Sam Redman: UC Berkeley on December 7, 1941

Editor’s Note: This blog entry is the first in a series from the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO). ROHO houses thousands of oral history interviews conducted since 1954. Some of those interviews, including many with Berkeley students, faculty, and staff recall the events of 70 years ago today – the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

UC Berkeley on December 7, 1941

In a series of recent oral histories with UC Berkeley alumni, the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) has recorded the recollections of individuals who were students at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor – December 7, 1941. Many of them teenagers late in 1941, they are now approaching ninety years of age. These oral histories shed light on what UC Berkeley was like before the United States officially entered World War II, and provide insight as to how students, faculty, and staff reacted to the news of the event.

For countless university students — in Berkeley and around the country — the events of that day would prove to be a major turning point. While a handful of students behaved erratically or irrationally upon hearing the news, the majority of students quietly realized that the event would soon alter their existing plans and goals. Understandably, as many students worried about their own futures, most were also anxious about the safety of their families. Some worried about their friends of Japanese ancestry. Other students would remain on campus to continue their studies, and numerous faculty members carried on teaching. For other faculty and graduate students, however, the news of the attack would provoke a series of difficult choices – many joined the armed services, found jobs in the rapidly expanding defense industry, or contributed to the war effort through research for government agencies. As the events at Pearl Harbor led many to weigh choices and voluntarily leave campus, numerous students of Japanese ancestry were soon given no choice but to leave campus.

Through the lens of oral history, we can explore the place of Pearl Harbor in the collective memory of the University of California, Berkeley. This story represents but one component of our larger efforts to record and interpret the history of the WWII homefront through oral interviews. Other collections, including our numerous oral histories with faculty, staff, and administrators, speak to the significance of that date in the history of the campus.

December 1941

By many accounts, December of 1941 was shaping up to be a terrific month in Berkeley. The weather was outstanding. Many of our narrators recall the weekend as sunny and even unseasonably warm. Instead of spending time outside, however, most Cal students were busy cramming for final exams. Despite having final exams the following day, some students were taking a mental break visiting family or friends. Others were at home or in their dorm rooms studying.

Natalie Salsig, one of our narrators, recalled in a recent interview “having to study for finals in a closet with the door closed.” After Pearl Harbor, students who wanted to continue studying in the evening were forced to confront both the distractions of global events and the immediate blackouts organized along the entire coast. Salsig recalls studying for finals in the closet, a small light illuminating her books, so as not to signal to the enemy where the cities began and the Pacific Ocean ended. “It was a scary time,” Salsig remembers. Fear of an actual attack was sporadic and uneven, but uncertainty was seemingly universal.

Jack Rosston was living in a co-op in December of 1941. Usually a punctual student, he had let a paper assignment sit until the last moment – staying up late the night of December 6 in order to finish the assignment. In the early hours of the morning, he woke up to screaming. He recalls the reactions of the students on campus, explaining that a couple of students were so angered by the attack, that they were threatening to bomb the Japanese Student Association. Jack recalls the pockets of anger and threats of violence, “It horrified me at that time, and most of the kids were horrified at that.”

Nearby in Oakland, another young woman had more immediate concerns about her upcoming senior ball than world events. In 1942, Margaret Walton would enroll as a freshman at UC Berkeley, earning money during summers working in the shipyards. Months before she enrolled at Cal, she recalls sitting in her bedroom the morning of December 7, “I was still in my bedroom reading and listening to the radio because I had fallen and spilt my lip, and I was feeling very sorry for myself because my senior ball was coming up Friday night, and I had this mashed up face . . . I had the radio on and I got the news, and I ran out and told my folks.” Her family spent the rest of the day, like many Americans, glued to the radio. “It was a real shock,” Walton explained. She adds, “Well, right away you got the news that the coastline could be attacked at any minute . . . my dad had already built black out curtains to put up in the windows.” Her family spent the evening huddled into the one room of their house that would not let any light escape to the outside world – eagerly awaiting updates over the airwaves. Walton’s classmates who enrolled at UC Berkeley during the war years were asked to complete an accelerated degree program – as the war had depleted the number of available faculty and staff. Today, Walton and the classes that followed, students who shared the same unique circumstances on campus, are known as the War Alumni Classes. Members of the War Alumni Classes not only shared classes; they became bound by common experiences with rationing, blackouts, and air raid drills. Almost all of these students had at least one close friend or family member in the service.

