By Mark Fialla
This is the story of my father, Anthony R. “Tony” Fialla, a hometown hero who served in the Navy when he was just 16 years old.
It was 1943. Tony Fialla and Anna Rohaly were high school sweethearts living in Greenfield. Tony grew up on Stanley Street and Anna grew up on Lydia Street, where her father ran a store.
WWII had been raging for nearly four years. At 16, Tony was eager for adventure and to serve his country, so he dropped out of high school and headed to the local recruitment office. He told them he was 17, which was old enough to enlist with a parent’s approval. His dad was in on the plan, and Tony signed on with the Navy.
Tony called Anna at the store to tell her he was shipping out that same day. She thought he was kidding and hung up, only to find out the next morning that he really was gone.
Into the action
Tony attended boot camp with two other Pittsburghers, Clyde Christner and Frank Buzzanell. The three were stationed on the S.S. William W. Gerhard – one of the roughly 2,700 Liberty ships. They left New York City on June 13, 1943, with a convoy of 68 other vessels bound for Oran, Algeria. Nine days later on June 22, the convoy made its first contact with the enemy. Tony and his crewmates felt the reverberations of a nearby French tanker being hit, not realizing what was happening until the ship suddenly began to sink before their eyes. Within 10 minutes, the tanker had gone under. Battle stations were called, and the convoy changed course. As one Lt. Coleman would recount later in the voyage report, “It all happened very much as a dream.”
Having made it safely to Algeria, the Gerhard set sail again on July 28, this time bound for Palermo, Sicily, carrying 300 U.S. Army troops as well as vehicles, bombs and gasoline at the bottom of the holds. On Aug. 1, they arrived safely in the harbor, when flares started suddenly dropping all around. Dive bombers appeared seemingly out of nowhere and a small English coaster right next to the Gerhard was hit.
On the starboard side, another ship was hit, along with two rams on the pier holding 20 freight cars loaded with ammunition. Tony and the other gunners fired at the bomber as it swooped overhead – then they watched as the plane crashed into flames against a mountain about two miles to the north. Bombs continued to drop over the harbor and the crew was ordered to take cover as the captain attempted to maneuver around sunken ships to get the Gerhard and its men safely out of the harbor. Shells rained down, destroying a lifeboat and setting fire to some cots, but luckily the fires were put out. Two men were evacuated with deep shrapnel wounds, but all in all the men of the Gerhard, including Tony, were lucky to still be alive.
Three days later, on Aug. 4, the Gerhard was attacked again from the air – bombs dropping just 75 yards off the stern. Once again, though, the ship and its crew were largely unscathed.
Two days later, they set sail again, headed back to Algeria.
Aug. 13 brought another attack. Roughly 20 torpedo bombers swooped down from the Spanish coast. Tony, Clyde, Frank and other gunners from across the convoy steadily fired, taking down at least four of the planes while the captain zig-zagged the ship to avoid torpedo fire. When it was all over, another lucky day with only two men lightly wounded.
The next month was relatively quiet until Sept. 21, when the Gerhard was sailing from Casablanca, headed once again for Salerno. As planes were heard flying low over the convoy, battle stations were called.
The Gerhard's luck gave out
A German submarine hit the Gerhard with two torpedoes directly in the bow below the gun turret, where Tony, Clyde and Frank were stationed – throwing them high in the air. Tony was left unconscious on the deck with injuries to the head and leg.
Smoke was pouring out of the hold and before the captain even had the chance to order the crew to abandon ship, there was a mad rush for the lifeboats. Once in the boats, the captain did a head count and headed back on board to look for the wounded. Tony, still unconscious, was assumed dead. The lifeboat passengers and the commanding officer were picked up by a U.S. Navy tug. In the meantime, the fire on the Gerhard became uncontrollable, having reached the gasoline and ammunition in the hold. The ship continued to burn and blow up all night. When Tony regained consciousness, he realized the ship was sinking and knew he had no choice but to grab a life vest and jump into the Mediterranean Sea. He floated for one and a half days waiting to be rescued, wondering at times if he should just let himself drown.
Finally, he was discovered by a British freighter. But, with nothing but his word to confirm that he was truly an American and not an Axis spy, the British took no chances – keeping him in the brig for three days until he was identified as a U.S. Navy sailor. He was then transported to Algiers and the rest of the Gerhard crew.
After that, Tony was sent to Florida to recover before being shipped out again to serve on another Liberty ship – this time the USS Teal. Tony then served in the Pacific on two more ships, before finally coming home to Greenfield, where he married his sweet Anna and joined the reserves, for a total lifetime service of 43 years.
Eventually, Tony and Anna bought a house on Coyne Terrace, where they raised me and my sister Carol.
We are so proud of my dad and it’s an honor to share his story today.
Mark Fialla lives in Greenfield and organized the display of veterans’ banners on Greenfield Avenue in honor of his father.