fievet’s account of that day gives another explanation. Damage to the ship was devastating and had trapped many men below deck and as Fievet recalled, for those that could escape, it took over 20 minutes for the men in lowest departments to reach the main deck. This is a significant amount of time and because the Rohna was sinking so quickly, many GIs had panicked due to their unfamiliarity with lifesaving equipment and the soldiers were not efficient in deploying the life rafts or their inflatable life belts. While Fievet’s is only one account, many recent publications of other Soldiers’ accounts have emerged and many of these survivors have come forward in an attempt to make sense of what happened on that day. In these accounts, some have repeated Bennett’s assertions, yet almost everyone of them maintained that due to their individual experience, they personally did not witness anything supporting Bennett’s allegations.

Unfortunately, an adherence to secrecy prevented an official account of events and caused the next of kin to rely on the stories from survivors, many of whom relied on each other’s stories in an attempt to form an understanding of what occurred. This failure has not provided a comprehensive account and its consequence is a patchwork of various stories that incorporate speculation and blame. One perfect example is John P Fievet, who has published his own account of events and who is a source which discredits Bennett’s claims. However, when Fievet provided a forward to a more recent publication, he repeated a story that was told to him by a fellow soldier, who had heard a story from yet another soldier who claimed that the Rohna crew were first to abandon ship.

One last concern with the top-secret status of the Rohna is that Soldiers and next of kin have become demoralized by not being informed and not having their story told. This is perfectly understandable because it contradicts the narrative of why we fight. These Americans were willing to sacrifice their lives to ensure democracy and freedom for all. Yet, when that sacrifice is not acknowledged, does it challenge our cause?

Friday, November 24, 2017

An After-Thanksgiving Attack in "Suicide Alley," Part I

Editor's Note: Asked to name the ship that sustained the greatest loss of American lives during the Second World War, most if not all of the readers of this blog could probably name the battleship Arizona, which exploded and sank at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  But what about the ship that sustained the second-greatest loss of American lives? 

This is the story of that ship and the once-secret tragedy that befell her on November 26, 1943.

By Justin Hall
Curator, the National Museum of the American Sailor

On October 12, 1943, several thousand American GIs embarked at the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation in Newport News, Virginia, for the Atlantic crossing aboard the American transports William Rawle, Lambert Cadwalader, Booker T. Washington, Nicholas Gilman, and Betty Zane. After disembarking at Oran, Algeria, the Soldiers continued training in a staging area awaiting the next stage of their journey, which was withheld from them in order to maintain secrecy. Then on November 24, over 2,000 of them reembarked at Oran aboard HMT (His Majesty’s Transport) Rohna to join convoy KMF-26. Convoy KMF-26 was a troop transport convoy traveling to Port Said, Egypt and consisted of 17 ships in five columns, being escorted by 10 armed escort vessels and two fighter aircraft. While onboard Rohna, the GIs learned their destination would be the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. The men also practiced lifeboat drills and had Thanksgiving Dinner on the 25th.
As a civilian cargo ship before the war, Rohna carried approximately 100 passengers.  On the day she was sunk, the troopship was carrying 2,193.  (Wikimedia Commons)
A considerable number of the men had just deployed from the United States for their first tour; therefore, they were unaware that they would be passing through a section of the Mediterranean known as "Suicide Alley." This narrow stretch of the Mediterranean between Sicily and Tunisia had earned notoriety because Allied convoys had to travel through it. Consequently, German submarines and aircraft repeatedly attacked this location. On November 26, the minesweeper USS Pioneer (AM-105) reported a surprise aerial attack made up of 24 to 30 planes, first spotted by the naked eye at approximately 10 miles. These planes were identified as Heinkel 111 and Heinkel 177 bombers flying at an intermediate altitude and fast speed. After the convoy tracked the planes for one minute to confirm their first evaluation, the ships engaged with their anti-aircraft armament of 3-inch 50-caliber and 40mm guns and 20mm cannons. Enemy bomber attacks focused on the left section of the convoy, dropping 40 to 50 bombs. Fortunately almost all were near misses. Tragically, the Rohna was hit and would quickly sink.

A Heinkel 177 "Greif" heavy bomber carries a Henschel 293 rocket-boosted glide bomb. (walterwerke.co.uk)
What makes Rohna different from all the other ships attacked in the convoy was that it was hit and sunk by a radio-controlled, rocket-boosted glider bomb. A less-advanced version had hit USS Savannah a few months before off of Italy. Rohna's Second Officer, J.E. Willis, watched the bombers from the bridge. As the glide bombs came within range of the 20-mm, Wills was finally able to identify the incoming object as a bomb and ordered all 20mm to target the bomb. The 20mm gunners failed to destroy the bomb and it hit the Rohna, traveling at about 370 miles per hour, about halfway down the port side, just above the water line, at the engine room level. Around 300 men were killed instantly. Immediately the ship began to flood. To make matters worse, all electrical equipment failed.  

