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Somerset remembers Pearl Harbor

December 7, 2018

John Baker remembers when he heard the news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Everyone was mad as hell. People spoke unkind words about the enemy of the American public.

“Everyone was disturbed. My cousin and her husband had been stationed there,” said the 92-year-old Baker, who lives at The Heritage At Siemons Lakeview Manor Estate in Somerset. “They suspected something would happen. So he sent his family home. Fortunately he was on a submarine at the time.”

The surprise attack happened on Dec. 7, 1941. It led to the United States’ entry into World War II.

Somerset had one of its young men stationed at Pearl Harbor that day. Naval Lt. Leroy Kimmel was on his ship’s galley to get a cup of coffee and was looking out at the sea when he saw a gusher of water.

Normally, he wouldn’t pay attention to the air, but he looked up and saw a heavy Japanese bomber.

It flew over his ship and hit the USS Oklahoma, which capsized in 11 minutes before his eyes.

He went on the deck to board a small whaleboat to travel to another ship that he was ordered to board. It was a long distance to the whaleboat.

“That was the longest half-mile I ever saw,” he said a few years later to the Daily American. “For the Jap(anese) planes were playing hell in the skies above us. They were strafing everything they saw moving on the island, and I was moving plenty fast. In fact, I was running as hard as I could. When they would strafe in front of me, I’d stop awhile, thinking it would be better to stand still. They’d strafe back of me and on I’d go.”

All around him were men in flaming, oily water. Kimmel and others at the base didn’t know it immediately, but they had witnessed and endured the beginning of a war that would embroil the United States in horrific battles all over the globe.

Donald Deist served in the European Theater of the war and walked through a concentration camp. He said everyone was shocked when they heard the news about Pearl Harbor.

“My parents were very concerned knowing that my older brother and I would be eligible for the draft,” he said. “There were stamps almost immediately limiting what you could buy. Several months after the attack, when I turned 19, I was drafted. The whole community and country was very, very concerned.”

Prior to the bombing, there had been a strong isolationist movement in western Pennsylvania and throughout the country. In Pittsburgh, on the day it happened, there was an America First Rally in which North Dakota Sen. Gerald Nye spoke about the need to stay out of European affairs. As he was speaking, someone passed a note to him saying Japan had declared war on the United States. Nye said it was the worst news he had ever encountered, according to Michael Kraus, curator for Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Pittsburgh.

“A lot of people weren’t in favor of going to war,” Kraus said. “We had fought in World War I about 20 some years before. There were a lot of casualties. There were a lot of people who wanted us to mind our own business. But when Japan bombed Pearl harbor there was no turning back. Just like other places, there was a great swell of men who volunteered to go. They went and joined the armed forces. and the factories ramped up for war. That was a moment that was an on and off switch.”

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