On Dec. 7, 1941, the Roxie Theater in downtown Sacramento featured Humphrey Bogart in “The Wagons Roll at Night.” A tin of Wesson oil was going for 48 cents at the grocery store, and you could get an Arrow tie at Hale Bros. for a buck.
It was a day that would drastically change the lives of all Americans. The Japanese Imperial Navy launched a surprise attack air on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, pushing the nation into war. More than 2,400 Americans were killed, and the U.S. Pacific Fleet anchored in the harbor was devastated.
Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of the attack. For the dwindling group of servicemen and women who were there, and for those on the home front who listened on the radio as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his “Day of Infamy” speech, the memories remain.
Sacramento resident Sam Clower, 97, was an Army 1st Sergeant, 19th Infantry, 24th Division, in charge of a detail guarding the Oahu water supply from sabotage.
Clower witnessed Japanese planes attacking Wheeler Field, Pearl Harbor and Schofield Barracks, which housed division headquarters.
“We got the shock of our life,” he said earlier this week. “We were not anticipating seeing any aircraft over our head bombing Wheeler Field, but that is what happened on a bright Sunday morning on Dec. 7.”
Before the war ended, he was shot in an arm, took shrapnel in the right leg and was listed as missing in action while on one of the Solomon Islands.
In the years that followed the war, Clower became a leader in the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, founded in 1958. He was sorry that he could not be in Hawaii for the reunion of World War II Pearl Harbor vets this year, but he wanted to stay with his wife, who needs him.
“I just would not leave her,” he said.
He estimated there are less than 2,000 members remaining in the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, possibly less than 200 in California. He has great hopes that sons and daughters of survivors will continue to keep the memory of Dec. 7 alive.
“They are doing a great job,” he said.
Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, National Guard units were placed on guard duty at the Tower Bridge and Pacific Gas & Electric facilities. Mather Air Force Base placed 30-caliber machine guns on its T-6 Texan trainers, said James C. Scott, historian and librarian at the Sacramento Public Library’s Sacramento Room.
“Overall, I’d say that Sacramento’s military and civilian mobilization – just in that first day – was commendable. First responders, average citizens, even the city’s Boy Scout troops were quick to act, seemingly out of a combination of fear, patriotism, and just wanting to stay busy in the face of so much uncertainty.”
Scott noted that the Sacramento Fire Department distributed sand to area businesses in case incendiary bombs were dropped.
“I think the Imperial Navy’s ability to shock the world at Pearl made so many – even civic leaders in Sacramento – consider scenarios which prior to Pearl would have seemed outlandish at best,” he said.
Police presence increased in Japanese sections of Sacramento, Florin and Walnut Grove. By Dec. 8, the Japanese-American Citizens League and the Sacramento Valley Japanese Association had come out in support of President Roosevelt’s declaration of war even as many of the groups’ leaders were being rounded up by the FBI, Scott noted.
“It’s essentially what we saw two decades prior with Sacramento’s ethnic Germans after the country entered the First World War and fears of a German fifth column went viral,” Scott said. “Moreover, California nativism and the state’s Asian exclusionary practices of the early 20th century – while somewhat dormant in the interwar years – were revived in earnest in those first few days after Pearl.”
FDR signed an executive order that mandated the uprooting and internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry along the West Coast – U.S. citizens and their immigrant parents alike.
Rancho Cordova resident Betty Storey was a child in Oakland when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Sirens would sound when unidentified planes came into Bay Area airspace.
She remembers looking out her third-story apartment window in the days after Pearl Harbor to see the Bay Bridge and portions of San Francisco go dark as a precaution when incoming airplanes failed to identify themselves to authorities.
“The Bay Bridge would be lighted one minute and then dark the next,” she remembered. “We all had blackout shades on our windows.”
Her mother, who lost a brother in World War I, was extremely upset at the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“I was just a kid and I didn’t understand why she was so upset,” said Storey. “Well, she was upset because her brother was killed at the end of the first world war.”
On the outside steps just after lunch on the day of the attack, the rector of St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park announced to the students “the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.”
Sacramento Bishop Emeritus Francis Quinn was one of the seminary students who were shocked by the rector’s announcement. Many of the men in their 20s wanted to join the military.
“We wondered if we would get out early for Christmas vacation or worried that we might get home at all,” Quinn said. “Then would come the blackout curtains, buckets of sand in the classrooms to put out fires and Red Cross training in treating bombing injuries.”
In the four years to follow, millions of people would die worldwide from war.
The annual wreath-laying ceremony to honor Pearl Harbor veterans at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers will occur at 9 a.m. Wednesday. The public is invited to attend the ceremony at Discovery Park, which will include a guest speaker and honor guard. The yearly effort endeavors to keep alive the memory of Dec. 7, 1941 and to honor the sacrifice made on that fateful day at Pearl Harbor.