Convoy tactics demanded that the ships remain on course, yet after the attack, six ships remained to pick up survivors or provide cover for the rescue ships. USS Pioneer picked up 606 survivors, but five succumbed to their injuries during the night and the remaining ships rescued less than 200 men. On Nov 28, 1943, the War Department in Washington received a classified message reporting Rohna had sunk within half an hour after receiving bomb damage and half the men aboard were reported as casualties. Darkness and heavy swells hampered rescue efforts and 1,015 American servicemen were among the 1,149 lost in the sinking.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Not the Fab Four: Sailors Disappear in Japan, then Reappear in Moscow

Fifty years ago, civil discourse was breaking down over the expanding Vietnam War, and the gulf of disunity that was widening in American society was beginning to surface in its military.  Some civilians selected to serve in the US Army began burning their draft cards while others fled the country before their numbers came up.  Some in the active duty ranks even began abandoning their posts, and the Navy was no exception.
 
In late November 1967, the American public learned of one of the more dramatic examples of a wartime military fraying at its edges, courtesy of a Japanese "peace committee" and some Russian intelligence operatives.  Four young enlisted men who had disappeared from the Norfolk-based aircraft carrier USS Intrepid (CVS-11) during a port visit to Yokosuka, Japan, in October appeared on a Soviet television show in Moscow to denounce the American war effort. 

From the left, Boris Krainov applauds defectors Craig W. Anderson, John M. Barilla, Michael Lindner, and Richard D. Bailey at Moscow University on November 22, 1967. (Tass handout photo distributed by the Associated Press)
Before throngs of adoring students shouting "molodets!" or "well done!" at Moscow University on November 22, 1967, Airmen Craig W. Anderson, Richard D. Bailey, John M. Barilla, and Michael A. Lindner were awarded the Lenin Peace Prize as they repeated the same message they had first told a Japanese peace group called Beheiren ("Japan Friends of Vietnam Committee") during a filmed interview some weeks before.  Twenty year-old Airman Craig W. Anderson had said, "You are looking at four deserters, four patriotic deserters from the United States Armed Forces. Throughout history, the term 'deserter' has applied to cowards, traitors, and misfits.  We are not concerned with categories or labels.  We have reached the point where we must stand up for what we believe to be the truth."  In the same filmed interview released by the Japanese, Airman Richard Bailey, the 19-year-old son of a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, said that the American public had "reached a point where they are finished demonstrating and are going to take an active hand in stopping the war machine."  

"It became clear to me that we were killing people"

The day before the event at Moscow University, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, or "Truth" carried a long interview with the men, who repeatedly used the term "mass slaughter" to describe what their government was carrying out in Vietnam.  "It became clear to me that we were killing people," said Airman Barilla, who had been a member of Intrepid's catapult crew before his desertion. "I am convinced that the United States does not have any right to be in Vietnam." Bailey chimed in, "I never gave much thought to the war until I reached the coast off Vietnam in mid-1966.  Actually my work aboard the carrier was very easy. At first I did not give much thought to what I was doing.  It was only this past year that I began to understand I was taking part in a dirty, unjust war."
 
Statistically, the desertion of four junior personnel from an aircraft carrier that carried a compliment in excess of 3,000 was not significant, but their appearances in the Soviet news media greatly magnified their stature, if only to embolden the antiwar movement and tweak the noses of those in the American government. 
 
As the four were being feted as heroes in Moscow, reporters began to focus in on the new Soviet celebrities and what their motivations might have been for defecting.
 
"It is not possible to list precisely the moods, emotions and motivations that led to what is now officially desertion," wrote New York Times writer Barnard Collier in December 1967. "What does emerge from a series of interviews, however, is a profile of four young men without personal goals, who had menial jobs aboard the Intrepid, and who brooded about the sameness and loneliness of their shipboard routine."  
 
None of the men had been standouts in high school, good or bad.  Bailey in particular had been on probation for breaking and entering before his enlistment, but Collier singled out Airman Anderson as having had significant problems with the military even before his active duty service began.  He had become a member of the Navy Reserve in 1965, but had been activated due to his missing too many drill sessions.  When he finally reported for duty, he reportedly had shown up in civilian clothes and "long and shaggy" hair.  He was sent home, where his mother, Irene Anderson Hill, attempted to talk some sense into him.  Before leaving, he told his mother, "I just can't take authority or discipline."   

