October 30, 2014

Standish veteran, restaurateur looks back

Luck followed WWII vet through war and restaurant career

Kevin Bunch
Tom Pavelka of Standish worked in a hospital in Italy during World War II before owning and operating a series of restaurants in Michigan.
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STANDISH — Tom Pavelka considers himself a very lucky man.

Tom, 92, was among the first group of people drafted in Arenac County to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II, back in March of 1942. His particular background of working with food was quickly noticed by his superiors and kept him off the front line.

“While I was in the Army I was very fortunate with my background of being a cook and a meat cutter,” Tom said. “They were forming a general hospital and they were looking for cooks, so I fell right in. I was very lucky.”

Tom said the hospital he found himself in was able to accept 400 patients at a time, and featured the best medical staff they could find, including Dr. John Mohardt, former Detroit Tiger and Notre Dame football player.

“He was five feet tall and five feet wide,” Tom said.

The general hospital unit was set up in Italy, roughly 50-75 miles behind the lines, Tom said, and was set up in a converted college, something he said was standard operating procedure. Making it across the Atlantic Ocean was a harrowing experience with German U-Boats on patrol, however — though Tom’s luck held out.

“We got hit with a torpedo in the front of the ship, and it blew a big hole in it,” Tom said. “We made it to shore … and pulled into North Africa.”

Tom said the hospital tended to about 6,000 patients during the course of the war, and he did not believe it had lost a single one, no matter how bad their wounds were. His luck continued onward as he encountered two unlikely faces while in Italy.

“We were near Naples, and someone said there was a hospital a half a mile from us, and I said I would check it out,” Tom said. “I found my brother there, where he was wounded. He only weighed 100 pounds, but he made it.”

Tom said he came in to visit his brother, Frank Pavelka, on a weekly basis, and shortly after another brother, John, came into the hospital as well.

Away from the front lines, Tom said the troops would find ways to spend their downtime, and with former Major League Baseball players among them, it included setting up a baseball league. Despite having no experience with it, Tom was asked to be the umpire for their games.

“The manager came up to me and said they needed an umpire, and I said ‘Bill, I’d never umpired in my life,’” Tom said. “I got over it by yelling; the more I yelled ‘ball’ or ‘strike,’ the more people enjoyed it.”

His lack of experience led to problems when he made a bad call in a playoff game, when he said a guy running to home was safe when he was not. The game stopped when the guys refused to continue playing, and that was when Tom noticed one of his brothers had appeared to watch the game, out of nowhere. He said his brother made a joke about a fight breaking out if they put a hat on him, though Tom was simply shocked to see his brother there in the first place.

“He must have hitchhiked up the Mediterranean coast,” Tom said. “I saw him every day (for a year). It shows how badly he was wounded that he had about 6,000 penicillin shots.”

Tom said the black market was pretty prevalent in his area, with soldiers selling cigarettes and other supplies sent by their wives and families for large prices. Even the Red Cross had gotten in on the practice until it was clamped down near the end of the war. At that point, being caught trying to sell supplies on the black market was punishable by five years in jail, he said.

Once the war in Europe ended, Tom said he and his outfit were waiting to get shipped out to Japan, and decided to spend some time visiting the countryside. He joined some other soldiers on a trip to Switzerland, where he was impressed with the natural defenses of the land.

“If people only knew, Switzerland can’t be attacked by the air or by roads. You need to go through a tunnel to get into the country,” Tom said. “They took us into the tunnel for a tour of the mountains, and in June there was still snow on them.”

Tom said arriving at the depot, there was a group of yodelers to greet the trains, and the residents showed them large guns hidden away behind massive doors in case of an attack.

Tom said he was discharged in the first week of November 1945, at the rank of sergeant. He attempted to keep on working as an interpreter in his parents’ homeland of Czechoslovakia, but his inability to read and write the language — only speak it — meant he was not eligible.

“It goes to show you how important it is to learn some of this stuff, because you never know when you’re going to use it,” Tom said.

The ride back to the U.S. across the Atlantic was harrowing once more, only instead of being attacked, their ship was caught in a massive storm. Tom said he and a friend regularly ended up going on deck and hiding out in a life raft under some blankets just to be prepared in case the ship sank in the storm, but after 18 days it finally made landfall.

Tom went into the restaurant business upon returning stateside, opening and operating a restaurant in Detroit for a few years after the war before taking over the Trading Post restaurant in his hometown of Standish in 1949.

Tom was able to help get the Detroit Tigers to visit Standish in the early 1950s, adding the schools even shut down so kids could attend a game and see a Tigers parade. He said members of the team had come up to go pheasant hunting on his family’s property, but were a bit put off from the sheer number of hunters out there.

Around 1959, Tom left the Trading Post behind and opened a restaurant in Alpena with a seating capacity of 600 people, which he operated until it burned down in the 1980s. He took that opportunity to leave the restaurant business behind. He said the restaurant business is tricky in this region, since owners need to work tirelessly in the summer and then watch their business dry up in the winter: a cycle he said makes it hard to get ahead.

His luck followed him through that period of his life as well. Tom said his walk-in freezer in his Alpena restaurant had a broken handle, but he had not bothered to fix it. One Saturday, he was getting some meat from the freezer when he accidentally locked himself in, and as the restaurant did not open until 4 p.m. for dinner, he was not expecting much help.

“God must have been on my side, as the janitor, who usually only came in on Sunday, came in on Saturday,” Tom said. “He told me he thought there were a group of cats down there, but then he opened the door, and it was me.”

Tom said he only returned to Europe once after World War II, paying a visit to Czechoslovakia during the 1980s for two reasons: He wanted to visit his parents’ hometown, and to see how the Communists ran the country.

Tom said he was able to meet his cousins in the countryside, and noticed some stark differences between the country and the U.S. He noticed there were no lights on at night, and barely any people out. When he asked about it, the locals explained to him that a lot of people had gone underground to overthrow the government.

“When it got dark, they would just lock the door,” Tom said.

He also learned that a few U.S. dollars went a long way, as he was able to get help with his luggage from a local fellow for only a couple dollars, and was able to bring back some local whiskey — forbidden to take back to the U.S. — for the same. Tom said everyone, even workers, dressed as though they were military generals.

While the Czech Republic is a different place now, Tom said he has no desire to return with all his cousins dead. He said he gets about 750 visitors — relatives and friends — coming by at his home in Standish each year, and with two great neighbors, his luck has continued.

“I’ve learned not to regret anything, and to enjoy life,” Tom said.

He said he learned his advice to live by from two passing men who were 85 and 80 while he was helping his brother on a construction project in Grand Rapids.

“I asked them what was their secret, and they told me it was a ‘good attitude and good outlook,’” Tom said. “It really stuck with me, and I think there’s a lot to it.”

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