HANCOCK COUNTY — There, on a sidewalk in Shirley, Bob Wright heard the news.

The Wilkinson High School senior was walking home after a service at the Methodist church. As he walked, he listened to a battery-powered radio. It was Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941.

“I began to hear something about Pearl Harbor and bombing,” he remembers. He arrived home, where his parents also had the radio on, and they filled him in.

Ruth Thomas Molson also heard the news at home on the radio, while she was washing dishes. Classmate Marybelle Broadwater Isaacs had already heard the news before church, when her aunt called to tell her mother.

“She said she feared that Hitler would come to the United States,” Kathy Kersey said of her mother, who lives with Kersey in Coatesville today.

The next day at school, seventh-graders through seniors were gathered in the gym for an assembly, Wright said. The principal said President Franklin Roosevelt would make a statement and turned on a radio.

“We listened to the president declare a state of war,” Wright said. “I think we were just in shock. … in our lifetime there hadn’t been anything like this. Of course, as high schoolers we were thinking about dances …. We just weren’t thinking much about world events.”

Bob Wright, a World War II U.S. Navy veteran talks about his service during World War II. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter) Tom Russo
Bob Wright, a World War II U.S. Navy veteran talks about his service during World War II. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter) Tom Russo

That changed immediately, though. Enlisting now loomed for the young men. And the senior trip for Wright, Isaacs, Molson and the rest of the Class of 1942 was canceled.

Seniors had looked forward to the traditional trip to Washington, D.C., and New York. They’d been raising money for three years, selling peanuts or candy at lunchtime and having other fundraisers, Wright said.

With the cash still available, the seniors decided on a new purpose for it: They would buy bonds.

The Jan. 20, 1942, edition of the Daily Reporter lists the names of all 25 seniors, who together brought forward $468.75. From that money, the class made $25 donations to the Hancock County chapter of the American Red Cross and to the Salvation Army, putting the rest toward a $25 bond for each class member.

At some point, the class loaded onto a couple of buses for an outing to Indianapolis that included dinner at a “big fancy restaurant” and possibly a movie, Molson said.

“We had a nice time, but it wasn’t the senior trip,” she said.

The canceled trip and the donated money were just the beginning of the sacrifices the senior class would make.

Bill Snider became a sergeant in the Army Air Force. With him he carried a photo of classmate Patricia Lisher, who was training to be a nurse.

He went missing in Europe in 1944 and was later found to be in a German prisoner of war camp, where he turned 21. He was released after one year and one day in the camp, where he had dwindled to about 90 pounds on a diet that included black cabbage.

“It’s a long, strange road from no man’s land back to you,” he telegraphed.

Patricia, in training at Riley Hospital, was in Indianapolis when he arrived. He bought her a gardenia from a streetside stand.

They were soon engaged, married in 1946 and had a son and a daughter. Bill Snider died at age 40, from an ailment supposedly brought on by being a prisoner of war, Patricia Snider said.

Wright also joined the military after graduation. He had hoped to go to college and study aeronautical engineering, but “in 90 days you’ll be drafted,” he remembers being told. So he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

His construction battalion landed on various beaches across the Pacific. Within hours of each landing, it would have equipment out and start building a road or a runway to help other forces progress inland.

He was stationed in Okinawa near the end of the war. One day a large plane came in and refueled; only later did he learn it had dropped a bomb on Japan. He does not recall if it was the Enola Gay or Bockscar.

Though he was hundreds of miles away, he does recall a day of unusual quiet days before that he now believes was the vaporizing effect of an atomic bomb.

“It was deathly silence … we didn’t know what it was,” he recalls. “Then later, we felt like it probably was an aftermath of the dropping of the bomb.”

Several other classmates had their brushes with history as they served or waited for a boyfriend or husband to return.

Loren Cupp, a star Wilkinson pitcher, had signed a contract with the Chicago Cubs and traveled south to a minor-league affiliate. The door to that opportunity ended when he was drafted into the U.S. Army, said his sister-in-law Joan Cupp. He would earn a Bronze Star for his role in the November 1944 capture of a strategic German stronghold.

Classmate Augusta Jean Goudy Lanigan became part of the Women’s Army Corps.

Classmate Harold Barton was one of six brothers from the Wilkinson family who all served in World War II. Wright saw Harold’s older brother Byron soon after boot camp; both Wright and Byron Barton were Seabees.

They came home with stories to tell. At the urging of his family, Wright gathered his recollections a few years ago into 25 to 30 pages, a work he called “Memoirs of a Seabee.” But he said the tales didn’t become part of the catching up at class reunions.

“We did get together, but we never talked war,” he said. “There were things that you just didn’t want to talk about.”

Wilkinson High School Class of 1942

Patricia Jane Addison, Owen W. Barnett, Harold Barton, Doyle Wade Beatty, Marvin Eugene Bennett, Marybelle Broadwater, Dorothy Brooks, Joseph L. Brummett, Benny Cox, Loren Cupp, Augusta Jean Goudy, Pauline Hudson, Phyllis Hutchins, Bobby G. Jones, Patricia Lisher, James Railey, Junior Rozell, Edythe Simmons, Bill Snider, Marvin W. Solomon, Ruth R. Thomas, John W. Wade, Lois L. Whiteman, Rose Mary Wood, Bob Wright

Author photo
Anne Smith is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at asmith@greenfieldreporter.com