By JEN CARDINES
On December 7, 1941, the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Oahu, Hawaii was under fire after Japanese air carriers hit by surprise. Next week marks the 75th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the catastrophic event that launched the United States into World War II.
With over 2,300 reported American casualties, President Roosevelt called it, “a date that will live in infamy,” and sought congressional permission to declare war. Seventy-five years later, the country recognizes that infamous day and the diminishing “Greatest Generation” that got us through it.
The world was a different place 75 years ago, and Southington was no exception. In 1941 the town was still feeling the burden from the Great Depression. Houses on the market during this time were priced at about $5,000, and families seldom moved because they couldn’t afford to. Therefore, many popular names in Southington today were established in the early 20th century because families planted roots and never left.
A small, farm-based town with a population just under 10,000 people, Southington had 1,591 residents serving in World War II.
Lifelong Southington resident Walter Hushak, 93, remembers this time with much clarity. A 1941 graduate of Lewis High School (LHS), he recalls the days in history class when students were worried about the draft and the growing conflict in Europe.
“The draft caused the country to change,” Hushak said. “War efforts didn’t just start on Dec. 7.”
All male citizens had to register when they turned 18, which scared many of Hushak’s classmates.
“As high school kids, we would discuss it with our teacher,” Hushak said. “We knew there was a draft and that we might be drafted, but going to war was really the farthest thing from our minds because that was over there and we were over here.”
While the war was overseas, Southington, like many other American towns, faced its consequences. Sugar rationing started in May 1941, with gasoline, butter, meat, rubber, and shoes right in tail.
By June 1942, the Clark Brothers Bolt Company stopped production of its usual supplies (bicycle parts, lawn mowers, and agricultural tools) and only produced bolts for ships. Three hundred thousand bolts were produced daily for the war effort. Manufacturing jobs were avidly seeking help because the draft took many men away from the workforce.
According to the National Archives, the Junior Red Cross had 8.5 million members in 1940, and that number increased to 20 million by 1945. All Southington students were enrolled in the program to learn first aid essentials.
Through the dark time, laughter and light were still shining on Southington. Lake Compounce stayed open during the war to entertain people on the home front and those in the armed services. At the time, the war years were some of the park’s most successful seasons.
The LHS class of 1941 finished school in June, six months before Pearl Harbor. Grateful that the United States wasn’t involved in the conflict, no one could predict what would occur in the following months. An excerpt from the class poem in the yearbook reads:
“We are happy that we in this land can be,
Where the sky is so blue overhead,
In a land where the strong arm of liberty,
Shields us from war and from dread.”
Many Lewis graduates went on to serve in World War II following the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Despite the mandatory draft, Hushak elected to register for the U.S. Army Air Corps, eventually becoming a lieutenant colonel.
“I wanted to fly,” he said. Most men enlisting at this time were only 18-20 years old.
Class president David Powers was very involved in extracurricular activities at Lewis, especially sports. He and his classmate John Calvanese played on the football team together, and Powers received an athletic scholarship to the Cheshire Academy following his graduation. After the first year, Powers left to serve in the Naval Air Corp.
This was a common trend among young men in the 1941 class. Many were either drafted or felt an obligation to enlist after the U.S. entered the battle. Calvanese served with the Army Air Corps, and was killed in action on July 27, 1944. Powers came home when the war was finished, and after living decades in Southington, he moved to Niantic with his wife.
In May 1942, the town was selected by the U.S. War Department to be highlighted in a defense booklet called “Southington, CT – Microcosm of America.”
Having worked for Life, Fortune, and U.S. Camera magazines, the well-reputed Charles Fenno Jacobs was chosen to photograph towns, including Southington, to capture the essence of daily life in America.
The photos featured Southington residents, landmarks, businesses, schools, and special events, and can still be viewed today on the Library of Congress website (www.loc.gov/collections/fsa-owi-black-and-white-negatives/?fa=subject%3Aconnecticut%7Ccontributor%3Ajacobs%2C+fenno%7Clocation%3Asouthington&sp=4).
One of Jacobs’ famous pictures captures a scene at the annual Memorial Day Parade on Main Street. The American Legion sold poppies to aid veterans and LHS students read the names of those serving in the armed forces.
Another shows the Southington Town Hall at its opening ceremonies on Dec. 13, 1941 just five days after the United States entered the war, but it didn’t stop crowds from forming outside.
The photo from that day was included in the Jacobs’ series with a pro-American propaganda intention. The caption reads, “Town hall, in which all of the people meet to make their own laws,” showing off the democratic government and equality that the United States was (and still is) known for.
One of the only images that has not changed in 75 years is that of the Town Hall with the First Congregational Church, which has been there since 1830, in the background. Comparing the 1942 photo to the present day, the only difference is a large tree and the foliage that grew between the buildings. Both have been Southington staples throughout the 20th century.
In October, six members of the LHS class of 1941 met to celebrate their 75th reunion. They were the largest graduating class at Lewis until that time, 110 students strong. Just like in their school days, there were more girls than boys in attendance, four women and two men.
“There’s not many of us left,” said Powers. The group holds reunions yearly because of their small size and the inability for everyone to travel to Southington. Powers said that he keeps in touch with fellow class officer Virginia Ingelido, who is living in Florida, unable to come up north for the reunion last month.
Tom Brokaw, in the title of his 1998 book, distinguished people from this era as the “Greatest Generation.” These were the people that molded the country into what it is today. They saw numerous wars and conflicts which never slowed them down. They were responsible for the baby boom and boosted the economy after the Great Depression.
They are often described as working hard, raising families, getting educated, and instilling crucial values that continue to be championed today.
Seventy-five years ago, the United States saw its biggest attack to date, followed by the entry into a brutal war with record breaking casualties worldwide. The Southington town green is home to a veteran’s memorial honoring residents that served in the country’s conflicts.
World War II holds the largest number of Southington natives who joined the forces (1,591) during any war before or since. Southington sent more residents into the military during World War II than all of the previous wars combined.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Jen Cardines, email her at JCardines@SouthingtonObserver.com.
Photos courtesy of the National Archives