Tuesday, September 27, 2022

On this day: After Pearl Harbor, Greater Williamsburg plays its part fighting World War II

A Navy Day parade on Duke of Gloucester Street on October 27, 1942. (WYDaily/Courtesy Rockefeller Library)
Military vehicles were involved in a Navy Day parade on Duke of Gloucester Street on October 27, 1942. (WYDaily/Courtesy Rockefeller Library)

On this day 77 years ago, the United States’ neutrality in World War II came to an abrupt halt.

Japanese bombers flew over Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in a surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941, dropping bombs on eight U.S. Navy battleships and sinking four. In total, 2,403 Americans were killed and another 1,178 wounded.

One day after the attack, the United States officially declared war against Japan, entering what would be the deadliest conflict in history.

While World War II was fought overseas, the attack on Pearl Harbor prompted a patriotic military and civilian response in Greater Williamsburg.

William & Mary added teachers to its staff to lead courses in war studies, Williamsburg organized a defense council, and patriotic editorials published weekly in local newspapers.

“There was a big rush for people to enlist after Pearl Harbor, that was also all over the whole country,” York County Historical Society founder Frank Green said.

On Dec. 11, 1941, the Virginia Gazette published a letter in a front-page section called “the Monitor,” letting residents know what had happened since the paper last published.

“Since our letter last week, much has happened in Washington and Japan was the cause of the whole trouble and excitement, as even while her envoys sent here by the Mikado …  Japanese bombers were over our Pacific possessions of Honolulu, raining down fire and death on Pearl Harbor, sinking ships in the harbor and destroying planes at the airport, killing and wounding soldiers, sailors and civilians to a total of some 3,000.”

A Dec. 12 comic published in a Williamsburg newspaper shows a ghoulish "Nazism" figure throwing papers over the United States reading "selfishness," "defeatism," "sabotage" and more. (WYDaily/Courtesy Williamsburg Regional Library)
A Dec. 12 comic published in a Williamsburg newspaper shows a ghoulish “Nazism” figure throwing papers over the United States reading “selfishness,” “defeatism,” “sabotage” and more. (WYDaily/Courtesy Williamsburg Regional Library)

Calm before the storm

Two days before the attack, on Dec. 5, 1941, the local newspaper published an editorial titled “Peaceful Williamsburg.”

At the time, United States citizens were aware a war was brewing — and the United States’ entry into the conflict could be imminent — but many hoped the war would not bring conflict to their doorstep.

“Here in Williamsburg where we attempt to live far from the busy strife, amid the placid memories of Colonial days, we do not seem to realize the terrible mess that dictators are making of the world overseas, where human life is counted as naught and freedom, even of the mind, enslaved,” the editorial reads.

The editorial continued, stating civilians should support President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was working to keep the war away from the borders.

“People knew there was a war coming, that was no big secret,” Green said. “It was just, what was going to touch that off?”

On Dec. 8, 1941, the United States was officially at war.

“The pre-war Navy was a small enough community that everyone in the Navy knew someone that was killed at Pearl Harbor,” said Chris Garcia, education coordinator for the Virginia War Museum.

Sailors are pictured outside Chowning's Tavern in Williamsburg during WWII. (WYDaily/Courtesy John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library)
Sailors are pictured outside Chowning’s Tavern in Williamsburg during WWII. (WYDaily/Courtesy John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library)

Initial response

On Dec. 11, 1941, local published reports urged Americans to “Buy American” and avoid purchasing items bearing a “Made  in Japan” stamp, including toys, toothbrushes, Christmas tree lights, combs, jewelry and ornaments.

Editorials on the following newspaper page ask Americans living along the coast to “keep their heads,” as well as donate to the American Red Cross for war efforts.

On Jan. 30, 1942, a new column appeared in Williamsburg’s newspaper called “The Home Front,” giving readers a view into wartime activities in the United States. A Feb. 20 published column discussed moving scrap metal into war production, establishing rubber plants on the home front, donating blood and civilians hoarding sugar rations.

“There was gas rationing,” Green said. “There was a thriving black market for gas.”

In the Williamsburg area, a newspaper editorial voiced concern for local farmers, who would face difficulties getting crops to market with limitations on rubber imports for vehicle tires, as well as fluctuating wartime prices.

Several published reports reference both daytime and nighttime blackout drills, when air raid sirens would sound and residents would cover their windows and turn out lights.

The war years

Military activity boomed in Hampton Roads during WWII.

Some William & Mary professors took leaves of absence from the college to work defense research jobs in Washington, D.C., according to published reports.

After Pearl Harbor, Camp Peary and the Cheatham Annex Naval Base were also built to aid war efforts.

The Newport News shipyard employed many York County residents to help build war ships to travel overseas, Green said.

Garcia, of the Virginia War Museum, said the shipyard also fixed ships damaged during the war.

“War was very real on the East Coast,” Garcia said.

And, as war carried on, even Virginia faced the threat of German U-boats. Virginia’s shipping ports made the state a “hunting ground” for U-boats, Garcia said.

“You would go to the beach and there would be oil in the water, and (you would) see ships on fire from miles away,” Garcia said.

WYDaily reporters Alexa Doiron and Andrew Harris contributed to this story.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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