Remembering Pearl Harbor 70 years later

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

As Pearl Harbor Day approaches its 70th anniversary, Gertrude Perkins, 92, holds a photo of her only brother who was killed in World War II. Perkins remembers working as a welder in the South Portland Shipyards – building ships for the war effort from 1942 to 1946.

SOUTH CASCO — When Mainers heard the news of an attack on Pearl Harbor 70 years ago, it had the same gut-wrenching effect as broadcasts of the planes hitting the Twin Towers did 10 years ago.

Many of those people (now in their 70s and 90s) ranged from their pre-teen years to their mid-20s when the Japanese military struck Pearl Harbor in that infamous pre-dawn attack that took place on Dec. 7, 1941.

Several residents living at The Casco Inn and Residential Care Facility remember being at the dinner table and listening to the radio when the bombing of Pearl Harbor was announced.

“I was terrified. I thought how awful it was. I wondered what it was going to bring about for the country,” said 89-year-old Ruth Smith, who lived in Waterville in 1941.

“I remember Pearl Harbor. I was 18,” said Hope Leeman, 87. “We were having Sunday dinner, the whole family. Someone called us on the phone to tell us about it. Everyone was stunned, really.”

“The next year all the guys were gone,” Leeman said.

The surprise attack bombings from Japanese airplanes killed 2,402 Americans and injured 1,282 people as well as wiping out the naval base operations, fuel supplies, and 188 military aircraft. The next day, Dec. 8, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt declared the United States had entered into World War II. Young men went to war on European soil.

“I was a war widow. I don’t have any fond memories of World War II,” one woman said. Another lost her only brother in the war. Almost everyone could name someone who died, and knew many who had served in WWII, which lasted from 1942 until 1945.

Life in America changed during wartime. People thought at any time planes could bomb their homes as had happened in Hawaii. They recalled shutting their curtains at night with this fear.

Mary Bennett, 95, recalled working in a tower, where her job was to check in with the air traffic controller every time she heard or spotted an airplane. She would call the air traffic controller, who would check if the plane was listed to be in the air space.

“People thought the planes might try to bomb Maine. I probably worked there a year or two,” Bennett said.

A newlywed living in Naples when the war broke out, Bennett said, “My husband, he was drafted and had his physical. But, the war ended before he was ready. So, he didn’t have to go. I was thankful he didn’t have to go. A lot the Naples fellows had to go to war.”

“Food was rationed. Well, it was not easy. Some things you could get quite a bit of, and other stuff like sugar and butter you got less of,” Bennett said.

When America entered into WWII, Gertrude Perkins was married with five children. One was an infant when the war started and her oldest boy was six years old.

“The rationing ticket was for food,” the 92-year-old said.

“A lot of things were rationed, but sugar especially. So, I had to have the ration book to go to the store and get food. Some of the things I’d like to have I couldn’t find,” Perkins said.

“If your car broke down, you had trouble fixing it. And boy, gas, you had trouble finding gas because you were rationed on that, too,” she said.

For three years, civilians’ ability to obtain gasoline and car parts were also limited as those items were funneled toward the war effort.

Work erupted as South Portland Shipyard backed the war campaign with steady supply of Liberty Ships.  The work force included women.

“I did work in the shipyards. I was a welder,” said Perkins. “I went out and did tacking, putting little pieces to hold the steel board so the welder could finish it. They liked my tacking well enough. So, they taught me how to weld.”

She left her children in the care of her sister-in-law, while she worked her shift from midnight until 7 a.m. “because the guys were all going to war. That’s why so many women worked in the shipyards.”

“Some of it was real hard, depending on where they put you to work. They assigned you a place every day when you went in. You signed in, got your equipment, and there was a note that told you where you were working that day,” Perkins said.

“There was one place I refused to go. There were wooden planks and the bottom of the ship was 50 feet down,” she said, explaining with the safety goggles she could not see where she was stepping.

“That day I went to my boss, and said,  ‘I really don’t have to work.’ So, they sent a man, and had me work somewhere else,” Perkins said.

Another Portland resident, Leeman was still living at home, and wasn’t permitted to seek employment in the shipyard — despite the good wages.

“My mom wouldn’t let me go work in the shipyard. She said it was no place for a woman. The men were either too old or exempt from the war because they were working in the shipyard,” she said.

So, Leeman got a cashier’s job at Dyer’s Grocery where she was “safe and sound.”

“It was funny. The older guys had went into the service, and only the 15-year-old boys were left.

They were too young to be a romantic interest, but they were there, and they were fun to hang out with,” said Leeman.

Naples resident Sonny Berman now lives with his wife, Pat, on their Long Lake property. In 1941, he was 12 — one of those boys too young to enlist even when WWII came to a close.

In 1941, Maine had previously made a change to its Blue Laws, which prohibited businesses from opening on Sundays. The new ordinance allowed movie theaters to open at 3 p.m. on Sundays, he said.

“My dad took us to a local theater in Lewiston-Auburn. When we came out after the movie, he was acquainted with the manager of the theater, and the manager stopped him and told him about Pearl Harbor. As I stood by and listened, I didn’t really comprehend what they were saying. When we left, I asked my father what happened,” he said. “I don’t remember his words. But he told me a terrible thing had happened to the country, and he thought we were going to be at war.”

Berman is 10 years older than his wife, who has a memory of the day the war was declared over.

“I was five or six. I was on a train to New Jersey. The conductor was telling everyone the war was over, and asked me if I wanted to blow the whistle,” she said. “I did not understand. I was young. My mom kept saying, ‘Your father’s going to come home.’”

“But, I got to blow the whistle on the train, and that was kind of neat,” Pat said.

Everywhere, the message of the war’s end was met with celebration.

“It was crazy. Everyone went to Portland that night. People were all over the streets,” Leeman said.

“It was a real wing ding,” she said.

In Naples, “they had parties to celebrate the boys coming home, and just had a good time,” Bennett said.

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