The recent 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination had people remembering “where they were when...” For an earlier generation, the same was true every Dec. 7 on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1991, the 50th anniversary of that “day of infamy,” N&O writer Treva Jones spoke to Triangle residents who remembered the events of that Sunday and how they learned the news.
It started as a typical Sunday afternoon in North Carolina 50 years ago. People had gotten home from church. Most had finished Sunday dinner.
In Raleigh, 4,000 people were in Memorial Auditorium for a performance of Handel’s “The Messiah.” But even as the choir sang, the world was changing forever.
Max Snipes was taking a spin in Chapel Hill when he heard the stunning news – the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.
“I was riding down Franklin Street, at the Graham Memorial building, and I heard it on my car radio. I was just shocked,” said Snipes, 85, a retired barber.
For a generation of Americans the sneak attack is frozen in time. They all know where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news on Dec. 7, 1941.
Cornelia Tongue, then a St. Mary’s College freshman, was checking out strings of Christmas lights in the attic of her parents’ house on Old Wake Forest Road when her father called the family together.
Her father, CP&L’s transportation superintendent, had gone by his office and heard the news on the radio. He went straight home.
“We couldn’t believe it. We turned on the radio,” said Tongue, 67, a retired educator. “Of course, we couldn’t get away from the radio then and of course, we began calling friends and friends calling us. Daddy did say a few choice, well-chosen words about those people who had attacked us and that it was not provoked.”
By late afternoon, the family heard an unaccustomed traffic rumble. Trucks filled with soldiers already were headed north through Raleigh.
Radio stations, the Highway Patrol and Raleigh police broadcast urgent appeals for all men in the Navy and Marines to report at once for duty.
“Our lives completely turned over, as of that afternoon,” Tongue said. “Almost all the boys I graduated with from high school went off to war.”
Announcements of the attack were made at public gatherings. According to a Dec. 8 story in The News & Observer, “Theaters stopped their programs to flash the news. There was a dead silence for a moment and then hubbub. Scores rushed to cars to turn on radios. Others turned and talked with the strangers beside them.”
Snipes said, “Everybody I would see, and knew, I’d talk to them about it, and everybody was like I was. Every time you’d meet somebody walking, you’d stop and talk about it.”
Frances Gray Patton was at home in Durham with her husband and three children when the phone rang. A friend who had left a Durham movie theater was calling to tell them what had happened.
“We were all quite shocked,” said Patton, a writer. “Susannah was the one that took it very hard,” she said, referring to her daughter, then 7. The child wept and kept asking her parents: “Are we at war?”
The Patton family already knew firsthand about the war raging in Europe. A Durham friend was caring for two English children who had been removed to the United States from blitz-bombed London.
The military buildup already had started in North Carolina. Linwood and Erma Turner were headed to Jacksonville that afternoon where he was working as a carpenter at a Marine Corps hospital.
“We were sitting in the car in Angier and the radio came on and that’s when they broke in and told about it. We couldn’t believe it, but yet, I think we all were expecting something,” said Mrs. Turner, 75, who lives near Fuquay-Varina. “You see, the military was building up. I thought people were expecting something, really. Around here, people were going to Fort Bragg to work, Jacksonville, Cherry Point, and all that.”
Rudolph Pate, a junior at N.C. State College, heard the news on the radio when he returned to his dormitory room from the library.
“I didn’t expect that. It was a very deep shock,” Pate said. He stayed glued to the radio, then got more news from a newspaper’s special edition.
Pearl Harbor changed everything, said Pate, 71, a retired vice chancellor at NCSU.
“It was never the same,” he said. “It just changed your outlook.”
Pate was turned down for military service due to a punctured eardrum, but he watched many of his classmates go off to war.
“A whole busload left one day. You knew you’d see some of them again, and some you knew you’d never see again. It was one of the saddest days of my life.” The N&O 12/7/1991
Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/pasttimes.