Home with his family, after a long six day week at Douglas, Don was sitting around with his dad Dean. Flopped in a chair, Don was lounging in the way only teenage boys do, draped all over the big Morris chair, half listening to the big Philco radio in the corner. Just another .Sunday afternoon. Nothing much else to do, they had just finished reading the Sunday LA Times. A nationwide welders strike was slated for Monday, San Quentin prison was being accused of being a hotbed of red plots. Members of the state assembly were protesting the parole of three former Seamen’s Union of the Pacific organizers who had been imprisoned for communist activities, stating that, “These Commie thugs are a danger to the citizens of California and ought to be kept in prison instead of going free.” The Russian Army was desperately trying to stop the German armies advance just outside Moscow, feeding untrained conscripts into the meat grinder that was the eastern front. The new Russian ambassador, Maxim Litvinov, just arrived in San Francisco vowed that the Soviet Union was unwavering in its struggles against the Axis. In Washington the State Department had just announced the takeover of all Finnish Merchant ships docked in American harbors. Taken into protective custody, the crews will be interned while negotiations with the Finnish government are underway. The headline at the top of the page; “Roosevelt Sends Note to Mikado, final peace move seen, Chief Executive Believed to Have Expressed Dissatisfaction with Japan’s Premiers Reply to Protest Against Continental Aggression.” On the same page a statement from the Japanese press, detailing Japan’s dissatisfaction with Roosevelt’s insincerity in pursuing the peace process and stating that “All of East Asia will arm in case of American Aggression.” Japan’s Ambassador to the United States, Kichisaburo Nomura was, that Sunday morning on his way to the White House to deliver a note to the President replying to Roosevelt’s demand for a non-aggression pact in China and southeast Asia. He would be too late.
In Anaheim, Don’s mother Christine was in the kitchen preparing Sunday supper. The radio was tuned to the Mutual Radio Network. Everyone in the house was listening to “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.
Suddenly, there was a crackle of static and then a scratchy voice coming from the radio cabinets speaker,
“We interrupt this Mutual Radio broadcast for the following important announcement. One, two, three, four test, test. Hello, Hello, NBC. Hello, NBC. This is KGU radio in Honolulu, Hawaii. I am speaking from the roof of the Advertiser Publishing Company building. We have witnessed this morning a distant view of a brief full battle of Pearl Harbor and a severe bombing of Pearl Harbor by enemy planes, undoubtedly Japanese. The city of Honolulu has also been attacked, and considerable damage done. This battle has been going on for nearly three hours. One of the bombs dropped within 50 feet of KGU tower. It is no joke. It is a real war.The public of Honolulu has been advised to keep in their homes and await results from the Army and Navy. There has been fierce fighting going on in the air and on the sea. The heavy shooting seems to be — one, two, three, four. Just a moment. We’ll interrupt here. We cannot estimate yet how much damage has been done, but it has been a very severe attack. And the Navy and Army appear now to have the air and the sea under control.”
And just like that, in that instant life for the Polhemus family and all Americans changed forever.
For citizens at war, particularly those kept at home by rationing and blackouts and the impossibility of travel, radio became a window on events, sometimes as they transpired. They war was to come into the Pohlemus home on a daily basis. Edward R Murrow had broadcast from London live. From atop various rooftops he described the nightly german bombing of London, opening with “This is London calling” and closeing with”Good night and good luck,” a phrase used by the citizens of London, never knowing if they would live to see each other again. The family was fully involved. Donald’s older sister was married to a naval officer who was to serve in the Pacific and Korea. His brother Dean, left the bank of America to enlist in the navy. As a graduate of Fullerton JC and later, the University of Southern California he enlisted in officer training in early November 1941. Their father Dean Sr missed WWI but we have a certificate he received for giving fifty cents to the “Remember the Maine” fund while at Orange County Schools in 1898. His father served with the 23rd New Jersey Regiment of Volunteers during the Civil War. Like many Americans they were fully invested in defending their country.
