Dec. 7, 1941 – so long ago. We might forget other dates in American history, but not this one. On the following day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said to millions of Americans gathered around their radios, “Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Emperor of Japan.”
The numbers of those killed or wounded shocked and angered Americans: 2,403 killed and 1,178 wounded.
World War II veterans from the Miami Valley of Ohio recall that day. On that day, they had no knowledge of the ways in which that horrific act committed by the Japanese would forever change the trajectory of their lives.
For Robert Tweed of Troy, it would mean that he would be commanding a platoon at the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944 and he would be ordered to Dachau on April 30, 1945, to bear witness to the atrocities committed in that concentration camp. Middletown native Dale “TD” Ulrich would narrowly escape death as his minesweeper, the USS Salute, was blown up off the coast of Borneo on June 8, 1945. Harry Ashburn of Piqua would find himself driving a truckload of Marines behind enemy lines in the Philippines. Marion Adams of Covington would be aboard an LST at the D-Day landings at the Beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Finally, Les Edsall of Sidney would be captured by the Nazis and become a prisoner of war on Nov. 13, 1944.
Tweed was a 1939 graduate of Troy High School, a trumpeter in a number of bands and a student at the Ohio State University exploring music, business, and agriculture. A case of appendicitis and a physician’s bill of $135 sent him to a 136-acre farm east of Troy, a farm owned by his father, to pay off the debt. An aunt let him borrow money to buy a tractor and a plow, and a neighbor allowed him to borrow horses for plowing. Tweed “picked up some sheep and cattle.” After the bombing of Pearl Harbor – “It was a shock as we didn’t expect it” – Tweed was granted deferments because of his occupation. After two deferments, he was advised to volunteer for conscription in order to get his choice of a position in the military. He wanted to be a pilot, but he soon discovered that he was in the infantry.
Ulrich, a high school senior, was with friends on Dec. 7, 1941, gassing up their Model A’s and Model T’s at 11 cents a gallon when they heard the news of the bombing. Ulrich says, “We liked gas at 11 cents a gallon, but we didn’t like the news that the (Japanese) had bombed Pearl Harbor. That day we all agreed we’d be in war and most of us volunteered after we graduated. Everybody wanted to be a pilot. I wanted to be a Navy pilot but was turned down because of a rupture, a rupture I still have today.”
Ashburn was home in Altoona, Pa., on Sunday afternoon playing cards with family members. “As usual, we had the radio on when the announcement broke. I said to my dad, a long-time patriot, ‘This really is war, isn’t it?’
“He shook his head sadly and said, ‘Yes, I guess it is.’
“Throughout the afternoon, we got updates. Mom was at a church meeting, and the local newspaper posted bulletins regularly in the window. On her way home from church she saw a sign that indicated, ‘Good-bye, we’re off to war.’
“Mother knew my brother and I would be facing military service. There were long lines of men at the recruitment office waiting to sign up.”
At the time, Ashburn was working for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a sheet metal worker and apprentice. He volunteered before he could be drafted, hoping to select his own branch of the Army. He selected Quartermaster Corps, hoping to use his experience as a dispatcher. “I was wrong. The Army thought I’d serve better driving a truck.”
In his recalling of the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, Adams seems to remember facts that many would forget. “I was a senior in high school, and it was a real nice day, shirt-sleeve weather, and I rode my bike a half mile to visit with friends. There was no action around the house, so I went in the back door. Albert Wenrich was sitting in the living room holding a newspaper but really not looking at it. He was looking above the newspaper at the radio. An announcer was talking about the bombing, and Wenrich never even knew I was there.
“I left the house, got back on my bike and rode the gravel road home. We had no electric in the house and our radio was battery-operated. I knew Lowell Thomas reported regularly on the fight in Europe, and that’s what I thought the announcements I had heard at the Wenrich house were about. I didn’t know anything about Pearl Harbor except it was far away.”
Adams said that at school on Monday, the students and teachers were talking about the bombing, and that’s when he learned Pearl Harbor was an island in the Pacific that belonged to the United States.
On May 8, two of Adams’ friends and he went to a drugstore in Covington. As they left, another friend was coming in and asked, “Where you goin’?’
The answer: “We’re going to Dayton to join the Navy.”
The response: “By God, I’m goin’ along.”
Adams reports that he hated the Army and it was never for him because of the neckties.
All finished high school, but Adams had to wait six months because he was only 17 and his parents wouldn’t sign for him. “My pappy wouldn’t sign my papers ‘cause my brother Dale was recently home after his ship, the USS Wasp, had been sunk by two Japanese torpedoes on Sept. 15, 1942. So I left home and went to Piqua and got a defense job building bombsights for the bombardiers on airplanes ‘til I was old enough to go in December of 1942.”
Edsall and Edith were married on Nov. 2, 1941, about a month before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. On that day they were visiting Les’s parents in Piqua when they heard the news on the radio. Edsall was drafted in mid-July of 1942 and was captured by the Germans on Nov. 13, 1944, the date of his daughter’s first birthday. After capture, Edsall marched on a starvation diet in subzero weather and rode in cattle cars from Poland to Germany. As the Nazis retreated, Edsall escaped when the Russians took over the POW camp in which he was last located.
The stories of these veterans tell us that when the country needed them, they put on their uniforms, accepted the duties they were given even if they were not of their choosing, served with honor, and defeated forces that would have enslaved the world. Today and always we thank them for their service and for sharing these precious moments of their lives with us as they remember Pearl Harbor.
Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.