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Dec. 7, 1941: Sunday morning in Bellingham shattered by news of impending war

It was Dec. 7, 1941, the last peacetime morning that Whatcom County and the rest of America would enjoy until 1945.

The big news in Bellingham was a public open house at the city’s new airport. An aerial photo of the grand new three-runway transportation hub graced the top of The Bellingham Herald’s front page.

Readers also learned that the Whatcom County Dairymen’s Association had approved a resolution calling on Congress to pass anti-margarine legislation.

At the bottom of the page was a strip of photos featuring grocer Arthur Howard, Bellingham’s new mayor-elect, showing him washing dishes with his wife, working the scales at his store, putting on his golf shoes, and reading The Herald.

Howard and other Herald readers must have been aware that placid Whatcom County was embedded in a world in chaos. Nearly all of Europe had been at war for more than two years – and so had Canada, just a short drive north on Highway 99. Sunday headlines updated the distant carnage: GERMAN DRIVE UPON MOSCOW PARRIED.

Even the Sunday comics already seemed preoccupied by war: Snuffy Smith was in the Army, and Flash Gordon’s plane was shot down by American fighters. He had been flying a plane with enemy insignia because ... well, it was complicated.

But far more ominous than any of that was the front page report that President Franklin Roosevelt had sent a special message to Emperor Hirohito, in a last-ditch effort to prevent a conflict with Japan as that country massed ships and troops for a possible drive on the oil-rich Dutch East Indies.

The attack

Most Whatcom County readers had probably finished their morning paper and were turning their thoughts to Sunday dinner by the time they learned that Roosevelt’s overture to the emperor had failed. The first Japanese warplanes swooped down on the American fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor at about 9:48 a.m. Pacific time. Not until 11:25 a.m. did radio networks begin breaking into regular Sunday programming to report the attack, which had ended just minutes before the first news flashes reached the mainland. More than 2,400 Americans died.

By the time the presses rolled again on Monday afternoon, Congress had approved Roosevelt’s declaration of war, and Bellingham was mobilizing.

“A community seething with indignation at Japan’s unprovoked Sunday assault joined together Monday in an all-out war effort,” The Herald reported.

The response

Leaders and regular citizens had reacted quickly. In the immediate aftermath of the surprise attack, nobody knew what might happen next, and many seemed to assume the worst.

Civil defense groups already in existence mustered their members to guard local bridges and keep watch on waterfront industries. All leaves for local police and firefighters were canceled.

Armed guards were stationed at the city water plant.

Officials at the brand-new airport sent a telegram to the War Department, offering unlimited use of the three local runways for national defense.

A Herald photographer snapped a picture of young men lining up at the Navy recruiting station in the downtown Federal Building.

Suspicions

Here and everywhere else on the West Coast, everything that Japanese-Americans did was suddenly viewed with suspicion.

“A small Japanese pleasure-fishing boat was seized in waters of Bellingham Bay,” The Herald reported, without saying who did the seizing.

In Tacoma, police arrested two Japanese men and held them for the FBI after they were “allegedly caught attempting to conceal a motion picture projector, films and equipment in their automobile.”

“Business went on as usual, but war talk rolled off every tongue,” The Herald reported. “Eyes glanced skyward to the west as if at any moment invaders might swoop out of the clouds.”

Life continued

It was business as usual for Hatfield’s cleaners on D Street, advertising “suits, coats, overcoats, dresses, hats etc.” cleaned and pressed for 75 cents and up. Phone numbers were easier to remember in those days: Ask the operator for 11, and she would patch you through to Hatfield’s.

At the Hotel Bellingham Ballroom, everyone was invited to free DYNAMIC LECTURES on “how to build health and efficiency through scientific eating, breathing, thinking, living.”

On the sports page, basketball fans learned that local high school and Western Washington State College teams were planning to go ahead with their winter schedules, “but school authorities were unprepared to state what effect if any the war will have on sports activities this winter.”

William Kaigler, Bellingham’s civil defense director, pleaded with citizens to stop calling his office unless they had “important information or information of which the caller has actual proof.”

War preparations

Kaigler warned that the downfall of France two years earlier had been caused by mass hysteria of the people.

The Herald’s front page on Tuesday, Dec. 9 did little to restore calm.

WEST COAST EXPECTS ATTACK, the banner headline said.

