Martha Holland was enjoying a carefree Sunday evening playing with her friends on the block when she heard the news of Pearl Harbor. She talks about how that day changed everything as her father and uncle entered the service, dramatically altering her life at home. In the absence of the men, Martha describes how the women adjusted to added responsibilities.
First Hearing about Pearl Harbor
It was a Sunday, as you know, and I was over at my best friend’s house for the afternoon and was allowed to come home before dark. And December being what it is, dark occurred around 4:30. So probably around 4:00, I walked into my house and was totally stunned to see my parents and my uncle who was visiting and another couple that lived next door all in the living room crouched over what we regarded as our radio. My sisters and I had a little Philco that lived in the library so we could listen to The Lone Ranger and Terry and the Pirates and all those important songs. My parents never listened to the radio that I know. But here it had been moved into pride of place in the living room and they were all hovering over it. And I said something to the effect of “What’s going on?” and they said, “We’re at war. The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.”
And we didn’t go to school the next day. I don’t know if schools were cancelled. I know the nation ground to a halt. All government offices and everything, everybody was in shock. But we didn’t go to school. And I remember being in that same living room with still the radio on the chest next to the fireplace, sitting behind a wing chair so I wasn’t visible while the grownups were sitting around listening to Roosevelt’s speech. I think he spoke around lunch time ending with “the day of infamy” and [I was] absorbing that things were very different and scary. Before that, it had been more of “we’re not involved” thing. But now the Japanese had had the cowardice to attack us. For Americans that was just awful. You weren’t playing by the rules. It was not sportsmanlike to do that sort of thing.
Reaction to Roosevelt’s Speech after Pearl Harbor
Roosevelt was not as good of a speaker as Churchill. We heard quite a lot of Churchill’s speeches too, they would rebroadcast them for us and they were inspiring. Roosevelt was good. He had his fireside chats which I didn’t listen to. I wasn’t interested in them, but certainly a lot of grownups did. But his speech that day I do remember because I was sitting on the floor for Roosevelt’s speech and behind the chair. The grownups had the chairs, we all had the floor.
[The Japanese] had bitten off more than they could chew and now they were going to have a real fight on their hands. I never doubted for a second that this was not our start towards the end. The “day of infamy” was good too because the word infamy was new to me, but powerful and that stuck in my head.
My parents, of course, knew what it was all about.
I think they realized that life was going to be very difficult and very changed after Roosevelt’s speech on Pearl Harbor. And they were right too. But they certainly didn’t discuss it with us and express it. We picked up the signals from the way they talked to each other. Things were now darker, no longer a joke or fun or whatever. Things were going to be happening. And I don’t ever recall hearing my parents discuss my father joining the army. It’s something he just did and was presented to us as a fact. So they had a lot of private conversations that we weren’t privy too.
Our whole thing was the war effort — getting our pots and pans organized to give away and all the rubber stuff. Even pencil erasers vanished. If you’ve ever tried to erase with a big plastic on the end of a pencil. But the really nice part was that when I was in Florida, we had outdoor classrooms. So they were like little cabins and they were heated with stoves. And whenever the lesson was too horribly boring, one of us would take the eraser off the pencil, flip it into the stove, and the smell of that burning plastic (slash rubber) was so bad that we had to evacuate the classroom for an hour or so (laughs). And that meant the lesson had come to an end.
More Childhood Reflections
We didn’t talk about it as much anymore, and I don’t recall running around and doing our machine gun games. It was very much a downer. We were actually involved now in rationing and everything became more closed in. I lived in New Jersey. The Pacific was miles away. I barely knew the word Japan although for us it meant things that were like China now. Everything made in Japan was small, cost five cents or a penny and broke as soon as you used it. That was what Japan was all about. I had on no idea of the Pacific. I didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was, barely knew where Hawaii was or the Philippines. And so that kind of news is in the newspaper but I had no grasp, no former reference that I could grapple with.
We were at war and my uncle had disappeared the next morning rapidly. And the grownups were very dark about it. My mother was pregnant, my baby brother was born in March of ’42 right after Pearl Harbor. My father joined the army. He thought, being a wonderful skier, that at age 30 something, he would join the ski troops in Colorado which were going to be needed. He joined up with four children and a wife and aged high in his 30’s and immediately became a lieutenant put in charge of a closed exchange down in the Panama Canal zone. There is no skiing down in Panama. (laughs)
But [enlistment] was on the horizon, and they had to rethink what they were going to do with us and our mother. We had a maid and a nurse, both live-in at that time. And they left to do war work so my mother was suddenly faced with four children and a house and no husband eventually. But everybody’s lives turned upside down after Pearl Harbor.
Children weren’t required to be up-to-date on those things. I was going to be ten in about three weeks. I was nine at the time. So we were just told. So we kind of had to listen on the fringes and find out things. We weren’t regarded as receptacles of information. (laughs) I don’t recall reading a whole lot of newspapers at that time. Mostly our focus was on Europe at that time living in New Jersey. It never occurred to me that the Japanese could actually get any kind of armament over New Jersey. They were more likely to be stuck in California.
