In Another Time > 72 years later, Wildwoods remember Pearl Harbor

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When the calendar turned to December in 1941, bombs fell in Europe and anxious Americans were caught between cautious optimism and somber pessimism over whether war would come to their shores.

Charles Lindbergh, who in the peacetime of May 1927 made aviation history by becoming the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, was in 1941 the spokesman for an isolationist organization called the “America First Committee” whose goal was to keep the United States out of war. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, today judged one of the great presidents in the nation’s history, promised mothers and fathers in a campaign speech in Boston that he would not send any of their sons to fight a war in a foreign nation.

But there were opposite signs on the home front. More National Guard troops were observed in training on the streets and in the armories of a nervous America. And people were asking, if we were not to go to war, why was there in place a Selective Service system ready to draft young men?

Soon it was all to change when on Dec. 7, a Sunday, Japanese planes dropped their lethal destruction on the American naval base of Pearl Harbor, a site in Hawaii that until then few people on the American mainland had even known existed.

Across the land, the war had begun for the United States, affecting every city and hamlet whether it be in Boise, Albuquerque and Hackensack or in Wildwood.

Initial reaction to the news bordered on hysteria in Wildwood.

Four businesses owned by Japanese-Americans on the boardwalk were padlocked by police and the FBI asked the public for more information about their owners. In other South Jersey towns, the windows of businesses owned by people of Japanese descent were smashed. A German-born fisherman was jailed for 30 days for being disorderly and the FBI investigated him further after he failed to produce his alien registration papers. He had been an employee on a commercial fishing boat off the shores of the Wildwoods for 10 years.

When a fire siren was sounded at 6:30, two nights after the bombing, some Wildwood residents looked fearfully toward the sky, seeking traces of the enemy. Instead they were to learn it was the call for the fire department to respond to a small trash fire on East Wildwood Avenue.

Soon the mayors of the four municipalities on Five Mile Beach got together with Navy officials and made plans to meet the crisis. They addressed the fire alarm soundings first, giving them a different identification for enemy airplanes approaching the island. It would be a two or three minute continuous warning about the enemy as opposed to the shorter one minute version for a fire.

North Wildwood Mayor George A. Redding announced that when an air raid on the island was pending the word would be flashed to the police departments from the naval base in Cape May.

“It has been decided not to conduct any drills or tests,” he added, “since considerable confusion would prevail as indicated in New York this week.”

Neither would there be a trial blackout for the moment, it was decided, and officials added that they did not expect the Wildwoods to be invaded, but they wanted to be ready just in case.

Meanwhile, an investigation was launched of what were called “alien tavern owners.”

“Ten percent of more than 11,000 licensed establishments in the state does seem to be an unusually large proportion of alien persons of Axis (enemy) descent and we’re taking no chances,” said Alcohol Beverage Commissioner Alfred E. Driscoll, who later was to become governor of New Jersey. “In a short time steps will be taken to investigate each and everyone to prevent any possible act of sabotage.”

News of local servicemen serving in the Pacific soon came to the Wildwoods. Initially 24 were reported there and the first fatality was said to be Chief Boatswain Edwin J. Hill who had a Cape May connection and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism on what has become known as Pearl Harbor Day.

The home front continued to be busy in the Wildwoods, too. Some 150 auxiliary policemen and firemen were administered oaths as part of the newly-formed civil defense organization. Their purpose, said North Wildwood Mayor George Redding, was to avoid any confusion during air raid alarms. Air raid wardens were often on the streets of American communities during the early stages of World War II, their duties including keeping the streets clear for ambulances and fire equipment during bombings, and enforcing a law that required all lights in homes and businesses to be turned off during air raid alerts and drills.

“I hope the time will never come when you men will be called into action for air raids but precautions must be taken and we will not be caught napping,” Redding told the new civil defense wardens.

The American Red Cross soon became part of what was called the home front. It held classes for volunteers and under the leadership of Mrs. Howard B. Mecleary (newspapers did not identify married women by their first names then), a county Red Cross organization was established. Her husband was a captain in charge of the inshore patrol at the Cape May naval base and two years earlier she was with him in Hawaii at the future bombing site where he was stationed.

The communities on Five Mile Beach were to come together then in a move to avoid duplication and overlapping in the war effort. It was a development that has been tried, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, in the years of peace in the Wildwoods.

Wildwood Mayor George W. Krogman contended it was inevitable that if the communities did not consolidate, expenses would be higher for each municipality, especially in the purchase of materials. In the event space was needed for war refugees from Philadelphia or elsewhere, the Wildwoods would accommodate them in the island’s vacant hotels during the winter, the mayor announced.

Hundreds of residents crowded Pacific Avenue soon after the United States entered the war and listened to the superintendent of schools Lanning Myers as he told them over the city’s loud speaker system what to do in case air raid warnings were sounded.

One of the patriotic songs and outcries that emerged from what President Roosevelt called “a day that will live in infamy” was “Remember Pearl Harbor.” The passage of time has diminished its memory somewhat but every year on Dec. 7 veterans, a few who lived during that time, gather at the parking lot of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in North Wildwood and hold a ceremony honoring those who made the supreme sacrifice 72 years ago. As they cast a memorial wreath out to sea, they truly remember Pearl Harbor.

(Some of the information in this article was researched at the reference department of the county library in Cape May Court House.)

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