In the lead up to WWII not everyone in the country was in favor of supporting the allies in Europe. The America First Committee (AFC), which was founded in 1940, opposed any U.S. involvement in World War II, and was harshly critical of the Roosevelt administration, which it accused of pressing the U.S. toward war. At its peak, it had 800,000 members across the country, included socialists, conservatives, and some of the most prominent Americans. There were leaders from some of the nations most prominent families, finance, banking and Industrial leaders including Newspaper publishers. There was future President Ford; Sargent Shriver, who’d go on to lead the Peace Corps; and Potter Stewart, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice. It was funded by the families who owned Sears-Roebuck and the Chicago Tribunes, owned by “Colonel” Robert M McCormick a leading conservative and WWI veteran who hated the president. Also counted among its ranks were prominent anti-Semites of the day including Henry Ford and Avery Brundage, the former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee who had prevented two Jewish runners from the American track team in Berlin in 1936 from running in the finals of the 4×100 relay.” Charles Lindbergh, a leading American firster gave a speech in September 1941 in which he expressed sympathy for the persecution Jews faced in Germany, but suggested Jews were advocating the U.S. to enter a war that was not in the national interest. “Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.”
Three months after Lindbergh’s speech, on December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, prompting the U.S. to enter World War II. Three days later, the AFC disbanded. When war started, the War Department rejected Lindbergh’s offer to serve. He spent the war as a civilian contractor testing airplanes.
Henry Fords German and Vichy French plants continued under company control until August 1942, eight months after the US entered the war. Germany continued to build Ford trucks and cars throughout the war. After surrender, Ford Motor Company sued for damages to its properties in Germany and France. The court awarded them only 1.1 million dollars, noting the hypocritical stance taken by Ford in asking for compensation for damage to facilities bombed by Ford built bombers producing Ford trucks for the Nazi’s.
In April 1942 Don left work at Douglas and went down to the Naval Recruiting station in Long Beach. After talking to his brother and brother in law he had decided to jump the gun while he still had the chance and enlist. The draft would give him little or no choice where he would end up, Army or Marines likely. He had been a good student and that would perhaps give him an opportunity to attend an advanced school after boot camp. Both his family members were Naval officers in the supply corps and perhaps with a little good advice thats where he ended up. The Navy in 1942 was still gearing up for total war and having two officers in the family certainly didn’t hurt his chances to stay out of the engine room or deck force.
Seaman Recruit John Donald Polhemus, Service Number, 563 03 59, United States Naval Reserve, reported to the induction center downtown Los Angeles and was bussed to the brand new Naval Training Center, San Diego, then as now, Boot Camp. Leave taking would have been typical for families sending children off to war. His father Dean, Stoic and proud, his mother Christine waving, holding back tears as she sends her baby off, Don looking forward perhaps with some apprehension but also with a great deal of excitement. This was to be the great adventure of his life.
The term “Boot” first appeared during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Leggings were worn at the time by all military specialties including the Marines and the Navy. Sailors’ leggings were known as boots and that term was transferred to recruits. Military style Leggings are designed to give extra ankle support and help protect the legs below the knees from sharp objects. They also keep sand, dirt, and mud out of shoes. They were worn by infantry troops in both WW1 and WW2. Perhaps the Navy continued to wear them as they do help support the calves and ankles which helps those who march constantly as Boots do.
The poor recruit is literally overwhelmed by the demands made upon him in the first days of camp. He is pounded with the demands that he must learn in drill, military dress and particularly in the Navy; nomenclature. The ceiling is now the “Overhead”, walls are “Bulkheads,” doors, both in bulkheads or decks are “Hatches” and fastened not by knobs but “Dogs.” Floors are Decks and to make it even more confusing, supports in the overhead are called “Floors.” The bathroom is the “Head” so named from the days when ordinary sailors simply hung their fannies over the bows of a sailing man-o-war to do their business. The front is the bow, the back, the stern, left is Port and right is Starboard. The Kitchen is the “Galley,” food is “Chow,” a Chief is your direct superior and officers are next to God.
The first few days are a whirlwind of furious activity and then; waiting. Waiting in line for uniforms, for chow, or just waiting for no apparent reason. Batteries of aptitude tests are taken. Spatial awareness, mathematics, reading comprehension and physical fitness. There are hours waiting in line for physical examinations. Poking, prodding and looking in places your mother wouldn’t consider. Told to follow the blue line on the deck or the green one, perhaps the yellow one, always carrying your personnel file. Stick out your tongue and say Ahh, read the bottom line on the chart, bend over, grab your ankles and cough. No need to be indignant, you’re all in the same boat. If you don’t like it, well, you sure as hell can’t go home. It’s the first lesson in endurance.
Shots, shots and more shots. The corpsmen almost certainly recruited from death row in some God awful prison. Expressionless, they jab and poke the left arm then the right their assistants reloading syringes at a furious pace. The big guy ahead of you in line takes one look at the needle and promptly faints only to be dragged aside, his file stuffed down his pants and left to recover on his own. The line keeps moving. When a recruit company finishes the line they immediately go to PT and begin waving their arms in jumping jacks, relieves the pain, so says the Chief.
