That earlier era of national dread

By Tim Henney
Reader Contributor

The reason journalism giants Ben and Cameron like me to write for the Reader is because I’m old. They invite me to remember things. I can recall pre-nursery school if required. That kind of gift, if that’s what it is, never helped in academics, but it does in recalling yesteryears. Asked to write about the Great Depression, the early ‘40s King Cole Trio, 1950s sports car culture in SoCal, the rise and fall of NYC’s World Trade Center, life among Greenwich Village bohemians or whatever, they want to know how I was  personally involved.

Not old enough to serve in World War II, I wasn’t far behind those who were — and remember the era well. The anxious mindset of many or most Americans today, since the “fake news” and Russian-influenced electoral college victory of a classic con man, are not without emotional precedent. We were just as fearful following the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor—and for some months after that. Months in 1942 were as feverish in national angst as they are today following the most cataclysmic presidential election in modern history. A hate-mongering flim flam man as president in the nuclear age, or a pre-atomic bomb Pearl Harbor attack? I’d call it a toss-up.

•In a brutal two-week siege, the Pacific island of Wake Island was captured by overpowering Japanese amphibious forces just two weeks after Pearl Harbor. Against some 500 American military, most of them U.S. Marines with 12 fighter planes, 12 anti-aircraft guns and six coastal artillery pieces, the Japanese deployed repeated waves of Mitsubishi medium bombers, two aircraft carriers, two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, 10 destroyers, 450 special naval landing force troops and 2,500 additional infantry.

The January l, 1942 Rose Bowl football game is among vivid personal memories of the weeks following December 7, 1941. Stretched on the carpet next to a cabinet radio in the music room of my grandparents’ Long Beach home, I cheered for the Oregon State College Beavers to beat the favored Duke University Blue Devils. And they did. Almost a month after the Japanese attack had killed 2,403 people, wounded l,178 and disabled half the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor, authorities shifted the Rose Bowl game to Durham, N.C., to discourage an air attack on Pasadena. I was a 10-year-old Californian and constructing scrapbooks about USC, Cal-Berkeley and Stanford football was my gig. After that game I added OSC’s mighty beavers.

•One week after Wake Island fell, the Japanese bombed the U.S. Army Air Corps’ Clark Field then captured Manila. Chief poobah Douglas MacArthur knew the Japanese were due, but kept 35 bombers, 56 fighters and 25 other aircraft neatly parked wing to wing on the tarmac. Enemy bombers destroyed them all.

For a Korean War vet who grew up thinking and still thinks only police, military and booze-free hunters ought to be allowed to own guns, my chauvinistic fifth-grade response to the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack seems curious. I dropped out of Longfellow School and enrolled as a day student in Southern California Military Academy (SCMA). Same town, Long Beach. Driving with my mom past SCMA I saw uniformed kids marching around with rifles. Man, I had to go there! After enrolling I learned that rifles were issued only on special occasions, like Parents Day. Worse, they weren’t real.

In December 1941 and into 1942 people were reading Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls.” “Citizen Kane” was packing movie theaters. Perhaps emboldened by this fifth grader’s switch (today one must say “transition” or “pivot”) to SCMA, Hollywood pitched in. Actor Jimmy Stewart flew bomber missions in Europe. But most Hollywood types stayed home churning out films like “Wake Island,” “Flying Fortress,” “Commandos Strike At Dawn,” “The Battle Of Midway,” “Flying Tigers,” and everyone’s favorite World War II movie, “Casablanca.” Another who stayed home was Hoboken’s “Frankie” Sinatra, skinny kid vocalist with the Tommy Dorsey band. Who knew?

An artistic depiction of the Bataan Death March. Illustration by David K. Stone.

An artistic depiction of the Bataan Death March. Illustration by David K. Stone.

•On April 9, the 140,000 starving U.S. and Filipino defenders of Bataan surrendered. Isolated, battered and abandoned, someone there wrote:

“We’re the battling bastards of Bataan. 

No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam. 

No aunts, no  uncles, no nephews, no nieces. 

No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces. 

… and nobody gives a damn!”

America did give a damn. But six months after Pearl Harbor we were still fighting a defensive war, incapable of providing reinforcements to our battling bastards in the far-off Philippines. Every soldier, sailor and marine, every plane, warship and weapon in our fast-growing arsenal was needed to halt new Japanese and Nazi advances around the globe.

•On the infamous, 65-mile death march that followed Bataan’s fall, 7,000-10,000 American and Filipino POWs, of the 75,000 on the march, died from exhaustion, disease and lack of food and water. And from being bayoneted and beheaded if they stumbled. It’s politically incorrect to mention that today as we happily slurp sushi and sake, but that’s what happens in wars. Of those who survived the death march, nearly half died during imprisonment.

