NAQT is the designated Naval signal flag hoist for the USS Spence, Destroyer DD-512.
Department of Defense Photo. Leaving San Francisco October 9, 1944
November, Alpha, Quebec, Tango
“Any man, when asked what he did to make his life worthwhile, can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction, “I served in the United States Navy.”
Captain, Patrol Torpedo Boat-109, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, addressing the graduating class of the US Naval Academy, August 1st, 1961
Today is Memorial day in the United States. It is a federal holiday dedicated to honoring and mourning the military personnel who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. The history of Memorial Day in the United States is complex. The practiceof decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers is an ancient custom. Soldiers’ graves were decorated in the U.S. before and during the American Civil War. In April 1865, following the assasination of President Abraham Lincoln, commemorations were widespread. The more than 600,000 soldiers of both sides who died in the Civil War meant that burial and memorialization took on new cultural significance. On May 5, 1868, General John Logan issued a proclamation calling for “Decoration Day” to be observed annually and nationwide; he was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of and for Union Civil War veterans. With his proclamation, Logan adopted the Memorial Day practice that had begun in the Southern states three years earlier. The northern states quickly adopted the holiday. In a sense the north appropriated a southern holiday and made it national.
That’s the history of the holiday. This is what it really means. Someone’s life was taken in a battle, a family was devastated. A young man or woman, in the literal flower of their youth was plucked and now is but a memory. Many euphemisms are used to somehow help the people left behind deal with that terrible loss. “He gave his life,” and “He died a hero,” or; “He was taken from us.” Pleasing things to say but hardly a description of the act of taking that life.
Each of those who are gone has a story. Most we will never really know. Apocryphal story’s passed from generation to generation must suffice. Few events are witnessed by anyone but the participants. Occasionally a person floats to the surface of consciousness and we know. Here is one.
Cousin Donald Polhemus was born in 1922 in Anaheim, Orange county California. His father and mother lived there all their lives and for many years in a little house on Placentia St. was their home. Donald grew up there in the days when Anaheim was just a rural farming community. In the 20’s and 30’s orange groves spread across the Santa Ana river valley and, with a population of just ten thousand, must have been a nearly ideal place to grow up. His father only attended the eighth grade, which was fairly normal for a man born in 1890. When a boy was 13 or 14 he was old enough to work and that he did. His mother kept house and raised a family of two boys, Donald and Henry and a girl, Martha.
Don attended Anaheim Union High school and graduated with the class of 1941. An impending war made it a risky time to be a healthy young man of 18. The handsome, serious boy in the center of the photo below had much to look forward to. With a war likely coming, the promise of adventure would have certainly been on his mind. Seventeen year olds are long on imagination and short on experience.
Don Polhemus, center, 2nd row. He is flanked by girls, which always a good thing when you are a young man. Like high school kids in all ages they are happy, looking forward to life after school. This is, after all their senior year and they will graduate in June 1941.
The girl to Don’s left is Delfina Pinedo. Her parents were from Morelos, Zacatecas, Mexico and had come to the United States through Arizona to Anaheim in 1919. Her native language was Spanish and along with her brother, sister and parents she worked picking oranges. She would be the first person in her family to graduate from high school. She would live to be 94.
The boy in front of Donald is Clayton Schultz. He is wearing his letterman’ s sweater which has two stripes indicating two years as a basketball player and a star indicating he was captain of his team. He was a Bee basketball and football player. Bee varsity sports were for boys to small for the “Real” varsity team. When he was drafted in 1942, he was working as a tool and die maker at Douglas Aircraft. He may have worked with Don, who also worked at Douglas. Clay did what many young men did then, he considered the odds and promptly joined the Army Air Corps where he was a aircraft mechanic in the 8th Air Force.
