Make the McKenzie Connection!

Vet’s service recognized

Ron TompkinsWALTERVILLE: Like many of his generation, Ron Tompkins answered the call to arms for the armed services in World War II. Age for him wasn’t an issue, getting his mother to sign off on his enlistment papers when he was nine months shy of his 18th birthday.

Time, however, did have an effect. Coming into the Navy in 1945 he sailed out of San Francisco and arrived for duty in the Philippines. In the Marshall Islands his ship, the USS Petrof Bay, a 7,800 ton aircraft carrier, was part of a fleet being put together for the invasion of Japan. Those plans came to a halt soon after the sailors saw a strange bomber fly over their ship escorted by two fighters.

Ron says that at the time, they had no idea of the significance of what they’d seen, only remembering that the heavy bomber had what looked like a “big torpedo” slung underneath. Another clue that made sense later was chatter on the radio at the time telling people to expect some weird weather.

Some 350 miles away from where the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan there were no changes or hint of what had happened. Ron remembers typical days being hot and humid and that it “rained every day at about 2 o’clock.”

But the flight crew’s mission had brought about the end of the war resulting in an armistice.  That had an impact on what the men who had recently come to the Pacific Theater would be doing. The main role was to, “Fill in for the guys who had been out there for four or five years.”

At one point, Ron had a chance to crew with a submarine tender which acted as a traveling supply ship bringing gas, torpedoes & other items out to the submersibles. However, the brass had other plans.

From a Seaman 1st Class, Ron went on to become the acting coxswain on a ship that was a floating dry dock. On of their most memorable mission went on for 72 hours straight, connected to another aspect of the onset of the Atomic Age - the evacuation of the Bikini Atoll.

“We took all the natives off Bikini before they dropped the test bomb,” Ron recalls. Marine landing craft were used to remove all the people living there, along with all their food, goats and other possessions. For some reason the route chosen sent the landing craft over a corral reef, rather than into the harbor entrance. That tore holes in the bottom of the boats, which the men on the dry dock had to repair, non-stop.

For the next three days they took steel nets, hauled three boats out of the water at a time and repaired them all. “They went out the harbor after that,” Ron remembers.

Rather than serving the four years he’d signed up for, the Navy sent Ron and a lot of other veterans home after a year and a half. He soon found work in Oregon’s mills, starting work making windows and sashes and winding up as a sawyer before his retirement. Since then he and his wife, Donna, used some of that free time to travel around the country in an RV for 11 years.

It was Donna, though, who happened upon an article in a Grange Bulletin that mentioned a group called “Honor Flight.” Established in 2005, around the time the Veteran’s Memorial was finally completed and dedicated in Washington, D.C., the group’s aim was to  sponsor trips for vets to see it. Part of the reasoning was the fact most of the senior heroes from WW II were in their 80s and lacked the physical and mental wherewithal to complete a trip on their own. The Honor Flight group provides the resources and time to send veterans on the three- to four-day trip to the nation’s capital. The trip covers both a vet and a guardian.

Donna felt this would be a perfect way to honor her own husband and filled out an application. Luckily it was approved, confirming the trip Ron took last month. Unfortunately, “They said I was too old to be his guardian,” Donna said. However, their daughter was able to make the trip with her Dad.

Ron was most impressed when his group visited Arlington National Cemetery and observed ceremonies when wreaths were placed on the graves.

“It was outstanding,” Ron say of his trip. “There were thousands of people - mayors, sheriff’s deputies, all dressed to the T’s at every airport, like Portland and Denver. People were grabbing us by the hand and thanking us for our service. It finally got to me when some young kids reached up thanked me.”

The Honor Flight Network says  it has transported over 100,00 veterans of WW II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War to Washington. The group has expanded to include more than 150 chapters serving veterans in 41 states and the District of Columbia.

Image: Ron Tompkins was given a flag that had flown over the capitol of the United States.


McKenzie River Reflections


Reader Comments(0)