Edenwald residents recall infamy and impact of Pearl Harbor

They all reside at the Edenwald Retirement Community in Towson now.

On Dec. 7, 1941, however, that "date that will live in infamy," when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they were all in different places when they heard the news, some of them thousands of miles from Towson.

They still remember, and to help ensure none of us forget that day, their recollections are being presented at Edenwald in a special theater production this week.

Scripted by Win Streuber and Betty Walter, a former English and drama teacher at Towson High School, and also directed by Walter, the program features local performers reading Edenwald residents' recollections of Dec. 7, 1941, as well as popular songs from World War II. The cast includes J.R. Lyston, Ralph Piersanti, Nona Porter and Beth Weber, with Jon Slovoc playing piano.

The performance on Pearl Harbor Day is only for Edenwald residents, Walter said, but she expects to schedule performances for the public at the Towson United Unitarian Church in January.

On this 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, their recollections are stories of a different time, and a world of change.

Responding in WAVES

Babs Jacobsen was 16 when she was listening to the Ford Symphony Hour on the radio in her home in Towson on Dec. 7, 1941, and the program was interrupted.

"Life was forever changed on Aigburth Road," she said. "Daddy, who knew everything, didn't know what to do now."

In the wake of the attack and America's entrance in the war, she tried to join the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) to become a naval officer.

The problem was her weight and age. 

"They said to eat a lot of bananas and come back in two weeks," she said.

"Daddy" solved the other problem, reluctantly.

"I don't like doing this," he said after changing her age from 16 to 17 on the application form and signing it.

Soon she was in the Great Lakes for naval training at the University of Wisconsin and living in a dorm. 

"The Navy boys and girls could have been college freshmen," she said. "I would come home singing, 'On Wisconsin, On Wisconsin.' "

Life changed on Dec. 7, 1941

Dick Working was attending Washington & Lee University on a football scholarship, sitting on the floor of his room, reading the funnies in the Sunday paper when he heard the news. 

He later became a football coach at McDonogh and Boys' Latin schools — but it was Pearl Harbor that changed his life. After the attack, he signed up for the Air Force in Richmond, Va.

"I didn't know a wing from a propeller," he said, "but I learned quickly in Texas, and after that in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where they taught me about engines at B-24 school.

"After gunnery school in Panama City, I was well-trained as a flight engineer. 

"From the Hamilton Air Force Base in San Francisco, I was chosen to be part of a 10-man crew, names drawn from a hat by the pilot," he said.

"India was our main base. Among our other duties, we 'flew the hump.' The Japanese had bombed out Burma Road, so we flew supplies to China."

On the lookout

Eleanor Pearce recalled that, after Dec. 7, residents of rural Sparks organized the Spotlighters to look for suspicious aircraft.

Since no money was allocated for such a program, neighbors donated $641.

Her father, working from a vantage point in a cornfield of their family farm, was chief observer.

As a spotter, he charted the direction of planes, noted the numbers of engines and whether they were flying high or low.

"Everyone did their share and the site was manned or 'wo-manned' 24 hours a day," she said. "Men had four-hour shifts through the night and women had two-hour shifts during the day.

"By the age of 12, I was putting in my allotted time," she said. "We worked as a team. We served our country."

View from the other side

One Edenwald resident, who asked to remain anonymous, was a 17-year-old German citizen when he saw the headlines in the newspaper announcing the Pearl Harbor attack. 

With Japan joining Germany to fight America and England, he left school to join the German air force.

He had always wanted to be a pilot; he had been flying glider planes since he was 14. But he was stuck guarding airports.

"As it turned out, this saved my life," he said. "The greenhorn pilots who were rushed into and out of training in 1944 did not fare well. Fifty percent of them were lost or killed. In plain words, dead."

He went into training in small planes with open cockpits, then moved on to larger planes. Gas was scarce, so he was sent back to small planes. He also went through parachute training, he said. "I had lots of training, but no air combat experience in the war."

He remembers hunting wild pigs at night with the French workers who worked at one of the Army relay bases, he said. "We were all good friends."

"At another station, on a clear day, we could see the train smoke in Dover, England.  It looked all so peaceful," he said.

When he was sent to the Western Front with a unit to construct a bridge on the Rhine, he became a prisoner of war in an American camp with a quarter-million other German fighters.

Several years after the war, he was invited to be tested for a study program by the U.S. Office of Education. He ended up as a teacher instead of returning to Germany.

Ships that passed

Her first love was a Navy man who lived in the apartment next door, said Alice Kempner, who was living in the Bronx on Dec. 7. She remembers him trying to teach her how to play the piano.