The girl on Don’s left is Elizabeth “Betty” Potvin and as you can see by the expression on here face must have been an outgoing and extroverted young woman. We can see that in the fact that she was in many HS clubs, particularly the Drama Club. She is the girl in the photo below. She had the lead in the Junior play “Anybody’s Game”
One of the striking things about the class of 1941 is the number of clubs they had. Some might be considered odd by todays school administrators but were pretty common in the forties. There was a stamp club. My father in law who graduated from Santa Monica HS in 1950 was in the stamp club and left a large collection of stamps. They had a radio club for short wave and Ham radio enthusiasts. Radio being the only way to listen to communications before television and by the 1940’s there was an entire generation of boys and girls who could build and operate home radios. Witness the radios which transmitted from German prison camps during the war. Made of random scraps found around the Stalags they kept POWs in touch with the outside world and provided information for Allied intelligence operators back in Britain.
There were the Girls Athletic Associations, though the girls didn’t participate in anything close to the level they do today. They were restricted to intramural sports only. Girls also had the Domecon Club whose purpose was to prepare them for the joys of domestic life. Another club which has gone by the wayside. There was a Mozart Club, Honor Society, Toastmasters and the first Newman Club in a Southern California High School whose purpose was to foster the Social, intellectual, and spiritual interests of Catholic youth. Speakers that year were Judge White of the Los Angeles Justice Court who lectured on character building, Dr Kersten of Anaheim who spoke on foreign relations and Santa Ana Sheriff Elliot who gave a very impressive talk on Juvenile Delinquency. If there was any problem white JD’s in Anaheim, Hirohito and Hitler would soon take care of that.
There was no problem in finding a job in the summer and fall of 1940 for Don or any other young man who wanted work. The draft, enacted September 16, of that year, was the first peacetime conscription act in United States history. This Selective Service Act required that men who had reached their 21st birthday but had not yet reached their 36th birthday, register with their local draft boards. The country was very divided about the war in Europe and large numbers of citizens were adamantly against any US intervention in the war raging in Europe. Just a month before Don and his classmates graduated, the German army invaded Belgium and France in the first week of May. The French and Belgians were overrun in just 56 days, the British army retreated from Dunkerque, France in an evacuation by the Royal Navy and a citizen flotilla of small craft. The War Office made the decision to evacuate British forces on 25 May, just 15 days after the German invasion has started.
In those nine days from 27 May to 4 June, 338,226 men escaped, including 139,997 French, Polish, and Belgian troops, together with a small number of Dutch soldiers, aboard 861 vessels, of which 243 were sunk during the operation. It is now characterized as the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” but was, in fact a catastrophe of the first order. People in America had been glued to their radios for weeks and for Don and the about to be graduates of high schools and colleges the message must have been very clear.
At 18, all those boys in Anaheim High School knew that by 21 they would all have to register and become subject to conscription. What to do? That was the question asked by young men in every US conflict in which the draft was ever enacted. Go to college, get a job or just wait. For Don, college was likely not an option with the war coming. Although from a working class family, his older brother was studying at USC and was in the Naval ROTC and would be an officer if war came, but with the future so unsettled, work was really the only answer for the time being. Factories were rapidly tooling up in case of war and jobs were readily available. Don went to work at Douglas Aircraft’s new factory in Long Beach. Just 13 miles from his home, it was an easy hop each morning getting there via the Red Cars. Lunch pail in hand, Douglas ID pinned to his cap, he joined tens of thousands of men and women from all over Los Angeles county building planes. Douglas Aircraft had constructed, in the summer of 1940, an 11-building facility encompassing about 1.42 million square feet of windowless covered work space for the wartime production of military aircraft. from bombers to cargo planes. Initially the plant stepped up production of the famous transport plane the DC-3, but soon added the B-17 flying Fortress to the line At its peak, Douglas’s wartime employment was 160,000 workers. Don was one.
Home with his family, Don was sitting around with his dad Henry, his brother, mother, the family listening to the radio on Sunday afternoon. His mother Christine was in the kitchen preparing Sunday supper. The show? “One Man’s Family,” the longest-running uninterrupted serial in American radio history. It told the story of the Barbour family of San Francisco and its 15 minute radio show came on every day. On this day, the announcer had declared, “One Man’s Family, brought to you by Fleischmann’s Yeast,” and “dedicated to the mothers and fathers of the younger generation and their bewildering offspring,” The father, Henry doles out wise advice, Fanny plays the supportive and submissive wife, and the children do their best to make their parents proud.
…To be continued next Friday September 11