"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Pearl Harbor shook Stevens County, typically

Think back to the overnight transformation that took place in early December of 1941.
Christmas should have been in the air. America was trying to escape the throes of the Great Depression. Life could be hardscrabble. For many people in that state of affairs, they didn't know the difference. Adversity had been the norm. We remembered World War I as "the great war."
The "America First" organization asserted itself strongly, convinced we didn't need to get involved in any foreign intervention. Charles Lindbergh was a leading "Firster." The European conflict was distant but worrisome.
Thanksgiving of 1941 had passed. I can't write with a straight face that we didn't have "Black Friday" back then. The calendar turned to December. The carols of Christmas should have been promoting a peaceful air.
Then everything changed. "It was December 7, 1941," wrote Rita Schuster-Spohnholtz, who back then was a seven-year-old Stevens County girl. She continued:
 
My mother was seated on a stool at the kitchen sink preparing food for the next meal. My younger brother and I were playing with, or more likely pestering, one another. Music could be heard coming from the radio on a shelf in the kitchen. Suddenly the radio announcer interrupted the music: "We interrupt this program to bring you an important announcement."
"Shsssh! Listen!" Mother said. The urgent tone of her voice let us know something important was happening. We immediately froze in our tracks and listened with her. President Roosevelt was telling the nation of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. "They have bombed our country," Mother explained. "This is serious now. The war is coming nearer!"
 
FDR referred to "The Empire of Japan." Americans began throwing around terms like "Japs" and "Nips" (for Nipponese). My mother Martha Ohlson-Williams was a high school student in Brainerd, which had a National Guard unit that got captured in the Philippines. Those poor men became prisoners of the Japanese.
Pearl Harbor has gone down in history books as a "surprise" attack. Various journalists, authors and retired military personnel have argued that parties high in the U.S. and British governments knew of the attack in advance and may have let it happen with the aim of bringing the U.S. into the war.
There was no equivocation after the attack. Americans in unison joined in the war effort. The "Firsters" essentially evaporated. It's sad their aim could not have been realized. War is nothing but bad.
The quote from Rita Schuster-Spohnholtz is from the Stevens County Historical Society book, "The '40s: a Time for War and a Time for Peace." Our Historical Society and museum are to be commended for putting together this collection of accounts. It was done when memories were still reliable, in the mid 1990s.
These saintly Greatest Generation people are now fading from the picture. They lived lives that our young people of today could hardly begin to relate to. First the Great Depression with its "dirty '30s," and then the world war.
Once done, these people formed the great "middle class" with its prosperity that represented great leaps forward. Mostly they believed in government because it was government that won the war. It has been said that war is the thing government does best. Maybe that's why we should have mixed thoughts about it (government). As the National Guard leader said to the Timothy Hutton character in the movie "Taps": "War is just one thing, and that's bad."
We can rejoice in the commitment we've made in past wars. We know we represented the forces for good. We can salute our heroes. All quite justified, but consider all the lives that were cut short. Those men wanted to live. Think of all the suffering in addition to the actual deaths.
Mankind evolved to a state in the 1940s where certain nation-states around the globe felt they had to put their young men in uniforms, manufacture war machinery and strive to kill, take prisoner etc.
Today the threat is terrorists. We go after them with "special forces." It's conflict not on the scale of what we saw in the mid-20th Century.
World War II has been described with the absurd term "the good war." That term grew out of the obvious fact that Viet Nam was something other than good. In between we had Korea. It tests our determination to believe in God.
My old boss Jim Morrison says "our generation (the boomers) never took much to church-going." We were probably thinking of Viet Nam. We were thinking of Billy Graham kissing up to Richard Nixon. We were probably asked to pray for our servicemen in Viet Nam. I would have preferred praying for the Vietnamese people.
The men in uniform on all sides are just young souls doing what their government asks of them.
 
Healing effect of time
There was a time when U.S. veterans bristled mightily at the idea of the Japanese pilots joining the Americans for any sort of memorial event at Pearl Harbor. But those feelings eventually softened. Feelings always soften as we achieve emotional distance.
The argument on behalf of the Japanese is that they were just young men following their leaders. Fair enough. Let's blame government.
Someday emotional distance will allow us to watch movies that are vivid and graphic about 9/11. We're not there yet. Seeing Nicolas Cage get pulled from the rubble was just scratching the surface. Someday the barriers will come down and we'll see movies exploring every aspect of what happened that tragic morning, even a movie made from the perspective of the hijackers. Such movies will be made to satisfy curiosity. People can be ghouls too.
Us boomers sure didn't hesitate going to WWII movies at our Morris Theater in the 1960s. Our elders were strangely indifferent about war movies or war toys and games based on WWII combat. I'm amazed as I think back to this.
"Hit the Beach" was a board game. Nothing was more terrifying for U.S. service personnel, I suspect, than "hitting the beach" (island-hopping in the Pacific). My father Ralph E. Williams served in the Pacific Theater as gunnery commander.
My mother bought me as a Christmas gift one year a plastic hand grenade that worked on "caps" (as with a cap gun). She bought it at the old Varnum's Hardware Store on main street.
The curtain for war was opened on that fateful early winter day in 1941. Irene Croom Monroe reminisced:
 
