SIDNEY — There are moments that define generations, that change the course of everything that comes after them.
Those moments affect everyone, of course, no matter their age or generation. But certain moments are pivotal for certain generations because they are the times when those generations lose innocence and their world becomes a different place. Members of those generations can say exactly where they were when critical events happened.
For baby boomers, the moment was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. For millennials, it was Sept. 11, 2001. And for the greatest generation, it was a “date which will live in infamy,” as then President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it. That date was 75 years ago today, the day Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
The act drew the U.S. into World War II and, though few, if any, knew it then, laid the foundation for the U.S. to become a world superpower.
Some area residents recently looked back across seven and a half decades to recall how they heard the news and what it meant to them.
Pulling my leg
“I thought someone was pulling my leg,” said Thomas Clinton, now of Sidney. “Someone was (literally) pulling my leg.”
On Dec. 7, 1941, Clinton was 22 and already in the Army. The native of East Orange, New Jersey, had graduated from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in 1940 and was working in New York City when he joined the Army Reserve. He got orders to report to Wadesboro, North Carolina, late in the year.
“We were on maneuvers, running through farmers’ fields making believe we were soldiers,” he said. Maneuvers over, the 44th Division then began its trek back to its home base at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
“I got the job of route control, which meant running up and down the caravan of 40 to 60 trucks to make sure they didn’t go too fast or too slow,” Clinton said. “By sundown, I was pooped.” The caravan had reached Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was Dec. 6, 1941.
Clinton parked his jeep in a field, crawled underneath and went to sleep. He woke up to find someone tugging on his leg, yelling, “The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor!”
“My first thought was, ‘Why did they do that?’ The next morning, I got the whole story. I knew life was going to change,” Clinton said.
And change it did. The Army moved Clinton to Alaska, California, Oregon, Japan, France and Germany.
“When Hitler got the news that I was there, he committed suicide,” Clinton joked. In between deployments, he got married in Texas.
Following the war, Clinton and his wife returned to New York City and began to raise a family. It was the Copeland Corp. that brought them to Sidney in 1970.
Great big radio
Rita Heitkamp, of New Bremen, was only 5-years-old when the bombing took place. At that time, her family was living in Frenchtown in Darke County.
“Since I was born on Dec. 1, 1936, my uncle and aunt came for a visit. They were from Dayton. Dad had our radio on and they were listening to the news,” she said. “I remember the big radio.”
Her family listened intently to the Sunday broadcast that day. At 2:30 p.m., CBS and NBC radio stations broke the news, just four minutes after the first bombs dropped.
“We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air, President Roosevelt has just announced.”
“That night, Dad and Mom were very quiet,” Heitkamp said. Her oldest brother was 16 at the time, too young to be drafted. He later served during the Korean War. Her other brothers enlisted or were drafted as they came of age.
“Yes, peace is not free,” she said. “We prayed many rosaries, as did all Americans, prayed for their loved ones. Many men didn’t come home to their wives and families.”
Roger Hoersten lives in Sidney now, but as a 15-year-old on a farm near Ottoville in December 1941, he took the war for granted.
He knows he got the news of the Pearl Harbor bombing over the radio, but can’t recall what his reaction was.
“When you’re 15, that doesn’t interest you much,” he said. “When you’re a farm boy, you don’t worry about things.” He didn’t even mind the resultant rationing of sugar, butter, rubber and other essentials.
“Gasoline rationing affected us, because we lived in the country. Speed limits the same way. But rationing — I let the old people worry about that,” he laughed.
By the time he was a senior in high school, he was paying more attention. He was drafted when he turned 18. A six-month health deferment gave him the opportunity when he went back for another physical to ask to be put into the Navy. He was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Station and sent to the Pacific.
“We were landing craft-support. We were getting ready for the invasion of Japan when they dropped the (atomic) bomb,” Hoersten said.
His wife, Julianne, was 10-years-old and living in Van Wert when Pearl Harbor was hit. She remembers dancing to music on the radio.
