War's opening act stunned, angered South Dakotans

Editor's note: This story is reprinted from the Aug. 29, 2006, "War Stories" special edition. Edna Weller remembers the confusion, but also the patriotism. Kathryn Crockett recalls the shock. Six decades have not dulled the memories of Mitchell-a...

Editor's note: This story is reprinted from the Aug. 29, 2006, "War Stories" special edition.

Edna Weller remembers the confusion, but also the patriotism.

Kathryn Crockett recalls the shock.

Six decades have not dulled the memories of Mitchell-area residents who remember when they first heard the news that Pearl Harbor had been attacked by Japan, an act that crippled the U.S. Navy, killed 3,000 men and sent waves of shock across the nation. It also led to the United States entering World War II, which would result in the death of 405,000 Americans.

"People were confused. We knew something terrible had happened and it took awhile, of course, before the president made his famous speech," said


Weller, a Mitchell woman who turns 105 this summer, but was 40 at the time of the attack. "I remember that we were just uncertain. We were in a state of shock when we heard what happened."

Across South Dakota, feelings of uncertainty, anger and fear were common, according to several resi-dents from the region.

Although the attack came early in the morning Hawaii time, South Dakotans were just home from church and finishing their noon meal when news of the attack first came. In an era before any homes had television and not everyone had a telephone, news still came quickly, mostly over the radio and by word of mouth.

Crockett was listening to the radio with her family when music was interrupted to announce the attack.

"Just after (the radio program) started, they broke in to say that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. That was a real shock -- I didn't even know there was more than one Hawaiian island at the time," said Crockett, who later lived in Hawaii for more than 30 years.

"I know my parents were absolutely flabbergasted at such a sneak attack."

Weller heard about the attack while on her way to visit family in Fulton. She said that at first, there were feelings of uncertainty, which later became a mix of rage and patriotism.

"It was shocking," she said. "It was just unbelievable."


Almost immediately after Pearl Harbor, she said, nearly everyone became involved in the war effort in some form, whether it was making sandwiches for soldiers heading off to war or buying war stamps and bonds, which would be repaid to the buyer with interest after the war's conclusion.

"They promoted that to the Nth degree," she said. "Just about everybody that possibly could bought war bonds. I just know that we did everything we possibly could to win the war. I want to stress that people were most loyal to the country at that time and if they weren't, there were consequences."

Crockett said she often would ride around town on a bicycle, collecting aluminum to be used for the war effort. It was typical of the era, she said.

"The country really went into action," she said.

Everyday citizens organized scrap iron drives and businesses converted their production. In

Mitchell, for instance, Rozum Motors switched its efforts to making metal punches, to be used in the war effort. Patriotic posters were plastered throughout America, reminding residents to buy war bonds and to "Avenge December 7." One poster pictured a young girl, holding a photo of a serviceman.

The poster read "Don't kill her daddy with careless talk" -- obviously a blunt update of the

"Loose lips sink ships" theme. Some basics, such as sugar and meat, were strictly rationed.


People on the home front were divided into three categories for their gas rations: C, for someone who had to travel for reasons such as business; B and A.

Someone with an "A" classification hardly received any gas at all, Crockett said.

It was an era when total patriotism was required, according to those who were alive at the time.

"I remember the rationing of gas, sugar and everything," said Crockett. "People in this country ... really did try to help with their own lifestyle. It really wouldn't hurt to remind people that those on the home front were trying to help with this, as well."

Maybe it was because of the general shock that pervaded after the sneak attack on Dec. 7, 1941. One thing, however, was certain: The brunt of the war would be carried on the shoulders of a generation that hardly was out of high school.

Harriet Turnwall was an Armour native who was at Dakota Wesleyan University during the war. She said "we knew it was bad."

"We just sat and listened to the radio constantly," said Turnwall, who now lives in Huron. "We were young people and we didn't know what was going to happen, but we knew that we were going to be at war and the boys would have to be going."

More than 2,200 South Dakotans died during World War II, with Davison County losing more than 50 young men alone.


"Everyone was bitter," Lawrence Helling, Mitchell, said of his reaction to Japan's attack.

"We should have been on the watch more. We knew their planes were in the air, but we never thought they would be that ruthless to attack us."

Wendell Creasey said he was just leaving church when he first heard of the attack.

"We knew it was coming, but we didn't think that's how we would get into the war," said Creasey, origi-nally from Idaho, but now living in Burke.

Henry Kortmeyer, also of Burke, went into the service in March of 1941 and originally was expected to serve one year. After Pearl Harbor, he was told he was in the military for the duration of the war.

"We were looking forward to our one year being up," he said. "Then this happened."

Rudy Becker, of Herrick, didn't have a radio in 1941. It took him a full day to hear what had happened.

"I was uptown Monday -- didn't find out until Monday morning. That was the first I'd heard about it," he said. "I couldn't believe it, but it was sure enough true."


Janet Krause, now of Mitchell, was working in a hospital in Denver and remembers "when I heard about it ... how awful it was."

George McGovern, who was attending Dakota Wesleyan at the time, was, like Crockett, listening to the radio broadcast of the New York Philharmonic.

McGovern, a former U.S. senator who recalled the day in his book "Grassroots: The Autobiography of George McGovern," said listening to the program was a requirement for students in Professor Robert Brown's music appreciation class.

"I was jotting down a few impressions of the concert when an announcer suddenly broke in to report that the Japanese had bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor," McGovern wrote in his book. "... I had been brought up with the unshaken faith that America would prevail in any war we entered and that our cause was absolutely right. ... I wanted to be a part of that struggle."

Dan Grosz, Mitchell, was out in a field on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, and had a conversation that, 60 years re-moved, may seem somewhat humorous.

Grosz was working with another fellow, who was approached by a game warden.

"They waved at me. I asked 'What's going on?' and they said the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor," Grosz recalls. "(I said) 'Where the h*** is Pearl Harbor?' "

"Up in Alaska," they said.


At that time, Grosz was old enough for military service and he remembers the conversation including one bit of advice: "You better be ready to march."

Korrie Wenzel has been publisher of the Grand Forks Herald and Prairie Business Magazine since 2014.

Over time, he has been a board member of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., Junior Achievement, the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, United Way, Empire Arts Center, Cornerstones Career Learning Center and Crimestoppers.

As publisher, Wenzel oversees news, advertising and business operations at the Herald, as well as the newspaper's opinion content.

In the past, Wenzel was sports editor for 14 years at The Daily Republic of Mitchell, S.D., before becoming editor and, eventually, publisher.

Wenzel can be reached at 701-780-1103.
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