Corporal Howard E. Olson
Town of Plymouth, Juneau Co., WI
Submitted by Jackie Martin Hufschmid
Most Americans have never heard of the HMT Rohna and what happened on that fateful day of November 26, 1943. One Juneau County serviceman was a passenger on this British transport ship – Corporal Howard Edmund Olson. Howard E. Olson was born in the town of Plymouth on June 13, 1909, to Knute and Liv (Johnson) Olson. On May 19, 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force and was proudly serving his country with the 322nd Fighter Control Squadron.
On November 25, 1943 at Oran, Algeria, Howard boarded the Rohna headed for the China-Burma-India theater. Destination was Port Said, Egypt. There was a crew of 195, along with 1,981 American troops and 7 Red Cross personnel. The Rohna sailed along with four other ships and joined a convoy that same day; she was the second ship in the port column, for a total of 24 ships. The following day the USS Pioneer joined the convoy. According to 2nd Officer Wills of the Rohna, there were no warnings of enemy aircraft received.
Before dawn on November 27th a German HS293 glider bomb was dropped by a Henkel 177 bomber which hit the Rohna. The device blew open a huge hole near the after end of the engine room and the No. 6 troop’s deck. Hundreds died upon impact. After the explosion that destroyed the Engine Room, the ship was engulfed in flames and started to sink. It was impossible to lower the lifeboats on the portside due to the side plates forced outwards by the explosion. Many of the lifeboats on the starboard side were lowered but were soon capsized because of the hundreds of troops that were already in the water and trying to climb into them. Others perished from cold and exhaustion while darkness and rough seas hampered rescue efforts. A total of 1,015 American troops, 3 Red Cross personnel, and 120 crewmen perished.
Stories were told of desertion of the Indian crew, equipment failures, and the deplorable condition of the lifeboats and rafts. Then there were the cold waters of the Mediterranean Sea, the darkness and the heavy seas, which made the rescue operations difficult. The United States, British, and French rescue ships worked courageously to save the passengers and crew who made it off the Rohna. One U.S. ship, the USS Pioneer, picked up 606 survivors. The HMT Rohna was the first transport ship carrying U.S. troops to be sunk during World War II. Also, two important but unknown historical events occurred at that time. It was the first successful “hit” of a merchant vessel at-sea carrying US troops by a German remote-controlled, rocket-boosted bomb, and it resulted in the greatest loss of troops at sea in U.S. history.
It was so devastating 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 released under pressure of the Freedom of Information Act. In January of 1944 Howard’s family received word from the War Department that on November 26, 1943, he was missing while a passenger on a Allied troop ship en route to India. No other details were given. So many other families received the same message. Howard’s squadron continued on to India and then to China where they were based at Kunming assigned to the 14th U.S. Air Force, also known as the “Flying Tigers.” Howard is listed on the Tablets of the Missing at the North Africa American Cemetery at Carthage, Tunisia. He was awarded the Purple Heart posthumously.
Howard’s obituary, dated May 4, 1944, is as follows: MEMORIAL SERVICES HELD FOR CORP. HOWARD OLSON Memorial services were held April 30, at East Lemonweir church for Corporal Howard Edmund Olson. Corp. Olson was reported by the War Dept. as missing November 26, 1943 when an Allied troop ship on which he was a passenger was sunk as a result of enemy action. Born June 13, 1909 in the town of Plymouth, Howard was a son of Knute and Liv Olson, both deceased. He was baptized and confirmed in the East Lemonweir church. Before entering the military service on May 19, 1942, he made his home on the Mrs. Knute Johnson farm, where he had employment. Surviving Corp. Olson are his wife Una Mae; three children, Glenn, Allen and Doris who make their home with relatives at Elroy; and a brother, Maurice Olson of Racine.