Gardner family traces secret behind death of WWII soldier
GARDNER – It was Nov. 26, 1943, and the men on the British troopship HMT Rohna shared a brief moment of relief as a second wave of bombing from the Germans ended. Then, sheer panic hit when a mysterious and powerful new German weapon struck the ship in the Mediterranean Sea, killing 300 GIs instantly and knocking out the electrical system, leaving those below deck in total darkness.
In the chaos that followed, many drowned as life vests failed. Some were killed in the resulting fire, and others tried to escape on lifeboats that were rusted to the ship or rotted. As the Rohna tipped, others clamored down rope ladders and cargo nets bloodied from slipping hands. Some became entangled in the nets and went down with the ship, others were terrified by the screams of those who were burned by oil in the water that caught fire. Then, German planes returned to fire at the men who were easy targets floating in the sea.
It was likened to the tragic attack on the USS Arizona and Pearl Harbor. Except the destruction of the Rohna was hidden by the U.S. War Department and wiped from history for half a century. The families of those lost on the ship were left hoping one day their loved ones would return home.
One of the men lost on the Rohna was Gardner native Cpl. Lawrence “Larry” Lukasevicius, said his nephew, James Kraskouskas of Princeton.
“We all knew that we had this uncle who died in WWII before any of us were born and we all had different information from our parents,” said Mr. Kraskouskas, who owns Anthony’s Liquor Mart in Gardner and is the family historian. “Any reference to his death was that he died on a troopship.
When Larry was killed in the Rohna disaster, it was classified top secret because of Hitler’s super weapons. The war department didn’t want the Germans to know how effective it was.”
The Rohna disaster became public after a survivor secured the release of documents under the Freedom of Information Act, according to history.com. With the growth of the internet, survivors began contacting each other and creating websites. The first reunion of Rohna survivors took place in 1993, history.com noted.
However, many families of those killed were still in the dark about what had happened. Mr. Kraskouskas said his family did not learn about their Uncle Larry until last year when he conducted a Google search for his name and found websites about the Rohna’s destruction.
The close-knit Lukasevicius family - four sisters and three brothers - lived on Conant Street in Gardner. Larry Lukasevicius was the youngest and a “hellion and a charmer,” according to the family.
Elizabeth Shepard, 72, of Georgetown, Mr. Lukasevicius’ niece, remembers family barbecues and watching out for each other.
“We had no money, but we didn’t know we were poor,” Ms. Shepard said. “My mother said her mother would make Uncle Larry’s sisters go with him and Joe on gigs as chaperones because he had quite a following of women. My mother would talk only of happy times and fun times. She didn’t believe he was dead, even though she received the letter (saying he was presumed dead).”
A neighbor’s grandmother received a similar letter, she said, then their loved one returned home.
“Once that happened, no one could change their mind Larry was not alive,” she said.
After the attack on the Rohna, five rescue ships attempted to save some of the men, but other ships following orders pushed through survivors in the water, killing some. Others drifted in strong currents beyond help, Mr. Kraskouskas said.
Hours after the ship sunk, the USS Pioneer rescued 606 of the 2,200 men on the Rohna. When the survivors lined up at camp in Africa for roll call, there was silence for 1,015 of the names called, he said.
The government also censored what information newspapers received about the attack, Mr. Kraskouskas said. The New York Times would uncover information months later and report on Feb. 18, 1944, that 1,000 men died in a submarine attack, but did not give the location or name of the ship.
Some families received telegrams that their loved ones were missing in action. Later, telegrams came that said they were presumed dead, their bodies unrecoverable. The entire ordeal was left out of books, movies and TV shows on World War II. Some believed it was a government cover-up, but more likely, it was bureaucratic ineptness as information about the attack was lost over the years, according to historians.
However, the families were not satisfied with the information the government was providing, including Mr. Lukasevicius’ family.
From 1943 until 1958, when the passenger train stopped going to Gardner, Mr. Lukasevicius’ mother would walk to the train station from her home on Conant Street to wait for her son to return home, Mr. Kraskouskas said, pausing to hold back tears.
“We all lived in disbelief that Larry had died because there was no return of his body,” Mr. Kraskouskas said. “When somebody dies in war, there is never closure. When there is no ceremony or funeral, you never believe that person died.”
The family remained hopeful over the years, Mr. Kraskouskas said. Mr. Lukasevicius’ sisters also believed that they had seen him one day in the audience of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” he said.
“There weren’t enough Saturdays,” Ms. Hakkinen said.
In 1992, while visiting the family’s funeral plot, Mr. Kraskouskas noted there was no veteran’s memorial stone for his Uncle Larry. When he questioned his Aunt Helen, he said she responded, “Larry’s not home, yet.”
“My mother gave the same answer,” Mr. Kraskouskas said. Though a stone was placed there in 1996, the fact that the family never really knew the fate of their Uncle Larry, and that he was never honored and recognized as someone who died for his country should, bothered Mr. Kraskouskas.
After his Google search turned up information about the Rohna, Mr. Kraskouskas contacted Arlington National Cemetery, which worked with him to set up a wreath-laying ceremony June 17 that will finally give his family some closure.
Ann Osterberg, 73, from Gardner, who plans to attend, said she is grateful to Mr. Kraskouskas for setting up the ceremony.
“I’m doing this for my mother because she loved her brother,” Ms. Osterberg said, pausing to regain composure. “I keep thinking about my mother sitting on the porch talking about her brother and how much she loved him. There was no Mass or funeral.”
Larry P. Lucas, 68, from Belchertown, a Vietnam veteran named after his uncle Lukasevicius, said the ceremony gives the family the opportunity to recognize his uncle’s sacrifice.
“It’s good to honor Larry and the sacrifice he gave,” Mr. Lucas said. “Folks told me during World War II there were very few houses in Gardner and there were lots of Gold Star mothers. Larry never got recognition. It is nice to honor him, especially at Arlington. He made the ultimate sacrifice.”