Archive for Friday, December 7, 2001

s WWII diary still teaching lessons

December 7, 2001


Though its pages are yellowed and its black cover chipped, Edna Sponholtz's diary still paints vivid images of America after the Pearl Harbor attacks.

She started the log Dec. 7, 1941, only hours after 360 Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, killing 2,400 Americans and bringing the United States into World War II.

She wanted her 4-year-old son Lloyd, now a Kansas University associate professor of history, to understand what the country was experiencing.

"Because you are much too young to understand the terrible tragedy which has befallen us today, I hope to keep this diary for you," she wrote on the first page.

"When you are old enough to study history in school, it will help you to understand our reaction to the historical events happening each day and how these events may shape our way of life in the future.

"May Our Heavenly Father hold his protecting arm over all of us, military and civilian, and in His mercy grant us victory. Love, Mother."

Now, 60 years later, the diary serves as a teaching tool for Lloyd Sponholtz as he explains World War II to American history students. It brings the war to life in ways that other newspapers and other texts cannot, he said.

"It gives it a personal element that's lost when you have collective information like textbooks," Sponholtz said. "History becomes more real to them if they come into contact with someone who's included their experiences with it."

Edna Sponholtz maintained the diary until June 1943. Though she didn't write in it daily, she included important military, political and personal updates.

She mentions Lloyd Sponholtz's cousin, who left for the military; standing in line with ration books for cuts of meat; and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's famous "day of infamy" speech.

"At 9 o'clock this evening President Roosevelt addressed the nation and our family, with the exception of Lloyd who had been put to bed, gathered around the radio to hear the President's message," Edna Sponholtz wrote.

Edna Sponholtz died in 1989. Her son said his mother was proud to have the diary used to teach history.

Lloyd Sponholtz, who grew up in Chicago, said his mother's handwriting points to parallels between America after Pearl Harbor and America after Sept. 11. She mentions disbelief, unity, patriotism and eagerness to help the war effort.

"Today we stand united as we have never been united before, all political and party differences have been forgotten in our solemn determination to fight and defend our precious freedom and our American Way of Life, as we have come to know and value it, to the bitter end," she wrote Dec. 8.

"Never had I appreciated the American Way of Life as I do this evening. I keep wondering what kind of a world Lloyd will have to live in when he grows up. Every civilian must put his shoulder to the wheel and contribute whatever talents he may possess to defend our glorious country."

Front-row seat

Edna Sponholtz mentioned the sinking of the USS Oklahoma when she wrote Dec. 8.

Vince Muirhead had a front-row seat for the battleship's demise.

Muirhead, Lawrence, was 22 and stationed on the USS Maryland during the attack on Pearl Harbor. When he woke Dec. 7, 1941, he planned to eat breakfast and photograph the Eastman Kodak Hula Show with his new camera.

His plans changed when he saw the red circle on an airplane flying overhead. He immediately went to his battle station, firing guns from the middle of the ship.

Muirhead watched as the Oklahoma sank. The Maryland was hit with a torpedo, but the torpedo didn't explode and the ship survived the attack.

Muirhead, a retired aerospace engineering professor at KU, said some of the parallels drawn between Pearl Harbor and the recent terrorist attacks are accurate.

"You're never prepared for something like that surprise," he said. "You can't prepare for everything and be on complete alert all the time. The Boy Scout motto 'Be Prepared' is good, don't mistake me. But you can't always be prepared for what everyone can dream up.

"Of course, we let our guard down. After the war is over, we get rid of everything. It's like a pendulum, you go side to side."

Pearl Harbor memories

When Bill Tuttle sought stories from people who were children during World War II, he didn't know what to expect. He ended up with 2,500 letters from people across the country.

The letters, solicited through letters published in newspapers, were the basis for his 1993 book "Daddy's Gone to War: The Second World War in the Lives of America's Children."

Memories of Pearl Harbor were a common theme among many who wrote Tuttle, a KU professor of American studies and history. For many, he said, it was the first time children saw their fathers cry.

Like the Sept. 11 attacks, the emotions ranged from dismay to depression to anger.

"There were parents who just went nuts and scoured the house for everything made in Japan and smashed their kids' toys and tea sets," he said. "There was one woman whose mother saw her try to glue her doll back together again and got in trouble."

"I would imagine American parents (after Sept. 11) got very angry and shouted and cursed Osama bin Laden," Tuttle said. "There's a similarity there."

Though children see more images of the Sept. 11 attacks than children saw of Pearl Harbor, Tuttle said he thought today's children were better equipped to handle the tragedy.

"I think parents today are more attuned to the distress kids can experience," he said. "My guess is kids in World War II were more left to their own devices. I don't think they had grief counselors in the schools."

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