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Volume 15, Issue 49 ~ December 6 - December 12, 2007

This Day in History

December 7, 1941

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

–Franklin Delano Roosevelt War message to Congress: Dec. 8, 1941

It was late morning when FDR spoke those words, and they weren’t news to Americans who had been glued to their radios since the Sunday afternoon before when word first reached the continental U.S. of the attack at Pearl Harbor. Initial reaction was shock, utter shock. It couldn’t be.

But it was.

World news was covered much differently in the pre-television days of 66 years ago. The citizenry had heard of rumblings from Japan, but little more. Why, they wouldn’t dare attack us: a little far-off country already involved in a war with China, and we, the strongest nation in the world.

Moreover, we were busy monitoring the fighting in Europe, rooting for underdogs Winston Churchill and Great Britain; pretty much all of the remainder of that continent had already been conquered. If the Royal Air Force couldn’t hold out, many Americans feared we would be next. Hitler was a mad man who wouldn’t stop until he ruled the world.

Our country was in a quagmire; controversy everywhere: Should we try to appease Adolph Hitler or do all we could to defeat the Axis powers?

It had been more than five years since Hitler started picking countries off one by one, made the big move into Poland, then swept through France, Belgium and other countries. The news everywhere was bad. Or worse.

We were worried, we were tired of hearing and reading of war, we were already making sacrifices to aid allied forces, yet Germany and its blitzkriegs grabbed more and more. For a while it appeared even Russia would fall. The only news we heard of from the Pacific was Japan’s slaughters in China, things like the Rape of Nanking.

We hadn’t fired a shot, but already we were war weary. All we heard on the radio was war: Edward R. Murrow, Gabriel Heater, Elmer Davis broadcasting bad news and speculating about worse to come. We were mired in war news: ships sunk, cities blown apart by bombs, citizens of occupied countries robbed, imprisoned, forced to work in Nazi war factories, murdered. Practically the only good news we got was an occasional piece about a successful British commando raid, or gaining a mile or two against Hitler’s field marshal Rommel, the Desert Fox, in North Africa — only to lose it.

Building our defenses, tanks, warships and aircraft and sending aid to Britain had brought an end to the Great Depression. Everyone was working, defense bonds were selling — but ever present was the heavy shadow of war. Our young men were being drafted and there weren’t enough rifles to arm them; some trained with brooms. With the world in turmoil, we no longer seemed apart from the rest of the globe. It was like waiting to see what would happen next.

That, dear readers, is what things were like across this land on the Sunday of Dec. 7, 1941.


I remember it well. Confined to bed with strep throat, I was rehearsing my lines for my high school play, in which I was to be Scrooge, while listening to a New York Giants football game. I almost missed the first news flash. It was short and confusing, just words of an attack at Pearl Harbor. Like most Americans, I didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was.

A few minutes later, another bulletin came, then another, each telling of more death and destruction in Hawaii. The football game was history. Late that night we learned our Pacific fleet was a shambles; accounts continually changed on the death toll. There were all kinds of reports on Japanese activity on the mainland; no one knew what to believe. There had been no build-up as with Viet Nam and Iraq, no warning but Japanese aircraft out of nowhere bombing Pearl Harbor and nearby Hickam Field.

Radios played late that night, some all night; in cities, police were dispatched to guard reservoirs and defense plants and patrol beaches on the West and East coasts. No one knew where, when, how and if another attack was coming closer to home.

The next morning, there were lines a block or more long outside recruiting stations. Three days later, I was among them, but turned down until I was 17. Adversity brought resolve; most everyone wanted to fight now, not wait to be drafted. Defense plants were being readied to work ’round the clock. Air raid wardens were signing up; one of their jobs in coastal cities was to see that shades of all homes and businesses were drawn so no light ashore would silhouette our ships for submarines to target.

Quickly, it was ordered the top half of vehicle lights be painted black for the same reason. Gas rationing cut most drivers to three gallons a week. It was meager rations for butter, sugar, meat, cheese, even shoes: two pair a year.

Cars whose mufflers showed evidence of poor gas mileage were ordered off the road. If you had bad tires, you were out of luck; only those in strategic jobs were allowed to buy them.

Defense workers were required to work six or seven days a week; they were making good money — with no place or time to spend it. So they bought war bonds to help bring the boys home sooner.

All of this in the first few months of the war.

The Long Haul

That first Christmas, 18 days after Pearl Harbor, was a dreary affair; more than a few had to work. About all production and all workers were diverted to war supplies. Families with blue stars in their windows nervously watched the driveway: a visit from Western Union probably meant news of wounded, missing, captured or dead relatives. Every day for them would be hell.

It would be four years, two atomic bombs and hundreds of thousands killed or maimed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki before the enemy officially surrendered aboard the USS Missouri. For more than half that time there was no assurance we would win. But we had resolve, better leaders and the best fighting men. And we won.

I write of all this more as a history lesson for those who don’t get much on World War II in their schools. The ranks of their grandparents and great-grandparents — who served either in the military or on the home front — are thinning by more than several thousand a day. Soon there will be none of us.

Methinks, the better we know of war, its consequences, the endurance and resolve of the citizenry, as well as preparedness, the better we can face another troubled world.

Enough said.

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