Nov. 1941: Pearl Harbor was simply a name

November 18, 1991|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

They were the good ol' days: November 1941.

In Middle River, Harry Eugene Mettee was a year out of high school and already working as an inspector at Glenn L. Martin Co., helping to build airplanes for Britain's frantic defense against Nazi Germany.

He made good money -- $31 a week. He expected the country to be dragged into the war soon. But, like most 19-year-olds, he was thinking mainly about his job, girls and flashy cars.

In downtown Baltimore, Walter Thomas worked as a waiter at the old Emerson Hotel. The city was strictly segregated. Thomas, "a colored, a Negro, as we were called," felt lucky to have a good job.

War was a distant rumble. "I thought it was just a European thing," Thomas says.

In Canton, Frank Miedusiewski poured nickel glasses of Arrow beer at his father's bar, American Joe's. Patrons mistakenly called the young man Joe -- and some still do; he owns the bar now.

Customers followed the war in Europe as they might the misadventures of a psychopathic cousin who lived too far away ever to visit. Miedusiewski says the feeling was: It's their party over there. How about another Arrow, Joe?

November 1941. The Japanese secretly prepare for war. If 9 negotiations to cancel the U.S. embargo on oil shipments do not succeed by the end of the month, Japan will strike.

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In Baltimore and across the country, people were beginning to crawl out of the pit of the Depression. They weren't out yet, but they could see the light of better days ahead. For the first time in years they allowed themselves a small plate of hope and optimism.

They hoped the United States could avoid war, and the threat seemed to come from Hitler, not Hirohito.

Pearl Harbor? In November 1941, few Marylanders even knew where it was.

They knew where Poland was, and Finland and France and even the countries of North Africa, where Rommel's Afrika Korps threatened to establish another Nazi stronghold. Since sweeping into Poland in September 1939, Hitler's forces had stampeded across Europe. The Nazis controlled nearly the whole continent. They appeared to be invincible.

Against the Soviet Union, Hitler had unleashed the most powerful army ever seen. By late 1941, Nazi troops were approaching Moscow and Stalin's doorstep. If the Soviet Union fell, would not Britain quickly crumble? Then who but the United States would be left to confront the maniacal Hitler?

These were questions that many Americans readily shoved aside 50 years ago. Like the patient who knows he needs surgery but puts it off, people here chose to think of cheerier things: Saturday movies, the Army-Navy football game, The Block, Thanksgiving, Christmas.

November 1941. U.S.-Japanese negotiations go nowhere as Japan refuses to repudiate the militarism that led to its earlier invasions of Manchuria, China and Indochina. Most American officials underestimate the power of Japan's naval air arm.

The defense buildup was lifting Baltimore out of the Depression. It was putting people back to work.

"You wouldn't believe what was happening in Baltimore then -- such a boom," says Gwinn Owens, who worked 50 years ago at Maryland Drydock Co., a ship-repair yard in Fairfield. "Thousands of people were being hired for the shipyards. Hordes were coming here from all over the United States, especially the South.

"I remember hearing someone say, 'There's such a demand for housing, if you have a chicken coop you can rent it.' "

Owens worked at Maryland Drydock during a break from college. He took pictures of new employees and fitted the photos into identification badges. Owens later became editorial director at WJZ-TV, Channel 13, and op-ed page editor and an editorial writer at The Evening Sun. Now retired, he lives in Ruxton.

He believes that most Baltimoreans right up to Pearl Harbor thought the United States should stay out of the war -- though they recognized "we were on the edge. . . . It was getting more threatening every day."

Owens even wrote a parody of George M. Cohan's patriotic song, "Over there." Owens' version began: "Over there, over there, keep the war, keep the war, over there."

As long as the war stayed over there, our friends in Europe needed weapons to fight it. In 1939 the Glenn L. Martin Co. had received urgent orders from the Netherlands and France for 332 light bombers. Martin responded by building a new factory of 440,000 square feet in just 11 weeks.

The war didn't last long for Holland or France. The Germans overran the defenseless Dutch in four days in May 1940 on their way to crushing France -- whose army was considered the best in the world -- in a shocking six weeks.

Now standing alone against Hitler, the British assumed the French contract and ordered more of the twin-engine bombers. Needing thousands of new employees, the Martin company sent technicians to city high schools to hold classes and interest students in building airplanes.

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