The world–and Kendall County–changed 80 years ago today with the attack on Pearl Harbor

Eighty years ago today the world changed when the Japanese bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor to begin the 20th Century’s second world war. A few days later, Germany followed Japan’s lead and declared war on the U.S. as well.

From our vantage point eight decades later, we clearly see that both Japan and Germany made extremely foolish decisions. While Japan had a very respectable navy to begin the war, their industrial base was small compared to the U.S. and the natural resources necessary to conduct modern warfare—coal, oil, and iron—were severely lacking compared to the seemingly unlimited supplies the U.S. had.

Likewise, Germany’s Adolph Hitler seriously erred in bringing the U.S., with its huge population and almost unimaginable industrial base, into the war he’d started in Europe. Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, could scarcely believe his luck when he heard about Hitler’s declaration.

Historians like to play the what-if game as much as anyone else. And they also like to look at events—particularly wars—to determine what the major turning points were. Many historians believe the thing that lost Japan and Germany the war was declaring it in the first place. The same can be said about our Civil War. The South, in its zeal to expand slavery into the western states, attacked the north, which had several times its population and industrial base, assuring its eventual defeat.

At Oswego’s Little White School Museum, the story of the community’s history is divided by three major inflection points: Settlement in the 1830s, the Civil War, and World War II. Why World War II? Because it marked the end of the Great Depression locally and nationally thanks to the greatest government funding program in the nation’s history and because of the generous way the government treated most of the millions who served after the war.

In early December 1941 the Oswego High School Band was practicing for their upcoming Christmas concert. After war was declared on Dec. 7, many of the boys in this photograph–and some of the girls–ended up serving in the military. (Little White School Museum collection)

Our county’s late 20th Century population boom has its roots in the G.I. Bill housing and education programs that, at least for White veterans, supplied low-cost single-family homes and college educations. It was something that created considerable wealth for those families lucky enough to have been eligible to participate—and not just for the generation that fought the war. That postwar economic base the World War II generation created continues to generate wealth here to this day. Kendall County’s population grew faster than any other county in Illinois between 2010 and 2010 because of what happened thanks to those government programs of the 1950s and 1960s.

To commemorate this year’s 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack and its immediate impact on our county, I wrote a column that appeared in last week’s Oswego Ledger. Generally, I don’t post blog entries and columns on the same topic at the same time, but this seems worth making a special case. Back all those years ago, the county’s residents were just clawing their way out of the Depression and they really weren’t paying much attention to what was happening thousands of miles away in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Life at home, at school, at people’s workplaces and on area farms was going on as the community looked back at the end of the harvest and towards the coming Christmas and New Years holiday season.

So when the attack on Pearl Harbor took place, residents here were caught more or less off-guard. It seems to have taken a week or two for them to process the idea that the nation had again been drawn into a conflict with a foreign nation a couple short decades after what many had hoped would be “The War to End all Wars” ended in 1918.

With that introduction, here’s my take on the effect the start of World War II had on our little corner of northern Illinois, published in the Ledger last Thursday, Dec. 2:


Eighty years ago next Tuesday, the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii without warning, destroying the fleet’s battleship squadrons. Fortunately, they missed the fleet’s aircraft carriers, and even more critically to the war effort, the huge tank farms with the fleet’s fuel oil supplies.

That Dec. 7, 1941 surprise attack, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt angrily described as “a day which will live infamy,” galvanized the nation into an almost unbelievable level of cooperation that created the “Arsenal of Democracy” that eventually led to crushing the Axis powers of Japan, Germany, and Italy.

The attack literally stunned the nation. Here in Kendall County, immediate reaction was shock, with not a little confusion.

Tensions with Japan over their conduct in China and elsewhere in the East had been growing for years, tensions that were getting through, even to such a safe and protected place like pre-World War II Kendall County.

The Oswego High School District had just completed the purchase of this house at Washington and Monroe streets in late November 1941 to house the school’s home economics classes. (Little White School Museum collection)

In general, life as usual was going on in November 1941. In Oswego, the high school’s home economics classes had moved into and off-campus house on Washington at Monroe Street. The house was built by Luella Hettrich in 1907 after she moved the house originally on the lot around the corner to Monroe Street. Mr. and Mrs. Ed Weidert moved into the moved house in the late 1930s. Shortly before the home ec students moved in, the Weiderts welcomed home a new son, Gerald, born Oct. 26.

