CADILLAC — If not for a U.S. decision to impose economic sanctions on Japan for their increasingly aggressive posture toward China in the 1930s, America might never have entered WWII.
Relations between the two countries were growing tense years before Japan launched a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. naval base near Honolulu, Hawaii. Blaming China for its economic and demographic problems, Japan declared war on the country in 1937 — an act that prompted the U.S. to impose stiff sanctions and trade embargoes. Far from compelling them to end their campaign against China, however, Japan dug in their heels and negotiations with the U.S. to lift the sanctions ground to a standstill.
In the years following the sanctions, an international drama between the U.S. and Japan played out in local newspapers across the U.S., including here in Cadillac during the days leading up to Dec. 7, 1941.
"Hope waned that President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull would bow before Japanese extensionist aims," the United Press reported in a story that ran in the Cadillac News a few days before Pearl Harbor was attacked. "(Japanese) newspapers said that success or failure of negotiations at Washington depended on the American attitude."
Interest among Cadillac residents in the possibility of the U.S. entering into war with Japan was high. Days before the invasion, a former missionary to Japan spoke at the Cadillac Woman's Club about her perspective on the strong family values exhibited by the Japanese. Questions about war invariably arose.
"Miss Reiser did not elaborate on her prediction as to whether or not this feeling the Japanese have for their homes would override the dominating militaristic powers now in control of the Japanese destiny, nor did she disclose the average reaction (of people living there) to the possible war with the United States," the Cadillac News reported.
U.S. military officials did not think Japan would strike such a far-flung island outpost as Hawaii — which is thousands of miles away from both the U.S. and Japan, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean — thinking instead they may strike closer European colonies, including Singapore and Indochina.
Not expecting an attack, the U.S. naval defense in Hawaii was relatively unprepared as hundreds of Japanese fighter planes assaulted the base around 8 a.m.
Every battleship in Pearl Harbor — the USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, USS California, USS West Virginia, USS Utah, USS Maryland, USS Pennsylvania, USS Tennessee and USS Nevada — sustained significant damage; the USS Arizona and USS Utah were sunk, killing 1,400 people inside the vessels.
During the assault, more than 2,400 Americans were killed and another 1,000 were wounded.
As news of the attacks reached Cadillac, swift action was taken to prepare civilians for an extended conflict.
"First effects of the international situation to be felt here were orders from the government to bar all visitors from the Civil Aeronautics Authority building at the local airport for the duration of the emergency, and also orders from the Federal Communication Commission prohibiting transmission of all messages by radio by amateurs," the Cadillac News reported.
Within hours of the attack, the Cadillac Chamber of Commerce drafted a resolution in support of all local efforts to win the war.
"Therefore be it resolved that the Cadillac Chamber of Commerce cooperate with all agencies within our community, county and state to the end that the city of Cadillac will be prepared to carry on a program of national and civilian defense; that our facilities at Caberfae be offered to the United States Army for the training of ski troops; that our airport program be completed and plans made for its use by the United States Army if necessary, and that the Wexford Civilian Defense Council be given the utmost cooperation in bringing about the realization to the citizens of Cadillac that we as a community must be prepared," the resolution stated.
Several other organizations also pledged their support and services to the war effort, including the Cadillac Fire Department, Elks Lodge, American Legion, and Forty and Eight (a veterans organization). Even the Cadillac Girl Scouts chapter declared their support.
Concerned about the possibility of sabotage, a government spokesman requested that special care be given to protect materials produced by Cadillac factories. Among those producing military materials were Cadillac Malleable Company, Kysor Heater Co., Cadillac Brass Co., J.C. Goss and Son, Cadillac Fabrics, Chris Craft, Permanit, St. Johns Table Co., and Gluedtite Panel Co.
While the war created a patriotic fervor throughout the city, it also led to some immediate hardships. The Wexford County Road Commission was unable to replace old equipment or get repairs for its existing equipment because the defense program required all manufacturers to supply defense projects before furnishing any material for county road maintenance and construction.
"At the present time the commission has been waiting for parts for two or three months and use of two of its best trucks for snow removal, is thereby held up," the Cadillac News reported.
Area farmers were asked to replace coal with wood for fuel purposes. They also were urged to collect and market all the scrap iron to aid in the defense program. In Missaukee County, Farm Agent H.L. Barnum spoke to one of the defense classes about the urgent need for repairing and putting farm machinery in good condition for next spring; there was a concern that any interruption in domestic food production could seriously impact the country during a time of war.
Virtually every aspect of life was affected by the war with Japan, including social functions.
"The Snow Ball went patriotic this year, discarding the sparkling blue lighting effects of past years to blaze out in colorful reds, whites and blues," the Cadillac News reported in connection with an annual dance sponsored by Mercy Hospital.
The Wexford County Civilian Defense Council ramped up its efforts considerably, asking for volunteers to be trained to fulfill a number of responsibilities: air wardens, repairmen, drivers, stretcher-bearers, canteen workers, nutrition instructors, naturalization helpers, public speakers, and day nursery supervisors were all roles that needed to be filled.
In their attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese strategy was to dismantle the Pacific Fleet, allowing them to take over the South Pacific with minimal resistance from the U.S.
While the attack was a devastating first blow against the U.S., the Japanese did not achieve their goal, as vital American aircraft carriers were stationed at a different location and many of the base's most important assets were left unscathed.
A day after the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against Japan.
"Hostilities exist," Roosevelt said. "There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces with the unbounding determination of our people we will gain the inevitable triumph so help us God."
The declaration was approved by everyone in Congress with the sole exception of Montana congresswomen Jeannette Rankin.
"As a woman," Rankin said, "I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else."
Three days after the U.S. declaration, Japan’s allies Germany and Italy declared war against the United States, and Congress repaid the favor in kind, officially entering America into World War II.