Some mornings you wake up and by the time you go to bed, you know you’ve lived through a day that will be written about in the history books. When those days happen, I start collecting newspapers, and throw them in a box. When the event has passed, I put the box in storage, so that we can go back and look at history as it was reported instead of how we retell it. They aren’t always the same.
Remember what it is like to live through one of those events. There is chaos, constantly changing information, uncertainty and fear. You may remember the events surrounding December 7, 1941 or have asked your older relatives about it. But what was it like to live it? News was delivered by newspaper and radio, so we do have a record.
My grandmother was living in Kings Mountain, NC helping to raise her brothers and sisters; her parents had died in the 1920’s. I couldn’t find a newspaper for Gastonia or Charlotte, but I did find High Point, NC which is less than a 100 miles away. That Sunday was cold, but Monday was expected to be nicer.
The world was concerned about the Russians battle with the Nazi’s. FDR was sending messages to the “Jap Ruler.” The paper was full of peril but it was all somewhere else. On that cold, clear day, the family no doubt put on their Sunday best and went to church, probably praying for a world seemingly gone mad.
That afternoon, before 1pm on the east coast, the Japanese had begun their attack on Pearl Harbor. It is easy to imagine families gathered around the radio waiting for information on what had happened, wondering what was coming next. The evening newspaper, (remember when newspapers were published twice a day?) delivered the news:
The paper was full of late bulletins and initial reports. Was Manila bombed? How many planes did the Japanese use? Would they attack again? Would the United States declare war? Imagine waking up that clear cold Sunday morning planning what you would wear to church and going to bed with the knowledge that war had come to America.
By the afternoon of the 8th, with 3,000 casualties, with serious destruction of the Navy, the Senate and the House joined together and voted for the U.S. was at war. There was only one dissenter.
By the 9th, those in New York City had been put on alert when two air alarms went off around noon, expecting that they were about to be attacked. Even in rural North Carolina there was likely a lingering fear that they were not safe. The Japanese excepted to be joined by the Nazi’s in their declaration of the war on the U.S. In a mere 48 hours, daily life, life itself had changed.
What was the family thinking? My four great uncles: Floyd, age 31; Tommy, age 28; Robert, age 26; and Otto, age 18; would serve in World War II. What were they thinking as they read those initial reports? By the 10th of December, editorials and editorial cartoons were already resolute in their desire for victory.
The newspapers were still full of society gossip, movie ads, Christmas shopping specials and ideas were in the pages. It is easy to believe that those items were not consumed with the same interest and enthusiasm. It is hard to believe that the thought of Christmas held the same idea of magic and delight that year. Preparing for the war effort had already started.
Don’t always look at history through the lens of the current day. Put yourself in the shoes of your ancestors. Dig up papers they might have read or papers that were close to them to try and gain a different perspective on how they might have viewed history as they lived through it.
Check out more headlines from December 7th and December 8th, 1941. It’s always interesting to see how different parts of the country viewed things.
About Anne Gillespie Mitchell
Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at Ancestry.com. She is an active blogger on Ancestry.com and writes the Ancestry Anne column. She has been chasing her ancestors through Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina for many years. Anne holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.