A Catskill Catalog: December 7, 2011

My friend is 86 years old, yet he remembers where he was that day like it was yesterday. He was coming out of the woods, deer hunting. Sixteen years old, he got in the car and switched-on the radio. This was 1941, and car radios worked on vacuum tubes, so it took a while to warm up, but when it did, those old car radios could bring in some distant stations. That’s when he heard.

Elsewhere, early Sunday afternoon meant tuning the radio to the Brooklyn Dodger-New York Giant pro football game, from the Polo Grounds. Sometime after 12:55, Eastern Standard Time, the stadium public-address announcer, strangely, called for all servicemen in attendance to report to their units. Then, a harried radio-voice broke in. “We interrupt this broadcast. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, a naval base. We repeat: the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor!”

My friend’s wife, now an octogenarian, then a teenage girl, remembers being in the kitchen, cooking. If you were alive, then, and older than a toddler, you remember, too, where you were that day.

The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred 70 years ago, today, on December 7, 1941, “a date that will live in infamy,” as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously pronounced the next day. We should remember.

Immediately, the people of the Catskills mobilized.

Monday evening, December 8th, every fire department chief in the county, excepting Sidney’s, gathered in Margaretville. They attended a meeting called by Margaretville’s Cecil Polley, president of the Delaware County Firemen’s Association. “The purpose of the meeting was to perfect a system whereby no community would be left without aid in the event that many of the departments might be called out of town or out of the county on a major defense fire, as Sidney or Schenectady.”

The fear was that there would be further attacks, closer to home. Bendix Corporation operated the Scintilla Magneto manufacturing plant in Sidney. “A magneto is an electrical generator that uses permanent magnets to produce alternating current,” effective at producing a reliable spark in high-speed aircraft engines. The factory producing this crucial instrument of air power might be a target.
So might the huge General Electric and American Locomotive plants in Schenectady. We must be ready.

On Tuesday, orders were received by local American Legion posts from Mitchell Field, downstate, to man every observation post in the mountains. The Legion had spearheaded the organization of citizen observers to watch the skies, in case of national emergency, and national emergency was here. Thirty-six observation posts had been set-up throughout Delaware County, staffed by a chief, an assistant, and auxiliary personnel. They were called, now, to duty.

Katharyn Dickson, was chief observer in Arena. Up in Halcott Center, on a high point there, Darwin Faulkner observed. John Hubbell checked the skies from up on Hubbell Hill, and Albert Rosa, in Dry Brook. Each observation point was located at a spot high in elevation, near a telephone. Suspicious aircraft must be reported, immediately.

At the same time, plans were put in place to use available space in the Catskills for emergency housing. “If New York should be bombed,” the Catskill Mountain News suggested, “and a large number of evacuees desire to come to the Catskills, we could find much room for them. Outstanding in the entire county are the summer hotels of Fleischmanns and other mountain resorts. Many of them have heating systems.”

Should large numbers show up suddenly, Margaretville, with a shining new central school, could put its excess capacity to use. “If the emergency became acute it would require but a short time to fire the boilers in the former high school building. This would take care of a large number of people in a hurry and until other plans could be made.”

Wednesday evening, December 10, a defense mass meeting over-flowed the county courthouse in Delhi. Plans were announced, “to list every man and woman in the county as to their ability to do something for defense.” Inclusion on the list would be, of course, “entirely voluntary.” Canvassers would circulate throughout the county “to determine Delaware County’s emergency housing facilities,” and identify “volunteer workers for emergency defense work.”

On Thursday, rumors ran wild that a Halcottsville lad, Vincent Mead, had been killed or wounded at Pearl Harbor. His nervous parents could only assert that they had received no telegram about their son. The parents of William Meithew of Oneonta were not so lucky. His name was on the list of those killed at Pearl Harbor.

Thursday, too, Margaretville’s Kenny Miller, who enlisted in the air corps up in Utica, said his good-byes, and left for basic training.

Two days later, on Saturday morning, George Dugan died, at 102. George was the last Civil War veteran in Delaware County. Eighty years before, he had answered his country’s call, enlisting, at Hobart, to defend America from treasonous rebellion.

George Dugan’s death marked the end of an era. Kenny Miller’s enlistment marked the beginning of a new one. Seventy years ago, today, the world changed, utterly. It is good to remember.