Even the secretary-general of Beheiren, the group that made their escape from Japan possible, was hard-pressed to paint the men as principled, much less heroic.  "The four American boys are not revolutionary fighters, and they are not backed by ideologies," Yuichi Yoshikawa said in a statement to the news media.  "Nor are they go-getters determined to devote their whole lives to politics."   

"Ratline Japan"

The four Navy deserters were among 400 or so American servicemen who disappeared from Japan in 1967 alone.  Army intelligence documents declassified in the 1990s detailed that the Japanese  "peace committees" that spirited away the deserters were working as part of a sophisticated KGB-run network called "Ratline Japan," although the Soviets did not officially control or finance the committees.  Military intelligence agents had focused upon the Beheiren group, which distributed leaflets to servicemen featuring a telephone number.  American military personnel  who called the number were contacted, assessed, and vetted before they were smuggled to Nemuro, a seaport on the northern island of Hokkaido.  From there they would be transferred to the Soviets for exfiltration.

The journey of the men who came to be known as the "Intrepid Four"  had begun while they were on liberty outside Yokosuka Naval Base, when they destroyed their uniforms and ID cards and traveled to Tokyo, eventually making contact with Beheiren activists.  After staying in a series of safe houses, with the help of an American antiwar activist clad in orange saffron robes that was described by one Army agent as "Marxist-Zeninist," the four were taken to Yokohama, put on the Soviet freighter Baikal, and taken to the Siberian port of Nahodka on November 11, 1967.

Undercover agents with the Naval Investigative Service (now known as the Naval Criminal Investigative Service) succeeded in shutting down the ratline in November 1968 by mounting a "dangle" operation, in which a notional, or fake, deserter accompanied a real deserter and his Beheiren escorts until they were apprehended in Kushiro, Hokkaido.


"Fed Up with Russia"

The halcyon days of the so-called Intrepid Four lasted for about six weeks, but the warm glow of Soviet adulation was fleeting.  After a few weeks in Moscow, the four deserters were, according to a diplomat who encountered them in Gorky Park, "fed up with Russia."  They also admitted that "the Russians are fed up with us, too, and don't know what to do with us." 

The four eventually made their way to Sweden and dropped out of sight, but one of the defectors, Craig Anderson, surfaced again last year, ostensibly to promote a memoir and "rally a new generation of Americans to take a more vocal stand against the nation's current military campaigns."  But his retelling of his life after taking his own stand; or rather, after he turned and ran, did not make for inspiring reading.

Three years after reaching Sweden, a haven for American deserters and draft dodgers, Anderson made his way back to his home in San Jose, California, where he discovered that has mother had become an alcoholic and his brother refused to speak to him.  Not long after that, he was apprehended in San Francisco and spent nine months in a high-security brig on Naval Station Treasure Island, where he went on hunger strike and was transferred to a hospital for psychiatric assessment.  According to Anderson, prosecutors had sought to give him a four-year sentence for desertion, but he was able to walk away with only a bad conduct discharge. 

During what was described as "decades-long journey in search of himself," Anderson lived in a tent in Mendocino County, then later relocated in Mexico, where he wrote novels under a pen name.  After divorcing his second wife, he relocated to Southern Nevada to be closer to a woman he met on a political chat room, and it was there where he composed his memoir.  During that time, he reached out to the other three who had defected with him over four decades earlier.  Two had stayed in Sweden, while another, John Barilla, had settled in Canada.

Barilla remarked to New York Times reporter John M. Glionna that, after they had made contact, he and Anderson had relived "our magical mystery tour."      

The Beatles' celebrated parody of the Beach Boys and Chuck Berry, "Back in the USSR," was released exactly one year after the "Intrepid Four" appeared on Soviet television, but it remains pure speculation as to whether the "Fab Four" might have been inspired by those four other young men who, by the way, would definitely not be back to the USSR.  

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: America's Cloak & Dagger School Began with Hard Hats & Dynamite



Naval Construction Training Center Camp Peary, along the south bank of the York River near Williamsburg, Virginia, on August 18, 1943. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Just outside Williamsburg on the Virginia Peninsula lies a large yet low-key government facility celebrating a quiet anniversary this week. The Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity at Camp Peary, Virginia, which began as a naval construction training center during the rapid expansion of U.S. Navy’s Seabees during World War II, was commissioned on November 16, 1942.[1]

Few Seabees alive today would remember it as a place where they received their initial and advanced military training before shipping off to Sicily or the Solomons, yet for generations of case officers and other unconventional warriors of the Central Intelligence Agency, this was where they completed basic training; a place they knew as "The Farm."

