Mary Bommersbach was 18 years old and spending a quiet Sunday at her Minneapolis apartment when she heard the news bulletin on the radio: The U.S. Pacific fleet in Hawaii had been attacked. It was Dec. 7, 1941.
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The news hit home — she had a brother stationed at Pearl Harbor. Life would never be the same for the young woman from Oakes, North Dakota, or for the nation. Today, she's among the Green Valley residents old enough to remember the day, which President Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy.” He used the speech to declare war on Japan and, days later, Germany and Italy.
“The one thing Pearl Harbor did was unite the country like never before,” said Mary Bommersbach Hill, 96. “The country really came together." The initial mood of the country in those last few weeks of 1941? Hill recalls a lot of shock, sadness and anger. Most of the young men she knew rushed down to recruiting offices to sign up.
With a war to be won, it wasn’t long before most of Bommersbach’s family and friends also answered the call of duty, becoming part of America’s storied Greatest Generation. As Pearl Harbor Day approaches, Hill especially remembers her brother, Mike Bommersbach, then 23. He had joined the Navy in 1938, and was serving aboard the U.S.S. Jarvis, a destroyer docked in Pearl Harbor, when the surprise Sunday morning attack occurred.
“He saw the worst of it,” Hill said. In the chaos and confusion surrounding the attack, one news outlet reported that the Jarvis had disappeared, but it was putting up a fight along with the other vessels that hadn't been sunk or damaged by the Japanese.
Hill said that when Mike, a Machinist’s Mate First Class, arrived in Pearl Harbor a few days before the attack, he mailed a postcard to his family with a terse message: “Hot as hell here.” He didn’t realize how prescient those words would be as the U.S. would soon be plunged into World War II.
In the summer of 1942, the Jarvis was part of a large invasion force at Guadalcanal. As the ship headed to Australia for repairs on Aug. 9, 1942, it was attacked by Japanese planes and sunk. Mike Bommersbach died along with the entire crew of more than 200 men.
Nine of the 11 Bommersbach siblings would serve in some capacity during World War II or the Korean War. In 1943, Hill, the oldest daughter, joined the Women’s Army Corps. She was among the 350,000 American women who joined the military during World War II, according to the National World War II Museum. They worked as nurses, drove trucks, repaired airplanes and performed clerical work. Some died in combat or were captured as prisoners of war.
Hill’s daughter, Ronnie, said it was more than just patriotism that prompted her to join the WACs after the Marines and Navy turned her down for what they said was her poor eyesight.
“Her No.1 reason was to meet a lot of single guys,” Ronnie said, ribbing her mom, who simply nodded.
She remembers serving at Dibble General Hospital in Palo Alto, California.
"They were doing plastic surgery for the first wave of wounded soldiers from the Pacific operations," she said. The 2,300-bed hospital also provided blind care, neuropsychiatry and orthopedics for the troops.
While she initially trained as a medical technician, Sgt. Bommersbach would invariably end up in the typing pool during her stateside tours of duty. She met her husband, Henry Hill, while stationed in El Paso. He was calling bingo at the NCO Club when they first set eyes on each other. They married less than a month later.
When the war ended, her husband, an engineer, was assigned to Nagoya Air Base in Japan where he helped design and build the American Village. Mary, by then discharged from the WACs, followed on the first ship of American wives heading over after the surrender and found a job at the post exchange. American products, such as canned goods, captivated the Japanese, she recalled.
Hill chuckles at the memory of curious Japanese children who followed her at a distance because they had never seen a woman with blonde hair.
“What fascinated me was how they rebuilt so fast,” said Hill of the bombed-out cities and infrastructure.
During the U.S. occupation, the Hills employed and befriended several Japanese women. One was their housekeeper, Michiko Yamaguchi, who Mary stayed in touch with for years. They had several gardeners who would cut the lawn meticulously with scissors.
At her home, Hill has a small collection of snapshots, Pearl Harbor survivor memorabilia and yellowing newspaper clippings of family members. She smiles as her daughters chime in, prompting their mom to recollect some small detail of each brother’s life – as well as forgotten chapters of her own service.
“What’s important now is that we still remember,” Hill said softly, looking at photos of herself and her brothers proudly staring back in uniform.