From Corpus Christi – A History by Murphy Givens
As Americans were humming the catchy little tune of “I Don’t Want to Set the World On Fire,” a man in Germany with a silly little mustache was doing all he could to set the world on fire. As Adolf Hitler’s German army pushed deeper into Russia, Americans that December were divided between isolationists, who opposed any U.S. involvement in the war, and internationalists who felt the U.S. must help Britain and Russia defeat Nazi Germany before the U.S. was truly isolated and it became too late. The tide of opinion favored the isolationists and then came the fateful stroke that ended all debate. Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, began in Corpus Christi as a cool, clear, placid day. Scheduled events that day included the opening of two new subdivisions, Hilltop Terrace near the new Robert Driscoll Junior High and Dahlia Terrace near the Del Mar addition; and the Corpus Christi Sailing Club was holding its mid-winter regatta. It was a lovely December afternoon when, just after midday, people heard on their radios that Japanese planes had attacked the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor.[i]
At the new Naval Air Station, all leaves were cancelled and extra guards posted at the gates. At the Caller-Times, printers and reporters showed up in Sunday clothes to prepare a special edition on the attack. Mrs. Guy T. Coffee, who lived on Santa Fe, told a reporter later, “We had just come home from church when we heard it on the radio. We were stunned. We couldn't imagine anything that terrible happening.”[ii] Telephone operator Virginia Adams said when the news was announced on radio, the switchboard lit up. “The lights were all over the board. You couldn’t take care of them, there were so many.”[iii]
Edith Parker, who would later head the History department at Del Mar College, was a secretary for Texas Sen. Tom Connally, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I was planning to go to the office to type some letters when the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor came over the radio. I knew the senator would call. At the office the telephone began to ring. The White House, the State Department, the Labor Department, everyone was looking for Sen. Connally. I called everywhere. I couldn’t find him . . . An Associated Press man called and asked, ‘How do you declare war, anyway?’ We didn’t know, but we found out. It is handled just like any other bill and then presented to the Senate for a vote.” She found a book on World War I which had the declaration of war in it. She copied that and made it conform to the current situation. It was a page long. “I put my copy on the senator’s desk with a note that the president wanted him at the White House at 8 a.m. The senator came in at 7 p.m. and picked up my copy. I didn’t realize it at the time that I was making history, for it was my copy that was voted on in the Senate.”[iv]
That Monday, Dec. 8, at the cavernous Assembly & Repairs hangar at the Naval Air Station, hundreds of sailors and civilian workers gathered to hear President Roosevelt deliver his address to the nation, his war message, every word delivered with unusual formality, with deliberate spacing around each word, which served to give it extra emphasis and weight, the tone matching the gravity of the situation. “Yesterday, December the seventh, nineteen forty-one, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Like a prosecutor reading an indictment, Roosevelt summarized Japan’s acts of war.[v] After the president finished, it was said, there was a moment of stunned silence in which people looked at each other, every face reflecting unasked questions, each one knowing that nothing would ever be the same, that the status quo was gone forever, blasted to smithereens like the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor, that all their lives would be changed from that moment on. Whether they understood it at that moment, the long war to come would take possession of them and everything would yield to that priority.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, men in Corpus Christi were angry, raring to fight back. On Monday morning, Dec. 8, more than 300 men crowded the Army and Navy recruiting offices at the federal courthouse on Starr Street. Most of them were turned down because of age, physical condition, or marital status. One man was turned down by the Army because he had a trick knee, even though he had played football in college with that knee for two years. He next tried to enlist in the Navy, which also turned him down. “If you sat here in my chair as I have these last few hours and interviewed men like that,” said a Navy recruiter, “you would never wonder again how our country became the great nation it is.”[vi] The city learned about its first casualties of the war. “Billy Jack” Brownlee, a Corpus Christi High School graduate, was killed in the Japanese bombing of Hickam Field at Honolulu. Warren Joseph Sherrill, who also attended Corpus Christi High School, was killed on board the USS Arizona.[vii]
Six giant air-raid sirens were installed at sites capable of sounding the alarm to every part of the city. They were at City Hall (Mesquite and Schatzell), a site at Port and Morgan, and at Menger, Wynn-Seale, Crossley and North Beach schools.[viii] The paper carried instructions for the first blackout drill. It was held on Jan. 19, 1942, between 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. The paper warned that it was not an occasion for parties, but a serious event that required wholehearted cooperation. The sirens were used to signal the beginning of the blackout drill.
