Editor’s note: The following is a historical account of the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, compiled from The Monitor’s newspaper archives published at that time. This is the last story of a two-part series about the Rio Grande Valley’s response. The first is available here.
News of the attack had been emotional for Rio Grande Valley residents, especially for Emma Jones and the Navy Mothers club, who cried while they wrapped up Christmas cookies for their sons deployed as servicemen.
But the Valley’s reaction to the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, amounted to much more than just tears.
Contemporary reports show local authorities treating attack and sabotage as very real threats; over the course of the week following Dec. 8, the Valley and its citizens steeled themselves for invasion, searched for saboteurs and rushed to support the American war effort financially — all while steeling themselves for the first news of which of the Valley’s two dozen naval men reported to be on the front had survived the first engagements and which had not.
Planes were grounded at Miller Municipal Airport in McAllen following the eighth. In Hidalgo County, 23 observation centers were put on alert to watch for enemy aircraft, and Southwestern Bell assured the public that it had been set up for more than a year to protect the telephone system from sabotage.
The week after Pearl Harbor, a Japanese and a German national, residents of western Hidalgo County, were detained by Border Patrol and questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on “activities considered un-American.”
“They were believed to be the first and only ones sent from the Valley to the San Antonio headquarters for further investigation,” the paper reported on Dec. 15, 1941.
Sabotage and attack were very much on the public’s mind.
“The entire personnel of the 31st battalion of the Texas Defense guard realizes the seriousness of our present situation,” declared then-Major Lloyd Bentsen in one article. “It can be counted on to do its full part in upholding the sacred rights and traditions of our gallant people.”
On Dec. 9, U.S. troops armed with machine guns were observed guarding international bridges and fords on the Rio Grande to prevent sabotage.
“Guns were planted on the United States side of the Hidalgo international bridge below here Monday night, manned by a 60-man special guard detachment of the 124th cavalry from Fort Brown, Brownsville on orders from General Charles Gerhardt, commanding officer of the 56th brigade at Fort MacIntosh, Laredo,” one article read, noting that all border bridges were being guarded in the same manner by Army forces.
First Lt. F.E. Morisseau, in command of the crossing, met with General Tafoya on Monday night, triggering rumors that U.S. troops were moving through Reynosa bound for the Western Mexican coast.
Those rumors were later discounted; Morisseau’s men stayed in their 30 tents by the bridge.
“So far no trouble has been encountered,” the paper said.
At midnight Tuesday, the state’s first test blackout darkened the border from Weslaco to the Gulf, halting traffic at the international bridges.
Army officials at Fort Brown asked radio stations at 10:30 (the newspaper didn’t report whether this was in the morning or evening) to announce a practice blackout.
“This was followed by a demand that all lights be extinguished after voluntary cooperation apparently failed to achieve results,” the paper reported, noting that it had taken 600 guardsmen to undertake the blackout.
McAllen residents were asked to familiarize themselves with the city’s blackout signal — an air horn atop the city’s fire hall.
“When McAllen residents hear the continued short blasts on the horn, all homes, stores, autos, business places, highways — in short everywhere where lights are used — they are to be turned off immediately. Leave your radios on so that further information concerning the procedure may be obtained from their broadcasts,” then-Mayor Horace Etchison ordered.
Residents were being asked to participate more actively as well.
On Monday, Mayor Etchison issued a call for all citizens, men and women of any age, to register at the American Legion Hall for emergency defense duties
Positions included air raid observers, auxiliary firemen and policemen, first aid workers, nurses, cooks. Over 2,000 McAllen residents were signed up in less than a week, ranging in age from 13 to 67.
“It was all-out patriotism,” the paper proclaimed Dec. 11.
According to The Monitor, at the time publishing as the Valley Evening Monitor, most of the girls wanted to be ambulance drivers.
“It would be simply thrilling to drive an ambulance back from the front lines with those brave and handsome wounded soldiers in it,” it quotes one woman as saying.
