When history came to class at Northfield Community School

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Henderson Hemphill, left and Bob Burness were a huge hit in Karen Schroeder’s seventh grade class at the Northfield Community School Friday, Dec 7. Henderson Hemphill, left and Bob Burness were a huge hit in Karen Schroeder’s seventh grade class at the Northfield Community School Friday, Dec 7.

NORTHFIELD—Seventh grade students at the Northfield Community School had a rare, first person history lesson Friday morning, Dec. 7 from local veterans who lived through the day that will live in infamy.

For some, like Bob Burness, commander of the VFW and a U.S. Navy veteran and Henderson Hemphill, Navy veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor it was a chance to share their colorful tales.

Hemphill, 92, survived enemy fire twice. “I was aboard the U.S.S. Pringle when it was hit by the Japanese kamikaze pilot,” said Hemphill. “We were out in the harbor on picket duty when it happened. The explosion cracked the seal on the boat and there was no way it could stay afloat. The explosion also blew me overboard and I landed in the water. There was a tremendous amount of gasoline burning on the water and there was a lot of confusion.”

Hemphill also spoke about how kamikaze pilots were called hell divers and that they would look for stacks on the boats to crash into. “They left with no plan of ever returning. They wanted to cause the greatest amount of damage,” explained the former sailor.

The students questioned the veterans what Henderson meant when he said he was on “Picket duty.” Burness explained that ships would line up in a harbor and form a sort of picket fence. “Picket duty would safeguard the harbor from allowing any enemy ship to enter the harbor but it also kept any of the ships that were in the harbor from getting out,” said Burness.

Hemphill explained how the 21 ton ship, the Pringle sunk in just 8 minutes and that many men were lost when the ship went down. He was plucked from the water and rescued, only to have that ship hit and was again in the water. “I think after the second time I figured, I am going to fight them on my own if I have to,” explained Hemphill. 

Burness, 86, shared his recollection of growing up in Northfield at that time leading up to the war and after the war.

The veterans talked about things the students could relate to. Hemphill spoke about how supplies in Hawaii were running low after the Dec. 7 attack because the supply ship could not get in. “We were running out of food and we ate anything the cook could come up with. Once there was nothing left but some weevils and the captain ate some. Whatever was good enough for the captain was good enough for the men so, we ate weevils that day,” explained Hemphill.

Burness tried to explain rationing to the kids explaining that the war effort caused shortages of things like meat, sugar and gasoline. “People would get a rationing card and they learned to save up for things they wanted,” Burness explained.

The students wanted to know what they did for fun when they were growing up. Burness talked about going to the movies on a Saturday and with ten cents he would see a double feature and get something to eat.

His first hoagie cost 25 cents, a summer ride on an open air trolley from the Atlantic City inlet to Longport and back was 30 cents and a great adventure for a Sunday afternoon. He talked about heating their house with coal and his mom sending him to the store to buy $1 bag of coal and that it would do a good job of keeping them warm in the winter.

Gas was 17 cents a gallon and his very first job was as a delivery boy at a fish market in 1941. He earned $5 a week and was allowed to take home fish for dinner. “When I got a paycheck for $25 I thought I was rich. Then when I got my first paycheck in the Navy for $100 I thought I was the richest man in the world,” Burness said with a broad smile.

He talked about how the character of Northfield has changed over the decades as well as Atlantic City pre WWII up through the start of casino gambling in 1978. He said Nucky Johnson ran Atlantic City and that he kept it clean and Burness admitted the city fell on hard times for many years starting in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. But is happy with how it has turned around economically but lamented that it is not as safe as it was when he was growing up.

At the conclusion of the class the students gave their special guests a round of applause for a great history lesson they can never find in any book.
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