President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Pearl Harbor Day – “a day that will live in infamy.” Without warning, the United States was thrust into war when Japanese planes bombed the American fleet stationed in Pearl Harbor.
As the war on both fronts escalated, men and women from all walks of life enlisted or were drafted into military service and the Second World War was underway.
Today, I want to share the story of one of those servicemen. He was born in Indianapolis and enlisted in the US Army there during the Spanish-American War. He and his new wife were assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base after he transferred from the Army to the Army Air Corps. His office was in Building One, Area C. Their first son was born in Greene County on a hot July 4. Shortly thereafter, he was stationed at the Panama Canal when the second son was born on Christmas Day. They came back to the US and nine years later, the youngest son was born in Michigan.
Six years later, in 1941, they were again stationed in Panama. The youngest boy played with the natives, climbed coconut trees and learned which snakes were dangerous. One of the problems was the multitude of insects. In spite of a few inconveniences such as mail to the Continental US taking a long time and sometimes needed items were in short supply, they enjoyed their stay in spite of the fact that the Christmas tree was on the veranda and there was no snow.
There had been some concern about the canal being attacked by enemy troops which would have severely limited passage through the canal, but the area remained peaceful until Dec. 7, 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed. The Japanese Embassy failed to deliver a Declaration of War, and so the United States was in shock at the atrocity. All military personnel were on alert in all branches of service around the world.
Civilians were directed to return to the continental United States while the military manned their posts. In this particular family, the eldest son joined the US Army Air Corps, the next joined the Navy and the third being not quite nine years old, was sent with his mother on a troop ship headed for New Orleans.
Having lived in military housing, the mother was not sure where to take her little boy. They had relatives in Indianapolis, and so she contacted a cousin who owned a large home and was assured they would be welcome as long as necessary.
Unfortunately, the mother was sea-sick most of the voyage, but the little boy had a great time until they arrived in New Orleans and he had chicken pox. Having lived in the tropics, and being December, the little boy had no winter clothes, so quickly some proper clothing was acquired, and the two set off on a train heading north.
Letters to and from the husband and sons were frequent and encouraging. Each day, they would read the newspapers and with a large map, follow the progress of the war. Each day they dreaded by possibility of a telegram arriving announcing that one of the three left behind had been injured or even worse.
The mother gave blood as often as she was allowed and volunteered for the war effort in several capacities. A flag with three blue stars hung in the front window, indicating that there were three service men serving their country.
Finally the war was over! Men and women were returning to their homes and starting back into civilian life. The father continued his military service until mid-way through the Korean War when he retired, having served his country for many years.
Not every story such as this has a happy ending, but in this case, father and both sons returned alive and well. The older son was a tail gunner in a bomber when he was injured. He was the recipient of the Purple Heart for his bravery.
It was many years before the mother was told about the Purple Heart, the family thought they would spare her concern, but I don’t think they realized just how strong a woman she was, leaving her husband and sons behind and making a new home for her other son while watching and waiting.
I knew this family well, since the youngest son was my husband, Leonard. His parents, Maj. Baxter and his wife, were my in-laws and the other two boys were my brothers-in-law. None of them ever talked much about the war, only about the places they had been stationed and the people they met along the way.
When he was old enough to join the Air Force, the youngest boy also spent several years in service as did our son.
To make the circle complete, many years after the older generation moved away from Greene County, the next generation came here in a civilian capacity to live. My husband’s first assignment was in the same Building One, Area C where his father had worked forty years previously.
This is the story of just one of those brave families. They, like so many others, left the relative comfort of their homes and went to war not knowing what the future might hold for them. Let’s give a salute and thank you to all those men and women who were and are still willing to serve their county in any way they can.
Joan Baxter is a local resident and historical columnist.