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Joseph Throgmorton

Joseph Elwin Throgmorton was born August 30, 1924, in Kewanee, Illinois, a farming and industrial community about 120 miles southwest of Chicago. Kewanee at the time was a significant manufacturing center, known widely in steam circles for its production of fire-tube boilers. (The local high school’s sports teams are the Boilermakers.) Throgmorton’s father worked for Walworth, a maker of valves and brass and iron fittings, as a molder, pouring molten metal into molds. He lost his job during the Depression, and with it he and his wife and son lost their house and furniture.

Postcard showing the Kewanee Walworth plant c. 1917 (courtesy of Illinois Digital Archives)

Postcard showing the Kewanee Walworth plant c. 1917 (courtesy of Illinois Digital Archives)

Ballard County, Kentucky

Ballard County, Kentucky (Map courtesy of David Benbennick and Wikipedia)

They moved c. 1938 to Ballard County, Kentucky, across from Cairo, Illinois, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, where Joe’s grandfather had a farm. They lived in a little tenant house in the woods. Joe’s father took up farming. Joe did farm chores, hunted and fished, swam in the Ohio River with his friends and attended Heath High School, home of the Pirates, about ten miles west of Paducah. His lunchtime routine at school was consistent. Every day he would eat a lunch of Milky Ways and Coca Cola and play pickup basketball. (He was raised, he says, on Milky Ways and Coca Cola. Other people would eat vegetables, or tell him he should, “and they’re all gone now. I guess I got a leg up on ’em.”) In his senior year he played on the varsity team.

He had a summer job in high school working fourteen-hour days seven days a week for a neighboring farmer, plowing and disking with a cleat-wheeled International Harvester Farmall F-12 tractor for fifty cents a day. He cleaned remnants of silk off spools with sandpaper at Clausner’s hosiery mill in Paducah, a manufacturer of women’s stockings, for $1.25 a day. He mowed greens at a golf course with a manual lawn mower while his boss mowed the fairways with a horse-drawn device. He did piece work for the McElya brothers, picking beans, corn, strawberries and tomatoes. On a good day he could make five dollars there. About the time he graduated from Heath High School in 1942, he interviewed with Edward D. Hannan, a prominent Paducah plumber and businessman, and got a job as an apprentice plumber at just over twelve dollars for a sixty-hour week. When business slowed, he went to work at Hannan’s plumbing and electrical supplies store, driving a truck and waiting on customers.

In 1943 he got drafted. He enlisted at Evansville, Indiana, on April 6. He chose the Navy because he could swim, and having done a lot of camping by the river over the preceding six years or so, he had little desire to join the Army and do more of it.

He did his basic training at Great Lakes. Having plumbing experience, he put in for shipfitting school but didn’t get it. He said he was given a medical exam and told he had an enlarged heart, put alone in a barracks for about a week, then declared fit and shipped off by train to the receiving station at Pleasanton, California, from which he was assigned to the Macaw.

On the shakedown cruise to Monterey, he was given a four-hour lookout shift in the crow’s nest, got seasick and requested permission to curtail his assignment. Permission denied, he proceeded to vomit all over the deck. He said he was not the only novice sailor on the ship to have that experience.

Throgmorton served as a signalman on the Macaw and took turns at the wheel.  He was ashore when the ship sank. On Midway, he played cards and basketball and helped unload cargo ships. Upon their return to Pearl Harbor, he and his friend, shipmate and fellow signalman Frank Zuroweste were assigned to the signal tower at the submarine base. They were fed well there and had lots of free time, during which Throgmorton played basketball with various luminaries, including future Minneapolis Lakers star Jim Pollard, and took a job packing dishes in barrels at Shapleigh Hardware in Honolulu. The pay was good—$1.50 an hour—but he worked in a cramped, windowless room and had no one to talk to. “I didn’t like to be hemmed up,” he said, “so I quit.”

Furloughed after about ten months in the signal tower, he returned to Kentucky for a month or so, then underwent Marine training in San Bruno, California, and shipped back out to the war zone on a troop carrier carrying two thousand black troops and a cargo of beer. He was attached as a signalman to a Marine unit on Ie Shima, a small island just off the northwest coast of Okinawa, and then on Okinawa itself, where he saw combat during the battle that raged there in April and May 1945, and where he says he spent more than a day hunkered down behind the blade of a bulldozer during a typhoon (apparently the one that struck Okinawa on October 9, 1945), the force of the wind preventing him from taking shelter in a nearby Quonset hut.

After the war he resumed working at the Hannan Supply Company. He struck up a romance there with Claribel Gibson, a recent hire and fellow Heath graduate, class of 1944. They were married October 19, 1946.

He served a plumbing apprenticeship and on weekends he played baseball on a team managed by Claribel’s father at Metropolis Lake near the Shawnee steam plant about ten miles west of Paducah. Everybody would go to church Sunday morning, he said, then head to the lake for a picnic and a baseball game. They had a good diamond and a food stand where they sold beer and sandwiches. Claribel’s dad would have to drive around picking up his players. A little boy sitting out in right field got hit in the head by a foul ball one day. Throgmorton thought it had killed him, but the kid got right up and was fine.

Throgmorton played right and centerfield and second base. By his own account he wasn’t very good—he says he could hit well enough but had a tendency to overrun balls he was trying to field—but despite his shortcomings, he was offered a chance to play in the Kitty (Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee) League, a class D minor league circuit that over the 52-year span (1903-1955) of its on-again-off-again existence fielded a carnival of nomenclature with such teams as the Danville Old Soldiers, the Hopkinsville Hoppers, the Cairo Egyptians, the Dyersburg Forked Deers, the Mayfield Pantsmakers (later the Clothiers), the Mattoon-Charleston Canaries, the Clarksville Boosters, the McLeansboro Billikens, the Owensboro Distillers, the Princeton Infants, the Vincennes Alices, and the Fulton Railroaders (subsequently reborn as the Chicks). The Paducah team went variously by the names Chiefs, Indians, Polecats and Redbirds. They tried to recruit Throgmorton with an offer of about $120 a month. He declined it. He was a married man by then with a career he did not wish to put on hold for intermittent employment as a class D minor leaguer.

Instead he pursued his career as a steamfitter and pipefitter. Claribel meanwhile worked at Hannan’s Supply Company for 44 years. Both are now long retired. On August 30, 2013, Joe turned 89. He’s not quite the athlete he once was, nor is his eyesight as sharp as when he sent and received signals aboard the Macaw, but he still follows the Kentucky Wildcats during basketball season and the St. Louis Cardinals during baseball season on TV, relying now more on the audio than the video portion of the broadcast. Claribel is a Cardinals fan too. They have two sons, Larry, a chemist, and Jerry, a pipefitter, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Jerry lives just down the street from them in West Paducah.

Joe-and-Claribel-Throgmorton

Joseph and Claribel Throgmorton