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From 89 to 104, local residents recall attack on Pearl Harbor

WORTHINGTON — Thursday marks the 76th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, an act of war that killed more than 2,300 military personnel, sunk five battleships and launched the U.S. military into World War II.

It began around 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, sending shock waves through the United States as word spread.

The attack on Pearl Harbor, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in a speech the following day, was a “date which will live in infamy.” For people of that generation, many can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned the news.

Several residents of The Meadows in Worthington, shared their thoughts Tuesday morning about that fateful day — Dec. 7, 1941 — including Esther Becker, who grew up in Wilmont.

“It was a Sunday afternoon and they always had Sunday afternoon movies at the theater in Worthington,” she said. The family drove to Worthington, bought their tickets and were seated inside the theater.

“The movie just started and the lights went on,” Becker recalled. “The manager came out and stood there and said the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.

“We didn’t know what the heck that meant,” she added. “He said, ‘I think everyone should go home’ and we went home.”

Becker’s dad was a World War I veteran and he knew what could happen — America’s young men would be called into duty, and the women would be needed in the military hospitals and on the homefront.

Joann Dekker was in ninth grade in 1941, and remembered walking up town with her friend in Hospers, Iowa, after hearing of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“We just didn’t know what to do,” she recalled. “It was very quiet. We stood looking at the honor roll of the people who were in the service. Her brother had just enlisted in the Navy that summer, and we were wondering what was going to happen.”

Kenneth Kluver was 13 years old in December 1941. His older brother was among those drafted.

“He was 18, going on 19, so they grabbed him right away,” Kluver said.

Several men residing at The Meadows were either drafted or enlisted, including long-time Worthington resident Herman Hinders. He’d graduated from high school in 1938 — one of four boys in the class — and three of them entered the service. The fourth, the son of a preacher, had just one kidney and was passed up for service.

Of the three, Barney Buns went down with his ship and Hans Gerdes, captured by the Japanese at sea after the ship he was on sank, died in a Japanese prison camp just two weeks before the Armistice. As for Hinders, he was too young to enlist with his buddies and did farm work until he was drafted in 1942. That spring he married his sweetheart, Marian, and in September he was on a troop train bound for Texas. Hinders served state-side through the duration of the war, working primarily as a finance clerk.

Ross DeWitt, who grew up west of Milford, Iowa, was riding his pony in the farm yard when his mom hollered out the door of the farm house that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. DeWitt said he looked at the family’s hired hand and they both asked where Pearl Harbor was.

“Little did we know that in a year we’d both be there,” he said. “It was either be drafted or enlist, and I wanted to be in the Navy rather than tote a gun around some place.”

DeWitt was 17 when he enlisted, and spent two years stationed at Hawaii as a sonar man on a submarine.

“That was an experience I really enjoyed,” he said. “I think everybody would benefit from being in the service.”

Dale Hugunin grew up on a farm southwest of Jackson and was 13 years old in December 1941. He had anticipated the draft after graduating from high school, but when his papers didn’t come, he decided to enlist. He entered the service in 1946 and served during the occupation of Japan.

At Round Lake, Bob Paulson tried to enlist in 1943 to aid the war effort. When he was told he wasn’t needed, he went to work for a defense plant in the Twin Cities. His job was to take inventory of items.

“We were building water tanks and gas tanks for the Army,” he said.

At 104, Harold Wass has lived his entire life in Nobles County, though he thought he would be called to duty following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was 28 years old and married, and had been farming with his brother for eight years.

“I remember it very well,” he said of Dec. 7, 1941. “What a shock it was.”

Wass was working out in the machine shed, putting his machinery away for the winter after he had finished picking corn, when the news came over the radio.

“I remember it was a pretty sad day, that’s for sure,” he said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, but we always had faith in our country. We always knew somehow we were going to make it.”

Wass was assigned a draft number, but he and his brother were both told that farmers needed to stay home and work. Making a living on the farm during the war, however, wasn’t easy.

“It was kind of rough times on the farm because the prices weren’t good,” Wass said. “After the war was over, Franklin Roosevelt, he really helped the farmers.”

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

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