Pearl Harbor Changes Everything
You know that was fascinating because right away everything changed. My uncle was in the army at that time. He was in the auxiliary service so he was stationed in California. And he had been on leave. He had to leave immediately the next day by train which probably took him four days to get across the country back where he belonged. Before that, we were all very aware of the war. Germany, of course, was very busy attacking everywhere, and I think in the spring of ’41, they formed a Civilian Defense Corp. And that’s when my mother and father were absolutely thrilled. My father became an auxiliary fireman and was absolutely delighted about it. He boasted about jumping out of the window into a net and all these wonderful things that they did. My mother became a first aid person, and she described in great detail the sort of fake first aid things they set up. There was one at a crossroads with a lot of bodies lying around that she had to cope with. They were excited and happy and things were going well. But after Pearl Harbor, everything darkened.
It’s just that the grown-ups became very serious. Before that it had been, as I say, my father laughing about jumping out of a window into a net and my mother enjoying binding up broken legs and things. They became very inwardly focused, and the mood, of course, passed down to the children too. Now it was real.
When the Men Left
And as I said before, on our entire street, all the men disappeared into the service every one of them. And they were all in their late 20’s and early 30’s. These were not teenage types. Suddenly the women who had all stayed at home — I don’t know any of them that had jobs — they were all moms that stayed at home. But now they were in charge, and it made it quite different. You know, my father wasn’t out raking the leaves anymore. We had to do it. My mother was not good at managing at all. She always had been brought up with lots of help and never cooked anything. The food was rationed anyway, and food became very bad in our household (laughs).
But as I say, it was just a mood swing that I was very much aware of at that age. Pre-Pearl Harbor and post-Pearl Harbor were just two different halves for the country. I was nine for Pearl Harbor but I turned ten in January so I was in 5th grade at the time. And our whole life did change because my father was in the army, and my mother eventually couldn’t cope so we rented a house in Florida after my 6th grade year and never did go back to New Jersey.
How Pearl Harbor Changed Christmas
Things changed a lot. That Christmas was a Christmas that we usually had. Well, I think my parents had done most of the shopping and what not and had done all the planning already. We were going to visit your grandmother and that kind of thing. It had all been done ahead of time.
The following Christmas I think my father was home on leave but everything had been much dampened. Nowadays, people don’t put what we called rain on their trees which in my youth was strips of lead. You’d get a package of about a thousand shiny lead strips all carefully bound up, and you’d hang them on the tree individually. And the whole tree would be shimmering with beauty, and then you would throw them out. That year we carefully picked all the rain off and put it in a box. The following Christmas the rain reappeared, now much shorter, in bitty, bitty pieces but still hung on individually. The year after that was just before we moved to Florida. That was the final appearance of rain. They were all about an inch long and clumped in little balls. But because that aluminum, or lead that it was made out of, became part of the anti-radar devices for planes. They would drop a whole lot of this shimmering lead or aluminum or whatever it was that would mess up the radar on the ground and enable the bombing raids to be successful. So rain was not made for Christmas trees. But you couldn’t have Christmas without rain so we had to save ours.
What Happened At School?
They started to teach everybody how to knit, for instance, which the boys were not happy about. We knit squares, six inches by six inches and they made them into afghans for wounded troops, and we thought this was really stupid because the boys’ squares were anything but square, and yet some mother put them all together and came back with this gorgeous afghan of all different colors, and it was just beautiful. It was a great feeling of pride that we had done something for the war effort.
And then, of course, we had the defense stamps. I talked about going on Fridays with school money and buying defense stamps. Everybody did that. But it became sort of a war effort. We didn’t concentrate on the death tolls and the horrors of Pearl Harbor. Children weren’t supposed to be exposed to that kind of thing. And you had to find our surreptitiously what had happened. And I don’t think we honestly knew for awhile. We knew that the Japanese had attacked, that it was a disaster, but the true toll of how many ships were sunk, how many people were killed just dribbled out. We didn’t have instant television. It had to be radio.
We were all a little concerned but as children we all expected the grownups to protect us. I don’t know if there is a certain age at which you realize they can’t anymore. At that age, we now had air raid drills which were instituted where we would go down into the school basement and carry on and behave badly (laughs). And there was one day where an unidentified plane was spotted somewhere in New Jersey and they immediately put us all on school buses and sent us home. My thought wasn’t that this was scary but “Yippee! A day off of school. How cool is that?”
I don’t remember being frightened per se. I thought the German paratroops might come at any moment. And I still have dreams about that occasionally where you’re running around to scoop up the family and make sure everyone is in one place and take them somewhere. It’s one of the pressure dreams that we have. Well, of course, when we went to the movies, which we did start to do. They were cheap, and it was a Saturday thing. There was a short newsreel ahead, and it showed German troops parachuting into some country, and it made for good footage. This is what war is all about. It’s about a bunch of people coming out of the sky, not walking up your street, just suddenly coming down on top of you.
Gas rationing came in, I think in the spring of ’42. It was not in effect before Pearl Harbor, it was after Pearl Harbor started. So while we had been eating lunch at home every day from school, after that we ate in the school which wasn’t equipped. We ate in the auditorium. We all took little boxes to school. Before that we had come home for lunch.
