For my generation, it was where we were when Kennedy was shot. For later generations, it would be where they were when the Challenger exploded or on 911. But for those of my parents’ generation, their defining day was December 7th, 1941. This post contains two stories of where people were at on that day, as Roosevelt defined, that lives in infamy.
A few years ago I was visiting with my aunt, my mom’s oldest sister, trying to gleam as much information as I could about my mother’s early life. Unlike a lot of people with Alzheimer’s, my mother never talked much about her childhood and I was curious. I asked Betty Ann about the attack on Pearl Harbor and how the family heard about it. Betty Ann said she, along with my mother and their other sister, were cutting through the woods and fields to Beulah Hill Missionary Baptist, where the family worshipped. As they passed a neighbor’s house, the neighbors yelled for them to come and listen to the news on the radio. This was an area that didn’t have electricity until after the war, so I assume the radio was battery powered. I remember my father’s father telling me about them having two batteries for their truck. One was in the truck charging while the other was used to run the radio. I asked Betty Ann if they were going to an evening service, but she insisted it was the morning. I didn’t press the issue even though I knew it had to be later in the day as this was on the east coast and the attacks occurred in Hawaii in the morning (which would have been the afternoon in North Carolina). So either they were going to an evening service or coming home from a long-winded morning service.
My grandfather had spent most of that fall in High Point, taking a welding class. The family had been waiting for the Christmas break from school to move to Wilmington, where my granddad had lined up a job building Liberty ships at the new shipyard. The day before Pearl Harbor, on December 6, the shipyard launched its first ship, the Zebulon B. Vance, named for a former governor of the state. A few weeks later, my granddaddy and his family joined thousands of other families from farms around the state in a migration to Wilmington where they lived during the war.
John was a man I knew when I lived in Utah and I was proud to call him a friend. In the late 1930s, he worked for the CCC, and then he joined the Navy. In the early morning hours of December 7, he along with host of other sailors and soldiers, were feeling pretty good in a dark Gin Mill in Manila, in the Philippines. “All of sudden,” he said, “the lights were turned up and MPs and SPs were there with their nightsticks drawn, kicking and cussing and knocking us with the sticks, ordering us back to our duty stations.” The news of Pearl Harbor had just arrived and all American bases were on high alert. “It was a hell-of-a-way to begin a war,” John later recalled.
John was assigned to a submarine tender that had a problem with its shaft and was being refitted. As his ship could only make a few knots an hour, it was decided that they would not try to run the blockade. Instead, the ship became a machine shop for the Army fighting in the Philippines. Once the ship was out of supplies and could no longer provide support, it was taken out into the harbor and sunk, in an attempt to keep the Japanese from entering Manila Bay. The sailors then dyed their navy uniforms to make them camouflaged. A Marine was assigned to three sailors and they became foot soldiers. Being Navy, they were evacuated from Bataan before the surrender and fought a few more months from Corregidor, where they surrendered after running out of ammunition. John spent three and a half years as a POW working as a slave in a coal mine in Japan. Until his death, ten years ago, he still had nightmares of the horror he endured.