Thursday, December 06, 2001

Sept. 11 evokes echoes of Dec. 7

Days of infamy raised fears, created unity

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Sometimes, Americans' memories are short.

        Today, many of them believe that the events of Sept. 11, 2001 — and the uneasy realization that, strong as our country is, it is not immune from attack — galvanized the United States like no other event in history, awakening a slumbering patriotism and uniting the nation in a single purpose like never before.

        But some Americans know better.

        They remember Dec. 7, 1941.

        Pearl Harbor. A date which will live in infamy.

        Americans who were children or young adults in 1941 hear distinct echoes when they listen to the news reports of their country's new war on terrorism — fear of sabotage, fear of attack by an unseen enemy in their midst, suspicion of certain people because of their ethnicity or because of where they were born.

        They have seen it all before.

        And they remember it in vivid detail, as if it were yesterday.

        Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, was an unusually balmy day in Cincinnati, more like early fall or spring than a day less than three weeks before Christmas.

        The churches were full; so, too, were the golf courses.

        Christmas shopping was on the minds of most Cincinnatians. The downtown department stores — at least half a dozen to choose from — were ablaze in holiday lights and the newspapers were full of bargains. Shoppers could find two men's ties for $1 in the Mabley & Carew basement, and Pogue's record shop offered a four-record set of Phil Spitalny and His All Girl Orchestra for just $2.75.

        Early that Sunday afternoon, atop the hill in Fairview, 10-year-old Pat Warren ran down Ravine Street to the Imperial Theater in Mohawk. She had a quarter in her pocket to see the Sunday matinee double feature — Tillie the Toiler, with Kay Harris in the title role, and a rip-roaring shoot-'em-up from Gene Autry and his sidekick, Smiley Burnette, called Under Fiesta Stars.

[photo] The front page of the Dec. 8, 1941, Extra edition of the Enquirer tells of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
        The pictures ran for a couple of hours. As the Fairview girl walked out of the movie house to West McMicken Avenue, she saw newsboys running up and down the sidewalk, hawking extra editions and shouting at the top of their lungs. Japan Attacks Pearl Harbor! America at War! Read all about it!

        Pat was not quite sure where Pearl Harbor was or what it meant that the Japanese had attacked it. But as a child growing up in a time when it was evident to everyone that the storm clouds of war were gathering fast, she knew it was bad news.

        And she was scared.

        “I thought the Japanese were going to bomb us next,” Mrs. Warren said, sitting at a table with her friends last week at the Sycamore Senior Center. She was crocheting American flag pins that the ladies are selling to raise money for the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

        “I was scared silly,” she said, laughing now at the memory. “I ran straight home, all the way up that steep hill, fast as I could.”

        Before the attack on the U.S. Navy in Pearl Harbor, Cincinnati was no more interested in fighting a foreign war than most of America.

        Isolationist feelings were strong. Cincinnati was, after all, the home of one of the principal voices of “America First” politics — U.S. Sen. Robert A. Taft.

        But events half a world away in the Hawaiian Islands changed all that.

        “Everyone is going to do his part to make Japanese the prevalent language in hell,” Cincinnati Mayor James G. Stewart declared on Dec. 7, after news of the attacks had spread through the city.

        On Sunday and Monday, Cincinnatians gathered around cathedral-style radios to listen to the latest reports of the devastation in the Pacific.

        In Cincinnati, officials increased police security around the city water works and private industries that had defense contracts, of which there were many.

        Wright Aeronautical Company, in the Mill Creek Valley, was one. It had been turning out engines for military planes months before Pearl Harbor.

        Cincinnati's Clopay Corp., too, sprung into action, turning out thousands of black window shades and shipping them to the West Coast, where people lived under a black-out in fear of Japanese air attack.

        In thousands of Cincinnati homes, young men began thinking about what part they could play.

        Harry Lee Dehmer, an 18-year-old from Northside, was one of them.

        He had graduated from Elder High School that spring. Two days before Pearl Harbor, he showed up at the Marine Corps recruiting center on Vine Street and enlisted.

        On Dec. 8, exactly one minute after President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on the Axis powers, the young Northside teen was sworn in as a Marine.

