Reflecting on the date of infamy
“Remember Pearl Harbor.”
That was both the rallying cry and the name of a popular song played over and over on the radio in the weeks and months after the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941.
But after 70 years, fewer among us remember what was one of the defining moments of the past century, and with the passing of the World War II generation, only those who were children during the war will be left to “remember Pearl Harbor, as we did the Alamo.”
So permit me, while I still can, to recall “the date which will live in infamy” as it happened in an 8-year-old’s limited world.
Like so many in the Depression years, my family lived near my grandparents and we always had Sunday dinner in the two-family home they owned a few houses up the street from our apartment.
There were usually other guests in addition to our four, and on Sunday, Dec. 7, my father’s cousin Fanny was there. She was a favorite because she worked for General Foods and would get us tickets to Kate Smith’s popular radio broadcasts sponsored by General Foods’ Calumet Baking Powder and Swans Down Cake Flour.
Sunday dinner was around 1 p.m. and was just over. My grandmother, mother and cousin Fanny were finishing up in the kitchen while the men and boys had moved to the living room to hear the Giants and Dodgers play football on WOR. The game didn’t interest me, but the excited voice of an announcer breaking in with a news bulletin did.
It was brief, little more than word that Pearl Harbor had been bombed by the empire of Japan. But the adults’ excited reaction prompted me to run to the kitchen to tell the ladies and to ask an important question:
“What’s Pearl Harbor?”
When I returned to the living room with a hazy idea that Pearl Harbor was where American ships were kept, the game was back on the radio. Years later, I learned that information on the attack remained sketchy throughout the day and most radio stations resumed regular programming. They didn’t yet know how to cover breaking news of great importance; that would come later. And they also needed the permission of the program’s sponsor to break in with news.
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The next morning, I couldn’t wait to share the news I apparently thought I’d learned exclusively with anyone who would listen — an early sign of my later vocational interests. As I walked the two blocks to school, I told everyone I saw that “The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor,” until one little girl looked at me scornfully and said, “We know.”
We third-graders had been exposed to the war in Europe before Pearl Harbor both at home and in school. An early clue was the change in the way we pledged allegiance to the flag every morning. In kindergarten and first grade, in 1938 and 1939, we began with our right hand over our heart, then shot it upwards when we got to “to the flag.” But around 1940 or thereabouts, we were told to keep our hands on our hearts. The teacher explained the old way looked too much like the Heil Hitler salute being used by those Nazis.
Months before Pearl Harbor, they had fingerprinted us without saying why and then began air raid drills at Robert Fulton Public School. Every few weeks, an alarm sounded and we were herded into the halls and lined up along the interior walls.
I don’t remember much about the drills except for a boy standing next to me one day and inquiring, “Who you for, the Russians or the Finns?”
“The Finns,” I replied, which was the right answer after the Soviet Union invaded little Finland.
And there was one more memory of another song about remembering, whose clarity, after so very long, surprises me. As I said, my family went to New York a few times to see the Kate Smith radio program in Rockefeller Center and at one of them — it must have been around the time France fell in the spring of 1940 — Ted Collins, Kate Smith’s announcer, introduced the program’s final song by saying, simply, “Listen, Paris.”
Then Kate Smith sang “The Last Time I Saw Paris” with the sorrow-tinged promise, “no matter how they change her, I’ll remember her that way.” My mother, who had never seen Paris, cried a little.
Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.