Robert C. Tompkins honored at the Garland-Tompkins American Legion Post 399 in Old Mission, Michigan
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(W. William “Rudy” Rudolph, Post Commander of the Garland-Tompkins American Legion Post 399 in Old Mission, writes about a recent gathering at the Old Mission Legion Hall where Robert C. Tompkins was honored and a memorial for him unveiled. Tompkins died during the explosion of the USS Mount Hood in WWII. -jb)

On Nov. 7, 2023, the Garland-Tompkins American Legion Post in Old Mission held a special event after the normal Tuesday night dinner. During this ceremony, the new “QM1 Robert C. Tompkins Memorial” was unveiled. It has taken more than a year to research and prepare this memorial and was only made possible by the efforts of some very special people…

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  • Jackie Thomas, a cousin of Robert C. Tompkins who first researched Bob’s service in the Navy and pointed out that we had no memorial to his service.
  • John Korzak, who prepared the memorial, as well as recruited excellent help along the way.
  • Keith Smith, who sunk his investigative teeth into this project and really put some flesh into the story of Bob Tompkins’ service life.
  • And finally, Tom Bratton, working as an intern at the local Congressional Office, who greased the skids with the government archives to gain critical information needed to complete the research.

During the ceremony, we were also blessed to host many members of Robert C. Tompkins’ extended family, who came to celebrate this special occasion with us.

The Robert C. Tompkins memorial balances another memorial, previously prepared, commemorating the life of Sgt. John Garland. This is important, because when the Post was chartered in 1953, only nine or ten years after WWII, the members decided to name the Post in commemoration of two local boys, they probably knew, who lost their lives during the conflict. It is fitting that we now have memorials to the lives of both young men.

Veteran’s Day – Recognizing Sacrifices

It is also very fitting that we made this commemoration on Nov. 7, 2023, as we are reminded that Saturday, Nov. 11, is Veteran’s Day in the United States. This is a day when we recognize the sacrifices that have been made, and continue to be made by members of the United States armed forces. It is, in large part, the sacrifices of people like John Garland and Bob Tompkins that have made possible the society we enjoy in the United States today.

The first celebration of this kind took place shortly after the Civil War when there were horrific casualties for both the North and the South in that conflict. The idea for a special veteran’s remembrance was later expanded to include those who lost their lives during WWI. Then it was called Armistice Day.

Today, on Veteran’s Day, we remember all those who have sacrificed in service for our country, wherever and whenever they may have served. It is also especially fitting that we did this commemoration of the Robert C. Tompkins Memorial on Nov. 7, because Bob Tompkins lost his life in service on Nov. 10, 1944, almost exactly 89 years ago this year.

Robert C. Tompkins – Fast Advancement in the U.S. Navy

What exactly do we know about Robert C. Tompkins? We know he was born on April 28, 1920, on the Old Mission Peninsula, the son of Robert Hurst Tompkins and Myrtle Oman Tompkins. In the 1940 census, Robert was listed as living with his parents, at 311 W. Ninth Street in Traverse City. Robert Hurst Tompkins was employed as a music teacher in Traverse City. He was a High School Graduate. He was one of eight children shown living, at the time, in 1940. (Click image below to expand, then click again to de-expand.)

Robert enlisted in the United States Navy. We do not have a good record of his early service, but we can presume that he went through induction and boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes in Lake County, Illinois. He would have entered active duty as a Seaman Apprentice (E1) and either been assigned a duty station or to additional training. It is difficult getting the actual service records of individuals unless you are direct family, so we have no detailed tracking of his time in service.

We do know that somewhere along the line, Bob opted for advancement in rating as a Quartermaster. A Quartermaster rating is one of the oldest specialties in the United States Navy. The Quartermaster’s position is on the bridge of a ship, assisting the Deck Watch Officers with navigation, maintaining charts and logs and, during critical periods such as General Quarters, acting as the ship’s helmsman. This is a position that carries a lot of responsibility and requires a high degree of training and intelligence.

During WWII, advancement was quite rapid for all ranks and ratings, but considering that Bob probably enlisted in late 1941, by the fall of 1944, in just three years, he had advanced to First Class Petty Officer which is an E6 rank. So his advancement was exceptionally rapid. We can surmise he must have been very good at his job.

Although we could not track Bob’s career in detail, we do know that in September of 1944 he was serving as a First Class Quartermaster on the USS Mount Hood when it entered Seeadler Harbor, in the Admiralty Islands, Papua New Guinea. This was a staging area for ships and men in anticipation of the invasion of the Philippines.

The USS Mount Hood, 459 feet long, was an armed Navy cargo ship carrying about 4000 tons of explosives intended to support the coming invasion. The cargo was composed of bombs, artillery shells, rocket projectiles and small arms ammunition.

USS Mount Hood – A Catastrophic Explosion

The USS Mount Hood anchored among the other ships in the harbor where it remained until the ship suddenly exploded, in the middle of the harbor, on Nov. 10, 1944. It was a catastrophic explosion that not only vaporized the ship and more than 300 men, either aboard or directly involved in handling its cargo, but also damaged or sank 22 surrounding vessels which were also at anchor or moored in the harbor.

The explosion of the U.S. Navy ammunition ship USS Mount Hood (AE-11) in Seeadler Harbor, Manus, Admiralty Islands on 10 November 1944. The smoke trails are left by fragments ejected by the explosion. The cause of the explosion could not be determined.
The explosion of the U.S. Navy ammunition ship USS Mount Hood (AE-11) in Seeadler Harbor, Manus, Admiralty Islands on 10 November 1944. The smoke trails are left by fragments ejected by the explosion. The cause of the explosion could not be determined. | U.S. Navy photo, taken by a photographer of the 57th Construction Battalion, who had set up his camera to take pictures of the Battalion’s camp. – Official U.S. Navy photo NH 65605 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command

Altogether, an additional 372 crew members of the surrounding ships were killed and 371 injured by the blast. Only 18 men of the crew of the Mount Hood survived, only because they happened to be ashore on a mail run or other business when the ship exploded.

The force of the explosion, as far as two miles away, knocked men ashore to the ground. Where the Mount Hood had been moored, there was left a trench in the ocean floor 1000 feet long, 50 feet wide and 30 to 40 feet deep. The largest piece of the ship left was a chunk of metal less than 16 by 10 feet. There were no human remains recovered from the Mount Hood itself.

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Quartermaster First Class Robert C. Tompkins is memorialized on the “Walls of the Missing” at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines, and in the Ogdensburg Cemetery on the Old Mission Peninsula.

Respectfully, W. William “Rudy” Rudolph
Post Commander, Garland-Tompkins American Legion Post 399

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A NOTE FROM JANE: I started Old Mission Gazette in 2015 because I felt a calling to provide the Old Mission Peninsula community with local news. After decades of writing for newspapers and magazines like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Family Circle and Ladies' Home Journal, I really just wanted to write about my own community where I grew up on a cherry farm and raised my own family. So I started my own newspaper.

Because Old Mission Gazette is a "Reader Supported Newspaper" -- meaning it exists because of your financial support -- I hope you'll consider tossing a few bucks our way if I mention your event, your business, your organization or your news item, or if you simply love reading about what's happening on the OMP. In a time when local news is becoming a thing of the past, supporting an independent community newspaper is more important now than ever.

To keep the Gazette going, click here to make a donation. Thank you so much for your support. -jb

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