Local history: Pearl Harbor attack brought blackouts, vigilance and fear to Long Beach

Local History is a weekly feature that looks at the people, places and events of Long Beach’s past. Have a question or a piece of history you want us to explore? Email [email protected].

At a little before 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning 81 years ago on Dec. 7, the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor began. It was as swift as it was sudden. The strike force came by land and sea and involved 353 aircraft—40 torpedo planes, 103 level bombers, 131 dive-bombers, and 79 fighters—launched from four heavy carriers. The attack also consisted of two heavy cruisers, 35 submarines, two light cruisers, nine oilers, two battleships, and 11 destroyers. Seventy-five minutes later, 2,403 U.S. personnel, including 68 civilians, were dead and 19 U.S. Navy ships, including eight battleships, were destroyed or damaged.

The news hit the world quickly, and in the United States it produced a shock and reaction that wouldn’t be approached in strength and horror until a morning on Sept. 11 some 60 years later.

The event set off an explosion of human emotions and reactions; fear, hatred, patriotism, revenge, Japanophobia, determination, racism, valor, sacrifice.

The LA Times reported that “minutes after the Japanese attack was heard, defense and law enforcement agencies began operation. Citizens attached to defense groups mobilized. The city shrugged off its amazement. The word was: ‘They started it—we’ll finish it.’”

Fearing a further attack on the Pacific Coast in the U.S., cities all along the seaboard were under blackout orders, including Long Beach, where the lights went out in the early morning hours of Dec. 8. The blackout included likely targets, such as the oil fields and refineries of Long Beach and Wilmington, normally ablaze with illumination including red warning lights which topped derricks.

The newspapers carried blackout rules that involved warning alarms and sirens signaling air raids and all-clear signals along with dire warnings for people not obeying the blackouts.

Also occurring quickly were raids on colonies of Japanese nationals by FBI agents and immigration officers, with several hundred Japanese held for questioning on Terminal Island, home to Japanese fishing villages.

The government explained  “arrests were to prevent enemy sabotage and espionage in the Pacific Coast area—which may become a war zone at any moment.”

Gun crews at San Pedro’s Fort MacArthur were on duty manning their coastal defense and anti-aircraft guns late Dec. 8, and Navy crews of gunners were stationed atop all Naval warehouses and harbor government buildings manning machine guns and anti-aircraft guns.

The entrance to the harbor, recently narrowed to a small gap, was under special guard, and submarine nets were put into place to snag invading subs.

The United Welders, Cutters and Helpers canceled plans for a national strike, announcing it was the union’s answer to “the troubles in the Pacific.”

A large part of the horror of the attack on Pearl Harbor was the delay in which worried families who had relatives stationed “Somewhere in the Pacific” were given word about the fatalities.

According to Long Beach historian and former librarian Claudine Burnett, here’s how the news came to Long Beach families:

“By Dec. 13 families began to receive word of casualties at Pearl Harbor. Josephine Smith was the first wife to receive word of her husband’s death. Albert J. Smith had recently been promoted from warrant officer to lieutenant in the Navy; he had been killed in the early attacks on the Hawaiian Islands by the Japanese.

“Fae Crawford was especially worried because both her husband and son were on duty on the same ship ‘somewhere in the Pacific.’ On Dec. 18 she heard her son, Richard, had been killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor, but her husband, James, had escaped unharmed.

“Word followed about the deaths of John Connolly and Wilbert F. Yost, but many more men were missing. Anxious family members didn’t learn until late January 1942 that Carl R. Brier, Robert R. Clayton, Clyde Brown and Frank Head had been killed in action.

“Further anxious moments awaited four other Long Beach families who didn’t learn until the end of February that Ludwig.F. Weller, Ralph A. Derrington, Allen R. Teer and Robert L. Kelly had been casualties in the bombing attack at Pearl Harbor.”

Local history: Nov. 7, 1918 was ‘False Armistice Day’ in Long Beach and the world

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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