This Veterans Day, I’d once again like to say thank you to all of the veterans who have served and are still serving our country. In the past I’ve had the privilege of researching several Pennsylvania veterans’ lives for various articles I’ve written and I’ve gotten to talk to members of these veterans’ families as well as several surviving veterans. It’s been a pleasure to learn about these veterans’ lives as well as gain more understanding and appreciation for the military itself.
This year, I’m re-posting an updated biography I wrote two years ago about a living veteran I know personally: my grandfather, Thomas Alexander Piotrowski, Sr. For a while I had been posting pictures from Pap’s time in the service until life got pretty busy. I hope to get back to posting some more pictures from his service because they are a fascinating look into American history as well as my family’s history.
Thomas Alexander Piotrowski, Sr. was the seventh child born to parents Josephine Pasko and Louis Piotrowski on November 16, 1927 in Liberty Borough, Pennsylvania. The family eventually moved to 13th Street in the Third Ward section of McKeesport, Pennsylvania. After the Great St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936 hit the Pittsburgh area, the Piotrowski family decided to move again, this time to the Christy Park district of McKeesport where Tom grew up with his seven brothers and sisters: Stanley, Victoria (Ploszay), John, Eleanor (Sharik), Caroline (Pzywarty), Sophie (Bondi) and Louis.
After graduating from McKeesport Area Vocational Technical High in 1945, Tom was drafted into active service with the Army of the United States (the draft force of the U.S. Army) on February 13, 1946. Although Private First Class Thomas Piotrowski’s service only lasted 14 1/2 months (eight months, 26 days continental service and 5 months, 28 days foreign service), he traveled across the country and across the Pacific within that amount of time.
Tom left his job as a meat cutter at Cudhy Packing Company on Ring Gold Street in McKeesport to complete his basic training at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Maryland. Aberdeen Proving Ground is the army’s oldest active proving ground, or weapons testing area, and where, according to Tom, the army tested the weapons for World War II before they moved out west for testing.
At the end of his basic training, Tom went to Fort A.P. Hill, located near Bowling Green, Virginia, to complete “bivouac” or camping training. His Separation Qualification Record from the Army of the United States says his military occupation assignment as a Basic Soldier (#521) lasted two months; based on this information and dates on the back of some of his pictures from Aberdeen, I would estimate his basic training primarily occurred from March to April, 1946.
Tom was in the 336th Ordnance Depot Company, which he remembers was characterized by a “flaming bomb” insignia. The U.S. Army Ordnance Corps is a sustainment branch dealing with the army’s combat power. After his basic training, Tom went to Fort George G. Meade, Maryland where he attended service schools for both cook (eight weeks) and mess sergeant (four weeks). According to Tom, a mess sergeant was the person responsible for supervising the kitchen; he ordered the food and fuel for the stoves, kept track of schedules and kept attendance.
During this time, Tom learned how to cook for soldiers in the regular mess hall (“family style”), the consolidated mess hall (for hundreds of soldiers), the commissioned officers’ mess hall and the stockade. According to a list of mailing addresses kept by his future wife, it appears he returned to Aberdeen Proving Grounds after attending these service schools. His time at Fort Meade probably spanned May through August of 1946.
After a two-week leave, Tom boarded a train in Pittsburgh and traveled across country, stopping in Chicago along the way. His destination was Camp Stoneman, a U.S. Army military facility located in Pittsburg, California. From Pittsburgh to Pittsburg! Camp Stoneman was was the largest West Coast troop staging area for deploying troops to the Pacific Theater of Operations in World War II and the Korean War. After a brief stay at Camp Stoneman, Tom traveled to San Francisco via ferry where he boarded the naval transport USS General H. W. Butner and departed for the Western Pacific Theater of Operations (WPTO) in Manila, Philippines on September 9, 1946.
