A Day Never Forgotten

Published 7:59 am Sunday, December 7, 2008

PROCTORVILLE — It’s been almost seven decades but Don Gillette of Proctorville can still tell you where he was on Dec. 7, 1941.

The day of infamy.

The day the Japanese attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The day the United States couldn’t dance around the question anymore about going to war.

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“I was in the Keith-Albee Theater in Huntington. They stopped the movie and came out on the stage,” Gillette remembers. “They hadn’t had time to get it on the newsreel. The manager turned the lights on and walked on and made the announcement.”

Gillette had thought he was spending an afternoon at the movies with his best girl, the woman who would become his wife three years later. But that barbarous act of the Japanese that crippled the Pacific Fleet sent the then teen down a path where he would discover unimaginable atrocities. It was a path far from the Rome Township farm where Gillette, who proudly claims Joel Gillette, discover of the Rome apple, kin, grew up.

What historians now call the Second World War started in September 1939 when Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland pulling in declarations of war from England and France.

At that time the United States wasn’t directly involved, only through such efforts to the allies as Franklin Roosevelt’s lend-lease program of war material begun in March 1941.

“They hadn’t declared war on Germany yet,” Gillette said. “They were suspicious of the Japanese.”

Then Pearl Harbor. Then the chaotic morning when 2,403 servicemen died; 188 planes were destroyed and eight battleships damaged or destroyed.

The next day Roosevelt went before Congress asking to “declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”

Americans reeling from the news were asking the same questions.

“A lot of people were asking, ‘Where’s Pearl Harbor,’” Gillette said. “I really didn’t know much about it.”

However, three years later, Gillette knew far too much about war, combat and brutality. In 1944 he went into the Army, the 42nd Infantry Rainbow Division, the illustrious unit Gen. Douglas McArthur had organized during World War I.

“I went in combat in Europe and started in France,” Gillette said. “We fought all the way across France and Germany. I crossed the Rhine River on Easter Sunday and exactly a year later cross the Rhine River again. I was in combat all the time.”

Then on April 29, 1945, Gillette marched into history. That day a white flag went up in the watchtower of the infamous Dachau concentration camp. SS guard Heinrich Wicker went to the gates and watched the 42nd Infantry Rainbow Division troop inexorably inside.

Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp to open in Germany, on an old munitions plant site in Bavaria. That was 1933 and its efficiency at murder made it a prototype for other camps. More than 200,000 were shipped to Dachau. One-third of them were Jews; the rest political prisoners. At least 30,000 never left.

When Gillette arrived with the Rainbow Division, there were still emaciated prisoners struggling for breath.

“There were 6,000 prisoners in there starving,” he said. “It was horrible. You can’t imagine.”

Gillette stayed on in Germany for the next year assisting the Allied occupation.

“Everything was completely destroyed,” he said. “We were trying to restore order.”

Order did eventually prevail, but with a price as Germans saw occupiers — East, West, Free World, Communist — come and go.

Gillette talks about that year with a seemingly deliberate reticence. Like many who have seen combat, he offers few details. But for a single year, he was caught in that alien world, one that happened when the torpedoes crashed upon Pearl Harbor on a quiet Sunday in 1941.