“We danced every chance we got, in the house or wherever,” she said. Her brothers went to war.
“I wrote to them a lot,” she said. She remembers ration stamps and how hard it was to be in a family of 11 children during lean war years.
“My dad’s brother lived down in Texas. He was worse off than we were. With 11 kids, my dad still fixed up a box with coffee and things to send to them,” she said.
Roger met Julianne after the war in a bowling alley owned by Julianne’s brothers. Roger had taken advantage of the GI Bill and earned an engineering degree.
“It was a good decision. I’m glad I did,” he said. The couple recently celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.
Too busy for news
When someone is responsible for farming 300 acres across several farms, Sundays are work days.
Despite the 25-degree temperatures, 23-year-old Luther Mann, who now lives in Sidney, was farming his father’s land southeast of Jackson Center on Dec. 7. He isn’t quite sure who told him about Pearl Harbor when he came in from the fields. But he remembers that no one spent much time discussing it.
“It was very quiet. It wasn’t hardly talked about. When you have that many acres, you’re busy trying to get ahead a dollar or two,” he said.
Things weren’t so quiet at the home of the woman who is now his wife.
Harriett Mann was 21 then, living in Montra.
“We were sitting in my living room. My brother and his wife were visiting and we had the radio on. It shut off for special news. They said Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. My brother jumped up and said, ‘I’m going to enlist,’” Harriett said. And he did within the following week.
“He was married, expecting a child,” she added. “I told him, ‘You really shouldn’t enlist.’” He spent three war years in the Philippines.
Luther was soon drafted.
“But they wouldn’t take me,” he said. “I was an only son. They said, ‘You’d make more money (farming with my dad) than you could earn by going over.”
In thinking about that long-ago time now, Harriett said, “I was in awe — just couldn’t believe it. Not long after that, Roosevelt declared war on Japan. I couldn’t believe that either.”
Cards, questions and razor blades
Ralph Bornhorst, now of rural Sidney, also had a farm deferment from the service — for awhile. When the news came across the radio of the Hawaii bombing, he and 10 of his brothers and sisters were playing hearts, sitting around a table at their farm near Anna.
“We all stopped playing cards and listened to the radio. We had an older brother in the Army, so we were all very concerned what might happen to him. I was 19 at that time, so I was eligible for the draft. My younger brother was 17. So we were all uptight,” he said. “Why would Japan want to bomb Pearl Harbor? What would happen to my older brother? What about me? We were all lost for words. For days, weeks and months, we all prayed together that things may turn out all right.”
Bornhorst’s deferment lasted until 1944 when he was drafted into the Navy and sent for training to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago.
“I was on the farm my whole life, so I very seldom got out of Shelby County. My first train ride to Chicago and meeting men from all over the United States was an overwhelming experience for me,” he said. Eventually, he served aboard the U.S.S. Idaho at Iwo Jima.
“Stationed up in the crow’s nest, I watched the invasion like watching a movie,” he said. “By luck, I saw the raising of the American flag on Mount Surabachi. I never thought the picture taken of that event would be the most famous picture of World War II.”
He also watched the invasion of Okinawa, during which Japanese Kamikaze suicide planes sank U.S. ships. They hit the Idaho, but the ship had been constructed to withstand such an attack.
“If the suicide plane would have hit about 40 feet higher, it probably would have taken me out. Lucky me,” Bornhorst said. He was on the ship in Leyle Gulf when Japan surrendered in August 1945.
“There was one fantastic celebration. All the ships were shooting rockets in the air and blowing horns,” he recalled. He and his fellow sailors sailed to Tokyo Bay to help secure Japan and were there when the peace treaty was signed. They went with their ship through the Panama Canal on the way home to Norfolk, Virginia, and then prepared to put the ship into “moth balls.”
“I hitchhiked all the way home (to Anna),” Bornhorst said. “Some years later, the Idaho was sold to the Gillette Co. I was told they made razor blades out of it. Is this a great country or what?”
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.