The First Week Of December 1941

On Monday, December 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that Sunday, the day before, would live in infamy, and that the United States was now at war with Japan, Germany, and Italy.  The President’s statement and the events of that Sunday in Hawaii had little impact on me at that time.

My Granddad, James Monroe Otwell, had died at the age of 67 early Thursday morning the 4th.  Jim and Alice Otwell had provided food, shelter, and protection for my mother, dad, baby sister, Alice Melinda, and me; therefore, his death was devastating to me.  Granddad Pershall had died in 1933 at the age of 57.  In 1935 our family was like many families in the Great Depression – destitute and in need of help.  In May of that year when I was 8 years old, Grandmother sent us money for a train ride from Wynona, Oklahoma to the arms of Granddad and Grandmother in Snyder, Oklahoma.  Even after Mother started teaching the second grade in Snyder schools, and we were on our own, we still felt their love and protection.

That Saturday morning, the First Methodist Church was overflowing for Granddad’s services.  Most of the businesses in town were closed for the occasion, since Granddad was a fellow businessman.  The church could have been pretty well filled with relatives, since in the area lived two of Granddad’s brothers and two of his sisters, as well as one of Grandmother’s sisters.  Granddad was a pioneer in the community.  He helped lay out the town and his original real estate and insurance office was in a railroad boxcar. The family home was three miles away in Mountain Park, but they established their home in Snyder as soon as a house could be built.  About the time of statehood, he lost his eyesight.  After a layoff of a year he opened his business again with a partner, C, M, Portwood

As was the custom in those days, a somber wreath was placed on the front door and notice of death cards were circulated through the town.  The body was brought home, and there was the wake which meant that friends were awake all night in the house.

Among the many relatives arriving from out of state was Mother’s brother Flournoy, from Steubenville, Ohio.  Aunt Allis from Norman and Uncle Jay from Phoenix were there, but that was not unusual.  Uncle Flournoy had not been with the family since Granddad drove him to the highway between Vernon and Wichita Falls, Texas, about 35 miles away, and gave him $50, and told him “Goodbye.”  I never knew what all their problems had been, except that Flournoy had a marriage that was short lived to the daughter of an itinerant farm worker from eastern Oklahoma.  Something might be made of his nickname, “Dinger” given to him by his schoolmates.  All I know is that he was a little different.

Sunday morning, December the 7th Uncle Flournoy, Daddy and I were driven to Oklahoma City by Daddy’s best friend, George Idlett.  We took Flournoy to the bus station for his trip home.  We had dinner as we called the noon meal at the Cattleman’s Café near the stockyard and proceeded back home.

It was a beautiful sunny day so George decided to drive through the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge rather than through the shorter but congested route through Lawton.  George had something in his car that Granddad’s car did not have – a radio.  We were listening to the radio and watching for deer, buffalo and Texas longhorn cattle. Suddenly the program was interrupted with the startling announcement that the Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii killing and injuring thousands of military people and civilians.  It went on to say that this was an act of war.

This was shocking to all three of us but as a 15 year old I did not comprehend how much this would impact our lives as well as the   lives of people of the whole world.  George and Daddy understood much more of what it meant since they were boys on the home front during the previous war ending in 1918.  George was visibly alarmed and remarked that his son, Doug, was stationed at Nichols Air Field in the Philippines.  Daddy assured George that the Philippines were too far away from Hawaii and Japan for Doug to be in danger.

The next day proved that Floyd had no sense of geography.  That  day, Doug was on the airfield when it was bombed by the Japs. Two weeks later the Philippines were invaded and on April 9, the Bataan forces were surrendered and Doug was taken prisoner.  He was one of the few who survived the Bataan Death March, prison camp and various other work details before being sent by a hell ship to Japan.

Doug Idlett who was taken prisoner in the   Philippines and was on the Bataan March.  He was taken on a "Death   Ship" to Nigata, Japan as a prisoner to load and unload coal.

