South River resident creates documentary uncovering HMT Rohna attack

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SOUTH RIVER–Over 75 years ago, a German radio-guided missile hit the HMT Rohna transport ship, killing 1,015 United States Army soldiers, including South River resident Sgt. Joseph Pisinski.

Today, resident and filmmaker Jack Ballo is co-producing “Rohna: Classified,” a documentary that will tell the story of the nation’s largest loss of troops at sea by enemy action. The documentary will educate viewers about the life of Pisinski before his untimely death.

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Ballo, who is also directing and writing the upcoming documentary, said the film will further examine why the HMT Rohna attack remained unknown to the public for decades.

For 10 years, Ballo said he has lived in the borough with his wife, who is a member of the Pisinski family, in a house her family has owned for more than 100 years.

While combing through the attic one day, Ballo said, “I came across 23 letters that were written from Pvt. Joseph Pisinski and they were dated in 1942. They were sent home to his mother while he was in training and what I ended up doing was when I started reading these I was so moved by them. … When you start reading these [letters] you really get to know who Pisinski was.”

Reading some of Pisinski’s letters, Ballo said he learned that Pisinski felt very lonely during his training and missed his family, as well as his wife Martha.

Ballo said he found out that Pisinski and Martha were married on Nov. 1, 1942, and after their honeymoon, he went on Nov. 5, 1942, to start his basic training. He arrived at Fort Dix and moved to Camp Atterbury in Indiana on Nov. 10, 1942, and joined the 31st Singal Construction Battalion Company A.

In letters addressed to his mother, Ballo said Pisinski wrote that he was learning about electricity, electrical wiring and got involved in telephone lines. Eventually, Martha came to live with Pisinski on the army base.

Ballo said Pisinki had an older sister Pauline “Nursie” Pisinski who was a U.S. Army nurse during World War II.

“She probably never talked about him to anybody and she never talked about him to anyone in the family. As we know, most people who served in World War II did not talk about the war [because] it was too painful,” Ballo said. “She was the perfect example, she never spoke about [her brother] or what happened to him.”

On Nov. 26, 1943, Ballo said the British transport ship HMT Rohna, sailing on the Mediterranean Sea, was hit by a German radio-guided missile, killing 1,015 soldiers. Only 966 men survived the attack. Pisinski was one of the soldiers who was killed.

Once the missile was launched, hitting the side of the Rohna ship, Ballo said the missile went right into the engine room, killing 300 men on impact. It immediately started a fire, all the lights went out, and there was a tremendous amount of damage.

“Somewhere along the lines, Pisinski went from Company A to Company B and the day that they were loading onto the HMT Rohna … Company A was ordered off the ship because it was overcrowded. Company B stayed there. So he would have made it,” Ballo said.

Ballo said after reading “Rohna Memories” book, which was written by Michael Walsh, he learned about the attack and the connection to Pisinski’s death.

Over the past 15-20 years, Ballo said survivors have gathered every year at a reunion held by the Rohna Survivors Memorial Association.

Since Walsh had written two books about the HMT Rohna and interviewed several of the veterans, Ballo said he met Walsh at one of the reunions and they became close friends. Walsh is a co-producer and story consultant for the film.

“One of the things that are on [the association’s] page, on which it says ‘two important but virtually unknown historical events occurred at that time. … It was the greatest loss of troops at sea by enemy action in the history of U.S. war, 1,015 died that day,'” Ballo said. “It was [also] the first time a radio-guided missile was ever launched against the U.S. so there was all this new technology as well.”

Ballo said they started a Kickstarter campaign and raised $20,000 to start the film project. He said he expects the film to be completed in late 2020.

Through his research, Ballo said he learned that Austrian scientist Herbert Wagner designed the radio-guided missile and that German bomber pilot Hans Dochtermann was the one who launched the missile that killed the soldiers aboard the HMT Rohna.

Decades later, Ballo said Dochtermann asked his grandson to speak on his behalf to express his deep remorse for what had been.

Erased from history, Ballo said the U.S. War Department classified the attack and ordered the survivors to remain silent. Six months later, Pisinski’s mother received a telegram saying that he died and that “no information was available.”

“What the war department did was classify it immediately and there were two reasons. One was to keep the enemy from knowing how successful the attack was,” Ballo said. “The other reason was to keep morale, [because] reading the headline in the newspapers that 1,000 soldiers were killed in an attack was not good for the people at home or for the armed forces.”

On Jan. 1, 1944, Ballo said the department sent Pisinski’s mother a telegraph saying that he was “missing in action.” Then, on May 23, 1944, she gets a telegraph that her son died on Nov. 27, 1943, and that there is “no information available.”

“From Jan. 1 to May 23, she’s thinking that there is a possibility that her son is alive because he’s missing, but there [were] a thousand … mothers sitting at home from Jan. 1 to May 23, sitting next to their telephones, staring at the door, [and] pacing the floor,” Ballo said. “They would go out to train stations and sit there watching the soldiers come off hoping their son would come off … with all this hope that their sons were still alive.”

Ballo said there were three major problems with the HMT Rohna ship which contributed to more soldiers dying after the attack.

“One of the problems was that the lifeboats were inoperable due to the lifeboats being chained up and rusted. Secondly, the ship’s crew abandoned the ship and did not help any of the soldiers,” Ballo said. “Thirdly, rescuing the soldiers was difficult because the escort ships, which were there to help guide and guard the Rohna, was not designed to pull people out of water because it was up too high, so many soldiers were left in the water for six to 10 hours and died.”

With information about the attack recently made available to the public, Ballo said the documentary will try to answer the question regarding why the attack was left declassified for decades.

“What I believe happened is that historians, they deal with the facts of the records and they don’t look at the personal stuff,” Ballo said. “See, I look at it from Joseph Pisinski’s mother’s view and I realized that there were about 1,000 mothers out there and that there is no way that these 1,000 families let the war department forget this.”

Ballo said experts believe that the information about the attack was not intentionally hidden, but instead a government mistake.

“Someone had said to me, ‘Back then parents accepted what they were told, they just accepted authority, they accepted these letters and maybe they didn’t get all crazy like I think they would today,” Ballo said. “That is why this documentary is going to be showing both sides.”

How the story of the HMT Rohna attack got out into the public, Ballo said, was because of survivor John Fievet, who in his 70s decided to start talking about the attack so that the families who lost their loved ones would finally learn the truth.

Ballo said Fievet sent the story to reporter Jay Reeves in 1993, and from there radio host Charles Osgood saw the story and talked about it on the radio. Hence, more people learned about their family and survivors started talking.

The documentary should be released in late 2020. For more information about “Rohna: Classified,” visit www.rohnaclassified.com.

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.

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