At their meeting the previous evening, the City Council had authorized hurried completion of air raid shelters and purchase of gas masks for all emergency workers. Civil defense officials warned city residents to stay tuned to their radios for blackout orders. A day later, the basements of the Federal Building, Bellingham National Bank, City Hall, the Leopold Hotel, Mount Baker Theatre and the Herald Building were designated for possible use as air raid shelters.

Columbia Valley Lumber Co. advertised a full supply of blackout paper and wallboard for windows.

Montgomery Ward’s ad suggested there was no better time to buy a radio, and prices would never again be this low with raw material shortages looming. A huge radio console with short-wave reception was offered for $61.88, payable in easy installments of $5 per month.

Blackouts

Within a few more days, residents would get less solace from their radios than before: Transmissions from commercial radio stations were being shut down at seemingly random times to prevent their signals from providing homing beacons to Japanese aircraft. Commercial stations in Honolulu had apparently provided unwitting navigational aid to the Pearl Harbor attackers.

Local movie patrons were told what to expect under blackout conditions: “If a blackout is called for dusk, the theaters will be closed. If the blackout is called for 11 p.m., one complete show will be projected, closing at 10:30 o’clock, giving patrons half an hour in which to reach their homes.”

Waterfront paper and lumber mills reported they had covered up windows to observe blackout requirements for their facilities, and night shift workers would punch the clock on schedule.

Kaigler attempted to clear up confusion about the blackout schedule, created when authorities announced the blackout would end a half-hour after daylight each day. Kaigler advised residents to use their own judgment, observing there would be no point in keeping lights off once the sun was up. He did not add that there was probably no point in turning them on at that point, either.

Regional reaction

To the north, Victoria, B.C. Mayor Andrew McGavin warned that the Japanese forces were approaching the Aleutian Islands and “we expect them here at any time.”

In Seattle, the weather bureau announced that it would stop issuing weather forecasts for the entire Pacific Coast, because the information would be potentially useful to enemy pilots. The Herald editorialized that “for now each individual will revert to the good old days when he was his own weather prophet, relying on wind direction, wild geese, squirrels and other signs.”

Three days after the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. Army announced that it was accepting Bellingham’s offer and would take over the airport. A pursuit squadron was to be stationed there, and civilians were warned to keep away.

Lt. Harley Kabrud also warned that about 30 airport-bound trucks would be passing through Bellingham day and night, loaded with bombs. Kabrud asked that motorists “cooperate by giving the equipment the right-of-way.”

Lights off

In the predawn hours on Dec. 10, two cars collided at Bakerview Road and Pacific Highway. Both had been traveling with headlights off, following blackout rules. Nobody was hurt, but the day before, a former Bellingham woman had been killed in a head-on crash in Skagit County, also involving two cars with headlights off after dark.

Also on Dec. 10, about 300 men met at City Hall to be pressed into service as air raid wardens. They would enforce the blackouts while standing ready to guide people to air raid shelters, report bomb explosions, fires and gas attacks, and administer first aid. Another 85 were mobilized as rooftop fire watchers, most of them members of the Fairhaven Boys Club. Some were as young as 10.

Schools across Whatcom County conducted air raid drills.

As one of the most troubled weeks in American history drew to a close, with a terrifying drumbeat of wire service reports about Japanese advances in the Philippines, Guam and elsewhere in the Western Pacific, the Saturday newspaper reported that the City Council’s health committee had ordered “immediate police action to protect the health and morals of United States troops stationed here by clearing out all undesirable persons in Bellingham. The health committee’s planned action … does not mean that conditions in Bellingham are worse than in other cities, or even as bad, but that every precaution is to be taken here to guard the uniformed men against moral pitfalls.”

On to WWII

On the front page, a small notice reminded readers there were just nine shopping days until Christmas.

But it would be a sorrowful holiday season for the Arnott family. At the top of Saturday’s front page was a picture of a smiling young sailor, Robert Arnott. He had left Bellingham High School in 1938, during his junior year, to join the Navy. The 21-year-old pharmacist’s mate second class had been killed in the Pearl Harbor attack.

Today, Arnott’s name is on the war memorial plaque at the Whatcom County Courthouse, along with 196 other local people who would lose their lives before the war’s end in 1945.

 
 
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