To the recruit it is incomprehensible but the Navy has its ways. Classes are held in seamanship, navigation, and ship handling. Essentials of the UCMJ, Uniform Code Military Justice are studied in which Boots learn about their duties and rights. There are few of the latter. The Captain of a Ship is next to God in authority. Military history is learned, the idea is to make the sailor proud of his service. Admiral Farragut, Admiral Porter, John Paul Jones, Admiral Dewey at Manila Bay, Old Ironsides, and the fate of the Arizona. Every little bit slowly forges pride in service and overall loyalty to those with whom you serve.
With roughly 60 other boys Don’s company worked its way through training. For the most part, was the first exposure to kids from different parts of the country. There were unreconstructed rebels from the deep south, sons of lobstermen from Maine, oil workers from Oklahoma and Texas, cowboys from Montana, some were college boys, some were barely literate. Learning about your buddies was one of the most important things you had to learn. You compared girlfriends or lied if you didn’t have one. You spoke about your jobs and families. You had to share and understand each others languages. The flat nasal drawl of a Maine man, the slow measured drawl of that boy from Alabama, the staccato machine gun delivery of Brooklyn boys and the soft patois of the sons of Mississippi. French Acadians who ended every sentence with a question. Don would have had to learn about “Cooters,” what “Pop” was and the difference between cocks and pussies. See, they mean different things in different parts of the country and woe betide the boy who didn’t quickly learn the difference.
Service on a ship requires two very important things, cleanliness and neatness. A recruit has to learn both. Each article of uniform has a very precise way of being folded and stored. Socks are rolled and each pair fits in a particular place and oriented with the elastic to Starboard, your right. Each article is inspected daily through boot camp, until the entire company can perform the exercise correctly. Shaving, showers, brushed teeth and doing your own laundry were real surprises to many. You had to learn to wake shipmate for watches. You didn’t shake or push a sleeping man, you might get punched. No, you learned to gently hold his nose shut until he woke. Quiet and humane, for you at least. Most homes had no showers in 1942. For some families, bathing was a once a week affair. There were always those who refused to cooperate in the communal ablutions. A quiet word from the Chief to the company recruit leaders would lead to GI showers. Dragged into the showers and held down, the offending recruit would be scrubbed raw with scrub brushes and hard Navy soap until he got the message. Few resisted. The primary lessons of boot camp were not jargon or how to wear a uniform but how to act as a unit and take pride in it.
After graduating boot camp in San Diego, Don was ordered to the storekeeper school training facility. This where he would have learned Naval procedures for operating procurement and disbursement. He learned typing, filing and all the type of paperwork required to provision a ship at sea. It has been said the Navy doesn’t float on water but on paper. After eight weeks and completion of his advanced trading course he received orders to join the crew of a destroyer stationed on the East Coast. He was given two weeks at his home in Anaheim. After leave he was to meet the ship in Newport News Virginia.
With two family members already in the service his mother in particular must have been torn between anxiety and pride. Very little good news was coming over the radio. Newspapers knew little about what was happening in the fleet. With her two boys and son in law gone, Christine must have worried herself sick. Three men of the family serving in the Pacific war would have been almost unbearable to think about when the Los Angeles Times published serious war news. Names of ships were almost always classified as were locations of battles, the news sometimes coming long after actions had been completed. The news she did get, left too much to the imagination. The long lists of the dead and missing published each day must have been agonizing to read. It wasn’t just family but friends and neighbors too. Nearly every family in the country was involved in some way in the fighting. When she hung the three blue stars in her front window, her neighbors must have sensed the Polhemus pride in their boys. To Christine they were a constant reminder of what she had at stake.
Exhausted from the 120 hour ride in old passenger cars just taken out of the boneyards of railroad storage, so crowded that soldiers and sailors had to sit on the floors, or sit together in threes and fours on old seats made for two. They stood in shifts or tried to get some shut eye by crawling under the seats and stretching out on the floor. The aisles were stacked with seabags and gear was stuffed in every nook and cranny. For Naval recruits straight out of Boot Camp, it must have seemed crowded beyond belief. They were about to find out to their sorrow that their discomfort was just beginning. The going was slow. Military trains were often sidelined because war materials took priority over troops. Brief whistle stops gave the boys an opportunity to get off, stretch their legs and maybe get a quick bite to eat from the Red Cross stations set up along the way, flirt with the girls if they had time, but it was a long hard trip even for young men in the physical prime of their lives….
TO BE CONTINUED SEPTEMBER 18, 2020