Margot Cliff was 7 and living in HIlo, Hawaii, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. “I didn’t really know what the ramifications would be,” she said. “How do you describe war to a young child?” Staff photo by Derek Davis

Margot Cliff didn’t understand the concept of war until the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Margot Cliff recalls the gas mask distribution and air raid drills after the attack on the Hawaiian naval base. Staff photos by Derek Davis; contributed photo courtesy of Margot Cliff

She was 7 and standing outside her house in Hilo, Hawaii, with her father as he prepared to leave for a morning church service when a neighbor came running into the yard with news of the Japanese attack that would leave 2,403 Americans dead and push the United States to enter World War II. Two hundred miles away from Pearl Harbor, Cliff’s family wasn’t in immediate danger as the bombs fell, but realities of war surrounded the young girl in the months and years to follow.

Seventy-six years after the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt said would “live in infamy,” Cliff and three other residents of The Atrium at The Cedars in Portland reflected this week on the moment they heard about the attack and how it shaped their lives in the years after.

Cliff, who was born in Hawaii and lived there until she moved to the mainland at age 12, was living a quiet life on the island with her sister and their father, a Congregationalist minister.

“I didn’t really know what the ramifications would be,” said Cliff, now 83. “How do you describe war to a young child?”

Immediately after the attack, no gatherings of more than 10 people were allowed. Cliff’s father, the Rev. T. Markham Talmage, held services with nine people at a time. Everyone on the island was issued a gas mask and had to carry it at all times. Every few months, the school library would be filled with tear gas and students were marched through to test the masks. Those who hadn’t put their masks on correctly came out crying, Cliff said.

Cliff’s father tacked a world map to the wall of their house. She learned geography as visiting soldiers and sailors placed pins on their hometowns. During air raid drills, the family rushed to a culvert under their road. Someone had placed benches inside over the shallow water that collected there.

“For years after, the sound of sirens did scare me,” Cliff said.

Les Brewer, who grew up in Bar Harbor, was in his fraternity house at the University of Maine when the news came over the radio that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. He said, “We were all 19 or 20 years old. We all had to make a decision about what route we would take.” Staff photo by Derek Davis

More than 5,000 miles away in Maine, Les Brewer was in his fraternity house at the University of Maine in Orono when news of the attack came over the radio.

“It was going to affect all of our lives,” said Brewer, now 95. “We were all 19 or 20 years old. We all had to make a decision about what route we would take.”

Brewer and his fraternity brothers all joined the armed services and fought in the war. Not all returned home.

Brewer, a native of Bar Harbor studying electrical engineering, was already in the ROTC and enlisted in the Army Signal Corps by his junior year of college. After basic training, he was sent to France toward the end of the war and spent two years stationed in Paris. He came home to finish college, then fought in the Korean War. He was awarded a Bronze Star.

After the wars, Brewer taught ROTC at Northeastern University in Boston for a year before returning to Bar Harbor, where he ran a family business and was a founding trustee of the College of the Atlantic.

Like Brewer, Bob Ryan remembers the attack on Pearl Harbor as a defining moment that led him to join the Navy to defend the country. Ryan, now 92, was a 15-year-old high school sophomore in New Jersey that day. He had just started working as an usher at a movie theater in New Jersey when the news broke, interrupting the film. He knew right away he wanted to join the military.

The attack on Pearl Harbor led Bob Ryan to join the Navy at the age of 17. Staff photo by Derek Davis

“I was outraged,” he said.

At 17, Ryan joined the Navy Seabees with his father’s permission. He was one of the youngest Seabees to serve in both Europe and the Pacific, he said. On June 6, 1944, he took part in the Normandy invasion. Ryan returned to the United States at age 20.

“I wasn’t old enough to vote, I wasn’t old enough to buy a drink and I wasn’t old enough to get married,” he said.

But Ryan did get married three weeks later. He went on to raise three children with his wife and own businesses in Connecticut before moving to Maine 12 years ago. He finds himself thinking about the anniversary of Pearl Harbor only occasionally, although he does say it “was a pretty big event in my life.”

Charlotte Rodetsky was 9 and watching a movie at the Stanley Theater in Jersey City when the theater manager stopped the film to tell the audience about Pearl Harbor. “I’ll never forget my father’s response: ‘I don’t want my son to be cannon fodder,’ ” said Rodetsky, now 85. “I didn’t know what that meant.”

Charlotte Rodetsky, who was 9, didn’t know much about bombings or war, but she knew the attack “was something very bad.” Staff photo by Derek Davis

She didn’t know much about bombings or war, but Rodetsky knew the attack “was something very bad.” Later that day, worried about her 14-year-old brother, she asked her father about his comment in the movie theater. It was the first time he didn’t tell her to look it up in the dictionary.

“I could feel the tension,” Rodetsky said. Her father had a small world map he used to track where troops were stationed during the war.

When her brother, Sy Schpoont, turned 17, he joined the Army Air Forces as a medic. She and her parents eagerly awaited the letters he wrote home, but grew anxious when he was in Guam and the family stopped hearing from him. Finally, another letter arrived and was met with “great joy” by the family in New Jersey awaiting his safe arrival home. He is now 91 and living in California.

“I’m so grateful my brother managed to survive,” Rodetsky said.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian

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