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The Day We Went To War


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The peace had lasted 23 years, but it took scarcely one day for America to gird itself for war.

So it was in Baker.

Although the city lies more than 300 miles from the Pacific beaches — the most likely site for any offensive action by the Japanese following their Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor — Baker residents, just one day after that “date which will live in infamy,” were already bracing for the nation’s second great war of the 20th century.

The front page of the Dec. 8, 1941, issue of the Democrat-Herald (the newspaper changed its name to Baker City Herald in May 1990), in addition to the inch-tall headline, “Congress Votes War; U.S. United For Fight,” carried multiple stories about local preparations.

Under the headline “County, City Plan Defense of Community,” Baker Mayor Henry McKinney was quoted:

“The city of Baker is concerned with the protection of communications, water system and electric lines. We do not anticipate any sabotage but are prepared for immediate action. City police reserves are being enlisted and the fire department is calling in reserves for training.”

Although the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the day before shocked people, the idea that America would eventually be drawn into World War II almost certainly did not.

And with good reason.

The war, after all, had been going on for more than two years, since Nazi Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939.

And Japan’s military forces had been conquering territory throughout the South Pacific and in Asia for several years, leading many people to believe that war between Japan and the U.S. was all but inevitable.

Indeed, the lead story in the Saturday, Dec. 6, issue — the last issue published before the Pearl Harbor attack, as the Democrat-Herald did not have a Sunday edition — read: “Japs Harden In Hostility Toward Americans.” A subhead referred to the “Uneasy Peace Hanging Over Pacific Area.”

Other stories in the Dec. 8, 1941, issue illustrate how rapidly local officials mustered a variety of programs that would become fixtures during a war that would continue for more than 3 years.

A story next to the article with Mayor McKinney’s statement was in effect a plea from J.W. Stuchell, chairman of the Baker County committee for the sale of defense savings stamps and bonds, for residents to buy war bonds.

“War has been declared,” Stuchell said. “Our country needs the full support of every citizen. The least those of us who stay at home can do is to supply the money necessary to equip our boys at the front.”

And some of those boys would be in combat soon.

A third story on the front page for Dec. 8, 1941, noted that all Baker men who were designated “1-A” under the military draft — meaning they were available for service — would have physical examinations soon.

The draft, by the way, had been reinstated more than a year earlier, on Sept. 16, 1940 — yet another sign that America was preparing itself for war long before the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor.

There were 228 Baker men listed on the 1-A rolls, according to I.B. Bowen, secretary of the local draft board.

“The board has ordered physical examinations to be made of all men in tentative class 1-A and at least two men a day will be examined by local doctors, who are giving their services free of charge, until all examinations have been completed,” Bowen told the Democrat-Herald.

The Dec. 8, 1941, issue also introduced readers to something that, decades later, would become one of the few outgrowths from the Pearl Harbor attack which Americans no longer celebrate.

In the story about the city and county preparing defense plans against possible saboteurs, Baker Mayor McKinney also noted that city police were, and this is a paraphrase rather than a direct quote, “rounding up Japanese in Baker and have detained three Japanese for questioning.”

This targeting of people with Japanese ancestry, often regardless of their status as American citizens, would become formal federal policy within a couple months.

In February 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that allowed the Secretary of War to designate “military zones” from which certain people — almost exclusively people of Japanese descent, as it turned out — could be excluded.

About 120,000 people, many of them American citizens, were eventually confined to internment camps in the western U.S. through the remainder of the war.

Baker County was not in one of the military zones — those were generally closer to the Pacific Coast.

But as Baker City historian Gary Dielman chronicled in a three-part series published in the Baker City Herald in May 2014, several Japanese families who were living in Baker City the day of the Pearl Harbor attack were in effect forced to voluntarily leave Baker City over the next year or so, mainly because the parents had been fired from their jobs, or in the cases of those who owned their own businesses, they were boycotted.

Dielman estimates that from 80 to 100 people of Japanese ancestry were living in Baker City on Dec. 7, 1941, almost all of them American citizens.

“By the end of 1942 there wasn’t a family of Japanese left in town,” he said. “It’s a sad story.”

Doug Smurthwaite, a Baker City native who was 10 on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, remembers playing at school with members of the Yano family, one of the city’s prominent families of Japanese descent.

One member of the family, Maso Yano, was vice president of the Baker High School Student Council senior class in 1941, the year he graduated from BHS. His brother, Yukio Yano, was vice president of the junior class. Yukio graduated from BHS in 1942, before his family moved away.

Smurthwaite, whose four older brothers also served in the military during World War II, said he did not understand why anyone would be suspicious of his friends.

“We all knew they were American citizens just as much as we were,” Smurthwaite said.

War news, as would be expected, continued to dominate the headlines in the Democrat-Herald in the days and weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack.

Here’s a sampling:

• On Dec. 9, 1941, the newspaper published a page one story advising residents about how to prepare for blackouts.

• The Dec. 11, 1941, issue included a story about a practice air raid alarm conducted in public schools.

• In the Dec. 12, 1941, issue, a story noted that Mrs. Ford Bowen of Baker had received a “cablegram” (the text message of 1941) from her husband, who was working at Pearl Harbor with the Morrison-Knudsen Construction company. Mr. Bowen had been working there since Nov. 4, 1941, and he was not injured in the attack.

