From the Column:


Valley Gazette

By Curt Williams




Remembering December 7th

On Thursday, December 4, 1941, they played the Dream Game at Pottsville and Tamaqua quarterback Jackie Costello helped lead the South to a 14 to 13 victory. With the North ahead by the score of 13 to 0, he set things up for his team with a 52 yard kickoff return to start off the second half. Coaldale's Dolph Tokarczk then had himself a great night scoring the South's two touchdowns in the second half.

Other guy's that saw action in the game that night were Con Postupack and Billy Swider from Tamaqua, and Urban and Harb from Coaldale.

And soon it was Saturday, December 6. Maybe you spent some time listening to the radio. Early in the day Bob Chester's Orchestra was on WOR. On WCAU they had the Juke Box Show. Then WOR featured Blue Barron, WJZ had Glenn Miller, and WIP had crooner Vaughn Monroe.

Early in the evening WJZ had Muggzy Spanier and then the favorite comedy program of "Lum and Abner" came on. If you didn't like comedy there was more music on WCAU featuring the great swinging band of Count Basie.

At 8:00 P.M. that evening you could tune in to the "Green Hornet" on WIP. Or Guy Lombardo on WCAU or the Song Spinners on WOR.

After 10:15 P.M. you had your choice of Glenn Miller, Sammy Kaye, Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, the McFarland Twins, or Stan Kenton.

Maybe you just opted for some "live" small town action and decided to hop on down to the Greenwood Inn located in the very small village of Seek to enjoy some entertainment provided by the featured small band of Pete Kay. He had with him a guy billed as "Mickey the Drummer."

Popular songs of the day were Tonight We Love, Elmer's Tune, Chattanoogo Choo Choo, Shepherd Serenade, I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire, This Love of Mine, You and I, Jim, A Sinner Kissed and Angel, Everything I Love, Orange Blossom Lane, The White Cliffs of Dover, Madelaine, The Bells of San Raquel, Two in Love, Till Reveille, Daddy, Green Eyes, I Guess I'll Have to Dream the Rest, Time Was, Yours, The Hut Sut Song, Do You Care, and many more that space doesn't permit me to list here. I wonder if Pete Kay's little group played any of them that night?

And the bands played on. At about the same time that Pete Kay was packing away his instruments and calling it a day, other musicians were warming up for the final round of a "Battle of Music" being held on a small island in the middle of the Pacific while most people here in the Panther Valley slept peacefully making zzzZZ’s.

In a place called the Bloch Recreation Center at a Naval Base called Pearl Harbor, swing bands made up of naval personnel from U. S. Navy ships Argonne, Pennsylvania, Detroit, and Tennessee played their hearts out as their buddies and friends cheered them on. And guess what? The band from the flagship of the Pacific Fleet, the battlewagon USS Pennsylvania, won that contest when the judges voted it the best in the fleet.

Boy! - the joint was really rocking and jumping to all the jiving going on that night and the hall didn't stop reverberating until everybody finally left and headed back to their ships and barracks. Little did all those sailors and servicemen realize as they crawled into their bunks for a little shut-eye that it wouldn't be long before the Bloch Recreation Center would be shakin' again.

The next day was Sunday, December 7, 1941. If you were alive on that day I don't have to tell you what happened that Sunday morning out at the then little known island of Oahu in the Hawaiian Island chain at a place known as Pearl Harbor. You know!

You started to hear about it on the radio here in the Panther Valley sometime during the afternoon and early evening hours of that day. If you were one of the many football fans in the Valley you might have heard the news while you were listening to the Giants - Dodgers game coming from the Polo Grounds in New York. You would have heard the first announcement at 2:26 P.M.(EST). The time difference between here and Hawaii back in 1941 was five and a half hours. The attack on Pearl Harbor started right before colors, at 7:55 A.M. their time (1:25 P.M. our time).

They say that anybody who was living then remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the news that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Where were you? Do you remember?

I was in my grandfather's farm house in the Mahoning Valley. At that time he was renting out his home on West Bertsch Street in Lansford as he tried his hand at being a gentleman farmer while still working at Number 6 colliery.

