Wayne Shearer’s World War II Memoir, Part 1: The Shocking News Of Pearl Harbor

Saturday, November 17, 2018 - by Dr. C. Wayne Shearer
Dr. Wayne Shearer on the deck of his Hixson home
Dr. Wayne Shearer on the deck of his Hixson home

(Editor’s Note: Dr. Wayne Shearer, 94, is a retired optometrist and retired colonel from the U.S. Air Force Reserve now living in Hixson. In his early 90s, he decided to sit down and write from memory and a few records he still possessed his recollections of going through Army Air Corps pilot training at several bases in the United States during World War II. A lifelong writer, he wanted to pen them as he remembered them happening at the time. This is the first in a series of regular excerpts from it.)


* * * * *


It’s 1941, and in our sleepy town, Sundays are a time for peace and relaxation.

It is a time for going to church with afternoons visiting friends, car rides, or talking on the “party-line” phone to others. This was a typical and quiet after-church early December afternoon family car ride around the small South Georgia town of Cordele.


Suddenly, the car’s radio music was interrupted by a hysterical announcement saying, “The Japs have attacked Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. This surprise Japanese attack kills many Americans.” This jolting announcement changed all of our lives forever.


Over and over again the same message, because little else was known on this dreary gray 7th of December 1941. Dad turned to me and said, “Son, you know what that means?” As a 17-year-old senior in high school, yes I did. Dad had fought in the trenches of France during World War I as an infantry soldier in the 42nd Rainbow Division. Where are the Hawaiian Islands? We are not sure.


The next day’s Cordele Dispatch on Monday, 8 December 1941, had these double headlines: “WAR IS DECLARED” and the only slightly smaller “CONGRESS BACKS PRESIDENT’S REQUEST FOR WAR IN OVERWHELMING VOTE.” On the front page was a map showing that Pearl Harbor in the U.S.-owned Hawaiian Islands was 2,400 miles across the Pacific Ocean from the California mainland. The articles had various topics, as the Japanese attacked other American possessions throughout the Pacific, with many American sailors and soldiers killed.


The Nazis from Berlin announced that the German Army did not expect to capture Moscow this year. Great unity was shown as the U.S. Senate voted 82-0 and the U.S. House votes 388-1 to declare war on Japan.


And in our local news service, the Cordele Dispatch headline said on Thursday, Dec. 11, 1941, “UNITED STATES DECLARES WAR ON GERMANY AND ITALY,” and “UNITED TO DEFEAT AXIS” with photos of President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain side by side.


The local articles stated, “CITY AND COUNTY IS MAPPED FOR WAR ENERGIES BY DEFENSE UNITS WITH AIR RAID WARDENS, ETC., NEEDED,” and “TIRES AND SUGAR ARE NOW RATIONED.” Another article stated, “ARMY SEEKING 10,000 NURSES AS VOLUNTEERS.” And the news and requests continued on radio, newspaper and magazines.


The next few days at Cordele High School were exciting for all of us. When President Franklin Roosevelt spoke to the nation on the radio, we all went to the assembly auditorium to hear him speak. For a few days, the usual high school pranks gave way to a solemnity among us students.


Before long, things began to return to the normal, spirited high jinks of teenagers. As the senior class president of the Class of 1942, it was my responsibility to see to it that things didn’t get too much out of control. I didn’t have much luck on that, though!


In reading the Atlanta Constitution headline on Sunday morning, 15 February 1942, it said, “SKY-BORNE JAPANESE ASSAULT SMASH AT SUMATRA IN NEW INVASION,” with the subhead of “FABULOUS REFINING CAPITAL IS TARGET IN NETHERLANDS EAST INDIES.” Again, strange and unfamiliar places were in the news. Things were not going our way in a war that we did not start, but a sneak attack by the Japanese got us into it at Pearl Harbor. We were all anxious to do our part for our country’s war effort.


Of special interest to me was an article on the inside pages: “30,000 PILOTS A YEAR IS GOAL OF ARMY AIR FORCE AND NAVY.” The Army’s training program for turning out 30,000 pilots, bombardiers and navigators that year was pointing to an increase in 1943 of Aviation Cadet Training of candidates between the ages of 18 to 26½ years.


