A Local Hero: Michael Tofil Defends Liberty Ships

Wednesday, December 13, 1941

Michael Tofil was born on August 30, 1926 in Dunkirk, New York to Stanley and Salomea (Kuznicki) Tofil, the eighth of thirteen children. He had eight brothers (Peter, George, Thomas, Joseph, Francis, Leo, Lorence and Anthony) and four sisters (Sophie, Mary, Genevieve and Joan), and the family owned and operated Tofil’s Restaurant on East Front Street in the city. Growing up, Mike attended St. Hyacinth’s Catholic School, and he played baseball for an American Legion Baseball team as an outfielder. At 12 years old, Mike acquired a 190-home paper route that paid $3.50 to $4 a week, and his dream was to save up enough money to purchase his own bicycle.

For high school, Mike attended Dunkirk Industrial School and took machine and auto courses. High school only lasted two years, and at the age of 17, Mike decided that “school was done and his country needed him more.” His older brothers–George, Tom, Joe and Frank–had all joined the United States Army, but Mike decided that he wanted to be different–that he wanted to be a “Navy man.” In 2010, sixty-five years after the end of World War II, Mike sat down with a local journalist at the Dunkirk Observer to discuss his experiences as a first projectile man in the United States Navy; his story, reproduced below, was published in September of that year:

In Dunkirk, Mike got on the train and headed for the Buffalo Post Office to enlist later that evening. He was headed to Sampson Boot Camp in Geneva, New York. Boot camp lasted 10 weeks. The U.S. Navy felt that Tofil would serve the navy best as a first projectile man. This job was crucial in protecting merchant vessels sending vital supplies to our military men and women in harms way. So this is what Mike learned and learned well. His last two jobs consisted of picking berries and delivering local news to the homes of Dunkirk’s first ward. Now Mike’s new job consisted of loading 78 pounds of high explosive round into a 5-inch 38 mm mounted on a ship.

navy (2)
Saturday, August 19, 1944

This gun now will try to protect the ship and crew along with the ships vital cargo so that our enemies won’t send this ship to the bottom of the ocean. Each Liberty ship carried eight guns as well as a 10-man gun crew. Mike was assigned to the SS George Eldridge, a Liberty cargo ship with a flat bottom.

Mike met the Eldridge in Boston’s harbor, from there it sailed out into the Atlantic to meet up with Mike’s first convoy. The convoy route was first protected from our East Coast by our U.S. Naval warship and they kept their protection until the convoy hit Newfoundland. From there the Canadian navy coverts took over until the convoy hit the English waters. Mike said about three days out. There the British military warships provide the final convoy protection his first convoy was scheduled for Burkenhead, England.

This ship carried much-needed replacement jeeps, tanks, ammo and food. The convoy coming back was much different according to Tofil. The ships all empty, some needing to carry coal or rocks just to keep the propellers underwater. Seven to ten days later the Eldridge would find a safe New York port. The next convoy was being loaded the very next day to its destination in Antwerp, Belgium. If one kept up with war history you know that Mike’s second convoy carried much-needed supplies that were needed to resupply the U.S. Army after it’s victory at the Battle of the Bulge.

Left to Right: George (b. 1917), Tom (b. 1919), Joe (b. 1923), Frank (b. 1924) & Mike (b. 1926)

This time the return convoy took Tofil to a port in New Jersey. There the Eldridge was scheduled to report to a dry dock to have it’s bottom inspected and repaired. The Eldridge had hit some submerged steel when it left its last port in Antwerp. Once the ship was in dry dock, Tofil reported to his new ship: the SS Nathan Towson. To Mike it was basically the same as his old ship. Ready to cross the Atlantic again, he was surprised to learn that this new ship he was assigned to had orders to deliver much needed cargo to Murmansk, Russia. This convoy route took him around Sweden and ended up with a 20-mile cruise on the Kola River in Russia. Mike recalled it was summer and around seven weeks of continual sunlight lasting 24 hours, he was basically on top of our world. Much of the ship’s cargo was covered and mostly full crates arrived in Murmansk. He watched the dock crew un-crate and unload its valuable cargo.

