Major Don Tolhurst
a navy tailor at sea
Having enlisted in the Navy a day before his 17th birthday, Major Donald Tolhurst was much younger than most of the men on the USS Panamint, the Navy command ship that sailed out to sea from Hoboken, N.J., on November 22, 1944. But despite his age and youthful looks, he became among the most popular and beloved sailors on board, partly due to his assigned role of tailor.
“On my first day, I was given a pile of uniforms that all required gold braiding done on them, because of promotions the sailors had received,” said Tolhurst. The boat’s last tailor had neglected to finish the assignment, so Tolhurst, who had worked in tailor shops in his early teens, closed the door to his bunk and did all the gold braiding himself.
“When the sailors saw that I had finally gotten the work done, everyone knew me. I did any tailoring job they asked,” said Tolhurst, who was affectionately known as “Junior.”
His reputation as a Salvationist also made him stand out among the sailors. When the Panamint docked on beaches overseas, the men were given a stipend for four free cans of beer. Tolhurst, who didn’t drink, traded each beer for two cans of soda.
“When they needed someone for patrol duty in China, they wanted a sober sailor. That was when they called me,” said Tolhurst.
His time aboard the USS Panamint also gave Tolhurst an encounter with journalism history. On the ship was Ernie Pyle, a Pulitzer Prize–winning American war correspondent. Despite Pyle’s popularity, Tolhurst remembers him as a humble man, who enjoyed socializing among the sailors. They gave him the nickname ‘G.I. Joe’, he recalls.
“Ernie would have been welcome to stay in the higher ranking officers’ war room, drinking coffee, having a great time and being comfortable. But he wanted to be with regular guys like us,” said Tolhurst. He remembers preparing the uniform that Pyle died in on Ie Shima, an island off Okinawa on April 18, 1945.
A section dedicated to Pyle, including photos and newspaper clippings announcing his death, is in the first pages of an album chronicling Tolhurst’s time in the Navy. Tolhurst didn’t take any of the photos in his album; they were all done and developed by photographers on the ship, and given to him as gifts for his tailoring services. He has one of only four known pictures of the late journalist, lying on the ground, with a trickle of blood running down the side of his face. Pyle had been hit right under his helmet.
“He always mentioned that he was sick and tired of war, and his time with us would be the last time he would cover it. He wanted to go home, and he did. Ernie Pyle went home,” said Tolhurst.
Tolhurst himself found a part of home in every place he visited. In each stop, he made it a point to search out the local Salvation Army corps.
“The only place I couldn’t get to the Army was in Panama,” remembers Tolhurst. “I had found the building, and I could hear the singing coming from inside. Unfortunately, as I approached the building, MPs (military police) were blocking off the street.”
Major Don Tolhurst, now retired, resides in Asbury Park, N.J. He enjoys sharing stories about his time at sea, and in his album, Ernie Pyle is still the standout memory.
“I’m not sure what to do with this one,” says Tolhurst, looking over the photo of Pyle’s body lying on the ground. “I’ve been thinking of donating it to a communications or journalism museum. It’s a very special picture.”
by Hugo Bravo