by Nancy Christofferson
We were told to “remember Pearl Harbor”, and remember we do, even 70 years later. On Dec. 7, 1941, was the surprise attack that claimed more American lives on American soil than any other attack until Sept. 11, 2001.
Though it was a surprise attack in that it came at an unknown time and place, American citizens knew it was just a matter of time before our country became involved in a world war that had been raging for more than three years in Europe, and for some 10 years in Asia after Japanese forces overran Manchuria. That American leaders were fully aware the war would come to us is apparent with the formation of a peacetime Selective Service in October 1940. When the call came then for registration of males, those called had to be between the ages of 21 and 36 years, 60 inches tall (!) and at least 105 pounds. In Huerfano County, 1,517 young men were registered in one day. Soon after, Joseph Kalmes of Walsenburg became the first to volunteer for the Army.
American forces were called upon to face the well-oiled war machines of the Japanese and Germans, but the enormity of that challenge was quickly met. Military and civilians organized all manner of group efforts to support the nation’s safety and well being. Just beginning to come out of the Great Depression, Huerfanos, like all Americans, were used to tightening their belts and making do with what they had. Having endured 12 years of drought, dust and sandstorms, failed crops, closed coal mines and unemployment, Huerfanos were perhaps inured to the realities of a harsh existence, and many young people had already joined the armed services as their only chance of a regular paycheck.
When the news of Pearl Harbor arrived via radio to all Americans, their first thoughts were of their servicemen, and women serving in military nursing jobs, stationed in Hawaii. A rather surprising number of landlocked Huerfanos had signed up with the Navy, which lost about 2,000 sailors on Dec. 7, a number that exceeded all losses to that branch in World War I.
Word trickled back to Colorado slowly as to the safety of those Huerfanos who had been present at Pearl Harbor, but when all had been heard from by February, only one, Bibian Gonzales of Walsenburg, had been killed. He had graduated from St. Mary High School in 1940, and was just 19.
By the time everyone was accounted for, Huerfano County had geared up for defense. Thomas L. Wukovich of Walsenburg was credited with being the first Huerfano to enlist after Pearl Harbor, but soon, high school classes were emptying as young men scrambled to do their part. There were plenty of farewell parties as the teens filed onto trains carrying them off to take their physicals, and more than a few returned, no doubt shamefaced, after failing. The physical and age requirements, as we know, were relaxed as the war years continued, and some of those young men were readily accepted for service just a year later.
Within a week of Pearl Harbor, a group of teens at Huerfano County High School formed a group under the auspices of the Association for National Defense. Their goal was to further sales of defense saving stamps and bonds. Students also organized a war relief drive to benefit the Red Cross in mid-December. In January 1942 a sewing class was opened to girls to provide clothing for the Red Cross.
That Christmas, employers gave defense bonds to their employees for their annual bonuses. By Dec. 24, it was said nearly $11,000 worth of defense bonds had been sold in Huerfano County within the past seven days. This amount represents an incredible outlay in a day when shoes could be bought for less than a dollar and a complete wash/wax and lube job could be had for $1.75.
Also at home, it took just weeks for the civilians to organize. In Walsenburg, the fledgling St. Joseph’s Italian Lodge had purchased nearly $1,500 in defense bonds and given the Red Cross a hefty donation by early January. Each coal camp took up collections to buy bonds, and most school classes did the same. Members of the ZNP Polish alliance, Walsenburg chapter, quickly purchased more than $300 worth of bonds.
The first evacuees to arrive back in Walsenburg from Pearl Harbor were Mrs. R.L. Noonan and her five-year-old daughter, Sheila. Dr. R.L. Noonan remained in Hawaii serving with the Navy Medical Corps.
In January, the administration in Washington issued a call that all enemy aliens, or those from Germany, Italy and Japan, must turn in their cameras, firearms, ammunition, explosives and short wave receiving equipment. Those in Huerfano County had to surrender these items to Sheriff Claud Swift. In February came the news that any alien whose native country was under the control of one of the Axis members must register with the Walsenburg post office. The number of those who did so is unknown, but there were no doubt dozens of eastern Europeans and Italians who were required to do so.
On Jan. 12, 1942, the county rationing board opened an office at 114 E. 6th, conveniently located next door to the Selective Service office. The same day the local Association for National Defense, which had been fulfilling various peacetime tasks in the form of recreation and youth activities, was merged with the Colorado Council of Defense. At the same time, a dance was announced in the Walsenburg Pavilion to raise funds for the Red Cross. By Dec. 30, $2,800 had been raised for that international organization.
One week after Pearl Harbor, the Walsenburg World-Independent announced it could no longer carry weather reports. Soon, a federal office of “production management” banned the sale of new passenger cars, a low blow for Walsenburg’s many auto dealers.
Jan. 14 was the first meeting of the Huerfano tire rationing board. Members were tire dealers and garage operators under the direction of Inspector Joe Habib. This was the first commodity to be rationed, and far from the last.
On Jan. 20, “85 ladies of Walsenburg” attended the first meeting of a just formed safety club. Groups of this nature were learning first aid and procedures in caring for the sick and injured.
The first wartime scrap drive for metal was Jan. 21 when school boys in the city fanned out to call on residents. Several tons were accumulated. The drive continued the next day and totaled 50 tons. Huerfano County, crowed the World-Independent, led the state in the amount of scrap iron collected for defense activities.
The war for Americans that started with Pearl Harbor dragged on for nearly four years, and the rationings of so many everyday items, the loss of loved ones, the stress of the conflict and other sacrifices left indelible memories. So did the incredible outpouring of consideration and cooperation among strangers trapped in a single difficult situation result in the formation of a very special generation.
So, next Wednesday, Dec. 7, remember Pearl Harbor!
Gary M. Vezzani was elected Walsenburg’s mayor in Tuesday’s special mayoral election/recall vote. Preliminary results announced Tuesday night show that both Nick Vigil in Ward