Most of the people alive today have no personal recollection of December 7, 1941. For those that heard President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s somber announcement the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the event was a life-changing experience. The joyous holiday season was shattered by the news.
However, just the week before, on November 28, the war that raged in Europe was getting closer. Drew Pearson, in his column, “The Washington Merry-Go-Round,” told of a German ship conducting smuggling operations in the Caribbean off the coast of Mexico. The unsettling fact was that it was a former U.S. vessel – a large diesel-powered yacht once owned by a Philadelphia oil tycoon.
According to the article, “…it is being used to transport high-test gasoline and mercury to…Japanese vessels. Every movement of the yacht is being watched [by the U.S. government], but there is nothing the United States can do about it unless the vessel enters American waters.”
Although the United States was not at war yet, we were helping the English, French and other allies any way we could. For example, the British were importing large quantities of milk from us because their dairy cattle were suffering from several diseases.
The United States was preparing its military probably because, just as in World War I, we did eventually join the allies to fight Germany. The Naval Reserve ran a large ad in the paper that day offering all types of incentives for joining. They offered recruits a $1500 value in education to prepare them for various trades. That’s equivalent to more than $27,300 in today’s money. They offered pay up to $126 per month (worth $2,296 now) and $100 worth of clothing when you first enlisted (approximately $2,300 today). There were many other benefits, such as free medical and dental. For people still suffering from the Depression the Naval Reserve gave them an offer they could hardly refuse.
The following week, just two days before the infamous attack, the newspaper was filled with the usual mundane news and humorous features. Here’s an examples of one of its corny quips:
“ ‘Willie, what’s the plural of man?’ ‘Men,’ answers Willie. ‘And what’s the plural of child?’ ‘Twins’, Willie replies.”
A column written by Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, entitled “My Week” was a popular feature in the newspaper. Each week she would sum up what she had been up to the previous week. Mrs. Roosevelt talked about everything from her visits with dignitaries to meetings with poor tobacco farmers in North Carolina. She continued writing these columns for the next twenty-one years.
Then came Pearl Harbor and the newspapers were filled with news about the war. Since the Brooksville Sun was a weekly that came out on Fridays, the news didn’t hit the local paper until almost a week later. The headline wasn’t flashy. It simply said “We Are At War” and covered details about Roosevelt’s speech to Congress asking them to pass a declaration of War, which they did – unanimously.
In his famous speech, Roosevelt said, “Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date that will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan.”
He went on to list simultaneous attacks on Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines and other places in the Pacific. Roosevelt added that, “American ships have been…torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.”
FDR rallied peoples’ spirits with these words: “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.”
It seemed like everyone was doing their part for the war effort – even birds. The paper ran a story about carrier pigeons being trained at MacDill Field (now MacDill Air Force Base) in Tampa for night flight and two-way flying. The article mentioned that “The art of teaching the birds to fly at night is a military secret.” I’m sure the pigeons didn’t spill the beans.
The following week, the local paper recounted several repercussions of the United States being at war. In an age before the internet and free unlimited calling, people depended on the telephone for a personal way to keep in touch with relatives and friends who lived far away, especially during the holidays. The U.S. government asked for its citizens to sacrifice by “refraining as far as possible from using long distance facilities on Christmas and New Year’s Day in order that…lines can be kept open for government use…” Many activities, such as the popular Gasparilla events, were cancelled due to the war.
Everyone did his or her part in the fight. The Army and Navy reported a record number of enlistments. The War Department asked Congress to enact legislation to register all men between the ages of 18 and 64 for possible military service. By December 26th ninety-seven men from Hernando County were serving in the armed services.
Many cities put together Civil Defense organizations made up of people who did not join the military. Local law enforcement and other authorities were told to be on alert for possible saboteurs at factories and other businesses. The government also urged young women to consider enrolling in nursing schools to meet critical shortages of medical personnel. Another ramification of the war, and something that would probably not be possible in today’s world of social media and 24-hour news coverage, was censorship of the press. Radio and newspapers were banned from reporting on any activity of merchant vessels and the Federal Communications Commission banned amateur radio stations from operating.
With all the grim news and the strict regulations, people still managed to find ways to distract themselves. They could keep up with the latest Hollywood gossip or go to the movies and see a Hopalong Cassidy western and as a bonus watch an exciting episode of the serialized drama, “Jungle Girl.” If you preferred romantic comedy you could get tickets for “When Ladies Meet” starring Greer Garson and Robert Taylor.
I’m sure the comic strips were more popular than ever as a respite from the war and, of course, there was always the humor column with such tidbits as this imagined conversation between two people: “I just heard him say he was in close touch with the heads of several big organizations!” “Yes, he’s a barber!” Housewives probably appreciated the handy household hints, such as “A teaspoon of baking powder in the water in which meat and vegetables is cooked will help make them tender.”
Yes, Hernando County, like the rest of the country, was experiencing World War II, although not to the extent that people in Europe and parts of Asia were. And the conflict would remain in the forefront of the news for the next 3½ years.