I can still remember everyone gathering around the radio to listen to the news bulletins. That day’s events and future actions by the government such as gas rationing would force my grandfather to sell the farm and return to his home in Lansford in 1942.

A fellow I worked with for many years at the Western Electric Plant (later AT&T, then Lucent Technologies and now Agere) in Allentown was there in the middle of it all! He was a Machinist Mate, USN, assigned to the hospital ship Solace which was anchored just off the north tip of Ford Island in what was known as East Loch in Pearl Harbor. He had a front row seat on his unarmed ship and helplessly watched the whole attack evolve in front of him. It was chaotic!

Once he got his wits about him and while the attack was still underway, he and other shipmates started assisting in rescue operations. The Solace learned quickly just how effective it was going to be as a hospital ship. My good friend was the late Forrest George Lentz from Bethlehem and he was a very talented guy.

On Monday, December 8, local papers were stuffed with news about the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. The Tamaqua Evening Courier had at least a three to four inch black swath across the top and inside that black banner in solid white block letters the headline read "U.S. DECLARES WAR."

Below the black banner were other captions which declared, "Navy Fighting Foe; 3,000 Casualties; Britain Also Declares War on Tokyo." Under those was a statement from Franklin D. Roosevelt declaring "We'll Triumph, So Help Us God."

As he stood before the Congress that day, FDR would give his brief speech that would be quoted by so many when rehashing the story of Pearl Harbor. He would say in only a way that he could have said it, with his wonderful flare for the dramatics, his rendition of "Yesterday, December 7, 1941 .. a date that will live in infamy".

And so it went. The United States was finally in another world war. This one would come to be known as World War II. It would glue the country together and would go on until August 14-15, 1945. In some way, before it would come to an end, it would reach out and touch almost all of us who were living in the communities of the Panther Valley on December 7, 1941.

The next day the Courier started printing pictures of local servicemen stationed out there in the Pacific. What was the fate of these men? Were they safe? No information yet on Tamaqua men like Peter Yushinkas at Schofield Barracks, Robert Putsavage at Hickam Field, and George Erbe at Malakole. Or Coaldale men like John Pavlovich at Hickam Field, Robert McCann at Schofield Barracks, brothers Ed and Joe Marcinkus at Honolulu and Schofield Barracks, and John Katchak way out on Wake Island.

What about Edna Reese, a Tamaqua native, out there as a Girl Scout executive in Honolulu since the early thirties? Or Tamaqua native Ida Milbut now a nurse out in Honolulu?

Mrs. Anna Valuch, Lansford, was concerned about her daughter Betty, living out in Honolulu and married to R. C. Morris, a U.S. Naval attaché stationed there.

So many people in the Panther Valley had good reason to be concerned. They had sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, fathers and mothers and other relatives or close friends in those islands.

The very first hours following the attack were torture. People out there hadn't been heard from for quite some time. Now relatives and friends were searching for news in any way that they could get it.

The following are some other men from Tamaqua who were supposed to be stationed out in Hawaii. Francis J. Sweeney, Camp Malokole; William Spayd, Fort Weaver; Algerd Smudin, Hawaii; Albert Litvinas (Lutwin), Kanahoe Bay; George Erbe, Malakole; Edward Houck, Schofield Barracks; Roy Houser and John Trubilla at Wheeler Field.

From Summit Hill there was Robert Halderman stationed somewhere in Hawaii. From the small town of Newkirk there was Eugene Bickelman somewhere in Hawaii and Michael Sopko supposed to be at Schofield Barracks.

From Nesquehoning there were Andrew Lohenicz at Fort Kamehameha; Peter Fetsurka, J. Holiday, Joseph Matsick, Steven Mikolosky, George Poshefko, Steve Puza, Metro Sakara, Wash and William Salak, all somewhere in Hawaii; John Bobchick, Samuel Kutalek, and Andrew Reisetter, Hickam Field; John Evanella, Honolulu; Steven Scapura, Pearl Harbor; Frank Marczyk, Schofield Barracks; George Hallahan, Wheeler Field; John Skodacek - USS California and John Hutman - USS Oklahoma, Pearl Harbor.

