Leonard Franklin Tomlinson lived and served in an age before social media, and the image he left behind is less ephemeral and certainly less meaningless than the slew of selfies we all serve up today.
His story is timeless. Today seems like a good time to retell it.
Right after high school, the Adel, Ga. native signed up with the U.S Navy. He hopped aboard the U.S.S. Helena, known as “the fighting ship that went in harm’s way.”
“He was Mama’s brother, the only boy among five sisters,” said his niece Kay Powell, who was the AJC’s longtime obituary editor before she retired a few years ago. “His parents were Joseph Patrick and Abbie Hill Tomlinson of Adel. His daddy was a lawyer. Uncle Frank regularly sent money home to his mama, my grandmother.”
Frank was a gifted artist, and when he wasn’t attending to duties aboard the Helena he found time to ply his trade on one onion-skin thin piece of paper at a time.
“His shipmates paid him to create personal cards for their mamas, wives and sweethearts,” said Powell, who lives in Cobb County now. His ship survived the Pearl Harbor attack and Frank sent this image home to his mother:
Not quite two years after Pearl Harbor, the U.S.S. Helena was among the vessels involved in the Battle of Kula Gulf, where United States and Japanese ships met off the coast of Kolombangara in the Solomon Islands. Japanese destroyers pointed their torpedoes in Helena’s direction and she was lost.
“Any who survived the torpedo attack jumped into the shark-infested waters filled with diesel fuel, debris, bodies and body parts,” Powell said. “Like any sailor whose body could not be found, Uncle Frank was declared Missing in Action.”
Claimed by the sea, Frank never returned to Adel. But his sketch of Pearl Harbor survived, and on Dec. 7, the day which lives in infamy, the niece who was born after he died took it out, and remembered.