Doug Idlett who was taken prisoner in the
Philippines and was on the Bataan March. He was taken on a “Death
Ship” to Nigata, Japan as a prisoner to load and unload coal.

The whole town of Snyder was distraught about Doug’s captivity.  George and Edith were absolutely devastated and inconsolable.  As I remember, they received a couple of cards from him through the Red Cross.  In one of them, he wrote that he was working as a servant in the home of a rich Japanese family.  Everyone agreed that his life might be bearable as a prisoner under these circumstances.

We were now at war and the impact of Pearl Harbor began to hit me.  Friends and others were leaving for service.  We did not know if they would return and many were in far away locations known only by an APO number.  Many families moved to California and elsewhere to work in war industries.  Everybody on the home front participated in scrap drives for metal, rubber and paper.  We had rationing of gasoline, tires, shoes, and food. Our family was especially affected by the rationing of sugar.

We were encouraged to buy war stamps and bonds.  In school we had contests to determine which class would buy the most war stamps.  Our movies and newsreels showed the atrocities performed by the Axis and Japs.  At night, I would scan the skies for enemy bombers.  We had been told that surely Ft.  Sill, 25 miles away, would be bombed, and that if there was a bomb remaining, it surely would be dropped on Snyder.

I was seventeen when I finished high school, and in three months, I would register for the draft.  I decided to enroll in the University of Oklahoma and wait for my draft call.  I have never been much of a volunteer. I just wait for things to happen and react.  On Åpril17, 1945, I was sworn into the Army.  After infantry basic training at Camp Livingston near Alexandria, Louisiana, and a week at home, I was sent to Japan for the occupation.  The atom bomb was  dropped on Hiroshima the week I finished basic training.

Me just after my 19th birthday in 1945 a few months before I left for Japan as part of the occupation

Me just after my 19th birthday in 1945, a few months before I left for Japan as part of the occupation

In early November 1945, I arrived in Japan and was assigned to the 32nd Infantry Battalion.  These men had been in the Philippines and in the plans for the invasion of Japan, they were to invade a mountainous area where 90% casualties were expected.  The dropping of two atomic bombs no doubt saved my life.  Of the replacement troops who arrived, I was the only one who could type, so I became Company Clerk and lived in the back of the office with the First Sergeant.  I was the only person who got to sleep in and did not report for reveille.

For three months, we were billeted in an abandoned ball bearing factory outside of Takarazuka, home of the Takarazuka Cherry Blossom Girls Opera Company.  Its membership is limited to women only.  Men’s characters were played by women.  They provided entertainment for us a few times while we were there.

After three months, we were transferred out of that location.  I was sent to the Signal Corps in Tokyo and billeted in the eight story San Shin Building across the boulevard from the Imperial Palace   and a block away from the General Headquarters, where Douglas McArthur reigned.

In this job, I was the personnel clerk for the Americans civilians working in the General Headquarters Signal Center.   My desk was located by a glass wall on the first floor of the building so I looked out on the street activity.  I had a 24-hour pass so that I could come and go as I pleased.  We had excellent food prepared by former chefs in USA west coast hotels who had returned to Japan at the start of the war.

All of the Allied Nations had military people in Tokyo.  I was especially impressed with the British celebration of their Empire Day holiday with a  parade of military forces from all of their countries,  I saw Generals Eisenhower and McArthur.  I shopped  on the Ginza a few blocks away, which was the hub of their Broadway and financial center.  I saw my first opera,”Pagliacci” performed with “Cavalleria Rusticana.”  I saw Swan Lake Ballet performed by Russian dancers.

