“The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son, Russell M. Penny, was killed in action in defense of his country at Hickham Field, Territory of Hawaii, December Seventh. No remains can be transported to the United States until after termination of hostilities.”
So reads the telegram sent to the Mattituck home of Anna and Clifford Penny on Dec. 10, 1941. Three days earlier, their 20-year-old son became the first Suffolk County casualty in World War II. He was one of 2,403 Americans killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Over the years, Pvt. Penny has been remembered in various ways, most recently on Memorial Day weekend 2011, when the Mattituck Park District building at Veterans Park was named to honor him and Peter Krupski, who died 18 months later from wounds suffered at Guadalcanal.
In 2016, at a reader’s recommendation, we thought it appropriate to recognize the 75th anniversary of Mr. Penny’s death. Of course, most of what’s been written about the man relates to his military service and untimely passing, though it was noted in his Suffolk Times obituary that he performed in plays — and, in a sign of the times, minstrel shows — in high school.
Known as “Russ,” the 1939 Mattituck High School graduate enlisted in the Army in January 1940, serving in the Air Corps.
His enlistment was inspired by the “nation’s call to service following the advances of the Nazi Third Reich through Europe,” according to remarks made on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives by former Congressman Tim Bishop in June 2011.
A glance at The Suffolk Times archives from those years shows just how heavily the looming war weighed on the consciousness of North Fork residents.
The issue covering Pvt. Penny’s death carried seven war-related stories on the front page alone, including the main story above the fold, headlined “We Are Now at War!” (Word of Pvt. Penny’s death was received the day the paper went to the printer, but it was still acknowledged in a pair of sentences at the bottom of the front page under the headline “Mattituck boy first casualty in Southold Town.”)
As you might imagine, the first few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor were filled with worry across the North Fork and the Dec. 11, 1941, issue of The Suffolk Times offers a fascinating look into residents’ psyches.
Among the primary concerns here was the Greenport School’s proximity to the municipal power plant, the building seen as the most likely target of a wartime attack on the North Fork.
On both Dec. 9 and 10, air raid alarms sounded across the county, causing confusion among the residents. The paper noted that the alarms meant only first responders and medical personnel should be outside.
“Stay away from windows,” we wrote. “Turn on your radios.”
Those first two alarms led to early dismissal at schools across Suffolk County.
In Greenport Village, the street commissioner announced plans to drop bags of sand around the community and residents were encouraged to bring them home in order to douse fires following a potential bombing.
The need to pass along more regional wartime information — such as a note seeking volunteer aircraft spotters along the coastlines — caused Pvt. Penny’s death to be overlooked a bit by his hometown newspaper. A subsequent issue contained merely a brief obituary and coverage of his funeral at Mattituck Presbyterian Church was relegated to a few paragraphs on page four of the Christmas Day issue.
“The thought that the American and Christian way of life are worth dying for was the theme of the address by Rev. Dr. Percy E. Redford, the pastor,” we wrote, adding that the church was filled to capacity. Pvt. Penny’s repatriated remains were transported to New Bethany Cemetery after the war.
Letters the young soldier sent home to his parents provided a glimpse into his nearly two years of military service.
In a letter from June 1941, he suggested he might not live long enough to advance in the military, writing that “things look black around here. I am still having a good time as a private and it don’t look like I’ll ever be anything more than that.”
In an earlier letter, he’d written about two men being “shipped back in nut cages, a third attempted suicide and others have tried other methods of forgetting it all, such as getting and staying drunk.”
Pvt. Penny was hoping for a furlough to get home and see his cousin’s daughter, who had been born while he was stationed at Pearl Harbor, according to a November 2010 article by Suffolk Times reporter Julie Lane.
Of course, the furlough never came and Pvt. Penny lost his life on the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared “will live in infamy.”
All these decades later, the president’s words have not lost their meaning, nor has the sacrifice of Pvt. Penny and the more than 400,000 Americans who lost their lives in the four years that followed.
A version of this story was originally published Dec. 7, 2016 on the 75th anniversary of the attack.