December 7, 1941
Like the chilly mist on that Sunday afternoon 75 years ago Wednesday, the stunning news from Pearl Harbor wafted slowly, bracingly, through the Philadelphia region.
NBC Radio Bulletin
In the chaotic hours after radio bulletins alerted residents to Japan's Dec. 7, 1941, attack — the first here came 10 seconds before 2:30 p.m. — it seemed that some sinister force had cast a spell on the nation's third-largest city.
Residents gravitated zombielike toward City Hall, drawn there, the next morning's Inquirer noted, not by any conscious decision but by an "irresistible urge."
Meanwhile, large groups of on-leave sailors and marines suddenly disappeared from downtown streets, snatched up by police and hustled back to their bases.
In West Philadelphia, a trolley inexplicably shifted into reverse, fatally injuring a church organist. A truck carrying an Army cavalry unit overturned in Paoli, killing one soldier and loosing dozens of horses onto Route 202. And in Haddon Township, thousands of chickens perished when two trucks collided and burned.
That Sunday afternoon, a day before his pension was due to start, a 63-year-old Kensington electrician hanged himself in his basement. A Massachusetts woman checked into a swank Benjamin Franklin Hotel suite and, sometime after the first Pearl Harbor reports, consumed a near-fatal dose of sleeping pills.
Gradually, the spell lifted and the region's focus turned hard and fast toward World War II, which America, via congressional declaration, would officially enter the following afternoon.
Before that Sunday ended here, thousands had lined up at recruitment stations, $900,000 in emergency funds had been inserted into Philadelphia's budget, and sabotage paranoia reigned.
The Pearl Harbor bombing, which killed 2,304 Americans and devastated the U.S. Pacific fleet, triggered a brutal war. Its tremendous demands would propel Philadelphians to unprecedented industry and sacrifice. Thousands died. Millions served, each in his or her own way.
World War II would go on until Aug. 15, 1945. Of those 1,342 days, none would have the lasting emotional impact of Dec. 7, 1941. For those who experienced that day, it remains as indelible a memory as John F. Kennedy's assassination or 9/11.
On this 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, it's possible, through yellowed newspaper accounts and the indelible memories of aging residents, to glimpse those pivotal few hours in the region's history.
Pearl Harbor and the war that followed changed forever Philadelphia and its then-1.9 million residents. The old men and women who in 2016 still recall that afternoon were children, teenagers or young adults in 1941. They were at work, worship, or play. Some were angry. Some were stunned. Many were both.
But none have forgotten.
"It will never leave me," said Paul Lhulier, 93, who was playing football for West Catholic High School that day. "Three of my teammates, guys I was with when I heard the news, would never come back from the war."
While Philadelphia wasn't mentally prepared for war on Dec. 7, it had been readying itself physically for months. Many understood that sooner or later, the United States would be drawn into the two-year-old international conflict.
Defense Week — an effort to educate Philadelphians on wartime responsibilities — had ended Dec. 6, with a parade and Convention Hall rally.
The next morning, the bold headline atop the front page of the Sunday Inquirer, which that week hit an all-time circulation high of 1.23 million, suggested what was to come: "Roosevelt Sends Personal Note to Emperor in ‘Final’ Effort to Avert War With Japan."
By then, a city whose status as "America's Workplace" had sagged during the Depression was starting to roar again. Local shipyards and factories were churning out military matériel.
Wide new roads were being constructed on the city's outskirts and leading to Philadelphia Municipal Airport. High schools were training students in skills that would help local industry fulfill its $1 billion in defense contracts.
A national draft initiated in 1940 had filled area military bases. By Dec. 7, 246,000 Philadelphians were registered. Some, like Mike Feldman, whose parents owned a malt shop at Fourth and Snyder, were stationed at Pearl Harbor and would be among the first of Pennsylvania's 33,000 war dead.
All that and more intensified in the frightening hours following the Pacific attack.
Fearing sabotage, city and state officials posted guards at factories, public buildings, and train stations. Sentries on the Delaware River Bridge stopped cars entering Philadelphia, the unchallenged center of the region at a time when there was no Schuylkill Expressway, no King of Prussia Mall, or really much beyond farm land in the surrounding counties.
