William Tilton Eastlack (1922-1943)
Technician Fourth Class William Tilton Eastlack was born in 1922 in Swedesboro, New Jersey, the son of George Ashton Eastlack and his wife Minnie E. Madkiff. He was with his parents in the 1930 census, identified as ‘Billie’. He enlisted in 1942 and joined the 31st Signal Construction Battalion. Sincerest thanks to Bobby Lykins Jr for sharing the photo of this young soldier.
Although it took many years for the circumstances of William’s death to be made public, it turns out that he died along with over 1015 American servicemen, another 120 crewmen and 11 others when the British troop carrier HMS Rohna came under enemy attack and sank off the coast of North Africa. It was the greatest loss of life at sea in the history of the United States, even more than the sinking of USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. The ship had been travelling from Oran, Algeria to the China-Burma-India Theatre. About 35 German bombers attacked the convoy, HMS Rohna falling victim to one of the earliest uses of guided missiles released from bombers in maritime warfare history.
To avoid informing the enemy as to how successful their new missile had been, the War Department suppressed the details of the disaster until Freedom of Information actions in the 1990s resulted in the story’s release. Many of the soldiers’ families had only been told that their loved ones were missing in action and William’s memorial at the American Battle Monuments Commission reads ‘Missing in Action or Buried at Sea’. Finally, in the year 2000, Congress passed a resolution honoring the many victims of the disaster. Congressman Jack Metcalf, the sponsor of the resolution, said:
The men who gave their lives for their country on board this ship were heroes who deserve to be recognized and not forgotten. All Americans need to learn of their bravery and sacrifice.
William was awarded the Purple Heart and is memorialised on the Tablets of the Missing at the North Africa American Cemetery at Carthage, Tunisia. His adopted brother, Private First Class Robert Eastlack, lost his life in the Korean Conflict and is buried with William and their parents.
James E. Bennett, The Rohna Disaster, (1999), accessed at Amazon, https://www.amazon.co.uk/, [accessed 26 Jun 2016].
’31st Signal Construction Battalion’, Indiana Military Organization, http://www.indianamilitary.org/Camp%20Atterbury/Unit/31stSignalConstBn/31stSignalConstBn.htm, [accessed 26 Jun 2016].
‘William T. Eastlack’, American Battle Monuments Commission, https://www.abmc.gov/node/391518#.V3BCi7h97IU, [accessed 26 Jun 2016].
William Tilton Eastlack, with the kind permission of Bobby Lykins Jr, WikiTree, http://www.wikitree.com/genealogy/Eastlack-Photos-29, [accessed 26 Jun 2016].
HMS Rohna: ‘A Calamity at Sea’, History in the Headlines, http://www.history.com/news/a-calamity-at-sea-70-years-ago, [accessed 26 Jun 2016].
North Africa American Cemetery: © Courtesy of Ben Savelkoul, http://www.bensavelkoul.nl/index.html, [accessed 26 Jun 2016].