Remembering Local WWII Heroes: Robert Rocktaschel, Harry Ryan


Tom Ryan was one of the top athletes at Gardner High School in the mid to late 1950s. He was quarterback and co-captain of the undefeated 1958 champion football team. In the winter he was an outstanding basketball player , then on the field a good infielder with the baseball team.

However, what many people didn’t know about this Wildcat Hall of Famer was that he grew up without a father. Throughout his athletic exploits, there has never been this presence in the stands proudly watching a son play for the local high school team.

In 1944, when Tom Ryan was just 2 years old, his father, Harry Ryan, died during World War II when the warship he was on board, the USS Spence, sank in a typhoon from Peaceful. His mother, the former June Maroni, came from a large Athol family who were well-known proprietors in the city of Maroni’s Cafe.

“Unfortunately, what I will learn later is that Harry Ryan could not swim,” noted his son, Tom. “The stories I heard about my dad were that people loved him. My Uncle Joe told me everyone loved Harry Ryan.

Tom Ryan would spend his early years in Athol before his mother remarried Arthur Gallien, who would later operate Sunrise Donuts on West Street, and they moved to Gardner.

His story was just another unique tale in the sequel to the Remembering Local World War II Heroes series.

Lieutenant Robert M. Rocktaschel (1917-1944)

Robert M. Rocktaschel was born in Worcester on October 28, 1917, the son of Hugo and Laura (Miles) Rocktaschel. His father was from Fitchburg and well known for his work with the New England Power Association.

Robert M. Rocktaschel

Rocktaschel attended Wellesley High School, then enrolled at Northeastern University.

When Rocktaschel was 17, his father suffered a heart attack as he left a restaurant in Boston and died on arrival at Boston City Hospital at the age of 44.

In 1940 Rocktaschel was on the Gardner Electric Co. payroll and lived in the city at 47 Lincoln St. He would enter naval service August 10, 1940 in Boston and received an ensign order in March 1941 at Chicago, Ill. He was sent to the Pacific in April 1941.

Rocktaschel was present during the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He then took part in the Mariana Islands campaign in the Philippine Sea, as well as the Leyte and Luzon campaigns in the Philippines.

Rocktaschel, now a lieutenant, was killed on November 8, 1944, when his plane crashed while on a reconnaissance flight from the USS West Virginia in Leyte Gulf.

He is enshrined in the Manila American Cemetery Memorial in the Philippines. There is also a stone on the family plot of Hope Cemetery in Worcester.

Among his decorations were the US Defense Ribbon with Fleet Clasp and Stars of Commitment, the Asia-Pacific Zone Ribbon with two Stars of Commitment, the US Zone Ribbon and the Second World Victory Medal. World War.

The Navy destroyer USS Spence is shown in the waters near Boston on March 25, 1943.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Harry J. Ryan (1918-1944)

Harry John Ryan was born in Gardner on September 1, 1918, the son of John T. and Florence (Allard) Ryan. He attended Sacred Heart School, Gardner High School and later Worcester Boys Trade School. He lived at 15 Limerick St. while his father was employed by B&M Railroad.

Harry J. Ryan

After high school, Ryan worked as a driver’s aide in Fitchburg. On June 21, 1941, he married the former June Maroni of Athol. After living in Gardner for a year, the couple moved to Hapgood Street in Athol. He worked at June’s family business, Maroni’s Cafe in Athol. Their son Thomas P. Ryan was born the following year.

Ryan entered naval service in Boston on November 5, 1942, and was assigned to Naval Training Station Great Lakes, Illinois for start-up training. As Machinist Third Class, Ryan was assigned to the newly commissioned Fletcher-class destroyer USS Spence. The ship left in March 1943, carrying out a trial in Cuba before being sent to the Pacific combat zone.

In total, Ryan served on the Spence in engagements off Casablanca in the North Africa region, and also saw campaigns in the Solomon Islands, off Saipan and Guam in the Mariana Islands, in Biak off Papua New Guinea and the Marshall Islands. He also saw action in Leyte in the Philippines and Truk in the Caroline Islands.

After 16 months aboard the Spence, the ship arrived in San Francisco on August 18, 1944. While docked, Ryan returned home to Athol to see his wife and 2-year-old son.

At home, he gave an interview to a reporter from the Athol Daily News recounting a mass suicide he had witnessed of five Japanese soldiers who had survived a bomber crash in the water. Aboard the life raft, they watched as Ryan’s ship moved towards them. Not wanting to be captured, the officer in charge placed a machine gun muzzle into the mouths of his other four men, killing them before turning the gun on himself.

When the leave was over, Ryan returned to California and this time the Spence was sent to Ulithi, an atoll in the Caroline Islands in the western Pacific. Later he launched attacks against Luzon in the Philippines in November and early December.

On December 17, 1944, the ship prepared to refuel and pump excess salt water from her tanks, but rough seas prevented refueling from occurring.

The next day, the weather deteriorated as the storm turned into a typhoon. When the ship began to take in large amounts of seawater, the equipment got wet. Suddenly all the lights went out and the pumps stopped. After the rudder jammed, the vessel began a deep roll to port when a crushing wave hit the Spence and it began to capsize.

A total of 315 lives were lost when the Spence, along with two sister destroyers, were sunk in the Pacific storm called Typhoon Cobra. Only 24 crew members survived.

Unfortunately, Ryan, who could not swim, sank with the ship and was lost at sea on December 18, 1944, at the age of 26.

He is listed in the memorial lists at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.

Among Ryan’s decorations were the Asia Pacific Ribbon with six service stars, the Presidential Unit Citation and the World War II Victory Medal.

His wife, June, later remarried to Arthur Gallien, and together they had three more children, John, Martha and Joseph Gallien.

Comments and suggestions for Remembering Local World War II Heroes can be sent to Mike Richard at [email protected] or in writing to Mike Richard, 92 Boardley Road, Sandwich, MA 02563.

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