Yorkers: Pearl Harbor attack changed everyone's life

Jason Addy
York Dispatch

For 11-year-old Paul Wolfgang, Dec. 7, 1941, started like so many Sundays: church Mass followed by Sunday school and then a game of football with his brothers and cousins.

But when Wolfgang, who lived in York City, walked inside his uncle’s home after the pickup game, he knew something was different.

“We came into my uncle’s home, about 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” Wolfgang, now 86 and living in Spring Grove, said. “My father and mother and uncles were in the living room listening to the radio — and we were probably talking or yelling to each other — and we were told to be quiet immediately. ‘Keep quiet.’”

That’s when Wolfgang heard the news for himself: America’s Pacific fleet at the Hawaiian naval base in Pearl Harbor had been attacked by Japan.

V-J Day: "East Enders" celebrating the end of World War II in August 1945.  15-year-old Paul Wolfgang (front row, first on the left) is pictured with several family members.

William Baker, 90, of New Oxford, said he was sitting around the house with his parents when news of the attack came over the radio.

Baker was 15 at the time and had kept up with reports from the European battlefronts, but he said it still didn’t prepare him to understand what the attack on Pearl Harbor meant for the country.

“The war was mostly in Europe, and we really didn’t think anything too serious, except what we read in the newspapers,” Baker said. “We didn’t think anything was going to affect us.”

Though war had been raging in Europe for several years by the end of 1941, kids in America were still detached from the conflict, Wolfgang said.

The attack on Pearl Harbor changed the way Americans looked at the world, Wolfgang said. Before World War II, many Americans were insular people, focusing on their own communities and towns, he said.

Schools in the city taught a course on the history of York, but there wasn’t a class focused on world history, Wolfgang said, and many of the children weren’t interested in learning about Eastern Europe or the Far East.

That would change quickly.

Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, where more than 2,000 Americans were killed by Japanese warplanes during a surprise attack that dragged America into World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt declared war on Japan in a famous speech before Congress the day after the attack.

“I think (the attack on Pearl Harbor) made us much more world-conscious than we would have been otherwise,” Wolfgang said.

Over the coming months and years, Wolfgang said his family followed the war very closely on the radio, listening for news about his older half-brother — who had joined the Army before World War II started — while he marked up maps to show the latest retreats and advances.

Though he didn’t have any plans to join the military before, the attack on Pearl Harbor changed the trajectory of Wolfgang’s life.

“My brother and I wished we were a little bit older so we could join the service,” Wolfgang said about listening to the war unfold on the radio.

Because he couldn't serve, Wolfgang said, he became a messenger with the Civil Defense Corps in York, helping to coordinate communications during air-raid drills. When an air-raid siren went off, he was trained to take messages to the group's downtown headquarters, riding his bike from wherever he was to report for duty.

During scrap drives, Wolfgang said he collected metal and paper from York City residents that would then be loaded onto rail cars and sent to help in the war effort.

York Dispatch newspapers from the attack on Pearl Harbor via microfilm at the York County History Center.

Wolfgang enlisted as an electrician in the Navy in 1948, a choice that opened up opportunities for traveling and schooling that he said he never thought possible when growing up as a poor child during the Great Depression.

Baker also said he never planned on enlisting in the military when he was young, but he felt he didn’t have much of a choice and enlisted as a 16-year-old in 1942 before he could be drafted. Baker served from 1944 to 1946 and was stationed stateside before serving at the Army Air Force headquarters in Wiesbaden, Germany, after the war ended in 1945.

Though the decision was out of his hands, Baker fully accepted that he would have to serve, and he said he still looks back on his military days with fondness.

“My life changed because I went into the Army Corps,” Baker said. “Because of that, I was able to finance a college education. Otherwise, I don’t know whether I’d have gone to college.”

Wolfgang, who was a teacher for eight years at York Suburban High before serving as the school’s principal for 15 years, said he used to teach his students that the world became a different place on Dec. 7, 1941, with America being drawn into World War II — a world in which all countries are intertwined.

“After World War II, if someone coughs in the Soviet Union, we get the cold over here,” Wolfgang said. “If someone coughs in the United States, someone catches a cold in China or Japan. Because of World War II, we are so interrelated as countries, more so than ever before in our life.”