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About Utah: The world changed on Tom Gunn's 16th birthday

Published: Sunday, Dec. 5 2010 10:44 p.m. MST

For the first 15 years of his life, Tom Gunn's birthday raised no particular commotion, inside his family or out. The last of eight children born barely three weeks before Christmas in 1925 to Richfield sheep rancher Horace Gunn and his wife Minnie, his birthday was at best an afterthought.

But that all changed the day he turned 16.

"I remember someone came running up our driveway shouting 'Pearl Harbor has been attacked,'" says Tom. "The memory is so vivid in my mind, it's like it happened yesterday. It was a Sunday. It was all anyone could talk about at church."

For his 16th birthday, on Dec. 7, 1941, Tom Gunn got a changed world.

"Everything was different after that," he says. "That day changed our lives."

By his 17th birthday, he was a member of the Victory Corps at Richfield High School in central Utah, marching up and down Center Street in front of the school and doing calisthenics to get ready for battle.

By his 18th birthday, he was reporting to the draft board for induction into the armed forces.

"All the talk was about war, we all wanted to enlist," Tom says. "I think our teenagers were cheated in some respect, but talk about patriotism, that's where it was."

High school, he remembers, was full of shortages and restrictions. Tom played on the sports teams and went to the dances and parties, but they were mostly close to home.

"Because of gas rationing we didn't go far beyond the edge of Richfield," he says. "We couldn't get in much trouble."

He remembers "borrowing" gas out of his father's tractor to go to dances.

Tom's graduating class — the RHS Class of 1944 — didn't have a yearbook because of paper shortages. By that time, many of whom Tom calls "the top young men in our town" were already casualties of World War II.

He remembers their names to this day: Sammy Sorensen, Bob Dugan, Ned Knaphus, Garn Ence, Alden Fillmore, Ted Ogden — "and that's not all of them," he says, "they are the ones I personally remember."

Between classes and ball games, he recalls that he and his friends would sing the lyrics of the day's most popular song, "Attack on Pearl Harbor."

"Remember Pearl Harbor as you sight down the barrel of your gun

"Remember Pearl Harbor and the job that is yet to be done."

One of the saddest days of young Tom Gunn's life — and one of the happiest days of his mother's life — came next.

He failed his draft physical. He was near-sighted.

"My parents were happy that I would not be drafted. Two of my brothers were already in the Army," says Tom. "But I was very disappointed."

His luck changed six months later — when the draft board called again and said he was cleared for active duty.

"My eyesight was the same as ever," says Tom. "But the war was going strong on all fronts and they decided they needed more bodies, so they lowered the bar and brought me in."

He was officially inducted into the U.S. Army on Aug. 30, 1945.

Three days later, the war ended.

He was stationed at Fort Douglas and wound up spending his entire 14-month hitch in Salt Lake City as a clerk.

He was honorably discharged on Nov. 9, 1946 — less than a month before his 21st birthday.

He used a new soldiers' benefit called the G.I. Bill to pay for college, winding up with an economics degree from BYU in 1951. He went on to obtain a master's degree from Utah State (where he met his wife, Joan) and a doctorate from Cornell in agricultural economics.

After that he enjoyed a long career as a university professor, principally at Fresno State, before retirement.

About to turn 85, and some 69 years since the day that changed everything, Tom paused to recount all this history on the eve of yet another Pearl Harbor Day.

Also known as Tom Gunn's birthday.

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com

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