THE ATTACK ON PEARL HARBOR: from the Point of View of a Young Kid in the Bronx.
Recenty, I stumbled upon what is a personal goldmine for me, my father’s memoirs. He had been writing them shortly before he passed away this year. While they are unedited and were not complete, they feel like a treasure map left to me, uncovering stories, history and parts of his life I never even knew about. In no way have they stirred up further grief but instead true comfort as reading them feels like he is speaking to me in person. Most fascinating is the section that I just stumbled upon the other day. Coincidentially I uncovered this just as we recognize the anniversy of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Listed below are excerpts from what is was like for my father and kids growing up in the Bronx during this time in great detail. They truely are the greatest generation. Thank you to all of them.— Gene
Taken from Memoirs by Donald Fitzpatrick, Chapter 7 WAR:
Spring ran into summer and summer ran into fall and Lulu and the moths took their hiatus as leaves fell and football filled the air. December arrived and a cold, clear Sunday promised an entertaining afternoon of listening to the New York Giants — Brooklyn Dodgers football game on the radio. Yes, for a few short years there was a professional Brooklyn Dodger football team. Gerard had gone out and Raymond, the inveterate reader, was absorbed in the latest best seller with one ear on the game. I was on the floor, either doing homework or messing around with something or other. Like Raymond, I had one ear on the game. Suddenly there was an announcement, “We interrupt this game and return you to the studio for a special message.” This was quite unusual and we stopped what we were doing to listen. The announcement went something like this. “Japanese planes have attacked Pearl Harbor. Casualties at this time are unknown. Details will be broadcast as soon as they are available.”
My reaction and probably the reaction of most listeners in America was, “Where the hell is Pearl Harbor?” Of course in minutes the details began to be announced. The football game was quickly forgotten. In fact, the football broadcast ended immediately as the tragedy absorbed the airwaves. I looked at Raymond and asked stupidly, “Does that mean war?” “That is war!” he replied.
About an hour later Gerard came in. Raymond and I were still sitting glued to the radio. “Gerard, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. We are at war.”
“Yeah, sure!” was his response to the smart aleck younger brother. The radio blared the latest bulletin and he expelled an unbelievable epithet. Of the three of us, he would be the most affected.
By December 11 the U.S. Congress had assembled from all of the states of the Union to hear Franklin D. Roosevelt ask Congress to declare war on Japan declaring December 7 as a day of infamy. As a result of their Tripartite treaty with Japan, Germany and Italy then declared war on the United States.
The days succeeding December 7 revealed the complete success of the Japanese attack. Two thousand, three hundred American soldiers, sailors and civilians were lost at Pearl Harbor. The battleships Arizona, Oklahoma and California were all sunk at their berths. The Pacific Fleet was decimated.
The country was stunned. Before the end of the year the Japanese attacked British Malaysia and Hong Kong. They attacked the Pacific islands of Guam and Wake Island and invaded the Philippine Islands. On December 22 Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Britain met with President Roosevelt in Washington D.C. with military commanders of both countries to map a strategy for conducting the war.
The war could not have begun any more disastrously. Our Pacific Fleet was nearly destroyed. Our Pacific Air Fleet at Hickam Field at Hawaii and in the Philippines was severely damaged.
The speed with which the Japanese conquered the Pacific was astounding. Singapore fell in weeks. American forces on the Philippine island of Luzon could only offer scant resistance. By April they were pushed onto the Bataan Peninsula where 76,000 American soldiers surrendered. Unable to provision them, the Japanese conducted a “death march” off the peninsula. Thousands died of malnutrition, bayoneting and beheading.
At home, these losses gave rise to wild rumors. The defeat at Pearl Harbor caused fears that Japanese would invade our West Coast. In February, a Japanese submarine surfaced and shelled a Richfield refinery in Santa Barbara, causing minimal damage. The resulting panic caused the government to round up 110,000 Japanese-American citizens and intern them in camps in California. They lost their homes and life savings in one of America’s saddest actions, but at the time it was an understandable reaction.
The U.S. tried to fight back. Recruiting stations for enlistments were jammed. Training camps were hastily put together. Auto factories shut down immediately and began converting to the production of planes and merchant vessels. Rationing of gas and sugar began for civilians.
Unused to wartime, rumors continued. The most ridiculous happened early on, not long after Germany had declared war. It was an ordinary school day at De Witt Clinton. The populous was becoming accustomed to the banner headlines of newspapers concerning the latest battles in the Pacific. It was late in the afternoon approaching dismissal time. Suddenly the fire alarm bells went off in the school. Fire drills were not uncommon but they generally lasted only a short while. All the classrooms emptied into the halls. Nothing happened. It soon became apparent that nobody seemed to know what to do. After awhile the teachers announced that we were going to descend into the basement. This was highly unusual and an eerie silence blanketed the school. Over a thousand students went down into corridors that we didn’t know existed. “What’s going on?” was the typical question. The teachers tried to act cool and had us sit on the floor of the corridors, away from any glass doors. We sat for at least an hour and nobody professed to know anything. Soon a rumor floated that German bombers were headed for our East Coast.
