It has been seventy years since the “Day of Infamy” – December 7, 1941. On that day, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, propelling the United States fully into World War II. For an entire generation of Americans, the world changed forever.
Today, later generations may wonder how it felt to experience firsthand such a pivotal moment of history. Twenty years ago, Michigan History Magazine provided some insight. The Magazine’s November/December 1991 issue contains reminisces on that fateful day.
The reminiscences include eye witness accounts of the attack. Frank Peter Stock of Hamtramck recalls several Japanese planes passing him overhead. “The rear machine gun of each plane sprayed us with bullets,” he writes. “They were so close that you could almost count the stitches in the pilots’ helmets… My first thoughts were that this was a drill, and we should act accordingly. But I had never seen planes come in from this direction before.”
Ted Blahnik of Coloma also experienced the attack firsthand. He had been aboard the ship Helena. “We thought we were hearing bees,” he remembered. “Later on, when we cleaned up our gunmount area, we discovered it was actually bullets that we heard.” He also recalled post-attack conditions: “One of the most heartrending things that I witnessed was after the water was out of the Helena. The fellows went into the dry dock area, up to the gaping hole that the torpedo made, and took the bodies out from the area in which the torpedo hit.”
Americans on the home front also held vivid memories of December 7, 1941. Many recalled hearing radio news casts. Forest B. Meek of Clare remembered The Shadow radio program being interrupted. “What kid in the eighth grade knew where Pearl Harbor was?,” he asked. “I sure didn’t, and this interruption was an invasion into my private world of good versus evil.” Mary Anderson of West Branch recalled hearing the news on a car radio. Christine Stevinson of Royal Oak remembered being at a party. “The radio was on,” she said, “but there was so much laughing and talking no one heard the news for awhile. But suddenly, someone caught a bit of the broadcast and complete silence reigned.” Others stated that they heard the news from someone else and then quickly turned on the radio. As December 7, 1941 was a Sunday, a few people reported hearing the news in church.
Elizabeth Anesi of Portland stated that “My roommate and I had the same reaction: we didn’t really believe it. My roommate said, ‘The only thing I remember hearing about the last war was the shortage of sugar,’ so she went into the kitchen and made a batch of fudge.”
Disbelief is, in fact, a common theme in the recollections. Other reactions are noted as well. Margaret Greene of Marshall stated that, “Our first reaction was disbelief, then outrage.” Virginia Weaver of Lansing remembered some fear. “Everyone in the house feared the future,” she said. “None of us slept well that night.”
One thing is certain: The Pearl Harbor attack changed America and the world. As Duane T. Brigstock of Battle Creek wrote, “For many of us, our lives changed forever, creating such a division in our life that we still speak of ‘before the war’ and ‘after the war.’”