These requirements are strict. Dad told me of a friend of his who at age 29 in 1940 wanted to be an AAF pilot, but was too old. He had a pilot’s license and a Piper Cub that he flew. He found out that the Royal Canadian Air Force would take and train him. So, off he went to Canada. He showed patriotism to protect our Western way of life.


The Army Air Corps were flying P-40s, and before World War II there was a volunteer group of pilots under Claire L. Chennault helping the Chinese fight the Japanese in China flying these fighters.  They were known as the Flying Tigers. We all wanted to fly the P-40, which for me would be 10 hours in Single Engine Advance pilot training. What a thrill, even though it was no longer a top fighter aircraft!


At about this time we began to lose our male teachers, who were Army Reservists. Each time we would be called into the auditorium to say goodbye. For each one, who was surrounded by his family, the departing was sad. This was especially true for Coach Palmer’s family, as they were activated to Camp Forrest in Tennessee, where his young, elementary-age son, later would drown in one of the on-base rivers.


As our faculty went to war, world conditions were making it increasingly apparent that the American way of life was in danger. Conditions, both outside and inside our country, made it necessary that America protect herself and defend those principles for which our forefathers fought. Once again we were drawn into a conflict.


In the Atlanta newspapers, there were photographs of various posters on buildings, such as, “Do with less, so they’ll have enough” above the silhouette of a soldier; “Save scrap metals, paper, rags and rubber for victory;” and “Help Us preserve food” by joining up now with the Community Food Conservation, Inc.


One morning Dad went out to the garage to drive to work, and quickly realized that overnight the car had been jacked up on concrete blocks, with the wheels and tires gone. According to the police report, this had happened to a number of people around town. Even though we had an A ration (low-level) card for tires, one of Dad’s friends supplied new rims and tires for the family Ford.


It was a funny sight to behold, and we laughed our way through the emergency. The Nipponese and Axis forces weren’t going to get the best of us small town folks. The Cordele Police Department said their investigation pointed to a tire theft ring from Jacksonville, Fla., doing the stealing.


We were quick to blame things on enemy spies, which were suspected of being dropped off of German submarines not too far away at Brunswick or Jacksonville beaches. We even thought the local German baker had shortwave radios in his shop. After he left town, his cookies and birthday cakes were missed. Several other families of German descent lived here.


The headline in the Atlanta Journal on Sunday evening, April 19, 1942, said: “UNITED NATIONS HAIL HOURS-LONG RAID ON JAPANESE CITIES WITH WILD REJOICING.” The sub headline said: “HUB OF NIPPON’S PLANE INDUSTRY HIT BY BOMBERS.” Japan had announced the day before that her capital, her two greatest ports and the center of her warplane production had been bombed by planes carrying the bright red, white and blue insignia of the United States Army Air Force and that most of her home islands had spent hours under an air raid alarm.


This first daring raid on Japan brought applause from the American people. The article read, “The full story, with disclosure of the base from which the attack was launched, may not come out for a day or two or longer.


“Such an operation could have been launched from a coastal area of unoccupied China or by aircraft carriers; but twin engine bombers had never been flown off of Navy ships.”


News writers were full of questions to President Roosevelt and his staff after the attack. The president replied, “They came from our own secret base at Shangri La.” We all went to our geography maps finding that Shangri La is a remote and mysterious Himalayan valley.


Then FDR said with a cocky grin, “That Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, U.S. Army Air Corps, and his Raiders did essentially no damage – except to the Japanese.” Weeks later, it was announced that the Doolittle Raiders were launched from an aircraft carrier at sea.


Another front-page article in the same April, 19, 1942 Journal said: “11 ALIENS SEIZED IN STATE RAIDS BY FBI AGENTS.” The article went on to read, “Nine Germans and two Japanese were under arrest in Georgia yesterday, the full harvest of a series of coordinated raids on homes of enemy aliens by FBI agents in Atlanta, Valdosta and Cordele Friday night and Saturday morning.” This brought the war to Cordele, and all of our citizens became more excited and worried.


