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Maui-born Tomita remembered as storyteller, Vegas traveler

He got COVID-19 at Okutsu veterans home in Hilo

Melvin “Mike” Tomita is shown with his youngest daughter, Roxsanne Ruff-Tomita. Tomita, who was born on Maui and graduated from Baldwin High, died after contracting COVID-19 at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo. Photo courtesy of Roxsanne Ruff-Tomita and Civil Beat

Civil Beat

Melvin “Mike” Tomita had lots of nicknames, but to his Honolulu firefighter buddies at Hawaii Kai Station No. 34, he was known as “da BULL.”

He was a strong, solid fellow in his prime, and for years his youngest daughter Roxsanne Ruff-Tomita figured the station crew called him that because of his build. She figured out the truth much later.

Tomita, 87, was a Vietnam veteran, a recipient of the Bronze Star, and a man of many talents. He was a former Army cook who mixed top-tier poke and tako, and had a fine singing voice. He played harmonica, loved to gamble and led tour groups to Las Vegas when he wasn’t working as a firefighter.

Last year Tomita suffered a stroke and needed help with rehabilitation, which is why he was living at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo in August when COVID-19 began to rage through the facility, infecting staff and residents.

Tomita tested negative for the coronavirus four times and was housed on the second floor with the residents who were not infected, Ruff-Tomita said. On the afternoon of Sept. 3, he had a virtual visit on Zoom with family members including his cousin Daniel, who is pastor at Kinoole Baptist Church in Hilo. They prayed together.

“Looking back, it was just wonderful that we all got to pray with my dad. . . . We didn’t know it, but that was the last time we saw him,” Ruff-Tomita said.

That evening, he was admitted to Hilo Medical Center with a fever, and he had difficulty breathing. He tested positive for COVID-19 at the hospital and was placed on a respirator.

Ruff-Tomita said she stood outside her father’s room in the COVID-19 unit of the hospital emergency room for hours that night, watching him through the window. She was not allowed inside, but she texted the nurse the words to say in her father’s ear.

The nurse told him, “Roxsanne said you can go. Daddy, go home, it’s OK, you can go home,” said Ruff-Tomita, who cried as she described the moment. “My dad kept calling to me.” Tomita died shortly after 1 a.m. on Sept. 4.

There have been 27 deaths among the Okutsu veterans infected with the coronavirus including Tomita. Okutsu was operated by Avalon Health Care Management. The East Hawaii Region of the Hawaii Health Systems Corp. has taken over operations and management of the veterans home.

Tomita’s family held an online final viewing of Tomita on Sept. 9 with only eight people present in person, with social distancing and a sign language interpreter for some family members who are deaf.

The family plans to hold a full service with military honors at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl when the pandemic finally lets up. Tomita’s wife Catherine, who died in 2002 shortly after the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary, is already interred at Punchbowl.

“My dad’s thing was pono,” said Ruff-Tomita. “He has a hat that he wore forever that said ‘Pono,’ do the right thing. That’s my dad. That’s him.”

From Vietnam To The HFD

Tomita was born June 25, 1933, at Puunene Hospital, a sansei or third generation American of Japanese ancestry. The oldest of four children, Tomita’s father was a stevedore, and Tomita learned to love to cook from his grandmother.

He graduated from Baldwin High School in Wailuku in 1951, and married Catherine Itsuko Arai in 1952. He worked selling and repairing typewriters on Maui and in Honolulu, and joined the Army National Guard in 1952.

Years later he transferred to the U.S. Army Reserves and the 100th Battalion 442nd Infantry Regiment, and his unit was activated for service in Vietnam in May 1968.

By then, Tomita was 35 years old and the father of four children — Mikey, Gail, Lauren and Roxsanne — and was suddenly shipped off to a combat zone overseas. He was a mess sergeant in Vietnam, Ruff-Tomita said, but ended up in some frightening situations.

He was serving in Cu Chi about 20 miles northwest of Saigon during the Tet attacks of 1969 when rockets and mortars pelted the base that served as headquarters for the 25th Infantry Division, and squads of attackers managed to sneak on base one night to blow up or damage more than a dozen helicopters.

Records filed with the Department of Veterans Affairs include an account by Tomita of another incident when he was assigned to Tay Ninh near the Cambodian border, and incoming artillery began to tear into the base.

“I didn’t know which way to run . . . which way it was coming,” Tomita said. “I dove . . . one hit about 25 yards away from me . . . I had a concussion from the blast. I was taken to surgery . . . I had a head wound and was bleeding.”

In all, Tomita served for 32 years in the National Guard, Army Reserves and on active duty, and ended his military career with the rank of warrant officer.

When Tomita returned from Vietnam, he joined the Honolulu Fire Department, where he was a fire engineer and equipment operator. He was described as the “family cook” for the Hawaii Kai Station, and retired from the department in 1991.

He loved sports, and after leaving the fire department worked as a golf course marshal for a time, said his daughter.

Ruff-Tomita said her father refused to talk about the war, and never even told her what he did to earn the Bronze Star, which is awarded for heroic and meritorious deeds performed in an armed conflict.

She knew he disliked loud noises, which made him jumpy, and he often could not sleep, especially late in his life. But he would light up when mingling and talking story with friends.

The nickname of “da BULL” was given to Tomita by Richard “Black” Perry, the longtime president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association and a close friend of Tomita. Perry was a fire captain at Hawaii Kai Station, and the two men were neighbors.

When Perry was first assigned to the station, he was told by the firefighters that “this guy is the bull over here,” recalled Perry’s son, Rick. Perry was a large and imposing man himself, and perhaps that sounded a bit like a challenge. When he met Tomita, Perry exclaimed, “Who’s the bull? You the bullsh–.”

That nickname stuck for all those years because “he bullsh–s,” said Ruff-Tomita. “Long stories, it’s a Tomita thing.”

“When I was little, I never really believed anything my dad said,” she said. “My dad loves to tell stories, he’s just a big storyteller, but nothing he said, I believed.”

She recalled that Tomita once convinced one of his daughters that she and her siblings were part-Hawaiian, which was flat-out false, his daughter said.

Tomita is survived by his brother Paul (Joy) Tomita of Monterey Park, Calif.; sister-in-law Harriet (Calvin) Goshi of California; son Mikey Tomita of Kahului; daughters Gail (Derrick) Nakahara of Centralia, Wash.; Lauren Tomita of Washington, and Roxsanne (Randy) Ruff-Tomita of Paauilo, Hawaii island; hanai daughter Trudy Morita of Griffin, Ga.; nephews Kevin and Kyle of Monterey Park, Calif.; 10 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

* This story was published on Sept. 14 and can be found on the Civil Beat website at https://www.civilbeat.org/2020/09/hilo-veterans-home-deaths-war-veteran-and-storyteller-melvin-tomita-was-a-fighter-to-the-end/.

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