On Dec. 7, 1941 — 75 years ago today — Japanese torpedo planes and bombers attacked the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war against Japan. “A day which will live in infamy,” Roosevelt called it.
On Dec. 11 Germany declared war on the United States, and the nation was propelled into the midst of World War II.
During the more than 3½ years the U.S. was at war, 16 million men and women served in the military. At home, millions of others built airplanes, tanks and all the other equipment and munitions required to supply the two-theater effort.
A multitude sat at home and worried about loved ones in harm’s way.
LITTLE MARJORIE Hiser clutched ration stamps as she marched from her home on North Fourth Street to downtown Iola, and the Safeway store on the east side of courthouse square.
Her mission, every week or so during World War II, was to get to the store early and stand in line, hoping the last bar of P&G soap wasn’t sold before she could make a purchase. If she missed out at Safeway, “I’d go to the next store.” The east side of the square was grocery row.
Rationing of most staples was a fact of life during the war.
Later, she and Bill Mentzer married. They recalled, often in vivid detail, the shock of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, and what wartime was like. Willie and Barbara Nelson also shared remembrances.
Bill, 86, lived “up on the river,” northeast of Piqua, when the war started. He learned of it when he and his parents took sister Lila back to Iola, where she attended high school.
“Lots of farm kids lived in town then when they were in high school,” he recalled. “We didn’t have a radio at home, and heard about Pearl Harbor on our car’s.”
Radios and newspapers — the Register put out a special edition Sunday afternoon with news of the attack — were the only means of getting the latest news.
“I couldn’t believe it happened,” Bill recalled. “(President) Roosevelt came on the radio and said, ‘We’re at war!’”
The impact of war and the United State’s commitment soon became evident. “Everything was rationed — tires, gas, sugar, even silk hose. Women would stand in line (as Marjorie did for soap) for a chance to buy a pair.” Silk was used for parachutes and many sources were under the thumb of the Japanese or in war zones, where fashion was far from a priority.
Tires also were a big item on everyone’s shopping list. Getting one, much less four, was as rare as proverbial hen’s teeth.
Marjorie’s mother, Florene Hiser, suffered from colon cancer and needed surgery in Kansas City. The family took out on tires that today would be declared unsafe for a drive about town. “We had five flats on the way.” The colon bypass surgery was successful. “Mom lived another 30 years,” said Marjorie, 85.
“Victory gardens were a big thing,” Bill said. “Everyone had one. If you had more than you needed, you’d distribute it around the neighborhood.” Families helping families was a given during the Great Depression, and the benevolence carried into wartime.
A major effort of home-bound patriots was to collect metals to help the war effort. “We dug through dumps — a given on every farm — to get aluminum and all sorts of metal,” he added. “Mom saved fat and grease from cooking. It was used in making explosives.”
Donating blood was another way for citizens to have a tangible role. “I don’t know how much blood Lila gave. She did every time she could.”
When the war started most women were stay-at-home moms and housewives or worked as nurses, secretaries or telephone operators. That changed with millions of men in uniform.
“Women went to work in aircraft plants in Wichita,” Bill remembered, and other factories to support the war effort, often after plants were retooled from domestic products.
“Rosey the Riveter” was born.
Just about everything in life changed because of the war — except baseball.
“There was talk about canceling the World Series,” Bill said. “FDR said ‘no,’ that it was going to go on, although many of the players were old men. The younger players mostly went to war,” including Boston’s Ted Williams, whose extraordinary lifetime statistics would have been even more so if he hadn’t missed four years of prime playing time to WWII and the Korean War.
All was not doom and gloom. Big bands, with some of the most prominent leaders putting together groups, entertained the troops. Glen Miller was one; he didn’t come home. In a flight across the English Channel late in the war his plane went down and was never found.
“I remember the songs real well,” Bill said. “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, Coming in on a Wing and Prayer, Boogie-Woogie Boy.”
Kansas became home to many Army Air Corps training bases. Flat land and sparse population were advantages for pilots learning to fly. “A cousin trained at Coffeyville,” Bill said. “He’d buzz the farm. We’d see a lot of trainers flying around here.”
Fear was Marjorie’s constant companion. “I was afraid all the time,” she said. “I’d hear something about the war on the radio, and then go crawl under my bed and hide.”
School children joined the war effort, she recalled. “I went to Lincoln (Elementary) and after classes we (girls) would knit quilt blocks. They were sent somewhere — I never knew where — put together and sent on to hospitals.”
While war equipment had first dibs in manufacturing, Bill’s father had ordered a new Farmall tractor, one that Bill looked forward to driving. “When it arrived it was on steel wheels rather than rubber tires,” yet another concession to the war.
WILLIE NELSON, 84, learned about the attack on Pearl Harbor when he came in from working a field on his parents’ place in Oklahoma. He’d been a field hand since age 6 — not uncommon for the time — and was 9 when he came in the door and heard from his mother the United States was at war.
His uncle, Charles McFadden, was in the Navy. “We worried about him a lot,” but later learned he wasn’t at Pearl Harbor. For most of the war he was in the Atlantic.
For those who experienced the war, they’ll never forget rationing.
“Coffee, sugar, tires, they all were rationed,” Willie said. And “you only got one pair of new shoes a year,” chimed in wife Barbara, 85.
Her family, living near Neosho Falls, had advantage when sugar was in short supply. “My granddad kept bees and we learned to substitute honey for sugar in cooking,” Barbara said. Sorghum also was used to sweeten food.
While neither had relatives at Pearl Harbor, Willie had a cousin, Marshall Eyeman, whose ship was hit by a Kamikaze — a Japanese suicide plane. The ship was destroyed and Eyeman found himself in the water.
“He came up and there was burning oil everywhere,” he said. “He went back underwater, swam some and came up again. Same thing, burning oil. He kept going until he somehow got rescued.”
Eyeman became a casualty of war in that he “wasn’t quite right in his mind when he came home,” Willie said. “He and his wife got along real fine before the war, but not after.”
Barbara’s family, the Covaults, maintained a large garden that provided a large share of their daily sustenance.
“We had five acres of Concord grapes that me and my sister, Betty, took care of during the war,” Barbara said. “People would come and buy the grapes, sometimes three or four bushels at a time.”
The Nelsons moved east of Humboldt after Willie’s father, J.W., suffered from breathing wheat dust in their arid part of Oklahoma. “He wanted to raise cattle and the 240 acres (the Nelsons purchased) fit his plans.”
The Nelsons — Willie and Barbara — met at a school event, when his father was on the local school board.
They married in 1951, and lived on the home place until moving to Iola in 2002.
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