By Linda Emley
As December started in 1941, no one knew that the world as they knew it, was about to change. The war in Europe was two years old, but we were trying to stay out of it. Japan and China were at war, but that was half a world away. It was not our war. On Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941 at 7:55 a.m. Pacific Time, everything changed when Japanese planes started dropping bombs on the U.S. Territory of Hawaii.
When President Roosevelt gave his famous speech Dec. 8, and proclaimed, “a date which will live in infamy,” no one knew how many lives would be affected before President Harry S. Truman ended the war in 1945.
Anyone who was old enough to remember could tell you exactly where they were when they heard the news. Fifteen-year-old Charlie Haman was at the Farris Theater watching a movie. He even remembered what seat he was sitting in when the movie was stopped and Mr. Weary stood on the stage to break the news to everyone.
Sixteen-year-old Jo Ellen Cureton was in a car with a friend and two G.I.s driving across the Ocmulgee River in Macon, Ga. when they heard the news flash on the car radio. She and her friend were volunteers at the local USO and they were taking the G.I.s to their parents’ house for dinner. The two young men were from Bangor, Maine and were serving a year-long tour of duty, but that changed after we entered World War II. Jo Ellen Cureton later found her way to Richmond and we know her today as Jo Ellen Dale.
Some people did not find out about the attack until they got their newspaper the next morning. The Richmond News, of Dec. 8 had this: “AMERICA AT WAR. The daring, treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor, our Gibraltar of the Pacific, by Japanese forces yesterday brings the war direct to America. Now after two years and three months in the grandstand, watching the European conflict gradually expand, we collide with the inevitable and through no fault of our own we are brought into it by the nation which some 10 years ago started the whole grisly conflict by breaking treaties in the invasion of a peaceful nation, China, from which it wrested Manchukuo. Oddly enough our present secretary of war, Mr. Stimson, then attempted to interest other nations in stopping Japan. They refused to act and today they are we are paying the price for allowing international brigandage to pay dividends. But that is water over the dam now. Now the whole world is aflame. There is nothing for us to do but to settle it as quickly as we can, to build up our armament until we can entirely crush the little men across the ocean, as well as the Al Capone who is behind it all, Adolph Hitler.”
Then this in the News Dec. 22: “Need Workers at Pearl Harbor. The keynote, ‘Remember Pearl Harbor’ was sounded today by the U.S. Civil Service Commission as is began a nation-wide recruiting campaign for skilled workers to go to the Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Honolulu. B.M. Snoddy, associate manager of the Ninth U.S. Civil Service District, with headquarters in St. Louis, indicated a need for boilermakers, coppersmiths, electricians, instrument makers, gas cutters and burners, machinists, ordnancemen, pipefitters, sheet metal workers, and many other types of skilled workers, both journeyman and helpers, for immediate employment at Pearl Harbor at top wages. It was further indicated that there is plenty of overtime work available and that transportation will be paid to Pearl Harbor by the government. Mr. Snoddy urges all qualified mechanics and trade helpers who want to do their part in the defense of our country to “Remember Pearl Harbor” and see Frank H. Hendrix, secretary, local civil service board, Richmond, or the manager State Employment Service office.”
In the same Dec. 22 issue there was a section titled, “Hear from Hawaii.” Some families had good news to report and other did not.
“Mrs. Lam Wilkinson, Saturday night received a wire from her son Richard W. Graham, stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in which he said he had escaped injury in the recent disaster there.
“Mrs. Olen Frazier, who has been very much worried about her son, Wilson, Honolulu, received a letter from him Saturday, announcing that he was o.k. The air mail letter was written December 9th.
“John Kugler this morning received the first word from his son, Ensign J.T. Kugler, U.S.N., stationed at Pearl Harbor. He wrote that he was safe and well. The letter, sent by clipper plane, was dated December 15th.
“Charles Skiles received a telegram yesterday from the naval department which stated that his sons, C.J. Jr. and Eugene, were missing. The same report came about the two boys’ cousin, Gerald Skiles, son of Henry Skiles, of northeast of Richmond.
“M.G. Kennedy of Henrietta received a letter yesterday from his daughter, Mrs. Erma Markling of Honolulu, stating that she and her brother, Lt. M. G. Kennedy, Jr. and his family, are all safe and well. She added that they will be in Hawaii ‘for the duration’ and advised all back home not to become excited about rumors.”
The Richmond News published a Pearl Harbor update Jan. 26: “Post-Mortem on Pearl Harbor. The report of President Roosevelt’s commission to investigate the disaster of Pearl Harbor published yesterday adds new and authoritive evidence of incredible negligence on the part of the commanders of the armed forces stationed at the Gibraltar of the Pacific. The negligence was responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 soldiers and sailors and, even worse, it will be responsible for the deaths of many thousands more.” Some historians today claim the total death toll for World War II to be around 50,000,000 people.”
It would be 59 days after Pearl Harbor before the Navy officially notified the Skiles family that their boys would not be coming home. This was in the Richmond News Feb. 4, 1942: “Killed December 7 at Pearl Harbor. A telegram was received here today from the Navy department announcing that Eugene and Charles J. Skiles, sons of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Skiles of Richmond, had lost their lives in the service of their country in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor December 7th. They were sailors aboard the battleship Arizona. Shortly after the attack the two young men were listed as ‘missing.’ Remember Pearl Harbor!”
The Ray County Veterans Building is home to American Legion Griffith-Skiles Post #237, which is named after the three Skileses who were killed at Pearl Harbor. Charley Jackson Skiles Jr. and his brother Eugene Skiles died while serving on the USS Arizona. Their cousin Gerald Leroy Skiles died on the USS Oklahoma. There are pictures of all three men on a wall at the Veterans Building. Hanging by their pictures, you will find a rusty old piece of metal in a frame that is as valuable as gold in my eyes because it is a piece of the USS Arizona. We should be very proud to have this piece of history in Richmond.
I went to Hawaii and visited the Arizona Memorial. We rode a boat out to the middle of the bay to visit the battleship. There is a wall with all the names of the 1,177 sailors and Marines who were buried at sea with their ship. We located the names of our Skiles boys and this made it all seem very personal. There is no way to describe the feeling you have as you look down in the deep, blue water and see the USS Arizona laying silently below.
Linda’s interested in your family stories about World War II. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.