Considering that our teachers were educated people, this was the most unfounded rumor imaginable. In 1942 no bomber or fighter plane had a range of more than 600 miles. The Atlantic Ocean was and is at least three thousand miles wide, yet a crazy, incomprehensible rumor had us bottled up underground for an hour. Someone finally came to his senses and sent us home. On arriving back at Prospect Avenue we heard that the rumor had permeated the entire metropolitan area. At P.S. 44 that was right up the block beyond the Lindbergh Apartments, the teachers rushed all the grade school students to the doors and told them to run home quickly. The resulting panic probably grayed the hair of many a parent.
Gradually, a wartime footing took over the country. At 18, young men were being drafted into the Army or joining the Navy, Marines or Coast Guard. Rationing of clothing, of shoes and silk stockings and of butter became routine. Ration books were needed to shop. In De Witt Clinton football was cancelled for the duration. Football uniforms were too costly and the material was needed for the Armed Forces.
German submarines were now becoming a factor in the war. Sub packs were prowling the east coast torpedoing merchant vessels and oil tankers taking a serious toll. They sank some ships so close to the coast that sometimes the survivors were able to swim to the shore. It became evident that the massive candlepower of coastal cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia at night were silhouetting ships as in a shooting gallery. Consequently, nighttime blackouts were ordered. Night baseball games in Coastal cities were moved up to twilight. A famous Giant/Dodger night game at the Polo Grounds in New York went into extra innings. The game was about to be called because of the blackout but the Giants scored a run to win the game. The bright lights were immediately turned off leaving the fans sitting in the darkness. An announcement was made requesting all fans to light their matches or lighters and proceed cautiously out of the park. At that time most people smoked. The improbable worked and some twenty thousand fans exited safely.
Patriotism superseded panic as a war footing absorbed the country.
War Bonds financed the war and war bond drives were held all over the country. Actors, performers, sport stars, celebrities of all kinds appeared at bond drives to raise cash. Schools and neighborhoods vied with each other to sell bonds or savings stamps.
In New York where apartment houses lined the street opposite each other drives were organized to honor “our boys” and buy a huge custom banner that could be hung overhead from one apartment building to another apartment building across the street. The banner had stars and names on it and the usual flags and patriotic pictures. The purchase and arrival of a flag in a particular neighborhood was usually celebrated with a short parade. The flag was held out flat and as it passed spectators on the sidewalk and many would throw bills or coins on top. These drives and collections raised a lot of money for bonds but they were still a scam. The flags were expensive to buy; there was very poor accounting for the money and nobody figured out what would happen to the flag in bad weather. The result was that less than six months after the flag was raised between buildings, rain, snow, and wind tore it to shreds,
A better sign of patriotism was small flags that hung from the window shade of an apartment. A single blue star showed that the resident had a son in service. If there was more than one in service there were multiple blue stars. The tragic thing to see was a flag with a gold star that meant that a son had been killed. Of course, if you lived in a rear apartment of a building there was no sense in having a flag because nobody could see it.
On Prospect Avenue we teenagers adjusted our lives to the wartime environment. There were shortages to adjust to; the newspapers, the radio and the movies reflected the far away conflicts. The military draft now took young men off the streets. My brother Raymond was granted a deferment because he was the prime supporter of the family. However, Gerard was now of the age to get drafted. In June of 1942 he joined the navy. He was all signed up and ready to leave. He said his goodbyes at Equitable Life and on his assigned day he went downtown somewhere with his bag packed. Despite the fact that the war was still going badly, he was sent home and told he’d be notified when to report again. There was a manpower snafu and more recruits were not needed at that time. Gerard went back to work.
The government also instituted a Civilian Defense organization in case the country was under a bomb attack. Again, it was a measure issued out of panic. I don’t know how it operated around the rest of the country but in the cities it gave a lot of people the feeling that they were doing something for the war effort. It made a lot of men feel very important too. Five and six story apartment buildings formed CD brigades and had meetings and planned blackout procedures. Then they conducted an air raid drill.
The Jewish people in the two Lindbergh apartments held a drill first. They installed a bell in each house, they had wardens and they conducted a drill with a blackout. I don’t know how it turned out but it was the subject of discussion in Pryluck’s and all the local stores.
Then it was our turn. We also had bells installed on the second floor of both 1908 and 1912. On the night of the drill we had wardens from our apartments stationed on the roofs and in the courtyards. At a secret moment the bells sounded and all lights were supposed to go out. Of course some people were slow to turn lights off: others might forget a lamp in a spare bedroom. The wardens watched for them and yelled from the roof — “Carey, turn that light out.”
Meanwhile, the wardens from the Lindberghs who had had their drills weeks before, lined the sidewalk across the street. They had heard that we were going to have a drill and consequently they were there to critique. I don’t’ know what grade they gave us, but the whole routine was like a scene from a Mack Sennett comedy. I think we all had about two drills and then the whole organization dissolved. At least we had some useless bells installed.