But those looming problems half a word away were beginning to cloud the horizon. The Nov. 12 Kendall County Record noted that “Gov. Dwight H. Green expressed faith in Illinois farmers to meet the call for increased food production and pledged the support of the State Department of Agriculture to the nation’s ‘food for defense’ program in a statement issued through the Illinois USDA Defense board.”

In general, though, life was moving on. The corn harvest was on-going, with farmers planning to work right through Thanksgiving Day, weather permitting. At the county’s country and town schools, teachers—overwhelmingly young women—headed home to share the holiday with family. On Nov. 13, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Condon welcomed a new son. And on Nov. 19, the Record announced “Richard Young, a senior at Oswego Community high school, has been elected by the student body to represent them as ‘Boy Mayor’ in the parade to be held in Aurora Nov. 21.”

But those war clouds continued to gather. On Nov. 26, the Record carried a short note announcing “Mr. and Mrs. Charles Robinson entertained relatives at a Thanksgiving dinner Sunday. Their son, Wylie, in the selective service, will leave Saturday, as will two other Oswego boys, Louie Reid and J. Fred Reeves.”

The next week, Dec. 3, while noting a whooping cough epidemic was getting started in Oswego in those pre-vaccination days, the county, state, and nation were beginning to get serious about registering everyone—even those who’d previously served—with the Selective Service. “Those men in the National Guard or Regular Army on Registration day who didn’t register but who have been discharged since must register immediately,” a note in the Record warned. “If you are within the age limits and haven’t registered because you were in the service, you had better get in touch with Mr. Wells of the Selective Service board at the courthouse in Yorkville and straighten out your status.”

Then on Dec. 7 came that devastating attack on the Pacific Fleet, and the start of a world war, the second worldwide conflict in the first half of the 20th Century.

Kay Ivan Fugate, whose family had deep Oswego roots, was killed Dec. 7, 1941 at Pear Harbor aboard the USS Nevada. (Little White School Museum collection)

Finding the news difficult to believe, the Record’s Oswego correspondent briefly remarked with considerable understatement on Dec. 10: “The world is in a turmoil this Monday morning. This will be a day whose date goes down in history.” A story about a fire in the basement of the Oswego Prairie Church was several times as long.

Down in Yorkville, Record Publisher John Marshall tried to come to grips with what had happened in his usually breezy weekly local gossip column: “Of course the main topic of thought and conversation in Yorkville and elsewhere is the attack of the Japanese upon the United States and its possessions. And here we sit at the Linotype and try to concentrate what we facetiously call our brain on the writing of this here kolyum and at the same time hear the news reports as they come over the radio which is a difficult thing to do. So if the kolyum sounds a wee bit more screwy this week than it usually does, you know that there is some reason for it.”

The area’s Republican Congressman, Noah Mason, a bitter Roosevelt foe, threw his support solidly behind the war effort. “Signing off for Duration,” he wrote in the Record. “America has been attacked. War has come. From now on all Americans must put aside differences of opinion and unite to win the war as quickly as possible. We pray that ‘Peace on earth good will to men’ may soon become the controlling gospel of all nations.”

Elwyn Holdiman, whose family farmed in the Oswego area, was among the Oswego men drafted during World War II. He was killed in action 29 Oct 1944 in the Netherlands. (Little White School Museum collection)

The pages of the Record began recording meetings of local Red Cross chapters who were knitting hats and mittens for soldiers, as well as notes on the young men who were either enlisting or being drafted. Forest Wooley, Bill Leigh, Bob McMicken, Cecil E. Carlson, Logan Harvey, Paul Krug, John Lewis, Elwyn Holdiman, and Charles Sleezer all headed off to serve.

And bringing the Dec. 7 attack home to Kendall County, the Record reported on Jan. 28 that “Mrs. Mary Shoger received a message telling of the death of her grandson, Kay Fugate, 24 years old, who was killed in action at Pearl Harbor He enlisted two years ago in Aurora.”

The conflict beginning Dec. 7 would continue for nearly five years and involve hundreds of local men and women. Some, like Dick Young, the “Boy Mayor,” would fight on bloody Iwo Jima with the U.S. Marines but live to return home. So many, many more like Kay Fugate at Pearl Harbor; Elwyn Holdiman, drafted just weeks after Pearl Harbor and killed in action in Holland in 1944 along with young Oswego men Frank Clauser, Donald Johnson, Stuart Parkhurst, and Paul Zwoyer would never return, but instead make the ultimate sacrifice for their nation.


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Filed under Farming, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History

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