My father, Anthony Pumelia was a Rohna survivor. We accompanied my father to his first reunion in Oklahoma City in 2003. We were not aware that there was a Rohna Survivors Memorial Association until 2002 when we actually located my father’s friend, John Messina in California who was also a survivor. They actually jumped overboard together and luckily survived. Oklahoma City was to be THEIR first reunion in 60 years in addition to coming together with others who survived. This occasion for him was met with lots of mixed feelings. One thing for sure though, was that this first reunion gave him validation. He had shared this tragic day with so many other military personnel who lived to tell their story, but also lived with the guilt that they had survived while so many others had not.
The following year 2004, was a particularly poignant reunion. Held in Washington DC. in conjunction with the dedication of the WWII Memorial this reunion was an especially moving event for him. This was to be his second and last reunion and somehow the family knew that this gave him a sense of closure. My father died in September of that year, only four months later.
I continued to keep in touch with members of the Rohna Association but I was unable emotionally to attend a reunion without my father. During those years I continued to receive the newsletter and occasionally e-mailed members. Finally, in 2012 I returned to my first reunion in 8 years which was held in Las Vegas. This was a turning point for me. I realized that what happened to my dad and so many others on that day was part of something that was so much bigger than me. I needed to keep adding my voice to let others know how important it was to keep the memory alive of those who lost their lives or survived on that November day in 1943.
The Rohna Survivors Memorial Association has few survivor members who attend reunions. As we all know, most WWII veterans who are still alive are in their 90s. This is why family and friends are so instrumental in getting the Rohna message out. It is understandable when families drop out once their loved one has passed on. This is, of course what I went through for eight years. I particularly knew that I was now a permanent life time member of the Rohna family when I entered the Hospitality Room in Las Vegas. The memorabilia that was displayed as well as some pictures that I brought of my dad gave me that sense of belonging.
Even though the sinking of the Rohna had remained an allied secret for so many years it never ceases to amaze me how many families around the United States finally find out about the Rohna simply because they found a trunk, box or suitcase in someone’s attic or basement containing news clippings or letters pertaining to the Rohna tragedy. Three years ago in Omaha, we were lucky enough to meet the great nephew of someone who had survived the Rohna. A large steamer trunk was left to this young man. It had not been opened in years. The trunk contained his uncle’s uniform and medals from WWII AND many news articles and letters pertaining to the Rohna. His uncle never spoke about it! Two years ago I met a first time attendee whose father had survived. He brought with him a scrapbook of pictures of his father during the war taken in India and China. These pictures looked VERY familiar to me. We suddenly realized that we both had scrapbooks of the same pictures. Our fathers served together and knew each other well. How’s that for coincidence?
As the Rohna reunion grows closer to its 74th anniversary in Indianapolis I am again reminded of how important it is to keep our message alive. If you are reading this newsletter now, will we see you in Indianapolis???? Maybe you will even be a first time attendee who has been reading the newsletter for years and finally wants to know more about and share with others an important piece of America’s history that was kept a secret for so long. Or, maybe you’re just like me… if so… welcome back!!!!!!