They had the radio on low when they heard the news. He left immediately for his ship, the USS North Carolina. It was docked in New York Harbor.

"I saw him only once after that — really more of a glimpse," she said.

They exchanged letters after he was sent to the naval base in Pensacola, Fla., and he asked her to visit him.

They kept writing each other for a while, but she never went to Florida.

"Our ships had sailed away — in opposite directions," she said.

Lost years, etched in stone

In 1941, Jean Singman was a senior at Western High School planning to attend what is now Towson University.

She and her mother, a Maryland General Hospital nurse, were living with her aunt and uncle.

When the news broke about Pearl Harbor her mother decided to join the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. But "unlike the boys and girls who were too young, mother was too old," she said. "The cut-off age was 39 and she was 41."

After "some finagling" her mother "got her age down to 39," and was soon in England stationed at the Bristol Army Hospital, where D-Day survivors were taken. 

"Mother did her duty and had the adventure of a lifetime," she said. "She left the service with the rank of lieutenant."

On her tombstone is that pesky two-years-younger army age.  "God works in mysterious ways," Singman said.

'The fun was over'

Marie Anderson said she was about 19. She had been out with a group of friends in a blue convertible in Clifton Park. The girls had posed for photographs and the boys had all laughed.

When she came home, her 22-year-old brother told them about Pearl Harbor.

"The fun was over," she said.

That night, she and her boyfriend had tickets for the Delta River Boys at the Mount Royal Hotel. "It still hadn't hit us," she said.  

Her brother joined the Air Force. Waiting in Utah for his assignment, he was in a training exercise.

"Two wings touched," she said. "The planes went down. My brother was dead. His death also killed my mother, but it took her three years to die. "

'Everyone froze' at the news

Another Edenwald resident didn't want her name used. She lived through Pearl Harbor and World War II, she said. She doesn't want people calling her and asking her questions, so she has to go through it again.

When she was 3, her parents moved to the United States from China with her grandmother. , whose feet were bound. Her four brothers and two sisters were born in Cleveland. 

On Dec. 7 she was working on an assembly line in a factory. 

"Everyone froze when the news came over the loudspeaker," she said.

All four of her brothers joined the armed services. One of them, Lincoln, was 17 when he joined the Navy.  His submarine was struck in a Japanese attack. Her brother Charlie survived his tour of duty but remained "shell shocked" for the rest of his life.  Ernie and Albert returned home unscathed. 

"Our family thought we had escaped the bad war in China," she said. "We were wrong."

'Lights out' was no request

The radio was on when Lita Henck was getting a hair permanent in the studio apartment where she and her mother lived outside Los Angeles.

When she heard Pearl Harbor had been bombed "my hair was sizzling into curls and my stomach was churning in fear," she said.  

Their lives immediately changed. Windows had to be covered with blankets, towels and sheets at night, she said.

"'Lights out' was an order, not a request. The Murphy bed had to be taken down before darkness enveloped us. The West Coast was veiled in black," she said. "I was scared. "

They moved to Covington, Ga., where her mother had family, and there would be "someone to watch over me" while she worked, she said.

Air raids and the boy next door

Jane Hennegar was a 14-year-old Towson High School student.

"The gravity of that Sunday announcement didn't hit me until later," she said.

Both of her parents became air raid wardens.

But her mother had to run to the bathroom every time the siren sounded, she said. "My father took over warden duties." 

The boy next door, also 14, carried messages between the wardens. He became her boyfriend for a while.

Confronting 'Hitler's henchmen'

Wolfgang Thormann was born in Germany but grew up in France. On Dec. 7, 1941, he was on a ship headed for America, having escaped France with the help of the French Underground.

He ended up working for a Quaker family in Villanova, Pa., where he was drafted into the U.S. Army.

He was destined to become one of the Ritchie Boys, a U.S. military intelligence unit trained at Camp Ritchie, Md., during World War II.

For the most part, the unit was composed of some 10,000 young men, mostly Jewish, German and Austrian immigrants who had fled Nazi persecution, and who had been given citizenship after they were drafted.

They proved invaluable when they interrogated prisoners on the front lines and provided counter intelligence in Europe because of their knowledge of the German language and culture.

He was part of a team that landed at Normandy and worked behind the scenes.

"We had an opportunity to bring down our enemy in Germany," he said, "and we did."

After the war, he was assigned to the trials at Nuremburg.

"I prepared evidence to help convict Hitler's henchmen," he said. "I had served my country, America, and I was proud to have done so."