In the Classroom

The effect on the Berkeley campus that followed Pearl Harbor was both immediate and palpable. Harry Wellman, who years later became Acting President of the University of California following the dismissal Clark Kerr in 1967, recounted that life changed quickly on the campus in the months that followed the attack. In an oral history recorded in the 1970s, he described his recollections of Pearl Harbor as a member of the Berkeley faculty. A specialist in agricultural economics, Wellman recounted that he was briefly assigned to administer the enrollment of students with the department: “I had the responsibility for insuring that classes desired by students would be given. That was not difficult. Student enrollment dropped sharply after 1941-42 and continued downward until the end of the war. In 1944-45 there were only a few undergraduate students in agricultural economics and almost no graduate students.” Indeed, so many of the students had either enlisted, or left school to assume a job in the defense industry that the department had an excess of faculty for teaching needs. Classes pertinent to the war effort, in engineering, science, and foreign languages – witnessed temporary surges in enrollment from enlisted servicemen assigned to the campus, but enrollment in many other departments declined during the war.

Other Berkeley faculty took a prominent role in the war. The most notable of these efforts included Robert J. Oppenheimer, a Berkeley physicist, who served as the scientific director for the Manhattan Project. Working engineers and physicists, his efforts led to the creation of the first atomic bomb. Numerous other Berkeley faculty and alumni worked in all types of war agencies, but their presence was felt especially within the top-secret networks of atomic weapon research at Los Alamos, New Mexico and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Turning Points

Activity on the Berkley campus following the initial shock of Pearl Harbor, however, was not always so eerily quiet and isolated. Even as Wellman reported dwindling enrollments in his classes, for example, he was occasionally flying to Washington to advise the government on rationing, taxes, and commodity price fixing. Others affiliated with the campus were working on research that would have an even more far-reaching influence on the modern world.

Pearl Harbor, of course, was also an important turning point for millions outside of university settings. Denise Fleig, a Berkeley resident who was returning home from work when she learned of the attack, recalls the sense of confusion at the moment she received the news. In her oral history, she describes her sense of unease, “Everybody’ll have to be drafted, now. Everybody. Oh, I wonder what that’ll mean . . . Sure going to change everything. Sure will . . . Everything’s going to change. Everything.” In her oral history, Fleig notes that, before Pearl Harbor, California seemed to be on the edge of American life – with New York and Washington as the primary focus of the nation. The attack on Pearl Harbor, however, seemed to momentarily shift national attention westward – forcing people in California to prepare for a possible attack from the Pacific.

A growing military presence in the Bay Area, coupled with a rapidly expanding wartime defense industry, brought thousands to the region. The arriving labor force, and their families, reshaped the character of the Bay Area by introducing new religions, ethnicities, and social norms. Thousands of women soon joined the labor force in the Bay Area, many taking up work at the shipyards, coming to be known as “Rosie the Riveters.” These changes not only impacted the students, faculty, and staff of the University of California, Berkeley – they were felt by everyone in the region.


Experts who study the creation of our long-term memories are generally in agreement that powerful experiences, such as those experienced in December of 1941, are either lodged into our memory or quickly rejected and forgotten. Memories surrounding important events are naturally and frequently recounted orally, thus reinforcing the recollection of meaningful events. A project such as the one undertaken by ROHO allows these recollections to be archived and preserved for a larger audience. Certainly, oral histories—like all sources—contain inaccuracies and inconsistencies. Human memory is, of course, fallible. Archival records, however, frequently confirm the narratives of those who are interviewed, and collecting from various sources allows the historian to mine the lived experiences of a more diverse array of historical actors. Often, the subtleties of emotion – the shock, fear, anger, and anxiety surrounding tragic events like the bombing of Pearl Harbor — are either lost altogether, or dramatically embellished in the newspaper accounts that have buttressed more traditional histories. By opening a forum for these emotional recollections to be presented, ROHO is helping to expand the historical memory.

Note: The oral history interviews quoted in this blog entry are currently in production. Transcripts of the interviews will soon be available alongside other WWII homefront oral histories here.

Read the complete transcript of the Harry Wellman oral history, conducted by ROHO in 1976.

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