Navy planes flew over the city, looking for points of light.[ix] Photographer “Doc“ McGregor positioned himself on the roof of the Plaza Hotel, where he shot time-exposure photos of streams of light from traffic and buildings just before the test began, and another showing almost total blackness, except for two tiny pinpricks of light where two places on North Beach didn’t follow the drill.[x] For most people, it was absolute blackness. “That night, it was terrific,” Louis Anderson,* a Caller-Times reporter, wrote. “The atmosphere was tense and the darkness so thick that you were a little leery about going outside.”[xi]
Ten days later, on Jan. 29, the blackout was not a drill. It was the real thing, prompted by a U-boat sighting in the Gulf near Port Aransas. The city’s two radio stations, KEYS and KRIS, were ordered off the air. The Naval Air Station was blacked out, cafes and nightclubs were shut down, and lights were ordered turned off at Port Aransas, Aransas Pass, Ingleside, Portland and Corpus Christi.[xii] It was reported that this was the first dusk-to-dawn blackout ever called or ordered in the continental United States in history.[xiii]
During 1942 and 1943, U-boats roamed the Gulf at will, sinking some 33 American and Allied ships, mostly tankers carrying oil and gasoline. In the last few days of January, 1942, a U-boat was sighted near the Aransas Pass ship channel. A smoke bomb, used as a danger signal from one U-boat to another, was seen four miles away, suggesting that another U-boat was in the vicinity. Merchant ships in the Port of Corpus Christi were ordered to remain in port. Navigation lights were doused. Airplanes were grounded. Trains were allowed to run, but coach lights could not be turned on. To prevent approaching ships from being silhouetted against the background of city lights, a dusk-to-dawn blackout was ordered by military authorities for Corpus Christi and coastal towns. Air-raid wardens wearing white armbands and carrying billy clubs patrolled the towns, banging on doors and warning the people inside if they saw a speck of light.[xiv] Anderson wrote that people in Corpus Christi could tell about those two blackout nights “to our children, when they get old enough to know not to question a few more details we can work up by then.”[xv] During a later blackout after a German U-boat had been sighted, the police were warned that code signals were being flashed from a window at the Driscoll Hotel. When policemen, FBI and Navy officials converged on the hotel, they discovered a torn blackout curtain flapping in the wind near a fluorescent light.[xvi]
Beginning in 1942, the Navy operated a radar training school on Ward Island. A security fence guarded by Marines surrounded the facility, and people in town had no idea what the big secret about Ward Island was until after the war.[xvii] Tight security measures were imposed around Corpus Christi, beginning just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. There were military guards posted at the port and at the Coast Guard station at Port Aransas. Extra guards were on duty at the big Humble Oil Refinery at Ingleside. Cars were stopped and searched for cameras before they could leave the mainland for the islands. Fishing boats were stopped by patrol boats and searched for cameras. Navy regulations prohibited taking photos of shipping facilities, ships, wharves, docks, storage tanks, or at any point on the barrier islands along the coast.[xviii] People were not permitted to take a boat out in the bay or the Gulf without having a photo ID.[xix] Much of Padre Island and the Laguna Madre were off limits. The Naval Air Training Center posted four restricted areas on Padre Island that were used for aerial bombing and gunnery practice.[xx] It was said that Pat Dunn’s cattle, which were still grazing on the island, grew so accustomed to bombing sorties that they would run in the opposite direction when they heard planes overhead.
