Louis Joseph Rovella
Born: June 5, 1923
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Service: Merchant Marine
Position / Rank: Engine Cadet
Date / Place of death: October 7, 1942 / Indian Ocean
Date / Place of burial: October 7, 1942 / Indian Ocean –
Lost at Sea
Louis Rovella signed on as Engine Cadet aboard the MS Firethorn on September 6,
1942 at the Port of New York. He was joined by Cadet-Midshipman Robert Nauman
who signed on as Deck Cadet. The ship was crewed with 40 foreign merchant
mariners and 21 Armed Guard Sailors. Cadet-Midshipmen Louis Rovella and Robert
Nauman were the only American merchant mariners in the ship’s crew. When the ship
sailed it was loaded with a cargo of general war supplies and a deck cargo of tanks.
The MS Firethorn was originally a Danish vessel, the Norden, that had been
requisitioned by Presidential Executive Order on July 12, 1941. Now owned by the War
Shipping Administration it was registered in Panama and bareboat chartered to United
States Lines. On February 26, 1942 the ship began operation by U.S. Lines under a
General Agency Agreement.
On October 7th, the Firethorn was passing about 60 miles northwest of Cape Town, en
route from New York to Suez, Egypt. Traveling at about 12 knots, she was zigzagging
under overcast skies. At approximately 0830, two torpedoes launched by U-172 struck
the vessel in quick succession. The first torpedo hit the ship on the port side at the
Number 3 hatch, tearing open the hull and exploding on contact. The second struck the
engine room on the port side, penetrating the hull before exploding. The ship sank in
less than 90 seconds.
The crew had no time to launch the lifeboats, but the rafts floated free as the vessel
went down, undoubtedly saving those crew members who had survived the initial
explosions. Of the 61 men aboard the Firethorn the Captain, eight merchant seamen,
two Armed Guard Sailors and Cadet-Midshipmen Rovella and Nauman were lost.
Survivors collected on four rafts, and in one boat that had floated free of the sinking
ship. The rafts were lashed together and remained in the vicinity of the sinking, while
six men manned the boat and made for the coast of South Africa. The survivors on the
boat were picked up by the HMS Rockrose (K 51) on October 8. The following day, the
Rockrose picked up the survivors on the rafts. All were taken to Cape Town.
Sadly, many of the survivors of the Firethorn were later placed on the MS Zaandam for
repatriation to the United States. This vessel was sunk on November 2, 1942 about
400 miles north of the coast of Brazil. Six Navy gunners and 2 of the merchant crew
who had survived the sinking of the Firethorn were lost in the sinking of the Zaandam.
Cadet-Midshipman Louis J. Rovella was posthumously awarded the Mariners Medal,
Combat bar with star, the Atlantic War Zone Bar, the Victory Medal, and the
Presidential Testimonial Letter.
Louis J. Rovella was the only son and youngest child of Santo Rovella and Maria
Curcio Rovella. His older sister was Mary. According to the 1940 U.S. Census, Santo
Rovella was a mechanic for the Philadelphia Street Car (Traction) Company. Merchant
Marine Academy Records show that Louis Rovella reported to Kings Point on the
evening of April 23, 1942. However, Louis Rovella was no stranger to the sea as the
Rovella family traveled from the United States to Naples, Italy and back in 1930 aboard
the SS Vulcania.
Photo of SS Firethorn (ex-Norden)