One late night in January 1942 a loud racket awakened me in an upstairs bedroom of my grandparents’ landmark three-story 1920s Dutch colonial home. Something outside was banging and clattering. A loud, booming racket. I leaped from bed, ran to a window and saw a sky alive with searchlights. Anti-aircraft guns were blasting at a small plane caught in the lights high over the city. In Long Beach? Really? Shrapnel was found everywhere the next day, but I don’t recall the L.A. Times or anyone else saying the target was a Japanese bomber. More likely some lost dude in a Piper cub looking for Long Beach airport — and pondering the inhospitality of local city fathers. One of whom was my Stanford University stepdad. Leading jeweler, Rotarian, country club president, hospital board chair, he’d jammed on his issued hard hat and rushed out into the furious night to help however he might at the fire station up the street next to Eddie Gavin’s drugstore.

•Corregidor was next. From Dec. 29 to the end of April, Japanese  relentlessly bombarded the tunneled Corregidor garrison of mainly U.S. Marines. Out of ammunition, food and medicine, and vastly outnumbered by 75,000 Japanese troops, Lt. General Jonathan Wainwright sent this radio message to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on May 6, 1942: “There is a limit of human endurance, and that point has long been passed.”

A soldier stands next to a downed Mitsubishi Zero fighter on the Soloman Islands in 1943. Courtesy photo.

A soldier stands next to a downed Mitsubishi Zero fighter on the Soloman Islands in 1943. Courtesy photo.

Those who weren’t fighting in Europe or the Pacific were singing about those who were, and vice versa. “I Don’t Want To Walk Without You,” “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place,” “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree,” “Stage Door Canteen,” “Till Then, I’ll Be Seeing You.”

In the late 1980s after retirement from NYC corporate life, my family and I lived in the picture postcard Illinois farm town of Geneseo, near the Mississippi River. A retirement hobby was producing a weekly Broadway/Big Band radio program. Because of that I was sometimes asked to visit area civic clubs. At a lunch in a nearby farm town, the topic was World War II music. After the remarks, punctuated with taped recordings, a vet said I’d omitted the most memorable song of all. While a Nazi prisoner his captors had played Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” every winter night over loudspeakers. He said the song made him and his fellow POWs weep.

•The sole personal war tragedy my family suffered was uncle Frank Brown’s disappearance early in the war. At every family birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas, “Brownie” was the subject of hope and prayers. A Naval Academy graduate, he was commander of a 1930s-built submarine, the Seal, an original member of the Navy’s heroic Silent Service. I don’t think even his young wife, our “Aunt Babe,” learned the details of Brownie’s fate until after the war. The Seal was on night patrol in the Aleutian Islands. Commander Brown and his crew saw through the periscope what they agreed was a Japanese tanker. Deciding to save a torpedo or two for more competitive game, they surfaced, bent on sinking the enemy with the deck gun. A Japanese destroyer bristling with cannons, it sank the Seal and shot all but one of the crew. Released from a POW camp after the war, he told the grim story (at Pearl Harbor there is a plaque commemorating Brownie and his men and the Seal).

While Hitler was running amuck in Europe and the Japanese were gobbling up China, Indonesia and the Pacific in the opening months of the war, my sixth grade Long Beach buddies and I fought our own battles. We played tackle football against the bigger, better Los Cerritos and Cal Heights teams from nearby neighborhoods. No uniforms, coaches, officials, penalties, time clock or cheering parents. Players arrived at the park by bicycle with shoulder pads and helmets slung over handlebars. We played until one team was too bruised to continue. Usually ours. We were pint-sized battling bastards of Bataan.

Four of us, the inseparable “Big Four,” sometimes ran into additional troubles. One Sunday, armed with baseball mitts, bats and a ball, we scaled the tall, iron gates of Longfellow elementary school, opened a hallway door, and let our dogs in. Leaving dogs in an interior patio, the Big Four climbed a sweet pea trellis and entered administrative offices via the ladies restroom. As we giggled over a wall-mounted Kotex machine, a pudgy man in a civilian suit opened a door and yanked us into an office. He demanded IDs. Three of us — Bobby, Jimmie and I — rapidly produced wallets from back pockets, with names inside. I can’t imagine how we managed that. At 11 years old we didn’t carry drivers’ licenses. The fourth member of the Big Four, nicknamed “Boss” because he slept so late on weekends, had no identification. With visions of penitentiary life dancing in my head, I yelled, “Boss, show him your underwear!” Boss, Bobby and I had just returned from two weeks at Camp O-ongo in the mountains near Lake Arrowhead. Campers were required to have names stitched into underwear, socks, shirts, pants, etc., in red thread for washday retrievals. Our captor accepted the underwear thread then suggested we were there to steal stuff. We said no, we just wanted to break into the school with dogs, baseball mitts and bats and mess around on a Sunday.

When two young cops arrived they smiled when they saw the desperadoes they confronted. Our dads retrieved us from the downtown city jail. My greatest fear concerned the dogs. Could they make it home alone, six blocks away and across a busy boulevard? I remember like it was yesterday looking out the rear window of the squad car at our abandoned best friends, ears up, staring, furrowed canine brows, wondering what the hell? Southern California being considerably slower in early 1942 than today, all three followed their noses safely home.

Check next week’s Reader for the second half of Tim Henney’s two-part article on remembrances from World War II.

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