Dec. 7, 1941, is a date few will ever forget, for on that day, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The United States was at war.
Following news of the attack, Long Beach and neighboring Signal Hill, along with the rest of the world, were stunned. Hundreds of churchgoers leaving their places of worship at noon gathered before the windows of the Press-Telegram to read news bulletins. Many Navy wives residing in Long Beach were visibly shaken, for practically every one of them had a husband serving in the Pacific. The Army asked the city to loan them a sound truck so they could cruise the streets and broadcast orders for enlisted personnel to report to their stations, but no truck was available. It turned out OK; the truck was not needed– most servicemen, upon hearing news of the attack, had already reported back to base to find out what to do next. At the Long Beach police station, all was routine, yet a tense atmosphere prevailed, as department heads kept near phones to find out more about the tragedy and a possible invasion of the west coast.
Federal agents and Army troops rushed to establish a blockade around Terminal Island, where several thousand Japanese, chiefly engaged in the fishing industry, made their homes. Their outgoing fishing boats were turned back into the harbor and not allowed to proceed to the off-shore fishing grounds. Frank Ishii, president of the Long Beach chapter of the Japanese-American Citizens League, pledged support of the United States in its war with Japan. He mentioned that 30 local Japanese youths were serving in the U.S. armed forces and that the entire community would give their support to the United States. Despite Ishii’s assurances, everyone viewed any Asian as a possible spy or saboteur.
At the Municipal Airport, which was next to the Douglas Aircraft plant and the U.S. Army and Navy air bases, action was immediate. Because of its vital military importance, civilian aircrafts were notified that they would not be allowed to fly over or near the air field.
On Dec. 8, the Long Beach City Council was asked by the Navy to issue an ordinance requesting a complete all-night blackout. This meant all illumination, which could be visible from the air or street, be banned– blinds had to be drawn and any outside lights turned off. Many, including all city agencies, complied by painting their windows black. Merchants announced stores would close at 4:30pm daily and open at 8 or 8:30am to take advantage of daylight hours. All outdoor advertising, street lights, traffic lights and auto headlights were barred from dusk until dawn.
Dec. 9, 1941, the evening of the first blackout, was tragically memorable: one was killed and six injured in auto crashes on darkened Long Beach streets. Harry Riggs, a tourist from Walla Walla, Wash., died when he was hit by a car while he was crossing Ocean Boulevard near Chestnut. Because of the darkness, witnesses were unable to determine if the pedestrian was in the crosswalk or outside of it.
Long Beach and Signal Hill dead at Pearl Harbor
By Dec. 13, families began to receive word of casualties at Pearl Harbor. Josephine Smith, of 234 Prospect, was the first wife to receive word of her husband’s death. Albert J. Smith had recently been promoted from warrant officer to lieutenant in the Navy; he had been killed in the early attacks on the Hawaiian Islands by the Japanese.
Mrs. Fae Crawford, of 3216 Vista St., was especially worried, because both her husband and son were on duty on the same ship “somewhere in the Pacific.” On Dec. 18, she heard her son, Richard, had been killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor, but her husband, James, had escaped unharmed.
Word followed about the deaths of John Connolly and Wilbert F. Yost (5906 Brayton Ave.), but many more men were missing. Anxious family members didn’t learn until late January 1942 that Carl R. Brier (17 Neptune Ave.), Robert R. Clayton, Clyde Brown and Frank Head (1052 ½ E. 5th St.) had been killed in action. Further anxious moments awaited four other Long Beach families who didn’t learn until the end of February that Ludwig F. Weller (122 E. 52nd St.), Ralph A. Derrington (5640 ½ Cerritos), Allen R. Teer (270 Newport Ave.) and Robert L. Kelly had been casualties in the bombing attack at Pearl Harbor.
The 160 widows of Navy men killed at Pearl Harbor who resided in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area were offered jobs at the Lockheed-owned Vega Aircraft Company in Burbank. It was a chaplain from the Navy Relief Society who approached the Lockheed Company with the idea. The Navy Relief Society was not subsidized by the government, but supported solely by contributions. It realized the widows would need more help than their agency could provide. Nearly all the women took the basic tests for Lockheed. For now, with their husbands dead, they needed to support their families themselves.
On Feb. 22, 1942, marking the 210th birthday of George Washington, nearly 6,000 people packed the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium to attend memorial rites for the Pearl Harbor victims. The stage, draped with a blue backdrop, was centered by a huge white cross. Masses of American flags stood at the sides of the stage, and on the stage sat men in Army and Navy uniforms.
As the Long Beach Municipal Band began to play religious melodies, the sound of sobbing could be heard throughout the auditorium. Unannounced, actress/singer Jeanette MacDonald appeared from the wings, moved across stage singing “Ave Maria.” California governor Culbert Olson followed her moving rendition and talked about the historic tragedy. U.S. Navy chaplain John Johnson then led the audience in prayer. Everyone in attendance had a lump in their throat and pledged that America must go on.
Burnett is a former Long Beach librarian who, during her 25 years of researching local history, has uncovered many forgotten stories about Southern California that she has published in nine books. She has degrees from UC Irvine, UCLA and Cal State Long Beach. For more information, visit claudineburnettbooks.com.
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