State office records Ohioans’ memories of Pearl Harbor, the attack that sparked patriotism


Virginia Spanfellner was a 17-year-old physicial therapy student in Massachusetts when she learned the Japanese had bombed the U.S. Naval fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Mrs. Spanfellner of Gibsonburg, Ohio, is quick to recall how the country changed 71 years ago today.

“I can remember like it was yesterday,” said the 88-year-old U.S. Navy veteran, who was spending the weekend at a vacation hotel in New Hampshire owned by her family. “I remember the whole thing.”

Mrs. Spanfellner, then Virginia Burbine, enlisted three years later in the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). It was a decision that she made without hesitation, never regretted, and that produced a lifetime of cherished memories.

“We felt it was our duty. We had a job to do and we did it. You can’t imagine the patriotism that was going on at that time. We were so gung-ho,” she said. “It turned my life around. Before I was just a kid. We grew up during that war. It changed all of our lives. When we came out we were adults. All we wanted to do was get married, settle down, and have a family.”

The personal accounts of Mrs. Spanfellner and nearly 285 others who lived through Pearl Harbor and World War II have been collected for the Ohio Department of Aging project called the War Era Story Project.

The stories are a follow-up to the Department of Aging’s Great Depression Story Project in 2009, when more than 300 senior citizens submitted their stories about living in the 1930s.

In her contribution, Mrs. Spanfellner wrote about how she met her future husband, Harold Spanfellner, while working at a Naval Hospital in Newport, R.I., and, despite the Navy sending her to a Naval hospital in Corona, Calif., because it frowned upon dating among cadets, the couple continued their long-distance relationship, and were married in June, 1946, the month after she was discharged. At the hospital in California, she treated wounded soldiers who returned from battles in the Pacific Theater. She was awarded the American Area Campaign and Victory medals.

After the war, the couple moved to Mr. Spanfellner’s hometown of Gibsonburg in Sandusky County, raised a family, and later lived in Arizona and Florida. He died in 1993, and she eventually returned to Gibsonburg to be near her son and daughter, seven grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

The Department of Aging and the Ohio Department of Veterans Services collected the stories after soliciting submissions from senior centers, veterans’ groups, and other agencies that work with older adults and veterans and posting it on Facebook. The Department of Aging began sharing the stories with the public on Veterans Day. Excerpts were posted on the department’s Web site and full stories were featured in the agency’s email newsletter. A second batch of stories were released in conjunction with the anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

John Ratliff, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Aging, said the stories from the men and women who lived in the 1940s show how people came together as communities and how the war changed their lives.

Former Tiffin resident George Forrest, then 14 and living on his parents’ Paulding County farm, recalled in his story that he didn’t have a clue where Pearl Harbor was when a neighbor boy rode his bicycle into the barnyard and told him of the attack.

“I asked ‘Where is Pearl Harbor’ ”? he wrote.

Over the next 3 1/2 years, Mr. Forrest said he saw his two elder brothers go off to fight in the war while he spent his time at home helping on the family farm, working in factories, and going to school.

In his account, he told of his mother’s concerns that his eldest brother, Bob Forrest, would be immediately drafted, which did happen. He served in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. His other brother, Clair, who was at college when the war broke out, went into the Army in the summer of 1942, and participated in the invasion of Normandy.

Mr. Forrest, 85, recalled in his personal account of his mother anxiously waiting for the letters that his brothers wrote to arrive home, and the time that the letter carrier knocked on the door during a blizzard in 1944 to deliver six weeks of correspondence from Bob Forrest.

Mr. Forrest said, although he was aware at the time about the terrible tragedies and casualties in Europe, he and his family held positive thoughts for his brothers’ safety.

“I always felt that they would return,” he said.

After the war, Mr. Forrest enlisted for three years in the Army Air Corps. He later attended Bowling Green State University and earned his law degree from Ohio Northern University in Ada. He moved to Tiffin to practice law in 1954, and eventually ended up as judge in Tiffin Municipal Court and later in the probate and juvenile divisions of Seneca County Common Pleas Court. He and his wife, Sue, moved to Belen, N.M., in 2002.

Mike McKinney, a spokesman for the state Department of Veterans Services, said an estimated 100,000 of the more than 867,000 veterans in Ohio in 2012 are World War II veterans. The agency doesn't know the number of living veterans in the state who fought at Pearl Harbor.

Mr. McKinney said the generation of Americans from the 1940s, through their personal tales of sacrifice, can teach us many things about thriving during adversity.

“I think there is a lot to be learned when you read about the experiences of those who lived through that time,” he said. “You had a whole country coming together to win this war, whether they were here on the homefront or the 16 million people who served.”

Contact Mark Reiter at: or 419-724-6199.