In March 1921, Maj. John G. Thornell and his crew were detailed to Italy to procure a new experimental airship for the U.S. Army Air Service that was to be stationed out of Langley Field, Virginia. With the enthusiastic support of the U.S. Congress to highlight not only lighter-than-air development, but also our continued friendship with the Italian crown, ROMA was celebrated as the shining gem of America’s dirigible fleet. However, fraught with troubles, ROMA never lived up to expectations. On February 21, 1922, she barreled towards the ground and exploded in an incredible conflagration, claiming the lives of the majority of the officers, crew, and civilians on board. This was the single deadliest disaster of a U.S. hydrogen airship. Congress waged an extensive investigation to find out what happened to ROMA and how it could prevent another disaster of its kind. But with anger raging towards the unnecessary loss of life, Congress was unfairly vilified in the aftermath. Once the investigation concluded, the War Department buried the stories of ROMA and her crew, leaving their memory and sacrifice in the line of duty virtually erased from history.
Author & historian Nancy E. Sheppard is a two-time award nominated non-fiction author, historian, and public speaker based out of southeastern Virginia. She has devoted her career to telling the forgotten tales of her home region as well as those in military history. Aside from her work as an author and historian, she is the editor-in-chief and photojournalist for the Yorktown Crier-Poquoson Post and serves as a voting member of the York County Historical Committee.