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Anthony Tomkovicz

Ship’s Cook 3/c Anthony Tomkovicz came to the Macaw from Charleroi, Pa., 25 miles south of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River. Tomkovicz’s father was from Poland, his mother from Lithuania. Illness having left his father an invalid, the burden of supporting the family fell largely to Anthony’s brother Vincent, the eldest of six children.

Anthony Tomkovicz at Midway, circa February 1944

Anthony Tomkovicz at Midway, c. February 1944

They got by, but they were not wealthy. Anthony used to play baseball with a steelworker’s glove. Whatever handicap his equipment may have represented he compensated for with tactical cunning. The field he and his friends played on sloped up in left field and down in right, the right-field slope culminating in a bunch of garbage cans, so Anthony taught himself to bat left-handed and to pull the ball into right field, where it tended to travel farther and occasionally to conceal itself amid the garbage cans, enabling him to “circle the bases.”

Tomkovicz dropped out of school circa tenth grade to go to work to make some money. He had one job setting pins in a bowling alley, for which he was guaranteed 50 cents a night and  got an extra 25 cents on good nights. Then he got a job in a coal mine. The faster you filled up a cart, the more money you made, so there was a tendency to be hasty and to neglect taking due safety precautions, notably that of propping up the ceiling of the shaft with posts. The coal seams were interlarded with slate, seams of which could range in thickness from a couple of inches to about two feet. One day in their haste he and a colleague neglected to adequately shore up the ceiling of the section they were working. The ceiling collapsed, and a massive chunk of slate clipped the visor of his helmet and partly crushed the safety toe of one of his boots. Neither of them was seriously injured, but had they been a few feet farther into the shaft at the time, he said, they both would have been “crushed to goo.”

Having soured on coal mining, he decided to enlist in the Navy. Given his choice of a ship to serve on and being from Pennsylvania, he chose the battleship USS Pennsylvania. He served about four years aboard her, then mustered out in September 1941 — three months before the Pennsylvania was attacked, along with much of the rest of the Pacific fleet, at Pearl Harbor — and got a job through a friend as a stage hand at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, in which capacity he perched atop scaffolding above a set for Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, and pushed painted cornflakes onto the set below in simulation of falling snow. (You can see what is very likely his handiwork in the YouTube video of Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” from that 1942 release — not to be confused with the movie White Christmas, also starring Bing Crosby, released in 1954.)

Tomkovicz was attending a semipro football game in Los Angeles on December 7, 1941, when the PA announcer informed the crowd of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He re-enlisted and was assigned to the USS Kankakee, an oil tanker. He recalled standing on deck one day as the ship was crossing the Pacific loaded with a million gallons of fuel and seeing a pair of torpedos approaching. As he watched them draw near, he said, it occurred to him that there wasn’t a lot you could do in a situation like that, just hope for the best.

His hopes came true. The torpedos missed — they bracketed the ship, one passing about 50 yards in front of her, he said, the other just behind her — and he survived to be assigned to the Macaw, on which he served as a cook. He knew a little something about cooking (knowledge he may have gotten from his mother, who, he says, was an excellent cook), and they needed a cook, so it worked out fine. He enjoyed it.

At Pearl Harbor after the Macaw sank, he was offered an assignment as a meatcutter. He spent the rest of the war and the subsequent fifty years or so in that capacity, for the Navy at Pearl Harbor, then for the Safeway supermarket chain in California. At Pearl Harbor his meatcutting colleagues included German POWs and Philippinos. The Germans, he said, were cheerful — in view of the alternatives, they were quite content with the fate that had befallen them.

After the war, Tomkovicz said, he wanted nothing more than to wrap his arms around his brother Vincent, who had taken great pride in his younger brother’s being “out there fighting the war” and who had served as the family’s primary wage earner during the Depression. Vincent died of a heart attack while Anthony was on his way home by train from Louisiana.

After visiting his family, Tomkovicz settled in Los Angeles, where he fell in love with his apartment building manager’s daughter. They got married and raised three sons in Southern California. A widower and proud grandfather, he was living as of March 2010 in an assisted living facility in Simi Valley, just north of Los Angeles.

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