Nov. 1941: Pearl Harbor was simply a name

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

They were the good ol' days: November 1941.

In Middle River, Harry Eugene Mettee was a year out of high school and already working as an inspector at Glenn L. Martin Co., helping to build airplanes for Britain's frantic defense against Nazi Germany.

He made good money -- $31 a week. He expected the country to be dragged into the war soon. But, like most 19-year-olds, he was thinking mainly about his job, girls and flashy cars.

In downtown Baltimore, Walter Thomas worked as a waiter at the old Emerson Hotel. The city was strictly segregated. Thomas, "a colored, a Negro, as we were called," felt lucky to have a good job.

War was a distant rumble. "I thought it was just a European thing," Thomas says.

In Canton, Frank Miedusiewski poured nickel glasses of Arrow beer at his father's bar, American Joe's. Patrons mistakenly called the young man Joe -- and some still do; he owns the bar now.

Customers followed the war in Europe as they might the misadventures of a psychopathic cousin who lived too far away ever to visit. Miedusiewski says the feeling was: It's their party over there. How about another Arrow, Joe?

November 1941. The Japanese secretly prepare for war. If 9 negotiations to cancel the U.S. embargo on oil shipments do not succeed by the end of the month, Japan will strike.

4

In Baltimore and across the country, people were beginning to crawl out of the pit of the Depression. They weren't out yet, but they could see the light of better days ahead. For the first time in years they allowed themselves a small plate of hope and optimism.

They hoped the United States could avoid war, and the threat seemed to come from Hitler, not Hirohito.

Pearl Harbor? In November 1941, few Marylanders even knew where it was.

They knew where Poland was, and Finland and France and even the countries of North Africa, where Rommel's Afrika Korps threatened to establish another Nazi stronghold. Since sweeping into Poland in September 1939, Hitler's forces had stampeded across Europe. The Nazis controlled nearly the whole continent. They appeared to be invincible.

Against the Soviet Union, Hitler had unleashed the most powerful army ever seen. By late 1941, Nazi troops were approaching Moscow and Stalin's doorstep. If the Soviet Union fell, would not Britain quickly crumble? Then who but the United States would be left to confront the maniacal Hitler?

These were questions that many Americans readily shoved aside 50 years ago. Like the patient who knows he needs surgery but puts it off, people here chose to think of cheerier things: Saturday movies, the Army-Navy football game, The Block, Thanksgiving, Christmas.

November 1941. U.S.-Japanese negotiations go nowhere as Japan refuses to repudiate the militarism that led to its earlier invasions of Manchuria, China and Indochina. Most American officials underestimate the power of Japan's naval air arm.

The defense buildup was lifting Baltimore out of the Depression. It was putting people back to work.

"You wouldn't believe what was happening in Baltimore then -- such a boom," says Gwinn Owens, who worked 50 years ago at Maryland Drydock Co., a ship-repair yard in Fairfield. "Thousands of people were being hired for the shipyards. Hordes were coming here from all over the United States, especially the South.

"I remember hearing someone say, 'There's such a demand for housing, if you have a chicken coop you can rent it.' "

Owens worked at Maryland Drydock during a break from college. He took pictures of new employees and fitted the photos into identification badges. Owens later became editorial director at WJZ-TV, Channel 13, and op-ed page editor and an editorial writer at The Evening Sun. Now retired, he lives in Ruxton.

He believes that most Baltimoreans right up to Pearl Harbor thought the United States should stay out of the war -- though they recognized "we were on the edge. . . . It was getting more threatening every day."

Owens even wrote a parody of George M. Cohan's patriotic song, "Over there." Owens' version began: "Over there, over there, keep the war, keep the war, over there."

As long as the war stayed over there, our friends in Europe needed weapons to fight it. In 1939 the Glenn L. Martin Co. had received urgent orders from the Netherlands and France for 332 light bombers. Martin responded by building a new factory of 440,000 square feet in just 11 weeks.

The war didn't last long for Holland or France. The Germans overran the defenseless Dutch in four days in May 1940 on their way to crushing France -- whose army was considered the best in the world -- in a shocking six weeks.

