31st Signal Construction Battalion

  Three of the men listed on this memorial, Frank Ballerino, Michael Carr, and Michael Yachus (spelled Yatzus on the monument) died together when the troop transport HST Rohna was struck by a German guided glider bomb and sank of the coast of North Africa. 1,015 men were lost, but the story was never told to the families or the general public for over 57 years due to wartime censorship.  All three had been stationed at Camp Atterbury.

Name Rank Organization Died
Frank Ballerino PVT 31st Signal Construction Bn  11/27/1943 
Michael Carr TEC5 31st Signal Construction Bn  11/27/1943 
Michael Yachus  PVT 31st Signal Construction Bn  11/27/1943

Remembering the HST Rohna

The HST Rohna, a British vessel carrying American troops, was hit by a German missile in 1943 off the coast of North Africa.  By Tom Brokaw NBC NEWS

Dec. 27 —
  Fifty-seven years ago, a ship went down off the coast of North Africa and the U.S. Army suffered it’s largest loss on the water of World War II. But most people have never heard of this tragedy. It’s been a deeply held secret until recently.

THE DAY AFTER Thanksgiving in 1943, the HMT Rohna, a British transport ship carrying American soldiers, was hit by a German-guided bomb and sank off the coast of North Africa.

       One thousand fifteen American troops died that afternoon. The memories haunt the survivors of the greatest loss at sea of U.S. personnel in World War II.

       “I was glancing over where the bomb had hit and where there had been soldiers there was just a pile of ashes,” said Al Stephanoni who had never learned to swim and fought to stay afloat. “There were bodies strewn here and there.”

       Bill Caskey lost his five closest friends.

       “A lot of them were yelling for their mothers, ‘Mama, mama,’” he said, “and a lot of them were yelling, praying.”

       The packed ship - almost 2,000 on board altogether — was part of a convoy bringing troops to Burma when 35 enemy aircraft attacked.

       Hitler’s arsenal included a secret weapon.

       “I saw this projectile coming toward us,” said survivor Bob Brewer. “It looked like a kamikaze-type thing happening, but of course it was a guided missile being controlled by the bombardier on the aircraft above.”   The blast tore truck-sized holes on both sides of the ship and knocked out the engine room. More than 300 men died instantly.

       Help did arrive - an incredible rescue effort under constant air attack. In 15-foot seas the USS Pioneer, a minesweeper, rescued 606 survivors.

       “Out of nowhere that ship could have risen from the deep sea,” said Stephanoni, “or fallen out of the sky and a sailor threw me a rope.”

       The Rohna’s sinking ranks as one of the worst maritime disasters in history, but wartime censorship blacked out the news.  “Hundreds never knew of their sons, their husbands, their brothers, their uncles,” said Brewer.

       Intended to prevent the Germans from knowing just how successful their guided bomb had been, the blackout kept the tragedy shrouded in secrecy for 57 years.

       “We are survivors,” Brewer said. “We lived to tell about it, to tell the public at large that it happened. A lot of people don’t believe it ever happened.”

       Brewer and other survivors mounted a crusade to remember the men on the Rohna.

       Finally, in October this year, Congress officially recognized the heroes of the Rohna, a tragedy in which 1,015 GIs lost their lives 57 years ago.

Courtesy of Phil Cohen, Camden NJ

Thank you very much for your very helpful website. I was able to find out what happened to a family member who lost his life 26 Nov 1943 as part of the 31st Signal Construction Battalion aboard HMS Rohna.

Although the soldier that my family lost was not an Indiana soldier, it was interesting to find your site since my brother was born at Camp Atterbury in 1952. I think that his father, Joseph Russell Cruciani, and probably also my grandfather on my mother's side, Col Roy F Blackmon, Signal Corps, were stationed there at the time.

Kim Baldacchino

Page last revised 07/05/2016
James D. West