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Family preserving memory of World War II veterans’ heroics on sinking ship

When a German aerial bomb tore into the side of the HMT Rohna nearly 80 years ago, it sank that troop ship and took the lives of more than half the 2,000 men aboard.

But among those who survived what remains the largest loss of U.S. troops at sea due to an enemy action was Paul Gartner, an American soldier from Wyomissing and later Robesonia.

Though the attack on the British liner claimed 1,297 lives — including 1,050 U.S. personnel — Gartner was among the 606 who were rescued from the Mediterranean Sea and lived.

Few survivors told their stories, in part because the sinking was so horrific.

The U.S. government did not release full details until decades later, in part because the bomb that hit the ship was among the first of its type used against an Allied vessel.

Gartner, who was 22 while aboard the Rohna, also didn’t talk much about the war, either being too humble or traumatized by it, his family said.

Paul Gartner survived the sinking of the troop ship HMT Rohna in November 1943. (Courtesy of Don Gartner)
Paul Gartner survived the sinking of the troop ship HMT Rohna in November 1943. (Courtesy of Don Gartner)

But he kept a handwritten diary, took a lot of photos, kept his military documents and wrote a letter to his family. These combined to tell the story of how he survived the Rohna and of his service during the war.

This year his son Don Gartner, a Robesonia native, and his nephew Randy Gartner, a former Robesonia mayor who still lives in the borough, used those details and their own research to write a book they are still working on titled “Survivor to Lifesaver.”

They’re not sure yet what they’ll do with the book once they finish, and they aren’t looking to make money from it, they said. What is most important to them is that the Rohna sinking and Paul Gartner’s service are remembered and understood.

And now with the 80th anniversary approaching of the Nov. 26, 1943 sinking, they feel it’s a perfect time to teach others about the historic event and about the war in general.

“It was the largest U.S. naval disaster at sea, and we want to make sure people know about it,” said Randy, a Navy veteran.

“It’s quite a story,” said Don, a Pennsylvania National Guard veteran. “In writing this document, I am deeply humbled by all of the war veterans from any conflict that were put into harm’s way. I am very proud of my dad, and continue to be amazed by what he and all the brave soldiers of every war endured.”

Randy Gartner of Robesonia reads a diary entry made by his uncle Paul Gartner, who survived the sinking of the troop ship HMT Rohna in November 1943. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
Randy Gartner of Robesonia reads a diary entry made by his uncle Paul Gartner, who survived the sinking of the troop ship HMT Rohna in November 1943. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

Saved by swimming

Paul Gartner was born in Germany, his dad having served in the German army during World War I, before the family immigrated to America in 1925.

He grew up on Cleveland Avenue in Wyomissing, an athletic boy whose days learning to swim at the community pool would help save his life.

He was working as a machinist when Pearl Harbor was attacked, prompting him to enlist. He was trained as a medic and served in a mobile surgical unit that boarded the Rohna in North Africa, headed toward the Suez Canal.

The convoy was attacked by German planes, with the Rohna being the only ship taken down. When it sunk, two other men from Berks County were aboard and died — soldiers Frank J. Janiszewski of Fleetwood, a member of the 322nd Fighter Control Squad Army Air Corp, and John M. Gracely of Kutztown, a member of the 31st Signal Construction Corp.

Gartner slid down a rope into the sea just before the burning ship went under. He swam for what felt like miles, doing the breaststroke through the waves until he reached the minesweeper named the Pioneer, where he was hoisted on board.

He immediately got to work treating other injured men who’d been pulled from the water, an impressive feat considering he’d barely survived the attack himself, Randy said.

“His training kicked in,” he said.

Paul Gartner continued to serve in China, India and Burma, treating countless more troops near the front lines of the war. He earned four bronze stars for his valor, which his loved ones never knew until after he passed away.

Don Gartner, right, receives medals that his father, veteran and Berks Countian Paul Gartner, earned during World War II. Presenting them is congressional staff member Chad Gimmi. (PHOTO COURTESY OF DON GARTNER)

When the war ended so did his time in the Army, and he surprised his family by walking into their Wyomissing home on Christmas Eve, 1945, his service complete.

Horrors of war

Of all the details that Paul Gartner provided about the sinking in a letter to his parents, what jumps out most may be the realization it brought him and his fellow soldiers.

“I can say we never knew the horrors of war before this episode,” he said.

His family is thankful he shared those thoughts, helping them to know what he and his comrades went through.

Paul died in 1989 at the Lebanon VA Hospital at the age of 67, but his writings and paperwork will help to ensure his service to his country is not forgotten, Don said.

“The family was totally amazed by the forethought that our dad had in keeping this memorabilia and documents,” Don said. “It helped in accurately telling this amazing story. It provides us with a great sense of pride and thankfulness to our dad.

“Paul went from a German immigrant to a true American hero. To say the least, I am truly humbled to be Paul’s son.”

Source: Berkshire mont

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