The rapid expansion of the Civil Engineer Corps during 1942 overwhelmed the capacities of the relatively new facilities at Camp Bradford (now a part of Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story), Camp Allen (now a Marine Corps facility near the Commander Navy Region Mid-Atlantic headquarters complex on the Naval Support Activity Norfolk), and Camp Endicott, Rhode Island (which no longer exists). The functions of the three separate posts would be consolidated into an 11,000-acre facility, named for the explorer and Civil Engineer Corps officer Robert Peary, made up of an administrative area and four regimental areas with the capability of training 50,000 men. On December 1, 1942, the disestablishment process for Camps Bradford and Allen began, and by March 17, 1943, Camp Peary had taken over all primary Seabee training from both stations. In fact, all Seabee recruits underwent initial training at Camp Peary in 1943 and the first half of 1944 before moving on to more advanced technical and military training at camp Endicott.


The basic training for Seabees, many of whom were older than the average recruit, was arduous to begin with, but the terrain making up most of Camp Peary, giving it the moniker “Swamp-Peary” by members of the 87th Naval Construction Battalion (NCB), just made it more challenging. One veteran of the 63rd NCB, whose recruits arrived in December 1942, even claimed that Camp Peary was “known to Seabees throughout the world as ‘the land that God forgot.’”

“Thirty days is all it takes,” wrote one member of the 103rd NCB, which was formed at Camp Peary in October 1943. “Thirty days of sweat like you’ve never sweat before. Thirty days of hip-hup an’ a reep. Thirty days of forward march, column right, column left an’ to the rear. We’ll make a Seabee out of you, matey. We’ll take that fat off your belly.”

Of the advanced training that followed their “boot” experience, the writer for the 63rd NCB wrote:

In advance training many men made the acquaintance of Island X, that humpy, bumpy and breezy ‘proving ground’ for the real Island X. Water purification and other crews learned to set up and operate the equipment needed to supply and maintain a sanitary camp under all conditions. The proof of the pudding came in the results of these Seabee ‘schools.’ One crew of 50 men became proficient enough to erect a mess hall, galley, clear a camp area, set up a water tank, showers and drinking water units in 3 ½ hours.
An early map of Naval Construction Training Center Camp Peary (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Camp Peary also boasted specialized facilities in its advanced training area for special-duty battalions such as a full scale Liberty ship mockup for stevedores and facilities for mastering the construction of pontoon causeways. Seabees were trained in the art of combat construction and sustainment there, but it was also the place to learn the latest destruction techniques. Seabees bound for underwater demolition teams (the forerunners of today’s SEALS) passed through Camp Peary’s advanced training area, churning out Sailors adept at small arms and explosives. In all, over 90 Seabee battalions, amounting to well over 100,000 men, were trained there. In addition, nearly 5,000 men earned their commissioning from the officers’ school at the facility.

The rapid pace of change in 1943 once again affected Camp Peary’s mission as the Pacific became the primary area for Seabee operations, and in late-1944, Seabee training was moved once again back to Camp Endicott. The development of Camp Peary was then shaped by the rapid expansion of other armed service branches on American soil: In particular, the Wehrmacht and the Kreigsmarine. The first of what would ultimately be nearly 135,000 German and Italian prisoners of war began debarking at the Newport News Port of Embarkation in September 1942 for points west, but by the latter part of the war, it became clear that some German prisoners, the most virulent of the Nazis in American custody, needed to be removed from the more docile Deutsche POWs in Colorado and Nebraska to a more controlled environment. That place turned out to be Camp Peary, which had a detention area already in place, right next to its advanced training area, which had already proved valuable in extracting intelligence from captured U-boat crews, who were held in secret to prevent their superiors from knowing they had been captured.

As the number of German POWs being held in Virginia surged towards around 17,000 in 1945, a select 1,000 or so were being held at Camp Peary. As the war in Europe ground to a conclusion that spring, the number there and the nearby Chetham Annex doubled, and the camp authorities begrudgingly began allowing some of them to perform general labor outside the camp, as had become common at other POW camps across the Old Dominion.

After the end of the Second World War and subsequent repatriation of prisoners of war, perhaps for a time the future of Camp Peary as a government reservation was in doubt. But the passing of one war only set the stage for yet another. As many of the former operatives who wore the spear point of the wartime Office of Strategic Services on their uniforms took up their professions once again as civilians under the eagle and compass rose of the Central Intelligence Agency, they needed their own highly specialized recruit training facility; one that would impart many of the same specialized skills Camp Peary once provided the Seabees.




[1] As recorded in a Fifth Naval District listing of bases produced in 1943 and held in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum files. According to a history produced by the Navy’s Bureau of Yards and Docks in 1947, Camp Peary was officially established on November 4, 1942.