Other women were less concerned with how handsome the soldiers were.
One McAllen school teacher claimed to be able to shoot “95 out of 100” and “drive a car better than most men.” She signed up for active duty and ambulance driving.
Many of the volunteers were immigrants, Canadians, Germans, Poles, Czechs, Mexicans. One was a French woman who claimed she had already lived through two wars.
“Anything, anything will I do,” she promised.
Another was a 67-year-old man, crippled but eager to do his part.
“I have a right badly crippled arm and a part of a bad leg but, shucks, there is a hell of a lot of things I can do,” he told the paper.
The civic spirit infected younger people too. On Dec. 12, five days after Pearl Harbor, the entire Sharyland student body, 225 students, stood in a line three-blocks long for over an hour to buy $350 worth of defense bonds and stamps, the biggest purchase en masse reported in the Valley up to that point. They were painted as heroes.
That same day, Father Emmet Walsh, a Catholic priest stationed in Raymondville, saw his song printed in The Monitor. He had composed it while serving as a chaplain with a battalion in Laredo a few months earlier, and it had been popular.
“Our home, our country are dear to us,
“It’s worth our time, it’s worth our trust,
“So let us drill, drill, drill —
“The victory is won for us.”
Walsh wasn’t done writing it, but The Monitor declared it had already been picked up as the official song of the Texas Defense Guardsmen.
“Short and snappy, the song will consist of one verse and a refrain,” the paper reported.
Gradually, the tone in the paper shifted, and focused more about training at home and locals serving abroad.
The McAllen Chamber of Commerce’s publicity department widely began advertising the Valley as a safe winter haven for visitors who normally go to the Pacific or Atlantic coast across the country — the paper characterized the Valley as “winter resort free from the fear of possible air raids.”
As the possibility of imminent combat in the Valley faded from the headlines in the week after Pearl Harbor, an anxious Valley gradually began receiving word on how its servicemen abroad had fared through the ambush and the first week of war.
On Dec. 12, Lynn Clovis Martin, 20, a McHi grad who had been in the Navy for 16 months, was reported wounded in action.
His father, John Henry Martin, was informed by Rear Admiral C.W. Nimitz, although Nimitz didn’t give him any additional details.
Jesse Cummins, also of McAllen, served aboard the USS Indianapolis, which survived Pearl Harbor. He wired home with just three words on Dec. 14.
“I am OK.”
Martin and Jack Brumley of Edinburg were reported wounded that day.
Finally, on Dec. 16, the names of men who didn’t survive combat began rolling in. Three Valley men were reported killed in action: Walter Sigler of Harlingen, who served in the Indianapolis, Howard Knox of San Benito and Frankie Bales of Alice, formerly of McAllen.
The paper reported that the news “brought the impact of the war closer home here.”
Sigler, who was about 18, entered the Navy in September 1940 after graduating from Harlingen High. He’d been on a four-day leave home a little more than a month earlier.
“News of his death came in a telegram received this morning by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Earl Sigler of Harlingen,” the paper reported.
That news would continue rolling out in fits and starts, mixed in with ads for Camel Cigarettes and show times for Abbott and Costello movies, for the war’s duration.
Much of that information would pass through the hands of Emma Jones.
Apparently, at least some of the prayers Jones made that day over the Christmas cookies and the candy 79 years ago were answered: her son Jimmy would survive the war. He wrote a letter to his mother in 1942, while he was serving in the Navy, and Emma passed on a portion of it to The Monitor.
“There are some of us who will not come back,” he wrote. “But that is a small price to pay for liberty.”
Emma Jones would later leave McAllen to live with him and his family in California. She remained active in the Navy Mothers club after the war and died Sept. 15, 1963, five days after her birthday.
A year later, the Valley branch of the Navy Mothers club was honoring Jones and commissioned an oil painting of her they hoped to have hung in the chapel of the United States Naval Hospital in San Diego.