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Zephyrhills Marine veteran remembers bloody duty on Okinawa

ZEPHYRHILLS — Every spring, Marine veteran John Tomasko's thoughts turn to his time as an MP in New Jersey during World War II.

It was easy duty, far from the war. He rode a Harley-Davidson motorcycle on patrol.

Tomasko, now 85, worshipped that bike. He loved the wind in his face and the envy he saw in the eyes of other Marines as he whipped by.

Many years later at his home in Zephyrhills, the memory of that duty inevitably leads Tomasko's thoughts to a half-naked Japanese infantryman in the battle of Okinawa.

History might have played out so differently for both men.

Then, riding his motorcycle in New Jersey, Tomasko looked left when he should have looked straight.

And that, it turned out, made all the difference.

• • •

Tomasko was working in the coal mines of Pennsylvania when he joined the Marines in 1943.

He was eager to get to the fighting. But after boot camp, Tomasko found himself in Bayonne, N.J., pulling guard duty at a sprawling ship terminal and supply yard.

He had KP duty when he saw a notice on the bulletin board seeking two volunteers for a new motorcycle patrol. He and another Marine got the jobs. It beat peeling potatoes in the kitchen.

Tomasko spent almost two years at Bayonne. He'd enjoy liberty in nearby New York City. He met a woman. Got married. He avoided the drudgery of military service — on a Harley.

He itched to fight. But he wasn't about to kill the Golden Goose.

• • •

Like all accidents, Tomasko didn't see his coming.

It wasn't much of anything, really. He rode his Harley behind a car that had stopped at the Marine gate on the way out of the shipping terminal. The car sped up to leave. So did Tomasko. As he rode past the gate, a guard blew his whistle.

Tomasko looked left, thinking the guard was trying to get his attention. So he didn't see the car in front of him stop.

He hit the car's back bumper. Hard.

Tomasko wasn't hurt. The Harley was ruined.

"Now we had one motorcycle and two MPs to ride it," Tomasko said.

The goose was dead. Tomasko soon found himself on a ship bound for the slaughter in the Pacific.

"Boy, was I mad," he said. "That was good duty. I was living high on the hog. I kind of forgot the war."

• • •

The Marines sent him to Okinawa. It was close to the end of the war. May 1945. The bloody battle had opened a month earlier.

Tomasko was hospitalized not long after arriving when his arm became badly infected, perhaps from an insect bite. He missed the worst of the fighting.

He finally got back to his buddies on the line. The battle slogged on. Patrol after patrol. Endless bodies. The sickening smell. The heat.

One morning, Tomasko was the last in a line of 13 Marines on patrol when he saw a pile of rags move. He raised his rifle. He had snagged his first Japanese prisoner.

A sergeant took the prisoner from him and told Tomasko he would take him back for interrogation. Tomasko said he heard a shot as the prisoner was led off. He said the sergeant had killed the man.

Tomasko was shocked. Angry.

• • •

A few weeks later, Tomasko and his buddies were pulled off the front for some rest. Tomasko looked for something to sleep on. He remembered seeing some boards by the mouth of a cave that might make a good bed.

As Tomasko walked to the cave, he saw a half-naked Japanese soldier sitting on the boards. He wore just a white sash around his waist. The man raised a small piece of white cloth. He surrendered.

The prisoner walked in front of Tomasko through a field. The Marine's rifle was leveled at the prisoner's back. They encountered a group of Marines.

"Step aside," a Marine told Tomasko. "We're going to kill that SOB."

"You're going to have to kill me," he said. "He's my prisoner."

The Marines backed down. Tomasko didn't realize the prisoner could speak some broken English. He had understood the threat. As they walked off, Tomasko was stunned to hear a word that he would never forget.

"Thanks."

• • •

As the Florida heat kicks in every spring and his thoughts turn to Okinawa, Tomasko wonders what became of that Japanese soldier. Did he live a fruitful life?

Tomasko, a retired University of Michigan maintenance supervisor, doesn't fault the Marines for their behavior. He was inexperienced. They were hardened veterans who had fought through hell. Most prisoners, Tomasko said, were treated humanely by their Marine captors.

Near the end of that battle, Tomasko suffered a minor shrapnel wound from a grenade. The Purple Heart and a citation signed by a general are framed on a wall of his home today.

But more than the medal, it's the memory of that prisoner that is Tomasko's talisman of Okinawa. It gives his war meaning. It fills him with the realization that a moment's inattention on a motorcycle can let loose a chain reaction that might lead anywhere.

"If a guy was religious," Tomasko said, "he'd say God was doing this."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5306.

Zephyrhills Marine veteran remembers bloody duty on Okinawa 05/23/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 24, 2009 7:13am]
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