The war brought new rules from new government agencies created to control prices and ration supplies of critical material. Sugar registration was held in the schools. Each person was authorized one pound of sugar every two weeks.[xxi] Rents were frozen, beginning in August 1942. Unless one were a doctor or had a defense-related job, there would be a large white “A” stamp against a black background on the car windshield that entitled one to four gallons of gasoline each week (later reduced to three).[xxii] Gasoline rationing forced teachers to join kids in riding bikes to school.[xxiii] A whisky drought lasted from 1942 to 1944. A popular song went (You get no bread with) “One Meatball.” People talked of red tokens, airplane stamps, shoe stamps, sugar stamps. Civilians were allowed only two pairs of shoes a year. Men wore pants without cuffs, coats without lapels while women dressed in clothes that were somber if not drab; they were nervous about wearing too-colorful clothes or of being too ostentatious while servicemen were dying overseas. There was little butter and no bacon.[xxiv] About half the restaurants in town observed a voluntary effort to reduce meat consumption by observing a “Meatless Tuesday.” One hotel manager complained that his place observed the meatless days while his competitor continued to serve choice steaks.[xxv] Housewives saved cooking fat to increase the national supply of grease. Butcher shops were grease collection points. One shop in Corpus Christi posted a sign that read, “Ladies, Put Your Fat Cans Down Here.”[xxvi]
On Monday, May 25, 1942, the new 20-story Robert Driscoll Hotel was opened. It was built by Clara Driscoll and named for her late brother. The hotel featured huge murals depicting scenes of Corpus Christi. The cafe on the first floor had paneled walls and white-leather booths.[xxvii]
President Roosevelt and Mexico's President Avila Camacho arrived on April 21, 1943 to inspect the Naval Air Station and discuss the war. It was FDR’s second trip to the area; he went tarpon fishing off Port Aransas six years earlier. When the president’s special train left, a large crowd gathered at Port and Agnes, where the rail spur from NAS joined the main line of Missouri-Pacific, and waited for hours to see the president. The crowd was pushed back by soldiers carrying rifles with fixed bayonets and submachine guns. When the train stopped, Secret Service men jumped off to join the soldiers on the tracks and the president’s little dog Fala was led off on a leash. Roosevelt didn’t wave to the crowd and people saw him only briefly behind half-closed curtains. Some said he looked very tired. Mrs. Roosevelt was seen sipping a soda but not looking at the large crowd outside the train windows. As the train pulled out, one man was heard to mutter, “Well, I've seen the president, even if he didn't see me.”[xxviii]
At the time of President Roosevelt's visit to the base, some 20,000 civilians were employed at the Naval Air Station, many of them young women who came from all over the country. They enlisted in the National Youth Administration for civil defense jobs and, in Corpus Christi, they worked in the Assembly & Repairs Department at the base learning to service and repair Navy planes. A billboard outside the north gate read: NYA / War Work Shops / Federal Security Agency / National Youth Administration for Texas. Throughout the war, young women wearing coveralls, the regulation work clothes, with photo IDs were a common sight in Corpus Christi.[xxix]
Aviators trained at the Naval Air Station at Corpus Christi and its outlying fields played a major role in winning the war in the Pacific. A month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the first class of aviation cadets received their wings. In that group was Gerald F. Child. Less than a year later, on June 7, at the Battle of Midway, Child and his PBY crew were the first to locate the Japanese fleet. Before his plane was shot down by Japanese fighters, Child kept visual contact of the Japanese carriers for three hours, which helped give American forces a great victory that turned the tide of war in the Pacific. More than 35,000 aviators were trained for combat and received their wings at the Naval Air Station and auxiliary fields, Rodd, Cabaniss, Cuddihy, Waldron, Beeville, and Kingsville.[xxx]
In early February, 1944, two German POWs escaped from a POW camp at Mexia, 360 miles to the north. They fled to Corpus Christi, hoping to find a boat to take them to Mexico. They were captured without mishap at a tourist court on North Beach, posing as “Free French” soldiers. They were identified as Lt. Eugene Kurz, 26, and Lt. Heinz Joachim Grimm, 21. Before they were caught, the police switchboard was flooded with tips. A student called to say he had spotted the escaped POWs near his school; officers found men in a crap game behind some bushes. Someone reported a merchant seaman with an accent; he was arrested and held briefly. One man called and said he knew a dive where the Germans hung out; it was a local bar. Two Russians in Corpus Christi studying refinery operations were arrested after they were heard “talking foreign” in a restaurant.[xxxi]