Lansford servicemen thought to be stationed somewhere on the island of Oahu were John Krutsick, John Kuba Jr., Steve Pavlick, William J. Thomas, Michael Keister Jr., and Frank Miller.

Additional Coaldale men were Peter Brunda, Hickam Field; Michael Holuska, Steve Polansky, and John Skymba, Schofield Barracks, Edward Ruscavage, Wheeler Field; and George Stembrosky Jr. - USS Nevada, Pearl Harbor.

There were others stationed farther out there somewhere. Tamaqua men like John Jeronis on the USS Calhoun somewhere at sea, Joseph Sweeney at the American Consulate in Kunming, China, and Clarence Sherer in the Philippines at Canacao.

Nesquehoning men like William Hopstock in the Dutch Indies and Stephen Yurchak somewhere in China. Lansford had Ensign Charles Holovak on the USS John D. Edwards in the Philippines at Manila. And Andrew Fignar and Paul Martin, both from Coaldale at Nichols Field in the Philippines.

And where was Herman Bailey from Tamaqua. And what about the whereabouts of Joseph Havrilla and Michael Haluska from Coaldale. Nobody knew exactly where those guys were.

On Tuesday, December 9, two days after the attack, the parents of Ida Milbut received a telegram from her stating that she was safe and wasn't injured in the sneak attack. It was delivered to her parents residence at 305 East Union Street in Tamaqua.

On December 11, the United States officially declared war on Germany and Italy and that night down in Washington, D.C., somebody made like the capital's namesake George and cut down one of the famous Japanese cherry trees.

The American Auto Store in Tamaqua declared that it was removing all Japanese made goods.

On December 12, America had its first hero as newspapers told of the exploits of Captain Colin B. Kelly, a 26 year old air force pilot who was credited with sinking the Jap battleship Haruna when he dove his plane into the ship while releasing a stick of bombs.

That same day the Tamaqua Water Authority placed the town's drinking water supply at the Owl Creek Reservoirs under armed guard.

And then more news started coming. It would come painfully slow at first and was disseminated in sad little articles that started to appear in the paper. The first one showed up on Wednesday, December 17, 1941, ten days after the attack. It told of 1st Class Water Tender, Joseph Yurko, 32, USN, son of Mr. and Mrs. Michael Yurko, 201 West Hazard St., Summit Hill who was killed in action during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was on the USS Oklahoma, an outboard battleship on Battleship Row that bore the brunt of the attack. She was hit by five torpedoes at the beginning of the battle and she rolled over and sunk in about eight minutes.

Yurko's parents were notified by Joe's wife who was living in California. She sent a brief telegram that said "Joe killed at Pearl Harbor. Letter to follow". ("Joe killed in action. Letter follows. Lillian" - Long Beach, Ca. She was from Montana.) Joe was born in Czechoslovakia, came to this country as a very young infant, lived in Lansford and later moved to Summit Hill. He enlisted in the navy in 1927.

Yurko may not have been the first to die from the Panther Valley. No one could tell the moment that death came during the attack. But he was the first to be written up in a local newspaper.

Area servicemen started to get the word back to their families. Cablegrams arriving at almost the same time from Robert Halderman, Summit Hill; Paul Brunda and Ed Ruscavage, Coaldale; Stephen Skapura, Nesquehoning; and John Kuba Jr., Lansford; stated "they were safe and not to worry".

Then on Friday, December 19, 1941, there was another article stating that Pvt. Joseph Malatak, 25, Hauto, was Missing In Action in the attack on Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field where he was stationed. He was a graduate of Nesquehoning High School, Class of 1934, and he had been a very good athlete. Before the end of the month the family would be notified and the public informed that the Missing In Action classification was changed to Killed In Action.

In the Courier on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1941, the public learned of the death of two more of the Valley's young men. This time two families in the community of Coaldale would bear the brunt of the sadness and the grief because both men were from that town. Flags flew at half-mast.

Those two men were Seaman George Stembrosky, 20, USN, who was on the USS Nevada and was killed sometime during the attack on battleship row at Pearl and from way out in the Pacific, 2000 miles to the west of Hawaii, the news had come that Pvt. John Katchak, 19, USMC, had been killed sometime during the first days of the attack on tiny Wake Island.

