Eighty-one years ago today, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service launched a surprise attack on the Pacific Fleet at the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. President Franklin Roosevelt declared war on Japan the next day, officially entering the U.S. into World War II. For the shrinking number of living Americans who remember the attack, the day marked a distinct juncture.
The Durango Herald spoke with some of those who still recall the attack on Dec. 7, 1941, and the events that followed. Some lived in Colorado at the time, while others have since moved to the area. Each described the way their lives changed in the years that followed.
The attack, which lasted only an hour and 15 minutes, killed 2,403 people, including 68 civilians. For those in Durango and across the nation, it brought about rationing, fear and a period of heightened patriotism.
More than 400,000 American service members would lose their lives in the four years that followed. At home, Americans rationed food, purchased war bonds and saved anything that could be recycled and manufactured into something to help the war effort.
And for some, the day was a harbinger of their pending duty to their country. Young men enlisted or were drafted out of high school, while fathers left young mothers behind to tend their children.
Here are the stories of four La Plata County residents who have distinct memories of the day Pearl Harbor was bombed and how it changed life in the days, months and years after.
Leroy Schumacher, 97, of Bayfield, was a student at Durango High School in 1941. Like many Americans, Schumacher spent much of Dec. 7, 1941, listening to the radio in stunned silence.
He said the attack instilled a certain amount of anxiety within Durango’s young men.
“All the men were sitting on edge, afraid they was going to be drafted,” Schumacher said. Still, he said every boy in his graduating high school class enlisted.
Just two years after the attack, Schumacher and a cohort of other young men from Durango piled into two cars and headed to Denver for their military physicals. He and his friend, Homer Gedney, both joined the Navy.
Gedney’s family owned a taxi service in Durango and the two young men drove cabs at night.
“Really, I was underage to be driving taxis,” Schumacher said with a laugh. “The driver examiner lived right next door to us so I didn’t have much trouble.”
Gedney ended up aboard the USS Nashville, where he survived multiple encounters with the Japanese and a typhoon near Okinawa in 1945.
“I think that scared us more than having a bomb about to get us,” Gedney said. “We got through that storm but it was terrible. We lost a lot of ships and a lot of men in that storm.”
Upon their return to Durango, both Schumacher and Gedney worked for their fathers. Gedney continued to drive a cab, while Schumacher and his brother worked for their father’s business, Schumacher Painting and Paperhanging.
“Durango changed quite a bit while I was gone,” Schumacher said. “It wasn’t the town that was real close together that I’d left when I came back. A lot of people moved into the Durango area right after the war.”
While Gedney ultimately left the region to pursue a varied career, Schumacher stayed put. He and his brother bought the painting business from their father in 1947.
“There are certain dates that mean a lot to me,” said Bill Morris, reflecting on the attack.
Morris, now 87, was just 6 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed, living in Pueblo. He served in Korea and spent eight years as the commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031 in Durango.
He recalls hearing the Marine band play on his grandparents Zenith shortwave radio.
“I told my grandparents, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to join the Marines and be in the Marine band,’” Morris said. “Well, I grew up and joined the Marines. I didn’t play in the big band in Washington, D.C., but I played in a field band. And when I got back from Korea, I was fortunate enough to be stationed in San Diego and we played for the grand opening of Disneyland.”
As a young boy, the mandatory air-raid drills made quite the impression, as did the strict rationing of basic commodities.
“Tires, bicycles, shoes – I remember the difficulties in acquiring all that,” he said.
He saved the aluminum wrappers to sticks of gum and decanted excess bacon fat. He also helped his grandparents with their “victory garden.” The U.S. government encouraged private citizens to grow their own food as it redirected supplies to the war effort.
Morris recalled that sugar rations would increase in the fall so that those who had grown fruits and vegetables could preserve them for the winter. The general atmosphere, Morris remembered, was much more communal than it is today. He described a community that took care of one another in the interest of a greater cause.
He said it was the patriotism he saw and experienced during that period that inspired him to enlist. Morris graduated from high school in 1953 and immediately joined the Marines. He spent 18 months fighting in Korea.
“I’d go again today if they’d take me and needed me,” he said.
Doris Holt, 91, remembers the attack as a subject of anxious discussion in her one-room country schoolhouse in Iowa. She and her husband have lived in Durango for 47 years now, but on Dec. 7, 1941, the 10-year-old Holt remembers being the only child in her grandparents’ home while her elders listened intently to the radio.
Her home had no electricity, so when her family arrived at her grandparents house that Sunday afternoon, they were surprised to see the hushed huddle.
“We walked in the house and my dad said, ‘What's going on?’” Holt said. “I can remember my grandpa saying ‘We’re at war.’ I, of course, hardly understood what war was at that point in my life. And then they explained that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and what had happened and President Roosevelt was going to probably declare war the next day. Everybody just sat, nobody talked.”
When she went to school the next day, Holt’s teacher, Fern Christensen, told the class it would likely be some time before the nation was at peace again.
Holt said she, too, participated in the nationwide effort to support the war. She sold war stamps – an effort by the government to incrementally sell war bonds to fund the conflict.
“We collected paper, we collected metal, we collected anything that the manufacturers could use to build war weapons,” she said. “I can remember collecting tin cans and all kinds of metal. My dad and another man in the neighborhood went around selling war bonds.”
All five of Holt’s uncles, as well as a variety of cousins, enlisted.
“It was kind of scary, because when you think of war you think they (enlisted members) probably won’t come back,” she said. “But I can remember writing to them as a kid.”
Holt’s memories of the time are impressively detailed. She remembers the name of her fourth grade teacher, the price of war savings stamps and of course the frustration of being allowed to own only one pair of shoes at a time.
“It made a distinct impression on me,” she said. “And when you get an impression made on you at that age, it kind of sticks with you.”
Shirley Hargraves, 95, was out ice skating in Western Massachusetts when she heard Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Although she has visited her son and grandkids in Durango for over half a century, she moved to town only a year ago.
“It was a really big deal,” she said. “I spent my younger years with war.”
Hargraves, who has been married to two Marines, said the war brought its share of hardship, but that it was a universal imposition that her generation took in stride.
At boarding school, she remembers the dietitian struggling to provide healthy meals to students, especially when heavy snowfall blocked train transports.
“The whole country, with some exception, was basically on board with what we had to do,” she said. “... We were all about doing our duty, sacrificing ... living in literally ghastly places off-base, or even on-base. My job, as a young woman, was to take care of the baby, find places to live that we could afford and feed us. And that was a normal thing for young brides. That’s what we did. Our expectations were that our husbands would come home.”
She is among those who might characterize WWII as “the last good war.” She said she would classify herself as a conscientious objector today.
“I’m upset about the fact that we’ve had one war after the other,” Hargraves said. “That war (WWII) was a direct threat to the United States, which is a totally different thing. I’m right in there with the Ukrainians because that is what we were experiencing.”