Now standing alone against Hitler, the British assumed the French contract and ordered more of the twin-engine bombers. Needing thousands of new employees, the Martin company sent technicians to city high schools to hold classes and interest students in building airplanes.

On Saturdays during his senior year at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Harry Eugene Mettee learned how to read aircraft blueprints. Shortly after graduating in June 1940 he went to work at Martin as an 18-year-old inspector of aircraft parts.

He made 50 cents an hour. His first paycheck was $19. He gave $17 to his parents, still stung by the Depression, and kept $2. He was ecstatic about having so much money. Right away he bought a record player for about $19, as he recalls -- 50 cents down, 50 cents a week.

"We didn't know we were poor," he says of his family in Hampden. "We were having a great time. The movie theater was the big thing then. For 10 cents you could see a movie on Saturday. We'd see it twice and think we were getting double for our money."

Ten cents also bought dinner. His mother often sent him to the store for bologna. Her instructions were always the same: Get 10-cents worth and charge it until Friday, and get it thin, so thin you can see through it.

They ate skimpy bologna sandwiches, tomato sandwiches and creamed corn on bread. On Sundays they might have a hamburger -- a deluxe meal 50 years ago, junk food today.

By the fall of 1941, Mettee was making 60 cents an hour and working six days a week on the midnight shift. He was gung ho about his tireless contribution to the arsenal of democracy. Later, from the end of 1943 to the beginning of 1945, he worked 13 months without a day off.

He retired in 1987 after 47 years at the firm, now Martin Marietta Aero and Naval Systems. He lives in Hamilton and is writing a history of the company.

November 1941. Japan's attack plans are finalized. The oil-rich East Indies and other territories will be seized. But first, the U.S. Pacific Fleet must be destroyed from the air.

The Martin company was building four types of planes around-the-clock: the M-167 Maryland and M-187 Baltimore light bombers for Britain, and the PBM Mariner seaplane and B-26 Marauder, a medium bomber, for the United States.

Martin also was building gun turrets at a converted foundry on Sinclair Lane near Belair Road. The company became the largest producer of power-operated turrets in the world, turning out more than 40,000 during the war.

It built 1,366 Mariners and 3,681 Marauders. Employment skyrocketed from 3,500 in 1939 to a war peak of 53,000, of whom 35 percent were women. By 1944 the Middle River plant was producing 10 combat-ready planes every 24 hours.

The company and the government built thousands of homes for workers -- dormitories, trailer parks, apartments, houses. One Martin development was called Aero Acres, with roads such as Propeller Drive, Fuselage Avenue and Cockpit Street.

Housing projects also sprung up on the southern tip of Baltimore around the shipyard at Fairfield. Operated by Bethlehem Steel Co., the mammoth yard turned out 94 Victory and 384 Liberty cargo ships. These workhorses of World War II carried the load of 300 freight cars.

The shipyard launched America's first Liberty ship, the S.S. Patrick Henry, on Sept. 27, 1941. During a period in late 1943, the yard's 46,700 workers launched a ship every 35 hours.

Bethlehem Steel also operated a shipyard at Sparrows Point, which built 98 ships during the war, and a ship-repair yard on Key Highway, which repaired and refitted 4,500 ships. The company expanded its steel plant at Sparrows Point and shipped 20.7 million tons of steel from 1939 to 1945.

Hundreds of companies in Maryland hired thousands of workers who joined millions of Americans in producing the materials of war -- from boots to radar -- that eventually crushed the Axis powers.

L Some of the companies were unlikely candidates for war work.

The Maryland Workshop for the Blind made brooms, mops, pillowcases and mailing bags for the armed forces. The McShane Bell Foundry, which during peacetime was one of only two foundries in the country that exclusively made church bells, devoted its entire Harford Road plant to the production of ship bells and deck drains.

November 1941. Japan's six finest aircraft carriers and escort ships prepare to set sail. They will head north to avoid being spotted by merchant ships.