The Katchak family had been hoping that their boy had been captured because they had just heard that the island had surrendered. But then came the telegram.

That little speck in the Pacific had been under siege by invading Japanese forces in a battle that started on December 9 and didn't end until December 23 when what was left of the tiny island's forces were ordered to lay down their arms.

Yes, from the very first day, the coal field communities were well represented in the thick of the war and the cost would be high. They started paying when the first bombs were dropped. Back in 1941 only time would tell what the final cost would be. Today, history tells us that if the price were figured in that which is priceless, the lives of young men, it was expensive.

On the home front there was support for the war effort. In an ongoing campaign to sell defense stamps by the boys that carried and delivered the Evening Courier, young Guy Deininger was leading all comers. He helped his older brother Cal carry his route and had sold 13,768 stamps to date. That was almost double his nearest rival.

And what about Edna Reese? Well, she was safe. Her family had heard from her. Here's a letter from Edna, a former resident of Tamaqua, written to her father telling him about her experience during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He thought it important enough to share with the readers of the Evening Courier and so he gave it to the paper for publication. It appeared in the paper on December 15, and I used my tape recorder to get the contents of the letter and didn't keep track of its make-up as far as paragraphing and punctuation. But these are her words:

December 7, 1941

Dear Dad,

"THIS IS THE REAL McCOY AND NO SIMULATED BATTLE. OAHU HAS BEEN ATTACKED". Those were the startling words we heard over the radio this morning after a house two doors below me was hit by a bomb.

I slept late this morning, having been out until midnight and was getting up when I heard airplanes which seemed to be rumbling and tumbling overhead.

There had been many practices and problems by the air service, so the noise was not terrifying until I heard a crash. My first thoughts were of course that the plane had crashed near by.

No one was around and I continued with the preparations for breakfast. In about five minutes people began running about and of course I went also.

The house mentioned earlier is the home of an energetic young man and woman and their ten year old son. The bomb, or perhaps it was a shell, hit the house diagonally as all three members of the family were in bed, but not asleep.

The house and grounds was a mass of broken glass and splintered wood, and yet no one was hurt. Fire trucks soon arrived but I believe the house never did catch on fire.

Then I walked farther down the hill to a vantage point where I could see much smoke at Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field, presumably where bombs had been dropped by enemy planes, yet with all this to be seen we thought it another "rehearsal".

It was only about twenty minutes later that I heard the radio news and of course it was all very realistic. Later the news came that enemy planes had been shot down, on the wings of which was the rising sun emblem which meant only one thing - that the long threatened war between the United States and Japan had actually started.

"KEEP YOUR RADIO TUNED ON TO THIS STATION. WE WILL BE BACK WITH MORE NEWS FROM TIME TO TIME." was heard all day long. Meager news was given as one can imagine, that if the enemy was near enough to attack the islands they were near enough to receive radio news.

The radio was used for calling out different groups of people and giving full instructions as to how to get to their destinations. Civilians were urged to stay off the streets. No automobiles were parked or allowed to be parked on streets and for once those without garages or whose garages were at a distance were told to park their cars on lawns.

Lists of names of doctors were read and told where to report for duty. Trucks and motorcycles, men working in hardware departments, those dealing in medical supplies, were told where to report.

A call came for all employees of the engineering group and men working for the Hawaiian Dredging Company were informed to stand-by. One could not help but feel what a wonderful piece of organizational work had been done among volunteers while the army and navy were making their gigantic plans for defense. It was a very exciting day as well as an interesting one but what a surprise.

In as much as this started early in the morning I was at home. My apartment as you may know is on one of the heights and out of the evacuation area and commands a wide view of the city and the harbor.

Dropping bombs and subsequent fires could be plainly seen as I watched during the day. My nearest neighbors are of Japanese ancestry and it is in their garden that my apartment is located. These people are Americans, having been born here, and own an enormous amount of property all over the city including the Pleasanton Hotel and the Makiki Hotel.

Where I am they own twenty-five places renting from $40 to $125. I say this for you to know they have their money tied up here.

Anyway, I spent much of my day on my lanai as did many other people in the neighborhood. They were very much concerned about us all and I know now they will be good neighbors in time of need as well as excellent landlords.

