Pearl Harbor and Christmas 1941: Resiliency in the Face of Infamy
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
Today is December 7th, and most Americans—even if they didn’t live through the event—know that this was the day that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. It is "a date that will live in infamy,” and the day before President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress for a Declaration of War.
Eighty-one years ago today, Americans’ lives were about to change. As people went into the Christmas season, they knew they faced an uncertain future. No one knew how long the war would last, the outcome or the long-term implications. The only certainty was that many would lose friends and loved ones.
From 1941 through August 1945, America would send more than 12 million soldiers to fight, hire more than six million women (Rosie the Riveters and Wendy the Welders) to fill jobs on the home front as well as serve in the women’s auxiliary corps, and even enlist girls and boys to collect everything from tin cans and bacon grease to old newspapers and cardboard for the war effort.
Today, thank goodness, the United States is not at war. Yes, there’s a lot of saber-rattling going on in the world right now, and even several hot spots. There's concern. So much so that New York City put out a short public service video entitled Nuclear Preparedness. Frankly, I haven’t crawled under a desk since third grade. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that again because while I might get down there, I’ll have a dickens of a time getting back up.
But this blog is part of a series of posts about the true meaning of Christmas. So, far from trying to raise fear and despair, I want to focus on Christmas, and specifically Christmas 1941. America had declared war just 17 days earlier. What was that Christmas like? How did people celebrate Christmas 81 years ago, knowing that soon their children, parents and friends would be touched by war?
We Interrupt This Program...
Years ago, I asked my mother what she remembered of her day when the reports of Pearl Harbor started reaching Chicago.
My mother was 23 in 1941, fresh out of art school and working in Chicago as a commercial artist. I think she was either at Kraft or Swift at the time.
“It was still the Depression,” she reminded me, “and I felt lucky that I had a job. In fact, I was quite proud of that fact and looking forward to going home to Tuscola for Christmas as a success.
“On that Sunday, I was in my room at the YWCA working on an art project while listening to the radio. That’s when a broadcaster interrupted the music.”
The attack, which lasted less than two hours, was over around 9:45 AM Honolulu time. That would have been 1:45 PM in Chicago. The first report, broadcast from Hawaii and relayed to radio stations stateside, came in around 2 PM. My mother would have heard, “Bulletin: We have witnessed this morning the attack of Pearl Harbor and the severe bombing of Pearl Harbor by army planes that are undoubtedly Japanese [it was actually the Imperial Navy]…”
My mother continued: “Of course, we knew much of the world was at war. On one front, England, Russia, Germany, Italy, Poland, basically all of Europe, was fighting. On the other, there was trouble in Asia and the Pacific. We all wondered if…when…we would get involved, and prayed that somehow we’d be spared.
“I can’t say that we were convinced war was inevitable. People tried to remain optimistic, and on December 6th we were looking forward to Christmas. We were starting to come out of the Depression, and I even had store-bought presents for my parents.
“The attack was a shock. Like most people, I expected that if we entered the war, it would be in Europe. Hawaii. Japan. Pearl Harbor. As a young woman who hadn’t been any farther from home than Indianapolis, I didn’t have any points of reference. In any case, I put my artwork away. I couldn’t paint any more that day and instead sat huddled by my radio and listened to the fragmented reports that came in throughout the rest of the day and evening.”
From all the accounts I’ve read, during those first few days and weeks after Pearl Harbor, people were still digesting the implications. As my mother said, the Depression was easing. More people were working and had a little money to spend. Even though war worries would begin to replace Depression hardships, they would celebrate Christmas.
As Citizens National Bank promoted in a holiday advertisement, "Nothing can take Christmas away from us."
Children received their presents—a few toys but more often gifts of fruit, fancy nuts and clothing. Holiday parades that had been scheduled went forward. Trees were decorated, and in Chicago, Marshall Fields holiday windows were open for viewing and showed no signs of impending war.
They say there are no atheists in foxholes. I suspect that the same can be said for the families that soon would be sending their fathers, sons and brothers off to fight. Church attendance was up. And in the weeks to come, they would be sending their loved ones off with God’s speed and prayers that they come home soon.
Interestingly, some churches cancelled Christmas Midnight Mass, fearing that people shouldn't be out on the dark streets...in case of an emergency.
Similarly, out of precaution, people were discouraged from using the telephone, leaving the lines free for any important calls. And the military installed a few anti-aircraft weapons on the east and west coasts.
When my mother arrived home, she helped out in the family store—always busy that time of year—and accompanied her parents to church.
"As for the rest of the day," my mother recalled, "it was our usual subdued, low-key Christmas Day. After the holiday rush at the store, all my parents really wanted to do was rest. The war was on our minds, but we didn't talk about it much. I didn't have any brothers or cousins, and my father had already had one heart attack.
"As for your father," she added, "we weren't particularly friendly let alone dating at the time. So I certainly didn't think about him."
Across town, my father was visiting his mother. At age 22, he was just starting his medical residency at Chicago's Hines Hospital. He'd come home for a few days, knowing in his heart that he'd soon being going off to war.
Take Time to Count Your Blessings
Yesterday, Matilda and I were talking about the movie White Christmas that she and Bill had watched on Netflix. Matilda will be the first one to tell you that she usually doesn’t get emotionally involved in films. “They’re just movies,” she likes to say.
But Matilda admitted that watching White Christmas this year even got to her. And I think I know why.
Paramount released White Christmas in 1954—nine years after the end of World War II. The plot’s relatively simple. On one level, it's a boy meets girl, boy loses girl and boy and girl get back together story. This is played out against a backdrop of Christmastime in Vermont sans snow and a wonderful Irving Berlin score.
Two former army buddies (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) discover that their wartime commanding officer is trying (and failing) to make ends meet running a country inn. But with no snow, there are no paying customers. Bing and Danny cook up an elaborate plot to notify members of the old regiment and urge them to surprise the general by showing up at the inn for a Christmas Eve show. Of course, it ends happily, and there's even snow.
So what's the attraction? Why does White Christmas pull at one's heartstrings? I think it's the realization (the fear, really) that we've lost something precious. That simpler time when people could and would make time for others. Those men cared deeply for General Waverly and happily dropped everything Christmas Eve to catch a train to Vermont just to help out and show their affection.
White Christmas is a beautiful expression of the true meaning of Christmas. And I for one believe that while we've lost a lot of life's simplicity in 2022, we will still stop and lend a helping hand. The key, however, is for us to stop long enough to recognize the people around us who need our help.
As the Christmas of 1941 showed, people are resilient...even when facing war. Christmas went on. In 1954 as well. Christmas 2022 will be no different...not really. You just need to get beyond the outward trappings of our society. As my father liked to say, it's the times that change, not the people.
We just need to be resilient enough to overcome our times and remember to count our blessings.