Mike noticed his ship had delivered four U.S. PT boats that were brand new. Even 60 years later he still remembers the hull numbers of the PT boats: PT boats 597, 598, 599 and 600. All the new boats were now on the property of the Russian Navy.

Liberty Ship2
Liberty ships were designed to be mass produced and to carry much-needed supplies at great speed. As a first projectile man, Mike loaded 58-pound projectile rounds onto an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a Liberty ship. Guns were used to protect the ships while in convoys from enemy airplanes, submarines and ships.

Also included in the cargo were 10 new train locomotives along with 16 train cars fully loaded with tanks, jeeps and 105 Howitzers and unlimited cases of ammo. The crew later was told that all that cargo was to supply Russian military men that were going to participate in the upcoming invasion of the Japanese mainland. In Russia the crews were allowed liberty but had to go to the only designated places approved by the Russian government.

Waiting to return to the states for new cargo orders, Mike was surprised to learn that his ship was selected to sail the White Sea and sail to Karachi, India. The ship had orders to pick up special-selected lumber. This lumber was used to make special crates to carry equipment over the Himalayan Mountains to help with the final invasion of Japan. In order to fill the ships cargo it first headed for Cardiff, Wales. While in port in Cardiff, the Japanese military made its final surrender. The war was over, but not for Mike who was given orders to catch a Naval landing crew infantry, and report home for a 28-day leave. He so dearly learned coming back to Dunkirk meant going out with old friends and having a few drinks at the block house. The 28 days went by fast and Mike received orders to go to Shoemaker, California where he learned he would be taking the SS Manhattan, a converted luxury liner, turned into a troop transport and was headed for the Philippines.

Construction of a Liberty ship at the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards, Baltimore, Maryland, in March/April 1943

Mike ended up in Subic Bay in a staging battalion. Finally ending up on a Landing Crew Infantry, while in Luzon, he had a great surprise while on all those convoys. His mail was way behind but when he was in the Philippines. His mail soon caught up with him. While reading one of his letters he learned his brother Joe was also stationed there. Mike located his brother, picked him up and took him to his landing crew infantry. They spent the night there and the next day Mike showed his brother Coriggador.

The war was over for some time, yet Mike had orders to help his landing crew infantry to join a group of U.S. warships that were destined to be destroyed by an atomic bomb test. To some it was called the “bikini test.” Unfortunately, Mike was spared carrying out the delivery order when he found out his father had suffered a heart attack. Mike now was on his way home, to be by his fathers side. In August 1946, Mike was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy.

Tofil Kokocinski

He returned to Dunkirk and found employment under the GI Bill with City Collision. He later landed a maintenance job with the Van Raalte Co., for 20 years until it closed. He then worked for the Ford Motor Co., of Buffalo. Then changed jobs and worked for Plymouth Tube Plant until it went out of business.

Mike Tofil is just a great person. I could have talked to him for a day and learned so many things about what these great people had done during their military obligation. There were no regrets you just did what you were told.

Sixty years later you were proud to tell someone about it. I haven’t had one veteran tell me they weren’t proud of what they had done. Mike, now in his 80s, has a memory of a teenager being able to remember names, dates and places. Never once in this interview were there any regrets or bad parts.

While in Scotland, before he hit the Russian water route, Mike was a little frustrated because he couldn’t write where he was, where he was going and what his ship was doing. One day just for fun he decided to write home a letter in Polish, knowing he wrote nothing in that letter that was against the rules. Sure enough a week later the shore patrol paid Mike a visit to report to headquarters and explain what he wrote.

This, even to this day, puts a big smile on Mike’s faces. Heroes like Mike Tofil who sailed the Atlantic waters in the most dangerous of times and were part of a unit that provided all the items needed to win and be victorious. Yet, if you walk by him you would never know Mike for all his hard work and loyalty to his country. I need to make Mike Tofil our local hero.

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