Three native sons perish in WWII’s greatest loss of life at sea from enemy action

Article written by Stories Behind the Stars.

Although WWIl’s tragic sinkings of the USS Arizona and the USS Indianapolis are better known, the worst loss of US life at sea from enemy action was the sinking of the HMT Rohna by a German guided glide-bomb off Algeria on November 26, 1943. A total of 1,149 passengers and crew perished, including 1,050 US soldiers.

Volunteers from the non-profit Stories Behind the Stars (storiesbehindthestars.org) have written memorials honoring each of PA’s 104 soldiers who lost their lives in the HMT Rohna tragedy. Berks County was home to three of them: TEC5 John M. Gracely, PFC Frank J. Janiszewski, and TSGT Frank Vecchio.

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John Milton Gracely was born on September 25, 1918 in Mertztown, PA to John and Eva Gracely. He had a brother, Clarence. Gracely worked on the family farm. He enlisted in the Army on May 2, 1942 at New Cumberland, PA.

Frank James Janiszewski was born on November 6, 1921 in Fleetwood, PA to John and Katie Janiszewski. His siblings were John C, Catherine, Helen, and Julia. Janiszewski worked as a night watchman at Bowers Battery, Inc in Spring Valley, PA. He entered the Army Air Forces on November 3, 1942 at Allentown, PA.

Frank Vecchio was born on March 24, 1917 in Reading, PA to Domonic and Mary Vecchio. His siblings were Vencenzo and Sarah. Vecchio was an ornamental iron worker at the Reading Coal Shop in Reading. He entered the Army Air Forces on September 23, 1941 at New Cumberland, PA.

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Vecchio was assigned to the 853d Engineer Battalion, Aviation. The aviation battalion built heavy duty air bases and related facilities in forward areas. They were equipped with tractors, bulldozers, scrapers, and other construction equipment. Gracely was assigned to the 31st Signal Construction Battalion. Janiszewski probably was attached to a filler unit of the Air Corps.

In October 1943, the units transferred to the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation, Virginia and sailed to North Africa. Soon, they received orders for deployment to India to build B-29 bomber runways. On November 23, 1943, the 793 officers and men of the 853rd Engineer Battalion boarded the British troop transport HMT Rohna along with the 322nd Fighter Control Squadron, 31st Signal Construction Battalion, the 44th Portable Surgical Hospital and several other “filler” units. HMT Rohna sailed from Oran, Algeria on November 24 with four ships to join nineteen other ships in Convoy KMF-25A to Port Said, Egypt. In addition to Rohna’s crew of 195 British and Indian sailors, the transport carried 1,981 American troops and seven Red Cross personnel.

While sailing off the coast of Bougie, Algeria on November 26, Convoy KMF-25A was attacked by two waves of about thirty Luftwaffe Heinkel He-177A heavy bombers, escorted by Junkers Ju 88 fighters and torpedo bombers. The German attacks included forty-two Hs-293 radio-controlled rocket-boosted glide bombs. Forty-one of the German guided bombs failed to score a direct hit on their targets. The forty-second glide bomb hit the HMT Rohna directly above the water line penetrating the port side and blowing holes in the starboard side.

About 300 US Army troops died in the blast or never made it off the ship before it sank ninety minutes after impact. Of HMT Rohna’s twenty-two lifeboats, only eight could be launched. All but two quickly overloaded and sank. Most of the troops had to attempt survival by swimming in windswept, cold, rough seas in the gathering darkness.

Gracely, Janiszewski, and Vecchio were killed in action and lost at sea on November 27, 1943 when the troop ship HMT Rohna was attacked by German bombers and sank in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Bougie, Algeria. In the 853r Engineer Battalion, ten of thirty officers and 485 of 793 enlistees perished. The total US loss was 1,050. Of Rohna’s crew of 195, five British officers and 117 Indian sailors were lost. The minesweeper USS Pioneer (AM 105) located and rescued nearly 600 survivors. Tugboats and freighters in the area rescued over 300 more.

The tragedy of HMT Rohna was compounded by the shroud of secrecy imposed by the War Department that kept details of the sinking classified from the public and the fallen’s families for decades. Survivors faced the threat of court martial if they divulged information. Only sanctions under the Freedom of Information Act forced the US government to release its files in 1967.

Gracely, Janiszewski, and Vecchio were memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing, North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial, Carthage, Tunis, Tunisia. Each of the three was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.

Stories Behind the Stars memorials are accessible for free on the internet and via smart phone app at gravesites and cenotaphs. The non-profit organization is dedicated to honoring all 421,000 fallen Americans from World War II, including 31,000 from Pennsylvania. To volunteer or to get more information, contact Kathy Harmon at kharmon@storiesbehindthestars.org or visit storiesbehindthestars.org.

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Berks Weekly
Berks Weekly
Berks Weekly is an independent and locally owned digital newspaper covering the City of Reading and Berks County. Subscribe today: berksweekly.com/subscribe
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