I had sung in the choir at church in the morning. In the afternoon, a group of us filled bags with candy, peanuts and so forth, for Santa to give to the little kids when he made his call in Hancock. I did not arrive home until after dark, babbling about the neat things we had done, said and eaten. Dad and my brothers were outside looking after the stock - Mom was sitting in the living room with only the light shining in from the dining room and the glow from the hard coal stove. As I came in, she stood and told me, "The United States is at war." She turned to wipe her tears and I stared at the red coals in the stove and thought, "How can this be? How could anyone do this to us? How could anyone spoil our lives like this?"
 
I have fond memories of Irene, both from her role with her family photography business and the Morris Chamber of Commerce. She worked with the Chamber at the spot now occupied by "Stephanie Foto."  
There were two family photography businesses in Morris when I was growing up: Monroe Photos and Garberick Photo. Monroe's was located where the Willie's parking lot is now. Garberick's was across from the Stevens County Courthouse.
The old Garbericks' house was razed to expand parking for the courthouse. For the life of me, I don't see why those "islands" are necessary in the courthouse parking lot. That parking lot already lacks "breathing room" for people to maneuver larger than average cars.
The whole courthouse renovation scheme was cockeyed, I feel. As technology takes us into the future, bricks and mortar assets will be less and less important for government. It's happening rapidly.
I remember how Monroe's and Garberick's would grumble about those non-local "hit and run" photography services that would come to town. How quaint. The mom and pop businesses of the past have faded. We think nothing of a photography service setting up shop temporarily at City Center Mall. The world changes.
Change can seem like the only constant. It was so sudden on that early December day in 1941. Mary Olsen-Dripps remembers:
 
I had been out in the country with my mother and little brother helping my aunt, Amanda Winkels, tie a quilt. When we arrived home, my dad met us at the door and he was very shaken. He had heard on the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
It wasn't too long after the war started that my Winkels uncles, Albin and Victor, along with my cousin "Butch" Wartman, came up to our house to tell us goodbye. They were wearing their army uniforms and left with Battery 'B'. Later Doug Wartman joined the Navy. There were a lot of tears shed, but I was too young to understand why."
 
Young people had to grow up in a hurry. The servicemen did, and the youngsters like Mary who had to join in the sacrifice, foregoing some of the expected pleasures or diversions of life. The Depression had been hard enough. Now there was war.
In 1945 post-war, the pendulum went back and with a dose of actual affluence. The Greatest Generation had children like me, growing up with Captain Kangaroo on TV. And, ready to play with plastic hand grenades. Strange.
Conflict of such grisly proportions ought to be filed away in the past.
Mary went on to marry Bill Dripps who was "Mr. Oldsmobile" in Morris. Our family bought our "famous" 1967 Oldsmobile Toronado from Dripps Oldsmobile. What a vehicle! I could drive it in a parade today.
Stevens County natives were at Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack. Let's let the Morris Tribune of January 2, 1942, tell that story:
 
Two Stevens County youths who were on Navy duty in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, at the time of the devastating Jap attack there on December 7, are alive and well according to word received by their parents the past week.
Mr. and Mrs. E.C. Van Horn on Wednesday received a card from their son, Robert L. Van Horn, stationed on the U.S.S. Nevada, saying that he was well. The card was dated at Pearl Harbor December 10, three days after the surprise attack on the harbor by the Japs.
Mrs. Wilbert Stambaugh of Donnelly received a letter last week from her son, Wilbert Jr., stationed on the U.S.S. Medusa in Pearl Harbor, but nearly the entire contents of the two-page letter excepting only the information that the young man was well had been blacked out by Naval censors.
Nevertheless, the messages from the boys, brief as it was, were welcomed by their parents.
 
The boys! That generation committed itself to the task at hand.
Today we worry about the Ukraine. President Barack Obama with U.S. allies wants to settle the tensions there with means other than guns and tanks. We pray the task is within reach.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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