During the day, as we could hear and see the unusual happenings, I was reminded of how as children we used to go outside to watch the thunder and lightning during electric storms. Just that fearless we were as we stood on the open lanai and saw smoke and fire from dropping bombs.

During the afternoon a radio announcement came that there would be a territory wide blackout from sundown to sunrise. Well from then on we thought of plans for the night. A maid next store, Japanese, told me she thought we should each pack a little bag, and in addition to extra clothing to put in some first aid supplies.

I followed her suggestion and with a warm kimono, my only woolen coat such as it is, and a flashlight, felt that they were ready for an emergency as they were placed near an outside door. I then had an early dinner in almost complete darkness, another unusual experience.

The next morning: I came to my own place, and as everything was ready and there were no lights, it did not take me long to crawl into bed.

As you know I am an excellent sleeper and so slept through the night, getting awake at 6:10 this morning. It was not as long of a night as I expected and am certainly glad that I was not weak minded and went elsewhere just to have company.

This morning I have heard no news and the irony of fate - my radio has refused to work, although it was in excellent condition late last night.

You no doubt know more about what has happened here than I do. The people who have radios capable of getting mainland reception picked up interesting bits of news that were not given over our stations, the reasons for this was no doubt that our stations were needed for getting instructions to volunteer groups and the population as a whole.

I hope when you heard the news you were not upset or too worried for oftentimes when one is on the scene it is not as bad as it seems to those hearing about it or reading about it.

There is a wonderful organization set up and everybody will certainly be taken care of if it is at all possible. The governor issued a statement declaring martial law and congratulating the people for their calmness.

I felt last night as I looked over the city that Americans can certainly meet an emergency for the city was in absolute darkness - not a light to be seen anyplace. We might as well have been in wilderness as far as the blackness of the night and the noises of the night - falling leaves, wind through the trees, and chirping of insects.

The night was dark as far as lights in houses, on streets and automobiles, but overhead the stars were shinning brightly and the clouds were lighted by rays from the moon.

As I looked through a window I could see a tree, only on the top of which seemed to be a star, and it looked like a Christmas tree.

Yesterday, upon looking over the city and harbor, everything was beautifully green, with here and there flamboyant colors from tall poinsettias, hibiscus, cups of gold, alamandas, and Christmas berries and my prayer was, dear god, let this beauty not be destroyed by man.



And the bands played on. Edna's letter sort of sets the mood at the end of 1941 as people observed the Christmas Holidays and celebrated New Years Eve as best they could. As the people of the Panther Valley and the rest of the world looked apprehensively to what 1942 had in store for them, life in the Panther Valley would go on.

High schools would continue with their winter basketball games, miners would go off to work just like they always had, and government contracts for more coal to heat the barracks at the military posts would increase, as would business at the Atlas Powder Company down at the little village of Reynolds.

Milkmen would continue their early morning deliveries. Small neighborhood grocery stores, as well as the popular corner watering holes and the local mailman, would become even more important as places and sources to get the latest information about how the war was affecting everyone, while life in general would just go on. However, things would never be the same again.

If there are any readers out there who were residents of the Panther Valley in 1941, and who were at Pearl Harbor, Schofield Barracks, Wheeler Field, Hickam, or other places in Hawaii or the Philippines on December 7, 1941, serving in a military or civilian role, I'd like to hear from you.

Some of the young men mentioned in this and previous articles, like some of the young athletes who played for the different schools in this area, a member of one of the small graduating classes, as well as some of the men in the service on December 7, 1941, would later be claimed by World War II.

I know because their names are on the War Memorials and Plaques scattered throughout the Panther Valley, dedicated to all the young men and women from this area who served and died as a result of action they experienced or were involved in during their tour of duty.

One thing that I have to mention. If any names of either people or places are misspelled I apologize. I get the names out of the newspaper as they were printed at that time. I have sometimes seen the same person's name with several variations of spelling. I really don't know which one would be the correct version.

Changes were coming that would affect everyone and I believe this an appropriate spot to pause in my story about the bands that played at Lakewood Park. Tentatively, this article brings me to the end of 1941.