Letty Owings, age 89, recalls events of the day, on December 7, 1941, as the “day that changed everything.”
Recalling December 7, 1941
Everything changed on a Sunday. I had come home briefly from college where I was enrolled in a nature class. I wanted to collect some puffballs from the woods for my class. My father knew where to find these things so we went to the woods where they were, collected some samples, and returned home. I sat in a room with the sample collection, and my father went to the other room to listen to the wind charger radio.
He returned a few moments later and he said to me, word-for-word, “Honey, we’re in a war.”
After my father listened to the wind charger radio and learned that we were in a war, he drove me back to college at Missouri Central University. Since the announcement did not affect our classes, I took the puffballs that I had collected from the woods for my nature class.
On Monday, December 8, 1941, the university called all of the students into Hendricks Hall. The school chose the large hall as a meeting place because it was the only building on campus large enough to accommodate 1000 students for an assembly. A man named H Roe Bartle delivered the speech. He was a large and imposing man and his physical presence at the podium added to his powerful delivery. H Roe Bartle read from President Roosevelt’s declaration of war on both fronts. He ended the speech by quoting from the English patriotic song written and distributed in 1939 called There’ll Always be an England, by saying the words, “There’ll always be an England and England will be free, if England means to you what England means to me.”
The atmosphere in Hendricks Hall at that moment was eerie. It was like electricity and so emotional that while some students cried, others just stared. Many jumped up to enlist then and there. Senior boys just shy of graduating were anxious to abandon their schooling and had to be convinced to stay in school and graduate. Since there were no speech writers to temper tone in those days, what Roosevelt said, Roosevelt said. Both Roosevelt’s announcement and H Roe Bartle’s subsequent speech conveyed the same gravity and raw heartfelt shock that we all shared. We had no concept of war, no frame of reference. We had entered the assembly as one person and came out another, with the final understanding that yes, our lives have changed forever. America became mesmerized.
Following the announcement almost immediately, members of regular university faculty were conscripted according to the following formula: the Army, Navy and Marines came in and took whoever they wanted and told them what to teach and where to teach it.
Even before the concepts of totally non-negotiable unconditional surrender and the declaration of war on both fronts sank in academically, the government instituted a rationing system in early 1942. Everything had to go to the military, and we were issued ration cards. Rubber was one of the first things to be limited: no more tires, rubber boots or yard goods were sold for civilian use. Gasoline, leather and sugar were rationed, and it was against the law to trade these things. Farmers could get a little more gasoline for their tractors, but they had to provide documented proof of how much they needed and what it was for. If they ever caught you putting gasoline in a car when it was allotted for the tractor, you’d be up shit creek, and there was the occasional speculation, “Well, I believe he unscrewed the carburetor on that tractor and put that gas in his car, how else has he able to drive to Wellington twice?”
People adjusted to rationing in stride as something they were required and obliged to do. Abuse and treachery of the rationing system were not generally done because people had a feeling they might be hurting an officer if they cheated the system.
Within a short period of time, hardly any adult man was out of uniform. The men were in uniform whether they were walking on the street, attending church, shopping at the store or going about their daily business. Bellbottoms, khakis, lapel bars and hats were worn everywhere. In a way, the military uniform was a great leveler because men going about their daily lives were now part of something that they had not been part of before. There was some occasional fakery that went on when it came to dating, when, for example, a man would represent himself as rich and accomplished to a prospective date, only to have his wife eventually show up.
The uniform was important to the point where being a “civvy” required an excellent excuse or else drew extreme criticism. In fact, there quickly developed a prejudice against men who were not in uniform. A boy I dated had graduated and was teaching math. He went to Scott Air Force Base to teach troops, but the troops ridiculed him because he was dressed in civilian clothing. Because of this, he enlisted and returned to the same job for less pay, where he was not the subject of criticism.
All three boys of one cousin, from Odessa, Missouri, went to war. One day the father got a telegram, and was told to drive to town. Two telegrams awaited him in Odessa: one son had been killed in the Pacific and another one was killed in Europe. The third son was pulled out of the war, because the rule was that if two were killed, the third one could not continue to serve.
One of the ironies about the moment in December of 1941 that became frozen in time- the beginning of a war that took so many- was that some of the kids who previously had no possibility of going to college had a chance to go after the war, with the GI Bill. You can see this if you go back and look at the college enrollment before and after the war.
H Roe Bartle went on to serve as mayor of Kansas City, Missouri for two terms. He was also an executive and an organizer for the Boy Scouts of America. Also, the Kansas City Chiefs football team is named after Bartle’s nickname, “The Chief.”
Creative Commons image courtesy Paul Walsh on Flickr
cross-posted at Firedoglake.