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Pearl Harbor: A date that still lives in infamy

Half a world away on Dec. 7, 1941, local residents listened as war came to America

POSTED: December 15, 2008 5:00 a.m.
/AP file photo

The battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples over into the Pacific during a Japanese surprise attack Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Thousands of veterans are expected to commemorate today the 67th anniversary of the military raid.

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At 91, Gene Bobo’s memories of Dec. 7, 1941, are as vivid as if the tragic events of that day happened yesterday.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, took place around 8 a.m. With a five-hour time difference, it was about 1 p.m. when the news reached the East Coast and many families were sitting down to Sunday lunch.

"My bride-to-be and I were having lunch with her parents in Carlton, near Elberton," said Bobo, a textile executive. "When the bombs fell, we were absolutely astounded. My brother-in-law had already been drafted and was already in the service."

When they heard the news on the radio, it sent shockwaves through what would normally have been an enjoyable Sunday dinner.

"My in-laws were very devout people, and we all paused and each of us offered a prayer of guidance for our president, for our nation and what the future would be," he recalled. "As we finished our prayers, we sat by and soberly looked at each other and said, ‘Now what?’ "

Bobo said the answer was clear.

"We just let the Lord take over, and we’d go from there," he said.

He returned home to Gainesville that afternoon. By the next morning, the news of the attack was the talk of the town in Gainesville and throughout the nation.

Clyde Cronic was a popular barber in Gainesville. His wife, Hester, was a homemaker. The family made their home on a farm in Barrow County. Like many families, the Cronics had come home from church on that Sunday and had the radio on when the news bulletins began coming in.

Their daughter, 11-year-old Grace, listened, too.

"Mama had the radio on," said Grace Cronic Autry, now 78. "As she listened, I remember her saying ‘My boys will have to go off to war.’ "

But only Autry’s oldest brother, Clyde Jr., would go into the military, joining the U.S. Navy.

"He was barely old enough to get in there," said Autry, who lives in Gainesville with her husband, Asa, a World War II veteran.

On that Sunday afternoon in December, young Gordon Sawyer had a brand-new bird dog pup. He and some of his high school buddies in Lynchburg, Tenn., took the hound for a run with an older dog, hoping to prepare him from the field.

"We ran the dogs through the hills around Lynchburg and through the city cemetery," Sawyer said. "We came back in, and my folks were sitting just glued to the radio."

Like young Grace, Sawyer understood the seriousness of the situation, but didn’t understand the deeper meaning.

"I asked my dad, ‘What does that mean?’ and he said, ‘That means we’re at war,’ " said Sawyer, a retired advertising executive.

"I was stunned," Sawyer said. "I had heard of Hawaii, but Pearl Harbor meant zero. Everybody had been looking at the war in Europe. We knew the Japanese were out there; then, wham, they get hit out there."

Sawyer said he remembered looking on maps to see where the attack happened. The next day, Dec. 8, he remembered sitting around the family radio, which was tuned to legendary Nashville station WSM for the broadcast of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech.

The entire world seemed to stop as Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress.

"Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 — a date 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," Roosevelt said in the opening of his speech. That speech, though only a few minutes, is his most memorable.

Afterward, Congress voted to declare war, and the United States’ involvement in World War II begun.

The attack by Japan came at a time when most of the country’s attention had been focused on Europe and the war against Nazi Germany and its leader, Adolf Hitler.

Like Sawyer, Bobo was surprised that the war would begin in the middle of the Pacific.

"My brother-in-law was in a group heading for South Africa at the time. He was attached to an infantry unit bound for Accra," Bobo said. "Nothing had been thought about Japan. That’s the reason we were so astounded."

He remembers the day of Roosevelt’s speech that people were gathering around radios, waiting to hear what the next step would be.

"It was a very perplexing time. At first, we didn’t realize the full impact of the attack. We were stunned when we started finding out about all the ships that were sunk," he said. "We felt like this was going to lead to more confrontation than we had ever anticipated."

Bobo would go into the Army in 1942 and became a part of a chemical warfare unit in the Pacific. Eventually, he would become a part of an infantry unit before the war ended.

Sawyer also would later join the war as a naval officer, following in the footsteps of his father, who had been a Navy pilot in World War I. When the attack on Pearl Harbor happened, Sawyer’s father tried to rejoin the Navy, but was told he was too old to fly.



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