HAWAII, 1941 — In the course of a person’s life, there occur events on which the course of history pivots, like the fulcrum of the lever of human experience.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese fighter planes descended upon the American Air and Naval bases at and around Pearl Harbor, killing and injuring over 3,500 American service men.
Emil Wroblicky, a former football coach at St. Monica’s, was walking out of a matinee showing of a Frank Sinatra film in Chicago when he heard what had happened.
“It occurred to me, ‘Where the hell is Pearl Harbor?’” Wroblicky said.
He would find out.
The military deferred Wroblicky’s service until he finished high school, but in 1942, he and several high school friends reported to the draft office and signed up for the Marine Corps.
Wroblicky completed boot camp in San Diego with the likes of Glen Ford and Tyrone Power in August 1942, and boarded a ship that zig zagged its way to Hawaii, trying to dodge Japanese submarines.
Nearly a year and a half after the attack, Wroblicky and the other marines docked at a Pearl Harbor still ravaged from the Japanese onslaught.
“It looked like devastation,” Wroblicky said. “I remember seeing the (USS) Arizona. It was an oil slick, very much devastated with the other ships.”
Before Pearl Harbor, Wroblicky didn’t know about the whispers of war that filled the American press, despite his position at the Chicago Tribune delivering papers for $4.32 a week.
The United States had refused to formally enter the conflict, contenting itself to antagonize the Germans by engaging in a lend-lease program to provide war machines to the British government and escorting British supply ships to Iceland.
“(Roosevelt) was pushing Germany to the limit because in June of 1941, the Nazi’s attacked Russia. He knew Hitler couldn’t open up a third front against the U.S.,” said Harvey Stromberg, a professor emeritus of history at Santa Monica College.
If the Germans attacked the escort ships, Roosevelt would have the excuse many historians believe he was looking for to join the Allied effort in Europe, but the Nazi’s would not oblige him, Stromberg said.
That entree would come at the hands of the Japanese, who were “infuriated” with the Americans for first telling them to end their four-year war in China and then cutting off their access to the Panama Canal.
The last straw came in 1941 when the United States implemented a full trade embargo against the country and froze Japanese assets.
“At that point, they decided to attack us,” Stromberg said.
The attack shocked the country. Roosevelt took to the national stage the next day and declared Dec. 7 “a day that will live in infamy.”
America entered the war.
Monday, Dec. 8, 1941, Stephen Dobrenchuck, now a resident of Pacific Palisades, was sitting in a dental chair while Roosevelt spoke, trying not to think about how much it would cost to get his teeth straightened ($300, then a small fortune).
His own membership in the military was a foregone conclusion. Dobrenchuck, then 18, had always planned to join the Army, and committed himself to a citizen’s military training camp for one year before he took a position with tank destroyers in Africa.
“We were very conscious that there was a war going on,” Dobrenchuck said of the pre-Pearl Harbor era. “People started calling up into the reserves. The National Guard called up people from every state in the United States.”
Dobrenchuck was driving with his parents and brother Gregory — who would leave the war a highly-decorated pilot — in a dark green 1929 Buick down a postal road from Hartford, Conn. to Boston when news of the attack came through on the radio they’d Jerry-rigged on the hood of the car.
“There was a sense of shock,” Dobrenchuck said.
That shock shifted to white hot anger.
The highly isolationist American population turned toward the war effort with vigor, spurred on by a fear that turned poisonous for the Japanese-Americans living and working in the country.
There was so much resistance to the war previously that the government had to act quickly to mobilize public opinion, Stromberg said.
“What Americans don’t know is how much fear there was,” he said. “It was promulgated by the government.”
According to the American Battle Monuments Commission, 405,399 American soldiers died in World War II. Historic resources differ on the total number of deaths, estimating between 50 and 70 million.
Wroblicky knows how close he was to joining that number.
Before the Enola Gay made its historic, horrific flight which ended the war with the dropping of the atomic bomb, he and his other marines were set to make a landing on Japanese soil on Nov. 1.
Officials predicted a 70 percent casualty rate, Wroblicky said.
Seventy years have passed since the United States joined World War II, and those few still alive to tell the tale have watched the countries involved change and cast off the roles they played in the most destructive war in history.
Wroblicky and his wife returned to Japan for the 50 year memorial of the war, they flew back on a Japanese airline.
“When I left it was nothing but mud and slush,” Wroblicky said. “When I came back, there were superhighways and people use Okinawa as a honeymoon.”