Monday, December 7, 2015

A Human Face on Pearl Harbor—Thomas Lounsbury

The burning USS Arizona sinks at her Pearl Harbor moorage with Seaman Second Class Thomas Lounsbury of Woodstock on board.


No matter what else might have occurred on this date, it is for Americans irrevocably the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 that we remember.  The world had been at war for more than two years—or as long as ten years if you count the Japanese invasion of Manchuria as the start of things in Asia, and the with the Italian adventure in Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War tuning things up in Europe.
But for reluctant America, still clinging to isolationism with every fiber of strength that Charles Lindbergh, Col. Robert R. McCormick and the Chicago Tribune, and the Republican Party in Congress had, that December date changed everything.  The fate of generations pivoted on the bombs exploding that sleepy Sunday morning in paradise.
I’m not going to try to tell the story of that day on the epic scale.  You know it in general, and can certainly look up any details on which you may be fuzzy.  You can join in endless debates about whether Franklin Roosevelt knew” that the attack was coming and let it happen to let him get into the War.
But I want to tell the story of just one young man, one family, one small town, one little church.
Robert and Florence Lounsbury of Woodstock, Illinois were nice people—the kind of people who were the back-bone of any small town without actually belonging to the local elite of business owners, lawyers, bankers, and the like.  Robert had managed the local A&P Grocery for twenty years expanding it from a little storefront to increasingly large quarters until he had recently opened a new, modern store based on what the local paper described as the super plan, complete with departments for meats, green groceries, baked goods, canned goods, and staples all available for self-service shopping.  Robert would spend ten hours a day or more at the store and knew most of his customers by name.

The Lounsbury family life centered around the Congregational Universalist Church in Woodstock where Robert was an Elder and Florence was a leader in the Friendly Aid and taught Sunday School.


Florence was what used to be called a Church woman and Club woman.  She was an active member of the Congregational Universalist Church where she belonged to the Friendly Aid, a woman’s group that met on Wednesday afternoons to socialize and do good works for the church and the community.  A few years earlier, during the depths of the Depression when nobody seemed to have any money and the Church was in danger of closing, she helped organize a campaign where the women of the church pledged to save a nickel each week from their pin money to support the church.  That slender thread, pulled together at no small sacrifice, was enough money to buy the coal that kept the church heated through one brutal winter and kept the little congregation going.  Florence would continue her service to the church for the rest of her long life and was remembered long after her death as “the glue that kept the congregation together.”
In 1937 Florence and some of the other ladies from church organized a chapter of the Red Cross Auxiliary.  Called the Gray Ladies because of their uniforms, the women provided countless volunteer hours to the Woodstock Hospital, conducted blood drives, and helped set up classes in First Aid.  Out of this commitment, Florence was named to the Hospital Board.  She was also on the Library Board.  Later she would become the Librarian, a post she held for more than twenty years.
Robert and Florence had three children, James, Helen, and Thomas who was born in 1921, the year that they arrived in Woodstock so Robert could take over the local A&P.  Tom grew up to be a handsome, slender dark haired boy.  At Woodstock High School he did well, if unspectacularly at his studies and played on the athletic teams.  The local newspaper noted that Tom had “a legion of friends among the younger set.”  After graduating in 1939 he stayed in town, working for local merchants and dating pretty local girls.
But like most young men, Tom yearned for some adventure and life beyond the small town.  There was no money for college, or maybe not much of an inclination to go.  At any rate, when the Draft was enacted in 1940, Tom told his parents that he would rather join the Navy and “see the world” than wait to be called and end up in the infantry. 
After enlisting in October of 1940 Tom was sent to nearby Great Lakes Naval Training Station for boot camp.  After brief posting to Bremerton, Washington and San Diego, Tom got the sea duty he requested on the USS Arizona, sailing for its new station at Pearl Harbor in February of 1941.  There the Battleship joined several of her sisters where they were beefing up America’s naval presence in the Pacific as a supposed deterrent to Japanese aggression.
Rated as a Seaman Second Class, Tom settled into the sometimes monotonous life of a sailor who spent most of his time in port.  Of course the lures of Hawaii, including a famous and very crowded red light district near Waikiki, likely provided some diversion for the young man.  He wrote home to his parents, but not often enough and was light on details of his life.  Word was he was also writing to a pretty girl back home as well.
On Thanksgiving Day of 1941 he celebrated with another Woodstock boy, Wilber Kiefer who was stationed on the USS Oklahoma.
Florence and Robert probably got the word about the attack on Pearl Harbor sometime after Church on Sunday December 7.  Maybe they were listening to the radio.  Maybe a friend, knowing they had a son there, called with the news.  They must have been worried frantic about their son.  But no news about his fate was forthcoming.  When President Roosevelt addressed Congress the next day to ask for a Declaration of War, the public still had not been told about how disastrous the losses were on the Date that shall live in infamy.
Back in Woodstock, the Loundsburys tried to get on with their lives.  On December 10 Florence and the Friendly Aid held an afternoon craft bazaar followed by a cafeteria style supper featuring “a fine menu of ham, creamed chicken, mashed potatoes, rutabagas, escalloped corn, salads, cakes, and pies.”  On the 15th the A&P honored Robert for twenty years of service.
On December 21 the Navy Department sent the Loundsburys a wire listing their son as missing in action.  No one knows exactly what happened to Tom that day.  He is presumed to be among the 1,177 crewmen killed when a Japanese bomb ignited a forward powder magazine.  That was more than half of all those killed that day at Pearl Harbor, Hickam Field, Schofield Barracks, and Ford Island.
Young Tom Lounsbury was one of two local boys killed that day, officially the first, but far from the last casualties of World War II from Woodstock.

Seventy years after Thomas Lounsbury died, the flag that his mother Florence donated tot he congregation in his memory led the annual Memorial Day processions from the Congregational Unitarian Church to the Civil War Monument in near-by Woodstock Square for annual services.

In 1961, after Alaska and Hawaii were added to the Union, Florence Lounsbury donated a new silk 50 star flag to the church in her son’s honor.  That flag, now yellowed with age, is still used by the congregation, now known as the Tree of Live Unitarian Universalist Congregation.  For more than ten years it was carried in an annual march from the church to lay flowers at the Civil War Monument on Woodstock Square each Memorial Day.
The congregation has moved to McHenry now and can no longer make that march.  But the flag remains as a testament that Thomas Lounsbury is remembered as well.

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