Walter Thomas, the waiter at the Emerson Hotel, made $25 to $30 a month, plus tips, which, he says with a smile, amounted to a couple of hundred dollars a month. In his early 20s, he could spend all that glistening cash in his own neighborhood at the shops, stores, clubs, restaurants and theaters along bustling Pennsylvania Avenue

"It was a beautiful city, and a beautiful world," Thomas says. "We didn't mingle with one another, but colored people got along with white people and vice versa.

"The attitude was beautiful back then in those days, even with segregation. You would think nothing of walking out by yourself anytime at night. You weren't afraid."

Thomas later bought and operated the Kleeco Club, a restaurant and tavern in the 1300 block of Presstman St. He also founded the Penn-North Community Association. A small man who wears a big bow tie, he is retired and lives in the heart of Sandtown-Winchester.

Headlines in Baltimore newspapers screamed the war news from Europe. But it was so very far away.

On Armistice Day, Nov. 11, thousands of uniformed men, including the United Spanish American War Veterans, marched from Mount Vernon Place to the War Memorial Plaza. "On Baltimore Street there was a single shower of paper," The Sun reported, "but the vast majority of the spectators watched the parade in solemn silence."

Advocating the suppression of Hitler, a front-page editorial in The Sun declared: "It is unpleasant. It may become terrible. But for self-respecting men it is less unpleasant, less terrible, than a life of shuddering retreat from a monster."

Filling stations announced they were ceasing gasoline sales between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. to "conserve electric power so a greater supply will be available to defense industries." Station owners also acknowledged they were having trouble keeping night workers for $15 week, when they could make more than $50 in defense industries.

Many newspaper advertisements had a martial tone:

"Camel cigarettes . . . the Army man's favorite."

"ALL OUT! LET'S SHOW OUR COLORS! WE MUST STOP THE NAZIS NOW! NATIONAL DEFENSE AND FIGHT FOR FREEDOM RALLY! Thursday, Nov. 13, 8 p.m. Lyric Theatre."

"From Taps to Reveille, Hendlers Ice Cream is always on duty."

"Western Maryland Dairy to Help National Defense -- it will be necessary to curtail Sunday deliveries of Western Maryland Milk."

"Mr. Defense Worker . . . Can Your Feet Take It? . . . Hess arch preservers."

"DEFENSE COMES FIRST WITH OLDSMOBILE. The major part of Oldsmobile's huge resources are marshaled for defense production. . . . With its remaining facilities, Oldsmobile will continue to build a limited number of quality motor cars."

President Roosevelt proclaimed Nov. 11-16 as Civilian Defense Week. He urged residents not to waste critical materials required for defense industries, to work longer hours to produce munitions to defeat Hitler, and to learn a task essential to the total defense.

The Govans Community Association met that week to discuss "air-raid protection and defense."

Laurel and Hardy's "Great Guns" played at the New Theatre. The Stanley featured Gary Cooper in "Sergeant York."

Meanwhile, Rosita Royce opened at the 2 O'Clock Club on The Block.

A Gallup poll Nov. 14 revealed the answers to this question: Should the U.S. take steps now to prevent Japan from becoming more powerful, even if this means risking war with Japan? Yes, 64 percent; no, 25 percent; undecided, 11 percent.

The 29th Infantry Division, which included Maryland National Guard troops, trained in the Carolinas. A newspaper story in November reported that for the first time, soon after the first of the year, the soldiers would go on maneuvers under live artillery shells.

On Nov. 29 in Philadelphia, Navy defeated Army 14-6 in their annual football war. Capt. William S. Busik, now 72 and executive director of the Naval Academy Alumni Association, set up the winning touchdown with a 25-yard sprint to the one-yard line.

Busik played both quarterback and halfback in the single-wing offense, and safety on defense. He also kicked. That game he boomed a 77-yard punt, an Army-Navy record that still stands.

He was in his third year at the Naval Academy. It would be his last. Graduation for the class of '43 had been moved up one year to June 1942. The class of '41 had graduated four months early in February. The class of '42 would graduate Dec. 19, 1941. The Navy figured it needed men.

November 1941. On the last day of the month, the Japanese : fleet is steaming toward a point 200 miles due north of Hawaii. It C is the launch point for the attack on Pearl Harbor, on the morning C of Dec. 7, and there is no turning back. )

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
39°