Across the street from our building was the Takarazaka Theater which had been taken over by the U. S. Occupations Forces and renamed the Ernie Pyle.  I spent a lot of evenings there watching live theater and musicals including the first performance allowed in Japan of “The Mikado”.  An interesting footnote about this theater is that when I returned with Jean to Tokyo in 1984, we went there and the theater now had it original name, the Takarazuka Theater.  There we saw the Takarazuka Cherry Blossom Girls Opera Company perform the musical “Gone With The Wind” and all the men’s parts were played by women, including that of Rhett Butler.  The woman playing Rhett had the swagger but something was missing.  She was no Clark Gable.

After getting very seasick on the troop transport ship going to Japan, I said I would not go home until I could fly, but in November, I jumped at the chance to take a ship to San Francisco.  This time I was in a cabin with only three other sergeants instead of in the bowels of the ship with bunks stacked four deep as in my previous cruise.  The trip home was good, and my year in Japan had been terrific.  It was a great experience for me, and maybe I matured a little in many ways.

I arrived back in Snyder in December 1945 and enrolled in O.U. in January 1946 and became a fan of Bud Wilkinson football.

At a couple of high school reunions, I visited with Doug Idlett and his wife, Jerry.  Jerry Woody was his high school sweetheart.  They had lived in Amarillo and Oklahoma City before moving to Virginia.  He had left Snyder by the time I returned from Japan and I had heard little of what had happened to him.

About three or four years ago, I had a telephone call from Doug, and I heard the rest of the story.  In September of 1943, he was taken to Moji city, Japan in the shifting hold of a freighter; then to a frigid hell of a louse infected prison near the coaling docks of Niigata, Japan.  There the prisoners marched to the docks and they carried coal from the barges and ships to the railroad cars.  When the cars were loaded, they had to push them to the locomotive.  Their food consisted of small amounts of rice, sometimes flavored with fish.  For two years. Doug and the others suffered from fatigue, hunger, and desperation.

I asked about the story in his cards to his folks stating that he worked in the home of a wealthy family.  He replied that the lie was written so that his parents would not worry.  Only one of every four who started the Bataan Death March was alive to load the coal trains.

He told of the Death March with little or no food.  One time he went nine days without food.  The march consisted of scattered small groups and occasionally one of the group would dash into the woods to look for something to eat, such as a plant or bark that was edible.  Once he found a bottle with Japanese printing on it that obviously was medicine.  He and a couple of the others swallowed some of it to possibly help their malaria.  It did cure their fever.  Many of the prisoners died of fever, starvation, and by the sword or rifles of the Japs.  When they arrived at their destination, Doug showed the medicine to an American doctor, who told him that it was indeed for malaria but the dosage Doug took normally would have killed him.  Doug added that he has not had a fever since, not even with pneumonia or the flu.  Doctors who hear this are baffled.

Doug survived, overcame his hatred and fears and had a good life.  He died June 19, 2008 at the age of 89 and was interned in Arlington National Cemetery. Jerry preceded him in death.  He is survived by two children.

In October 1945, Doug was at sea returning home by the way of Manila and Seattle to a hospital in Tacoma.  At the same time, I was at sea on my way to Japan as one of the first of the occupation forces.   Our paths probably crossed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

The impact of that first week in December 1941 is still felt in many ways today.  I learned certain discipline in my life from my experiences, living through the depression, the home front battles, and the Army training, and occupation.  I observed the disillusionment of the defeated people of Japan.  I learned the value of other cultures and was exposed to travel and the arts.  Through my knowledge of Doug Idlett, I learned empathy for those who have died and suffered the atrocities of war.

Because of military service, I was able to attend the university under the G. I. Bill, and like millions of others, gained a standard of living far beyond previous generations.  My granddad gave me his name, his big ears, his Methodism which are still with me.

I have written this because I want the younger members of my family to hear something about the impact on me and others by the events of the first week of December 1941.  Survivors of this period before and after the first week of December 1941 learned to “make – do”, sacrifice, face reality and value freedom and the important things of life.  We give credit for our freedom to our government and our forefathers.  We know that our abundant life is from our savior, Jesus Christ.

Jim Pershall

January 2009