How were the Japanese portrayed?
And the Japanese, of course, it was terrible propaganda. You obviously wouldn’t remember but that’s how I guess you win wars — with propaganda. They immediately became the Japs. You never referred to them as the Japanese. And they were always referred to as yellow. That would be because of the attack. It was associated with cowardice.
The entire Japanese race they were always called Japs or Nips would have been the other thing from Nippon. And even in the newspaper, they referred to them, the Japanese, as the Japs. And because they all, to our eyes, looked very similar, they were all just a big group of people. You didn’t distinguish individuals who might have been kind, who might have hated war, had children that they loved. It was just a whole nation that were crazed and would fight. We were told they would fight to the last person, they would never ever give in. We were told that death was preferable to the dishonor of surrender. So every single one of them was going to have to be killed before the war would end. This is what propaganda was all about. And even in comic books they were just drawn terribly. (laughs) They all looked just exactly alike. And they didn’t have names like Lenny or Bruce. It was just very odd.
The same propaganda mindset took a long time to get rid of. I now have had two Japanese daughters-in-law. I said to myself at last, “I’ve finally met a really nice Japanese person.” I’ve never been to Japan. It’s not on my list of places to go. And that’s probably my childhood bent. I think when you do this to children, it’s very, very hard to turn them around when they’re older. You need to be very careful about the teachings that way.
They were really portrayed as subhuman, They were always portrayed as very small and they had the word “yellow” attached to them. I think most of the Japanese people that we knew about were probably out in the Pacific coast. I don’t know, I never met any of them in New Jersey and wasn’t aware that the internment camps would be involved with New Jersey people. For some reason the Germans did horrible things, and yet I had a German nurse so Germans were human. Some of them were not, but we still regarded them as human beings. But the Japanese were not allowed to be portrayed as human beings when they got into our consciousness after Pearl Harbor. When you were a German you declared war, and then you attacked. The Japanese attacked without declaring war, and that was just not done. It was a terrible, terrible crime.
Knowledge About the War Before Pearl Harbor
I was seven in ’39 and the stories that came out, the books even that were written for children had [stories about Europe]. My favorite was called Stranger in Primrose Lane by Noel Streetfield, and it was about a group of British children on the coast, and an unoccupied house on their street suddenly had a stranger living in it who was, of course, very thick set with very short hair and had a foreign accent. Now could he be an Englishman? No. He turned out to be a German spy that they apprehended. But I mean that was the kind of books that we just soaked up. And the comic books did the same thing. We all, of course, did not read Little Lulu and Donald Duck. We were into the superhero type stuff and they were when I was growing up were a Saturday tradition. You went with your money and got the latest version. And there were hundreds to choose from. And they very much chronicled what was going on — with terrible Germans, superhero types,
And the map we had at school as I recall had pins about what was going on, but it was mostly the European theatre. Of course the Pacific battle was not anything you could put pins on. It was ships engaged with each other like the battle of Midway and what not. In the European theater, there were actual land masses you could stick a pin in.
I think we all were anxious to get going really. There was that feeling of course that the ocean kept us safe, we weren’t going to have landing craft piling up on the beaches with people getting out and what not. But we realized, as far as I was concerned, I was very Anglophile, and I was anxious that we start and help over there and get going. And, of course, with Roosevelt we couldn’t do that until after Pearl Harbor. But our next door neighbor I told you about were refugees from Britain. The oldest girl’s father had been in RAF, and she was now a stepchild, and we got to talk with her a lot about the Blitz in London and what was going on. We were very aware of what was going on over there and what it was like, but it never occurred to us that this would actually happen in the U.S.
All of the services immediately had songs like the Marine’s Hymn and Off We Go In the Wild Blue Yonder for the Air Force. My best friend who lived across the street — her father was in construction. He joined the Seabees and the Seabees is the only song I know who mentions December 7. At the end there, if you promise you will remember the 7th of December, we’re the Seabees of the Navy. (sings) … Bees of the Seven Seas.
We’re the Seabees of the Navy
We can build and we can fight,
We’ll pave our way to victory
We’ll work it day and night
And we promise we’ll remember
The 7th of December
The songs were so dumb but we sang them with such gusto.
Well, they’re catchy.
I think songs are wonderful propaganda.
Reaction to Roosevelt’s Death
[I remember Roosevelt’s death] very vividly. It followed Friday the 13th and to this day Friday the 13th is a hideous time (laughs). He died, I think, on the 14th of April, at least that’s when I heard. It was just absolute shock. Roosevelt had always been there and he always would be there. And I didn’t even know he had polio even. He was never seen walking, he was always seated. I didn’t know he was in bad health. And it was just appalling. “How could we go on? The war hadn’t even ended and he was gone. What will we do now?” And the whole school felt that way. We had lost sort of our lynchpin that was holding us all together.
Of course, there was controversy. People [said], “Oh, Roosevelt,” they would say that. But for me, he was like the grandfather who was in charge of the family and he suddenly departed and now what’s going to happen.