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Madera reacted swiftly in wake of Pearl Harbor

Courtesy of The Madera County Historical Society The bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, dominated the local headlines in the days following the attack. Madera County residents reacted swiftly following the day that will live in infamy.


On Dec. 6, 1941, it was business as usual in Madera. Ronald Reagan was starring in “The International Squadron,” which was showing at the new Madera Theater. The Methodist Church was planning a potluck supper, and Ocean Spray cranberry sauce was selling for 13 cents per can. Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and that shook Madera from its slumbers.

Japan had been on the move in the Pacific for some time, and the United States had been gearing up to oppose that action. Negotiations were not going well and it was generally conceded that an attack upon American interests in the far Pacific was imminent.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the expected attack came, but paradoxically almost everyone was surprised. The target, instead of bases in the Far East, was Pearl Harbor. The enemy had attacked United States soil!

Maderans were numb, shocked, fearful, and angry. Local citizens mirrored the outrage and amazement of the entire nation. The town hardly knew how to react. On Monday morning, Dec. 8, some downtown merchants requested their clerks not to talk war with their customers, while others turned up their radios to catch the latest developments.

The telephone company put out a request for those not having urgent calls to refrain from using the lines, and the Highway Patrol went to 12-hour shifts. Orders were sent out to keep the highways clear for the movement of military vehicles. The American Legion held a special meeting to assist in this effort.

Then a wave of patriotism spread through Madera within hours of the tragedy. Scores of young men sought to join the military immediately. Others inundated the sheriff’s office in an attempt to enlist in civilian defense work.

The flip side of this patriotic fervor was an overwhelming distrust of the Japanese. In this respect, Madera joined the rest of the state and nation. Officials placed a statewide ban on buying merchandise from “aliens,” which apparently meant Japanese, for they announced that the prohibition did not apply to the produce being grown in the Chinese Gardens.

The Madera County Recorder’s office did a land office business making out copies of birth certificates for the Americans of Japanese ancestry. In less than a week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor 46 such requests had been filled. All Japanese residents were stopped at the county line and asked to produce those documents. The Madera News acknowledged that while, “this procedure works an inconvenience on the American-born Japanese ... they are cooperating wholeheartedly.”

Not even Madera High School escaped the xenophobic fears, especially the 20 Americans of Japanese ancestry who were part of the student body in 1941. Sensing and fearing the anti-Japanese sentiment that was building, they presented Principal L.C. Thompson with a pledge of allegiance to the United States. In part the proclamation stated, “We as American citizens ... firmly believe it is our duty to our country to love it, to support its Constitution, to obey its laws, to respect its flag, and to defend it against all enemies.”

As an added security measure, “aliens” in Madera County were required to surrender their guns, radios, and cameras to Sheriff W.O. Justice. By December 29, 1941, 250 guns, 125 radios, and a large number of cameras were placed in the courthouse for safekeeping. These items were all tagged and stored with the intent that they be returned after the war.

In addition to these measures, the Madera County Defense Council kicked into action. Headed by George Mordecai Jr., almost overnight the council issued blackout instructions with the warning that they would be strictly enforced. The signal for such a move would be 10 short siren blasts, while a single, long wail signaled an all clear.

If the warning sounded, all lights were to be extinguished, including automobile lights. Smoking outside was also prohibited. Blackout wardens wearing black armbands embossed with a “W” patrolled the streets of Madera in search of violators.

In concert with the blackout plans, the council sent Jack Buchanan, local Captain of the State Guard, into action. The guardsmen worked in two shifts — one from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. and the other from 2 to 7 a.m. Their task was to guard the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroad bridges at the Fresno and San Joaquin Rivers.

In addition, the county maintained its vigilance with airplane observation posts in the foothills. Strict logs were maintained, as the lookouts kept a 24-hour vigil. Clearly Madera County residents would not endure a sneak attack if they could help it.

Within a few short weeks, many Maderans were overseas laying their lives on the line to ensure that such a debacle as Pearl Harbor would never again be thrust upon our homeland.

The hometown reaction to the surprise attack had been swift and understandable. Its long-term response was just as predictable.

Many of our boys never returned.

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