SEATAC, Wash. – Ludger Dochtermann was uncomfortable as he scanned the room full of retired World War II veterans gathered for a memorial anniversary.
They were there to remember the 1,149 soldiers who died in 1943 when the British ship HMT Rohna sank following an attack by German bomber pilots. Dochtermann, a fisherman from Kodiak, Alaska, was there to apologize because his father had led the onslaught.
With tears rolling down his face, 64-year-old Dochtermann spoke to each of the 140 survivors and family members of those lost in one of the worst-ever U.S. maritime tragedies.
“I stand here because I want to apologize,” he told a handful of veterans who gathered around him Saturday at the 10th reunion of the Rohna Survivors Memorial Association.
The Rohna was a converted British cargo ship that had been in the Mediterranean Sea, off Oran, Algeria, and heading toward the Suez Canal when it was attacked the day after Thanksgiving 1943. Bound for Bombay, India, it carried 2,000 troops – mostly American soldiers.
Dochtermann’s father, Hans Dochtermann, led the dozens of bombers. He put his plane in position before a comrade launched a guided missile that hit the Rohna’s engine room.
It was the world’s first “smart bomb,” and details of the devastation it caused were closely guarded by the U.S. government. Those who survived were told the events were classified. Many never spoke of the tragedy again.
Ludger Dochtermann, who emigrated from Germany to Olympia in 1961, said his father didn’t learn of the extent of devastation to the Rohna until 1995 when historian Carlton Jackson interviewed him in southern Germany for his book, “Forgotten Tragedy.”
The younger Dochtermann was ashamed of his father’s role in the attack. Before his death in July 1999, Hans Dochtermann told his family he too felt guilty for the devastation he brought to so many lives, his son said.
The attack was the second-worst U.S. naval disaster of World War II, after the sinking of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
In 2000, then-U.S. Rep. Jack Metcalf, R-Langley, successfully lobbied for a resolution to acknowledge the tragedy and to honor the men who died.
On Saturday, veterans shook hands with Dochtermann and accepted his apology.
“I want to let him know there (are) no hard feelings,” said Gus Gikas, 84, of San Antonio, who was on lookout duty in 1943 when he spotted the German bombers.
“It is time to move on. You don’t hold a grudge that long. There is nothing to be gained. Life is too short.”
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