Despite being only 5 years old at the time, Paris resident Virginia Harp remembers when her father boarded a train from Texarkana and left for 18 months. He went to help rebuild Pearl Harbor following Japanese attacks Dec. 7, 1941.

Elmer Odell Thedford worked at Red River Army Depot. When Japan bombed the Harbor, he and his brother, Willy, joined the civilian corps that assisted with restoration efforts. As members of a non-military branch, the Thedfords worked as carpenters for an 18-month contract in Hawaii, reconstructing ships and the wreckage of Pearl Harbor.

Fearful of another attack, the men worked surrounded by telephone poles draped in camouflage nets, Harp remembered her father recounting. When they weren’t working, workers would toss lead pennies into the harbor for local children to dive in and retrieve.

“He was very, very patriotic,” Harp said. “He got fightin’ mad when the United States gave Panama away, and he said anytime we fought and our soldiers shed blood for property, we should keep that as United States property. He was very patriotic.”

Thedford wanted to help his country, but the offer of steady work was also a big draw, Harp said. The Pearl Harbor attack came during the Great Depression, when work — and money — was scarce.

“We’re farmers, we owned our own land and everything, so we weren’t poverty-stricken, but we had no money,” Harp said. “I think (the project) was being patriotic and a good place to earn some money.”

After his contract ended, Thedford joined the Navy Air Force, in which he served in Hawaii and the Philippines, Harper said. He was a tail gunner on a photographic squadron, where planes would fly low and photograph enemy territories in the Pacific.

Thedford served until the end of the war in 1945. After he was discharged, he participated in G.I. school and returned home as a farmer and an electrician. The school helped him learn new farming and agriculture techniques, Harp said.

An air of mystery still surrounds Thedford’s participation in the Pearl Harbor project. Harp said she’s never met anyone else who has civilian family members who traveled so far to help rebuild.

“Lots of people went. I’ve told this story to a lot of people over 80 years, but nobody’s ever heard of it,” she said.

Despite scarce details, Harp is proud of her father and his service to the U.S. If anyone has family members who also worked on the restoration of Pearl Harbor, she would like to know more.

Macon Atkinson is a staff writer for The Paris News. She can be reached at 903-785-6963 or

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