Pearl Harbor Day, 1941: A Bronx Family Dinner Interrupted by Attack

The phone rang; two years later I was in battle

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    NEWSLETTERS

    The wreckage-strewn Naval Air Station at Pearl Harbor following the Japanese attack.

    It was a Sunday afternoon in the Bronx 69 years ago. My mother and father and my kid brother, Paul, were seated at the dining room table having dinner. The phone rang

    My beat friend, Stanley, was on the line. He exclaimed, "Are you listening to the radio, boy? The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor. You better get a uniform!"

    I turned on the old Bausch and Lomb radio in the large brown cabinet in the living room. On NBC, H.V. Kaltenborn, in his clipped, dramatic cadence, was summarizing the known facts at that hour, about 3:30 p.m. EST. There had been an attack. At first details were scarce.

    That's what I remember. I was 17. My friend, Stan, was also 17. Little did we imagine that, a little more than two years later, we would both be going into battle. He would be in the Air Force, in England flying bombing missions over Europe. I would be a naval officer on a ship in the Pacific. 

    New York was as excited as we were. The following day, Monday, December 8, the recruiting office down on Church Street was overwhelmed with men trying to enlist. The FBI sent out guards to protect the reservoirs, Kensico and Croton, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the battleships Iowa and Missouri were under construction. About 6,000 people signed up to be air raid wardens and in Times Square, crowds watched bulletins anxiously.

    Fiorella LaGuardia, the flamboyant mayor of New York, said, "It has come and we are ready. I want to assure all the people who have been sneering and jeering at the necessary precautions of civilian defense that we will protect them now."

    The memories come flooding back – the almost feverish activity down at New York University, where I was a student. Before the attack, there had been angry debates between students who wanted to help Britain and the allies and those who wanted to stay neutral.

    The leftist American Student Union was among those who wanted to stay neutral – until Soviet Russia was attacked and they changed their tune. They campaigned to "open a second front now." After Pearl Harbor, the tumultuous political landscape at NYU quieted down. We were all concentrated on winning the war and many of the upper classmen enlisted immediately.

    Most vividly I remember Roosevelt's speech to a join session of Congress on December 8, 1941. The whole world was listening, including the Pressman family, the students at NYU and all the people of the Bronx.

    "Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a day 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.

    The words resonated throughout New York and all America. The country was united as never before in my lifetime. Millions of young men and women and the whole nation were ready to follow a president we revered. And, in a multitude of war songs, we expressed our patriotic devotion.

    One song, which by today's standards sounds politically incorrect, began with the words, "You're a sap, Mr. Jap, to make a Yankee cranky. You're a sap, Mr. Jap, Uncle Sam is gonna spank ye …"

    December 7, 1941. For those of us old enough to remember it was a day we never forget.