        That night, at the Schubert Theater, he and other newly sworn soldiers and sailors were brought to the stage to thunderous applause for patriotic send-off, complete with boogie-woogie music from the Andrews Sisters.

        In those first days after the Japanese attack, dozens of families prayed for their own sons who were already in the service in the Pacific theater, many in Pearl Harbor itself.

        A week after the attack, the Navy Department sent telegrams to three Cincinnati-area families that their sons were dead at Pearl Harbor — 18-year-old John Wesley Woodward of Woodlawn; 18-year-old Isadore Owens of Dayton, Ky.; and 19-year-old Harold Lee Lunsford of Latonia.

        But a few days later, the Navy Department was back in touch with the three sailors' families — their sons weren't dead after all.

        “What's this dope on me being dead?” Harold Lee Lunsford asked his father when he called him from Hawaii. “I'm alive as can be.”

        For some Cincinnatians, the fear that Pearl Harbor brought was more intense and more personal, because they themselves thought they could become targets of Americans' fury.

        They were the numerous German nationals and the relative handful of Japanese and Italian noncitizens.

        There were no more than about 30 Japanese in Cincinnati in 1941. One of them, Dr. Shiro Tashiro, 58, professor of biochemistry at the University of Cincinnati's College of Medicine, had achieved prominence.

        He had been teaching at UC for 25 years. But two days after Pearl Harbor, he felt compelled to call the newspapers and proclaim his allegiance to the United States, and that of his wife and children.

        Cincinnati's Chinatown was tiny, just about 300 people. However, businessman Charlie Yee, the Chinese community's unofficial mayor, feared that his countrymen would be mistaken for Japanese, so he printed up lapel buttons he asked them all to wear. “I am a Chinese,” the buttons said, “a Citizen of the United States.”

        In the first two weeks after Pearl Harbor, FBI agents rounded up nearly three dozen German, Italian and Japanese nationals in the Cincinnati area and incarcerated them. They were held without charges until officials could determine if they were security threats. All were eventually cleared and released — except the Japanese, who spent the war years in Western internment camps.

        Perhaps the most famous of the Germans arrested was Dr. William Luebener, a former World War I fighter pilot who had come to Cincinnati after the Nazis took power in 1933.

        Dr. Luebener's only “crime” was that in the days after World War I he had been the personal physician of Kaiser Wilhelm, the German leader who had been eclipsed by Adolf Hitler and who had died in 1941.

        After three months in prison, Dr. Luebener was released and returned to Cincinnati. He practiced medicine in the city for the next 40 years.

        “There was considerable uneasiness among Germans here,” said Don Heinrich Tolzmann, the director of German-American studies at the University of Cincinnati.

        Attendance at German-language masses declined in Cincinnati churches, Dr. Tolzmann said, “because people were fearful of being seen as German.

        “And, if they did go to mass,” Dr. Tolzmann said. “They knew there were probably some FBI agents sitting in the back pews.”

        Fear after Dec. 7 was a fact of life for many, but so too was pride in America and a determination to see the war through.

        “I remember being more angry than afraid,” said Irene Howell of Sycamore Township, who was an 11-year-old girl growing up in Fairfax when Pearl Harbor happened. “People were angry. People were united.”

        By Christmas of 1941, ordinary citizens were being asked to get involved in the war effort and make some sacrifices along the way.

        Collecting steel and iron — everything from tinfoil on cigarette packs to auto bodies — became a passion. Cincinnati children could be seen towing their Radio Flyer wagons along the street, going door to door to collect scrap metal.

        Shillito's department store downtown donated its 10-ton metal marquee to be melted down and made into bullets and cannon.

        Soon, Cincinnatians were told that certain items would have to be rationed — rubber for tires, sugar, flour, other staples.

        Mrs. Howell remembered her mother hiding a 25-pound bag of sugar in the family's wringer washing machine “because it was so hard to get.”

        Life, Mrs. Howell, “changed a lot and for a long time.”

        But she looks back on it and sees that the sacrifice was worth it. And, she says, it taught her a lesson that she would like to pass on to young people today, struggling to deal with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

        “Don't be afraid,” she said. “Roosevelt said it: We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”


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