After they were arrested, the German pilots refused to answer questions and demanded that their interrogators call them “sir.”[xxxii] Caller-Times columnist Bob McCracken, who wrote “The Crow's Nest,” was introduced to Lt. Grimm. McCracken found it a depressing experience. “Here was a young man of fine appearance and background, cultured, polished, intelligent. Change his heavy-ribbed German sweater for a lightweight pullover model, his ersatz trousers for a pair of slacks, his cumbersome army shoes for white bucks, and he could have passed in anybody’s gaze for an American college student, such as the campus knew before it went military. But when he spoke, the illusion faded. Then his professional arrogance, his ingrained contempt for everyone not of his race or class, his sarcastic politeness, stamped him for exactly what he was, a misguided zealot and an utter fool.” McCracken reported what the two POWs were carrying in their pockets when they were captured. They had ID cards, dog tags, ration books, combs, mirrors, French invasion currency, cheap good luck charms, and one of them had an Iron Cross made of cheap metal.[xxxiii]
Near the end of the war, German prisoners of war were housed at the Naval Air Station. The POWs were kept in a 10-acre garrison enclosed by six-foot-tall barbed wire near the South Gate, behind the station commissary. The POW camp was in operation from Aug. 2, 1945, when the first contingent of 100 POWs arrived, until March 16, 1946. The POWs worked 48 hours a week at various manual labor jobs, for which they were paid 80 cents a day. In one chore, they dug up hackberry trees from the banks of the Nueces River and transplanted them around the Naval Air Station. People in Corpus Christi found the POWs to be cheerful, good workers.[xxxiv]
On April 12, 1945, on the eve of victory in Europe, an Associated Press flash bulletin, accompanied by four bell rings, sounded in the Caller newsroom. The bulletin at 5:49 p.m. read: “President Roosevelt died suddenly this afternoon at Warm Springs, Ga.” The president’s death was the biggest news since the bombing of Pearl Harbor. People passed others in the street who seemed to have been crying. Business houses in Corpus Christi were closed and schoolchildren gathered around campus flagpoles to sing the national anthem. At George Evans Elementary, fifth-grade students sang two of the president’s favorite songs, “Home on the Range” and “Abide With Me.”[xxxv]
On Monday, Aug. 6, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima by a B-29 named the Enola Gay. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. People learned later that a native of the city, James Burney, a geophysicist, brother of assistant district attorney Cecil Burney, was among the scientists who unlocked the secrets of atomic fission.*[xxxvi]
The long-awaited victory over Japan came on Aug. 15, 1945. Minutes after President Truman’s announcement that the most terrible war in history was over, a spontaneous celebration erupted in the downtown, centered on Chaparral. A steady stream of cars and trucks filled with shouting, singing, kissing, drinking passengers drove up and down the streets, moving among thousands of jubilant pedestrians milling the streets. Police said they were reasonably well-behaved.[xxxvii] Irma Kathryn Biel (later Morley) and her friends got in her brother’s old Model T and headed for Chaparral. “It was solid cars, bumper to bumper,” she once told a reporter. “People were honking horns, screaming and yelling, running up and down the streets. You would drive down Chaparral to Artesian Park, make a U-turn, and drive back down Chaparral. You did that for hours, just made a circle.” The Caller reported that the stream of cars ranged from ancient Fords to the latest models, from Jeeps driven by sailors to trucks crammed full of whooping girls, with bicycles and motorcycles “all racing madly through the streets, hooting and honking, as policemen attempted vainly to control the crowds.”[xxxviii]
Juliet Knight (later Wenger), a reporter for the Caller-Times, was at City Hall when it was announced that the war was over. “The building emptied into the streets, as did others around us. Everyone was shouting and singing, hugging each other. Tommy Matthews, a police detective, came down from the police station on City Hall’s top floor. He was carrying a high-powered rifle, which he began shooting into the air. Bullets were whizzing by in all directions. No one objected. The joy of long-awaited peace exploded. For a moment in time, everybody in the city, regardless of class or race, loved one another.”[xxxix]
Returning veterans would come home to find a much-changed city, with the Dragon Grill on North Beach burned, with El Rancho turned into an apartment house, with the new Driscoll Hotel towering over the bluff, with one-way traffic instituted downtown. “Saddest of all the changes will be those missing faces among the old corner gangs, the boys who used to gather at the drug stores and never took life seriously until their country was in danger. Many are gone, and many who return will never be the same.”[xl]
Just about everybody had been part of the great machine of war. Now they faced the uncertainty of peace. The floodgates of eloquence were opened with a bit of graffiti, asking a universal question: “What the hell now?”[xli]
* Anderson was later sports editor of the Caller-Times, a position he held from 1948 until he retired in 1977.
* The first atomic bomb, in a test, was exploded south of Los Alamos, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. Corpus Christi learned later that one of the other possible sites considered for that test was Padre Island.
[ii] Eleanor Mortensen, “It was a calm Sunday until . . .,” Caller, Dec. 7, 1976.
[iii] Caller-Times Centennial Edition, 1983, p. 26.
[iv] Bill Walraven, “Words of former Del Mar teacher paved way for World War II,” Caller, Feb. 16, 1983.
