"Where the Fleet Goes,
We've Been"

“A people who do not honor the deeds of their worthy dead will do nothing worthy of being honored by their descendants. - Macaulay

Harry Calvin Sonner

Harry SonnerThe youngest son of Joseph Omar Sonner and Sarah Catherine Byers Sonner, was born on October 2, 1924 in Trafford, Pennsylvania. Harry was a freshman at Penn Township High School when WWII broke out and made a decision to join the service. However, he was required to have his parents’ signature because he was only seventeen years old at the time. Harry’s parents refused but, his persistence paid off and they eventually agreed to travel to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to sign for him on January 25, 1942. He was sworn in and two days later was on his way to Newport, Rhode Island for three weeks of boot camp. He was then transferred to Jacksonville, Florida and later to Little Creek, Virginia where he waited for his ship assignment. While he was in Virginia he was educated in minesweepers and then assigned to the AMC 69, an auxiliary coastal minesweeper, for one week. He then transferred to the U.S.S. YMS 63, a yard minesweeper, in Charleston, South Carolina as a seaman. He was sent to the Mediterranean as a part of the Sicilian invasion. Harry was a signalman striker on the YMS 63 until he was sent back to advanced training in Miami, Florida. On January 23, 1944 he went aboard at the Philadelphia Navy Yard as a plank member on the U.S.S. Swerve. The ship was fitted and performed sea trials before being sent to the Tyrrhenian Sea. On the Swerve Harry performed mail clerk as well as signalman third class duties.

On July 9, 1944 at 12:59 the U.S.S. Swerve hit a contact mine sixteen miles off the coast of Anzio, Italy. At the exact time of the explosion Harry was hauling down the flag hoist standing at the flag bag looking aft. Lowering the flag told the U.S.S. Seer AM 112 to recover its gear and proceed to port. The Seer was the Swerve’s sister ship, their duty was to keep the shipping channel free of mines so other ships had safe passage. “Where the fleet goes, we’ve been” is the phrase that best describes the work of a minesweeper. When the ships fantail exploded, debris was thrown into the air and Harry ran to take cover in the pilothouse. On the way in, Harry ran headlong into the officer of the deck who was coming out to see what happened. Afterwards, Harry emerged from the pilot house to find the Captain calling out orders to save the Swerve. Suddenly, the Swerve listed to port and the order to abandon ship was called. Making a quick assessment of the situation Harry noticed that a one inch cable with eyelets had wrapped itself around the speed hoist where his head would have been. Just then a fellow sailor, Robert J. Barry, who had been injured in a previous accident, approached Harry (a.k.a. “Flags”) to help him secure his life vest. Harry secured his vest, patted him on the back and they jumped. When they came up, they were looking at the mast coming down on top of them and they began swimming for their lives. Two men in a lifeboat helped Harry and Robert into the raft. The men all watched the ship’s bow come up out of the water and sink stern first. Only fifteen minutes passed from the moment of the blast to the time the ship sank from sight. The U.S.S. Seer picked the men up and took them back to Naples, Italy where the Red Cross gave them dry clothes. As a result of the explosion, seven men were injured and three were killed: William Allison, Bigelow Frisby and Herbert Stoddard. Harry states, “Mines have no conscience.”

After the ship sank Harry was taken to Oran, North Africa. He was flown back to the states for rest and recuperation and then assigned to Pier 88 in New York City on the YP 9, to serve as signalman. He was temporarily assigned to the IX I83 U.S.S. Catbird to dismantle the U.S.S. Turner which sunk off the coast of Coney Island. He was then transferred back to the
YP 9 salvage ship until he was given an honorable discharge.

Harry contributed to an article, “U.S.S. Swerve AM-121 That Fateful Day” in The Silent Defenders. Harry also provided a first-hand survivor account for the Italian dive team, Gravita′-zero. The team was comprised of divers Davide De Benedictis, Elena, Claudio Provenzani and Alberto. They located the Swerve on the bottom of the seabed lying on her port side with her bow pointing northwest. One of the items that the dive team recovered from the wreckage is the 24-inch search light Harry operated. He was referenced and the article was dedicated to him in the Dir Quest, a dive publication. He received a certificate of honor from the Anzio Beachhead Research and Documentation Center for his contribution in freeing the city and his pictures appear on a panel dedicated to the Swerve in the al Museo di Anzio. Harry received two battle stars while in the Navy; the first for the Sicilian Invasion and the second for the Swerve. He also received campaign awards for the European Theater, Good Conduct and American Victory. He belongs to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8240 and was the commander. He also belongs to the American Legion Post 344 and the Naval Mine Warfare Association. He participated in the Library of Congress interview process in 2002, to provide a human aspect to war. Harry obtained his General Equivalency Diploma which was an important accomplishment to him since he enlisted before he completed high school.

A familiar story told by Harry was an experience on the U.S.S. YMS 63 between Capes Rossello and Bianco during the Empedocle sweep: The U.S.S. Staff had hit a mine and set the ship on fire. The YMS 63 picked up sixteen badly burned men from the sea. The Captain asked for volunteers to help make the burned men feel comfortable and to give them what they wanted, because their prognosis was grim. Harry volunteered and went from man to man giving them their requests of cigarettes. One man asked to have the 23rd Psalm read, Harry ran for his Bible and read to him. Upon his return to check on the men he helped, he learned the man that he read to had passed away. This proved to be a profound memory for Harry.

After Harry was discharged from the service, he worked at the Model Laundry for two years. Then owned and operated a Richfield gas station in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, however, the gas station did not prove profitable so he returned to the Model Laundry. He also worked at the Westinghouse Mica Plant in Hahntown, Pittsburgh Reflector Company in Irwin and the American Window Glass Company in Jeannette. He finally landed the job of his dreams at Westinghouse Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory as a technician and later became a senior nuclear processing technician. He retired on February 1, 1990, but continued to work at the advertising business, ‘Ad-a-line,’ that he owned and operated for thirty-six years. In 2007 he sold the business to his eldest grandchild, Melinda Lee Seice Noll.

Harry and Jean SonnerHarry met his wife, Jean Marie Shaffer, at a party on New Year’s Eve 1942. His friend, Melvin Wees, was invited to the party and he took Harry along with him. It was love at first sight; Jean grabbed a hold of Harry’s sleeve before he left the party and asked if she could write to him. After eighteen months, they decided that they were meant for each other. Unfortunately, Jean’s father had three stipulations before they could marry: Harry had to be out of the Navy, he had to have a job and have a place to live. However, on June 18, 1944, Jean and Harry made the decision to elope and went to Cumberland, Maryland while Harry was on leave. Not having fulfilled any of the requirements, they had to keep the marriage a secret. On October 10, 1945, Harry was discharged from the Navy and they were officially married on October 28, 1945. sonner childrenHarry and Jean had five children: Donna Lee, Gary Wayne, Marsha Lynn, Marie Alana and Denise Renee. They have thirteen grandchildren and six great grandchildren. Harry and Jean lived in Jeannette, Pennsylvania their entire marriage of sixty three years. Jean passed away on November 18, 2008 with family by her side. Harry continues to live in the house they made their home. He dreams of meeting the Gravita-′zero dive team and visiting the Museum in Italy.


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