Meanwhile at Cordele High School, headaches abounded every 6th period behind a particular door on the school’s east wing. For in that room our sometimes-weekly “The Hub” issue took form. Our editor sent his little snoops to every nook of the building. If you weren’t careful, you were likely to find one of those newshounds under your table in the cafeteria!


We were still having fun in high school, as the first year of the war found us seniors training for our place in the world. It would be a war that in time would scatter us to the far corners. It was each senior’s duty to his country and to himself to take full advantage of every opportunity. There was knowledge to be gained to help him fulfill his assignment in the war effort.


We high school seniors were beginning to realize that it would soon be all over for us. Most of us had been together since the first grade. This sadness did not overcome the happiness that graduation would soon be here.


The Friday morning, May 1, 1942, headline of the Atlanta Constitution said: “ROMMEL READIES FOR NEW OFFENSE IN NORTH AFRICA.” This North African campaign would serve our troops well as a training ground.


Then the Atlanta Constitution added on Monday morning, May 4: “U.S. REAR ADMIRAL FLETCHER’S TASK FORCE 17 MAKES FIRST CARRIER STRIKE OF BATTTLE OF THE CORAL SEA.” This became a solid victory for us, as the march to the Japanese islands was moving forward.


Most of us males, and some of the females, were thinking about joining one of the services. Our ages were 17, and the draft started at age 20. There was already talk in Congress to lower this to age 18. We all wanted to serve. Patriotism was high.


The Atlanta Constitution on Tuesday morning, May 26, 1942, said: “ANGLO-SOVIET TREATY SIGNED IN LONDON.” Against the Axis powers of Germany and Italy, this was added help.


Another page 2 headline had news of the Jewish mistreatment. It said: “BELGIUM JEWS ARE REQUIRED TO WEAR THE YELLOW JEWISH STAR.”It was very heart-breaking to know this about these hard-working people. (Once the war was ended, we found out much worse treatment had resulted for these people in an event now known, of course, as “The Holocaust.”)


Around half of the class would be attending college during the summer and fall of 1942. It was exciting to talk about the various colleges we were accepted into, such as the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Sullins, Florida State College for Women, Mercer University, Auburn University, North Georgia Military College and others. Six or seven of us, including myself, would be attending North Georgia College at Dahlonega.


Most of our fathers were World War I veterans and thought some military training would be good for their sons before going into active military duty. At North Georgia Military College, all men were members of the Corps of Cadets. For years, NGC has served well as a preparatory college for the military academies. We lived by the bugle calls, from Reveille to Retreat, with Taps being the Last Call for lights out. It would serve us well!


The Atlanta Constitution headline of Saturday morning, May, 30, 1942, said: “RAF BOMBER RAID ON COLOGNE.” This revealed that newer bombing techniques with better results were now being used by the British.


During the middle of graduation week, we had the junior-senior dance. The senior class voted to call it “Farmers Ball,” with male students dressed in overalls and the females in farm type dresses. This theme resulted in much fun and laughter, and was made more so because some of the teachers thought it undignified. I played trombone in the local swing band, “The Gentlemen of Rhythm,” at the dance.


On May 29, the day before, our high school class graduated. It was both a happy and pensive moment. I did my duties as the senior class president.  Part of my role was to give the “welcoming” type of address with these closing words, “With inspiration from the past, the senior class of 1942 faces duties of the present with hope in the future for a better, war-free world.”


And I also recited this poem, “Make Bright the Arrows,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, that expressed the spirit of the time:


“Make bright the arrows, Gather the shields; Conquest narrows the peaceful fields. Stock well the quivers with arrows bright. The bowman feared need never fight. Make bright the arrows O peaceful and wise! Gather the shields against surprise”


We would soon be dispersed in the military across the country and the world. Several would be killed in the war. It was a sad goodbye.


* * * * *


Dr. Shearer can be contacted at docshearer@epbfi.com.

Wayne Shearer as a trombone player in his Cordele High School band
Wayne Shearer as a trombone player in his Cordele High School band

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