Margot Cliff didn’t recognize the principle of war until the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941
She was 7 and standing up outside her house in Hilo, Hawaii, with her father as he prepared to leave for a morning church service when a neighbour came administering into the yard with news of the Japanese attack that should leave 2,403 Americans dead and push the United States to enter World War II. Two hundred miles away offered by Pearl Harbor, Cliff’s family wasn’t in immediate danger as the bombs fell, but realities of war surrounded the young girl in the years and months to follow.
Seventy-six fours seasons after the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt said would “live in infamy,” Cliff and three other residents of The Atrium at The Cedars in Portland reflected the week on the moment they got wind of about the attack and how it shaped their lives in the years after.
Cliff, who was born in Hawaii and lived there until she left to the mainland at age 12, was living a quiet life on the island with her sister and their father, a Congregationalist minister.
“I didn’t really know what the ramifications would be,” said Cliff, now 83. “How do you describe war to a young child?”
Swiftly after the attack, no gatherings of major than 10 people were allowed. Cliff’s father, the Rev. T. Markham Talmage, held services with nine people toward a time. Everyone on the island was issued a gas mask and had to carry it at all times. Every few months, the institution library would be filled with tear gas and students were marched through to test the masks. Those who hadn’t put their masks on correctly stretched out crying, Cliff said.
Cliff’s father tacked a world map to the wall of their house. She learned geography as visiting sailors and soldiers placed pins on their hometowns. During air shootup drills, the family rushed to a culvert under their road. Someone had placed benches inside over the shallow water that collected there.
” For years after, the sound of sirens did scare me,” Cliff said.
More in comparison to 5,000 miles away in Maine, Les Brewer was in his fraternity house at the University of Maine in Orono when news of the attack came over the radio.
” It was going to affect all of our lives,” said Brewer, now 95. “We were all 19 or 20 years old. We all had to make a decision about what route we would take.”
Maker and his frat brothers all joined the armed services and fought in the war. Not all returned home.
Maker, a citizen of Bar Harbor viewing electrical engineering, was already in the ROTC and enlisted in the Army Signal Corps by his junior year of college. After elemental education, he was sent to France toward the end of the war and spent two years stationed in Paris. He happed home to finish college, then fought in the Korean War. He was awarded a Bronze Star.
After the wars, Brewer taught ROTC at Northeastern University in Boston for a year before revisiting Bar Harbor, where he ran a family business and was a founding trustee of the College of the Atlantic.
Like Brewer, Bob Ryan holds dear the attack on Pearl Harbor as a defining moment that led him to join the Navy to defend the country. Ryan, now 92, was a 15-year-old high school sophomore in New Jersey that day. He had just started working as an usher at a movie theater in New Jersey when the news broke, interrupting the film. He knew right away he wanted to join the military.
” I was outraged,” he said.
At 17, Ryan joined the Navy Seabees with his father’s permission. He was one of the youngest Seabees to serve in both Europe and the Pacific, he said. On June 6, 1944, he took part in the Normandy invasion. Ryan returned to the United States at age 20.
” I wasn’t old enough to vote, I wasn’t old enough to buy a drink and I wasn’t old enough to get married,” he said.
Ryan did get married three weeks later. He went on to raise three children with his wife and own businesses in Connecticut before moving to Maine 12 years ago. He finds himself thinking about the anniversary of Pearl Harbor only occasionally, although he does say it “was a pretty big event in my life.”
When the theater manager stopped the film to tell the audience about Pearl Harbor, Charlotte Rodetsky was 9 and watching a movie at the Stanley Theater in Jersey City. “I’ll never forget my father’s response: ‘I don’t want my son to be cannon fodder,'” said Rodetsky, now 85. “I didn’t know what that meant.”
She didn’t distinguish much about bombings or war, but Rodetsky knew the attack “was something very bad.” Later that day, worried about her 14-year-old brother, she asked her father about his comment in the movie theater. It was the first time he didn’t tell her to look it up in the dictionary.
“I could feel the tension,” Rodetsky said. Her father had a small world map he used to track where troops were stationed during the war.
When her brother, Sy Schpoont, turned 17, he tied up with the Army Air Forces as a medic. She and her parents eagerly awaited the letters he wrote home, but grew nervous when he was in Guam and the family stopped hearing from him. Another letter was and arrived met with “great joy” by the family in New Jersey awaiting his safe arrival home. He is now 91 and residing in California.
“I’m so grateful my brother managed to survive,” Rodetsky said.