‘We are at war! Turn your radio on’

By Lisa Britton

For the Baker City Herald

Phyllis Badgley, 92

“Our family arrived home from church and the telephone was ringing. Dad’s cousin across town, in tears, said, ‘We are at war! Turn your radio on.’

“So that was our first knowledge of the attack. We listened intently all afternoon. Five months later, at Baker High graduation, a number of our 1942 classmates who already enlisted in armed forces were not present for graduation ceremony.”

Dr. Carl Kostol

Kostol, 94, joined the National Guard in Baker City when he was in high school. He graduated from Baker High in 1940.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Kostol was 19 and stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington.

“When I heard the news, I was out playing baseball,” he says. “To tell you the truth, I think a good deal of the people didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was. We went back to playing baseball.”

But by that evening, his platoon was stationed at Longview, Washington, to guard the lumber mills.

The next day they headed down the Oregon Coast and set up at Fort Clatsop near Astoria.

That night, Kostol attended a meeting in place of his officer, who was gone at the time.

“We got the story from the regimental commander about the attack,” Kostol says.

Their assignment that night was to protect the shore.

“Our stretch of beach was the best landing area,” he says. “They put us out in selected areas and told us to be ready for the Japanese coming at daylight.”

They didn’t come.

“What happened that night? Not much,” he says.

He did hear a smattering of shots, and later learned that an American freighter had run aground — but the soldiers couldn’t see if the ship was an enemy or not.

“It was a total blackout,” Kostol says.

The vessel was a “Christmas ship” headed to Honolulu with a load of Christmas trees.

Later, the soldiers explored the ship and mostly gathered food because they’d arrived at the beach ahead of the military meal supplies.

“One of the boys picked up a whole case of almond roca,” he says. “We even got a few steaks and cooked them on our bayonets.”

Kostol joined the Army Air Corps on June 22, 1943, and served until June 4, 1945.

Bill Wendt

Bill Wendt, 93, had already been serving in the National Guard when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

“I was at Fort Lewis, Washington,” he said. Wendt joined the Guard in 1939 — he was 15fi.

On Dec. 7, 1941, he remembers hearing about Pearl Harbor about 10 a.m.

But he didn’t believe it.

“We treated it as a ‘latrine rumor,’ ” he said. “Then at 10:30 a.m., word came down to get our full field packs.”

By 11 a.m. they received live ammunition, and at 2 p.m. then were heading south to Longview, Washington, for the task of guarding the bridge over the Columbia River.

“That’s where we spent the night, guarding the damn bridge,” Wendt says.

He served in the Army until August 1945.

Marge Hall

Marge Hall, 90, grew up in Halfway, but she was living in Eugene in December 1941. She was a freshman in high school.

“It was a Sunday,” she remembers. “I was at a movie, and it flashed across the screen: ‘Pearl Harbor bombed.’ All I could do was look at it and cry.”

Dave Hobson

“A friend and I were out sailing,” Dave Hobson, 89, recalls of Dec. 7, 1941.

He lived in Portland at the time, but remembers hearing that friends in Castle Rock, Washington, were busy watching the skies for enemy aircraft after the bombing.

Hobson joined the Navy in 1945 after graduating from high school, and he served for 22 months.

Doug Smurthwaite

When he thinks about Pearl Harbor, Doug Smurthwaite, 85, a Baker native, first remembers the radio.

In 1941 the radio played a role in society that seems improbably outsized by modern standards.

Literally outsized.

The radio in the family room of the Smurthwaites’ home on Second Street in South Baker was the console type, a great chunk of wood and metal that would have taxed the efforts of a couple of hale fellows to lug about.

Back then the radio was a piece of furniture.

Today it’s something we strap to our wrists.

But beyond its sheer physical size, the radio was for many families, the Smurthwaites included, the 1941 equivalent to TV and internet.

In a world without Facebook and cellphones, and where only certain small birds tweeted, radio was for most people the sole electronic medium for news and for entertainment.

“We didn’t even know what TV would be,” Smurthwaite recalls.

Smurthwaite was 10 on Dec. 7, 1941.

He knew nothing of war. As far as the radio, it was where his family gathered in the evenings to laugh about the antics of Jack Benny, and George Burns and Gracie Allen.

But Smurthwaite remembers that his father, Jesse, in the months leading to Dec. 7 had spent considerable time beside the radio listening not to comedies but to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Doug understands now why his dad and his mom, Zina, listened so intently to the news over the airwaves as America began its inexorable slide toward war.

The couple had one daughter — and six sons. Three of the Smurthwaite boys were old enough to serve in the military in 1941.

In fact one — Gordon, the second oldest and then 23 — already was in uniform. He had been drafted in the summer of 1941 and was stationed in the Philippines.

Doug can’t say precisely when he heard that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.

But he vividly remembers sitting beside his father on that Sunday as the story came spilling out of the radio’s single tinny speaker.

“I remember my father sat there with a rather grim look on his face,” Doug said.

Three of his older brothers — Don, Bob and Tom — returned safely from their service in the war.

Gordon Smurthwaite did not. He was captured by the Japanese in the Philippines in May 1942, and he died in September 1944 when an American submarine sank a Japanese ship carrying prisoners of war to Japan. The ship did not bear any markings showing that it was carrying noncombatants.

Doug Smurthwaite and his younger brother, Paul, both served in the military during the Korean War.

— Jayson Jacoby of the Baker City Herald conducted the interview with Doug Smurthwaite.