While traveling through the South Pacific, the USS General H. W. Butner made stops in Hawaii, Kwajalein Atoll, Guam, and Samar, Philippines before arriving at Manila, Philippines on October 15, 1946. The United States has used Kwajalein Atoll for military purposes since 1944, including establishing it as the main support site for Operation Crossroads, a weapons-testing program designed to test the effects of nuclear weapons on naval ships conducted at nearby Bikini Atoll in 1946. While passing by Kwajalein Atoll, Tom saw several of the surviving target ships brought back and anchored in the lagoon.
While stationed in downtown Manila for four months (his foreign service is listed as lasting five months and 28 days to be exact), Tom served as a cook at the regular mess hall. His highest military occupational specialty is listed as Mess Sergeant (#824), although he doesn’t recall serving in that capacity. According to his Separation Qualification Record, “As Mess Sergeant on troop train supervised five cooks preparing and serving meals to transients. Estimated amount of food needed and drew rations from depot. Supervised preparation of meals on train. Made out rations report and collected meal money from officers.”
It appears that during his time in Manila he attained the rank of Private First Class and received one stripe, as his honorable discharge papers give December 4, 1946 as the date of that rank.
Tom was discharged and sent home after the World War II draft expired in 1947. He chose not to enlist in the army. He left Manila via army transport on the General W.F. Hase on February 18, 1947 and arrived back in the United States on March 6, 1947. His date of separation was April 9, 1947 at Fort Dix, a separation center located outside of Trenton, New Jersey.
According to his honorable discharge paperwork, he was awarded the Army of Occupation Medal/World War II Victory Medal for serving in an occupied country after World War II. However, he says he never received this medal. He did, however, bring home a wonderful collection of photographs taken during his time in the service.
After he returned to his home on 27th Street, on February 27, 1948
Tom married Dorothy Frances Kolodziej, a Christy Park girl from the next street over (26th Street) who finally let him catch her. A cute story: His honorable discharge papers from the Army of the United States mention “3 days lost under AW 107.” The reason for this was that he slipped home for a weekend from his basic training at Aberdeen Proving Ground in March 1946 in order to visit Grammie and his friend forgot to sign him back in! After first living with Tom’s sister Victoria and her husband, in 1955 the couple moved into a newly built house on 31st Street in McKeesport. They had three children – Carol Ann (my mom), Tom Jr. and Frank.
Tom got a job at the U.S. Steel National Tube Works, an iron pipe manufacturing company in McKeesport, working his way up from a laborer to senior physical tester in a physical lab. After my grandmother passed away from ovarian cancer earlier that year, he took an early retirement in September 1984 at the age of 56, when the steel plants in the area began consolidating and shutting down.
Although he may not be as spry has he used to be, my Pap is still plugging along today. I remember Mom bringing my sister and me to visit him often while growing up. I remember walks with Pap down along the old railroad tracks in McKeesport, me balancing on the rails like a tightrope walker. Sometime we would stop to get a twist cone at the soft-serve ice cream stand at the bottom of 31st Street. When we wanted to jump rope, Pap would tie one end of the clothes line to the vintage lamp post in the back yard and turn the other end for us. There were always sticks of sidewalk chalk hidden in the big plastic container on the back porch, next to the jump rope.
I remember many summer vacations to Myrtle Beach with my family and Pap, who shared the driving responsibility until his eyesight started to worsen. He had started the summer tradition of beach vacations with his wife, children and extended family many years ago, camping out on the beach. Pap always got up in the early morning hours to walk the beach. Despite my best intentions, I usually rolled over in the roll-away bed to catch some more winks, but sometimes I got up and joined him. I wish we could still do that today.
Today, Pap still enjoys cooking and has been an avid gardener for many years. He’s definitely seen a lot of changes in McKeesport and in the world over those decades. You can check out some of the wonderful historical photographs my pap took during his service that I’ve already posted by searching under the “maternal grandfather” tag or clicking here.
Pap: Thank you for your service and for being there for me while growing up!