FARMINGTON — Shock and concern rattled local residents as radio broadcasts announced the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“Everything was so far away, but it affected so many things we cared about,” said Harry McDowell, formerly of Princeton and now a resident of Pinewood Terrace in Farmington. “Hardly anyone knew where Pearl Harbor was. Few had ever been there.”

McDowell, 98, and his wife, Ida Miller McDowell, formerly of Wilton, and twin daughters were enjoying a family dinner with his parents that Sunday when the announcement came over the radio, he said.

A junior in high school at the time, Betty Alexander Houle, 92, of Jay was traveling with friends to Rangeley during a bad snowstorm when it came over the radio. It was shocking, she said.

Life changed as Americans were thrown into war and realized they were vulnerable to attack.

According to the Franklin Journal on Dec. 12, 1941, Franklin County air observers were ordered on alert by New York headquarters.  

McDowell served as an air raid warden, an official in charge of lining up people to watch and record planes coming into Bangor from the east, he said. Princeton, in Washington County, set up a 24-hour watch on a hill.

“They were afraid of invasions by air,” he said. “They wanted us to identify the planes if we could.”

Houle, who grew up in Farmington, also learned to spot planes and was one of several residents who watched them from the top of the Community Center, she said. People became even more involved after German submarines were spotted in Portland Harbor, she said.

“Back then, you didn’t think they could ever find you,” she said. “But they can find a way. It is like our concerns about terrorists today.”

The Franklin Journal in the Dec. 19, 1941, issue reported Farmington’s first Spy Scare when an employee in a local electrical store called Sheriff Earl Hawkens to report “a (Japanese man) had tried to purchase copper wire,” according to the story.  

“Now, to begin with, a (Japanese man) in Farmington is something novel, and a (Japanese man) trying to buy copper wire in Farmington is still more so,” according to the article.

The sheriff located the man on a ladder fixing an electrical sign for another store.

“Tactfully, the sheriff inquired if he originated in Japan. Testily, the (Asian) individual told the officer that he was a cheerful (Chinese man) from Waterville who fixed electrical signs,” the story stated.

In that same issue, just a couple of weeks after war declarations, a large advertisement from Morton Motor Co., then in downtown Farmington, encouraged readers to take part in national defense, either by serving the country in the military, working in defense-involved production or by buying defense savings bonds and stamps.

“We are cooperating with the government and can sell no tires or tubes until after Dec. 22,” the advertisement read. Rules from the government were expected after that date. “Be careful with tires so all the rubber possible can be used for defense purposes. Keep ’em flying.”

Garage and car sales owner Lloyd B. Morton chaired the Sales of Defense Bonds and Stamp Committee for Franklin County. By Dec. 30 of that same month, the paper reported nearly half a million dollars raised from sales in Farmington and Wilton. The county’s largest manufacturers were solicited. Some set up employee purchase of bonds by payroll deduction.

People were soon asked to conserve in other areas.

“It was difficult to get the food we should have sold,” McDowell said, referring to the IGA food store he owned with his father.  

McDowell served on the rationing committee in Princeton. Meat, coffee, sugar and gas sales were all regulated by coupon books, which contained stamps for the items, he said.

His father went on to work in the shipyards in Portland, leaving Harry to cover the store. McDowell received deferrals from the draft as the father of three children under the age of 5 and a store owner until 1944 when his number came up, he said. 

“Men were scarce after the draft,” he said.

Meetings were set up for discussions of “precautionary measures and ways to assist in defense,” according to a Dec. 23, 1941, paper. Over 200 attended Jay’s civil defense meeting where they were told not to do anything about blackouts or air raid precaution work until instructed by state authorities, according to the paper.

Farmington residents were encouraged to take more interest in civil defense in a front page story in the Dec. 26, 1941, issue of the Franklin Journal.

“To be sure, the war is being fought a long ways from Farmington but with modern methods of aerial warfare, bombs could be dropped on rooftops of the ‘cleanest and best town in New England’ by the Axis powers. “No one is safe today,” the article stated.

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75th anniversary Pearl Harbor Service 

  • When: Noon Wednesday, Dec. 7
  • Where: Center Bridge, Farmington

Coverage: Handful of Pearl Harbor survivors still alive in Maine  Jay man recalls visit to Pearl Harbor  | Machias Pearl Harbor survivor returns for 75th anniversary  | How The Associated Press reported the Pearl Harbor attack | Pearl Harbor united Americans like no other event in our history


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