It’s an early December Sunday, the first Sunday of the month, in fact. “Chattanooga Choo Choo” is the number one song on Billboard’s National Best Selling Retail Records chart, despite the fact that it is the “B” side to “I Know Why and So Do You.” Maybe you have your radio tuned in to one of the three final National Football League games of the 1941 season. The Eagles are in Washington taking on the Redskins, the Bears are playing their cross-town rivals, the Chicago Cardinals, while the New York Giants play the Brooklyn Dodgers. Imagine being immersed in the play-by-play of this last game when it is suddenly interrupted at 2:26 p.m. This is what it sounded like. And just like that, everyone’s life changed, seventy-six years ago this afternoon.
The Japanese attack is one that still galls many. The heroics of those on the ground still inspires, but for me, how the story was received in that first stunning moment by average Americans going about their daily business is the most fascinating story of all. It is the focal point of The Secret of Their Midnight Tears. We know what is about to happen to the characters in the story, but they don’t. The following is a passage from Chapter 5, “December 7, 1941”:
Half the town was in the school auditorium by 6:30. Knots of men and a scattering of women gathered around a world map that Gerald Bittner had hung so that they could get a fix on where Hawaii actually was. Most of the town’s children were at home with their mothers although occasionally a child would enter to share the latest news that had been gleaned from the radio. By now it was clear that in fact, Manila had not been bombed, but that Guam was under attack as were various British holdings in the Pacific. The British House of Commons was meeting. Commentators Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen were predicting that today’s events would lead to war with not only Japan, but also with Germany.
Gerald ran into Doug Morrison, who owned the drugstore in town. Doug, Jr. had enlisted in the Navy in 1938.
They shook hands but didn’t bother with “hello.”
“Where’s Doug, Jr. stationed?” asked Gerald.
“Iceland, thank God. He’s on a destroyer, the Hammann.”
Gerald patted him on the shoulder as if to say, “Safe for now.”
The two men sat down as Mayor Knode called the meeting to order right at 7:00. Gerald glanced at his watch. He was missing Jack Benny. The mayor urged everyone to go about their business as usual and to that end, he told the crowd that Principal Bittner had been in touch with the school board and that classes would be held as usual on the morrow.
A murmur swept through the assembly when a townsman stood up and announced, “My boy just come in and told me that the radio’s reporting that 104 sailors were killed at Pearl Harbor today.”
In fact, 2,403 Americans were killed that day, while 1,178 were wounded. Eighteen ships were sunk or damaged. It was just the beginning, and on that Sunday night, no one in America could be sure how it would all end.