[v] Caller-Times, “Once Upon a Time,” Jan. 25, 1966.
[vi] Caller, article, Dec. 9, 1941; Book by the author, “Old Corpus Christi,” p. 115.
[vii] Caller-Times Centennial Edition, 1983, p. 27.
[viii] Caller-Times, “Sirens Spotted in Strategic Locations To Sound Alert . . .” March 15, 1942.
[ix] Caller-Times, “Instructions for Blackout Drill,” Jan. 16, 1942.
[x] Doc McGregor, photo layout, “City Blacks Out,” Caller-Times, Jan. 20, 1942.
[xi] Louis Anderson, “Corpus Christians Saw History In the Making During Blackout,” Caller-Times, March 15, 1942.
[xii] Corpus Christi Caller, Corpus Christi Times, “Blackout Brings Local Business To Standstill,” and “Towns on Coast Are Blacked Out,” vertical files, Corpus Christi Central Library.
[xiv] Columns by the author, Sept. 30, 2009, and Sept. 29, 1999; Corpus Christi Caller, “Navy for First Time Describes 42-43 Nazi Sub Activity in Gulf,” Aug. 23, 1945.
[xvi] Wenger, p. 41.
[xvii] Corpus Christi Caller, John C. Ward Named Island,” May 18, 1953; Grady Phelps, article, Times, Oct. 9, 1978.
[xviii] Corpus Christi Caller, “Vulnerable South Texas Spots Protected Against Sabotage,” Dec. 9, 1941.
[xix] Corpus Christi Caller, “Navy To Confiscate Cameras Found on Gulf Isle Visitors,” vertical files, Corpus Christi Central Library.
[xx] Restricted Area Map “For Aerial Bombing and Gunnery Range,” Corpus Christi Central Library.
[xxi] Caller-Times, “46,729 Sign Up For Ration Books,” vertical files, Corpus Christi Central Library.
[xxii] Caller-Times, “6,000 Car and Motorcycle Owners Register for Gas,” Nov. 20, 1942.
[xxiii] Caller-Times, “Teachers Solve Transportation Problems,” Sept. 24, 1942.
[xxiv] Columns by the author on the war years, Caller-Times, Dec. 7, 14, 21, 2005.
[xxv] Corpus Christi Times, “Food Establishments in City Divided On Question of ‘Meatless Tuesday’,” Oct. 5, 1943.
[xxvi] Column by the author, Caller-Times, Dec. 14, 2005.
[xxvii] Caller-Times, “Robert Driscoll Hotel, Biggest Private Construction Project, Will Be Opened Monday,” May 24, 1942.
[xxviii] Juliet Knight (Wenger), “Corpus Christians Jam Agnes Street To Get Brief Glimpse of President and First Lady,” Caller-Times, April 22, 1943.
[xxix] Column by the author, Dec. 14, 2005; Book by the author, “Old Corpus Christi,” p. 123-125; Bill Walraven, “Corpus Christi, A History of a Texas Seaport,” p. 86.
[xxx] Book by the author, “Old Corpus Christi,” p. 120-122.
[xxxi] Caller-Times, “Arrogantly Silent, Nazi Pilots Await Return to Mexia,” Feb. 11, 1944.
[xxxiii] Bob McCracken, “The Crow’s Nest,“ “Captive Nazis,” Caller-Times, Feb. 11, 1944.
[xxxiv] Grady Phelps, “POWs Left Nameless Mark at Naval Air Station,” Caller-Times, March 16, 1966.
[xxxv] Tom Mulvany, “Corpus Christians Still Stunned by News of Sudden Death of President,” Times, April 13, 1945; Times, “Flags at Half Mast as City Pays Its Respects to Memory of Roosevelt.” Jeanne Cameron, “City in Mourning for Roosevelt,” Caller, April 14, 1945.
[xxxvi] Caller-Times, “James Burney, Atomic Bomb Researcher, Due Home Soon,” vertical files, Corpus Christi Central Library.
[xxxvii] Caller-Times, “Victory Celebration on Chaparral,” and “City Quiet Today After Big Victory Celebration,” vertical files, Corpus Christi Central Library.
[xxxviii] Caller-Times Centennial Edition, 1983, p. 28.
[xxxix] Wenger, p. 44.
[xl] Mulvany, “Johnnie Comes Marching Home . . .” Caller-Times, Sept. 2, 1945.
[xli] Column by the author, Dec. 21, 2005.