Reflections: Life was going on in Kendall County in 1941, until Pearl Harbor

Eighty years ago next Tuesday, the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, without warning, destroying the fleet’s battleship squadrons. Fortunately, they missed the fleet’s aircraft carriers, and even more critically to the war effort, the huge tank farms with the fleet’s fuel oil supplies.

That Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt angrily described as “a day which will live in infamy,” galvanized the nation into an almost unbelievable level of cooperation that created the “Arsenal of Democracy” that eventually led to crushing the Axis powers of Japan, Germany and Italy.

The attack literally stunned the nation. Here in Kendall County, immediate reaction was shock, with not a little confusion.

Tensions with Japan over its conduct in China and elsewhere in the region had been growing for years, tensions that were getting through even to such a safe and protected place like pre-World War II Kendall County.

In general, life as usual was going on in November 1941. In Oswego, the high school’s home economics classes had moved into an off-campus house on Washington and Monroe streets. The house was built by Luella Hettrich in 1907 after she moved the house originally on the lot around the corner to Monroe Street. Mr. and Mrs. Ed Weidert moved into the relocated house in the late 1930s. Shortly before the home ec students moved in, the Weiderts welcomed home a new son, Gerald, born Oct. 26.

But those looming problems half a word away were beginning to cloud the horizon. The Nov. 12 Kendall County Record noted that “Gov. Dwight H. Green expressed faith in Illinois farmers to meet the call for increased food production and pledged the support of the State Department of Agriculture to the nation’s ‘food for defense’ program in a statement issued through the Illinois USDA Defense board.”

In general, however, life was moving on. The corn harvest was ongoing, with farmers planning to work right through Thanksgiving Day, weather permitting. At the county’s country and town schools, teachers – overwhelmingly young women –headed home to share the holiday with family. On Nov. 13, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Condon welcomed a new son. And on Nov. 19, the Record announced, “Richard Young, a senior at Oswego Community high school, has been elected by the student body to represent them as ‘Boy Mayor’ in the parade to be held in Aurora Nov. 21.”

But those war clouds continued to gather. On Nov. 26, the Record carried a short note announcing, “Mr. and Mrs. Charles Robinson entertained relatives at a Thanksgiving dinner Sunday. Their son, Wylie, in the selective service, will leave Saturday, as will two other Oswego boys, Louie Reid and J. Fred Reeves.”

The next week, Dec. 3, while noting there was a whooping cough epidemic getting started in Oswego in those pre-vaccination days, the county, state and nation were starting to get serious about registering everyone – even those who’d previously served – with the Selective Service. “Those men in the National Guard or Regular Army on Registration day who didn’t register but who have been discharged since must register immediately,” a note in the Record warned. “If you are within the age limits and haven’t registered because you were in the service, you had better get in touch with Mr. Wells of the Selective Service board at the courthouse in Yorkville and straighten out your status.”

Then came that devastating attack on the Pacific Fleet, and the start of America’s participation in the world war, the second worldwide conflict in the first half of the 20th century.

Finding the news difficult to believe, the Record’s Oswego correspondent briefly remarked with considerable understatement on Dec. 10: “The world is in a turmoil this Monday morning. This will be a day whose date goes down in history.” A story about a fire in the basement of the Oswego Prairie Church was several times as long.

Down in Yorkville, Record Publisher John Marshall tried to come to grips with what had happened in his usually breezy weekly local gossip column: “Of course the main topic of thought and conversation in Yorkville and elsewhere is the attack of the Japanese upon the United States and its possessions. And here we sit at the Linotype and try to concentrate what we facetiously call our brain on the writing of this here kolyum and at the same time hear the news reports as they come over the radio which is a difficult thing to do. So if the kolyum sounds a wee bit more screwy this week than it usually does, you know that there is some reason for it.”

The area’s Republican Congressman, Noah Mason, a bitter Roosevelt foe, threw his support solidly behind the war effort. “Signing off for Duration,” he wrote in the Record. “America has been attacked. War has come. From now on all Americans must put aside differences of opinion and unite to win the war as quickly as possible. We pray that ‘Peace on earth good will to men’ may soon become the controlling gospel of all nations.”

The pages of the Record began recording meetings of local Red Cross chapters who were knitting hats and mittens for soldiers, as well as notes on the young men who were either enlisting or being drafted. Forest Wooley, Bill Leigh, Bob McMicken, Cecil E. Carlson, Logan Harvey, Paul Krug, John Lewis, Elwyn Holdiman and Charles Sleezer all headed off to serve.

And bringing the Dec. 7 attack home to Kendall County, the Record reported on Jan. 28, 1942, that “Mrs. Mary Shoger received a message telling of the death of her grandson, Kay Fugate, 24 years old, who was killed in action at Pearl Harbor. He enlisted two years ago in Aurora.”

The conflict beginning Dec. 7 would continue for nearly four years and involve hundreds of local men and women. Some, like Dick Young, the “Boy Mayor,” would fight on bloody Iwo Jima with the U.S. Marine Corps but live to return home. So many, many more, like Kay Fugate at Pearl Harbor; Elwyn Holdiman, drafted just weeks after Pearl Harbor and killed in action in Holland in 1944; along with Oswego men Frank Clauser, Donald Johnson, Stuart Parkhurst and Paul Zwoyer would never return, but instead make the ultimate sacrifice for their nation.

• Looking for more local history? Visit http://historyonthefox.wordpress.com/.