Before sunset, city officials had decided to hire an additional 75 policemen and 45 pier guards, and put 4,100 firemen and public-works employees on call.
Federal authorities, meanwhile, rounded up some of Philadelphia's estimated 50 Japanese residents — along with a few Italians and Germans, and even some Finnish sailors.
At recruiting offices inside the Customs House, long queues formed behind John Fox, 18, of Media, the first in line.
At Midvale Steel and Bendix Aircraft in Philadelphia, the Ford Motor Co. plant in Chester, New York Shipyard in Camden, and other factories throughout the region, workers took up round-the-clock shifts.
In Doylestown, calls went out for 84 aircraft-spotters in anticipation of attacks that many believed were inevitable, but never came.
Philadelphia's last peacetime sun rose at 7:08 a.m., though a persistent gray mist hid it most of that fateful Sunday.
That morning, workers began cleaning Convention Hall, where, hours earlier, Mayor Bernard Samuel had concluded Defense Week with a cautionary speech.
"If you think that the Axis powers don't know that Philadelphia is a vulnerable spot," he said, "you're fooling yourself."
Samuel, the city's last Republican mayor, had a point. As in World War I, Philadelphia was a defense-production hub.
Baldwin Locomotive and Chester's Ford plant already were turning out tanks, half-tracks and jeeps, parts supplied by, among others, Disston Saws, and Midvale and Dodge Steel. The Frankford Arsenal was mass-producing small arms. Shipyards in South Philly, Camden, and Chester operated 24 hours. Eventually, 350,000 worked in the region's defense industries — 58,000 at the Navy Yard, 20,000 at Frankford Arsenal.
(Right) Nine locomotives produced by Baldwin Locomotives for the U.S. Armed Forces. Nearly two locomotives were produced a day, 695 in 1945.
As the day wore on, sailors, soldiers, and Marines on leave crowded Center City's streets.
Despite Pennsylvania's blue laws, they had several entertainment options: movies like Keep 'Em Flying at the Stanley and Sergeant York at Keith's; Eddie Cantor's Banjo Eyes, the only stage show in town, at the Forrest; Blondelightful Marlene at the Troc.
For the religious, South Philadelphia's St. Mary Magdalena de Pazzi, America's oldest Italian parish, was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its church. And a prayer service for war-ravaged Britain was taking place at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes) Church.
News flash describing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor
Sunday was a big sports day, and 8,000 fans gathered at the St. Joseph's College football field for a West Catholic-Harrisburg Catholic game. The Philadelphia Nationals had a soccer match with a Baltimore team at Kensington's Cambria Stadium. In Washington, the 2-7-1 Eagles were wrapping up their ninth NFL season.
Many relaxed at home, tuning their radios to the World Today news roundup, a broadcast of a New York Philharmonic concert, or the Eagles-Redskins game.
Meanwhile, after breakfast in their Boyertown home, the parents of Forrest Miller read an ominous letter from their son, one postmarked "Pearl Harbor."
"Last week on guard duty I arrested 2 Japs in a restricted area," wrote Miller, a Marine private at the Hawaii base. "Things are in a hum here. We are prepared. When they come, we are ready."
West Philadelphia Infantryman Charles Benedict, also at Pearl Harbor, expressed a similar sentiment in a letter his parents received that week.
"Every day," he wrote, "war looks closer."
It finally arrived here at 2:30 p.m. via a breathless NBC announcer:
"We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air."
"We heard the report … on the big Philco radio that we usually sat around to listen to the adventures of Hop Harrigan and Jack Armstrong," recalled Bob Brown, 83, of Malvern.
Brown was 8 and living in Merion. His father ran Ford's Chester factory.
"My dad flew back from Texas to mobilize the Ford plant.… For him, it meant war mobilization. For me, it meant our trips to the Shore, to Townsend's Inlet, were over. Our family never went back."
In Northeast Philadelphia, sprawled on the floor of a Tulip Street rowhouse, future Guadalcanal hero Al Schmid heard the same news.
"I kept lying there like a dumb cluck," Schmid, who died in 1982, told the Inquirer in 1966. "I thought it was a hoax. Finally I said, 'Hey, Jim, the radio keeps saying there's a war with Japan. Where the hell is Pearl Harbor?'"
That was also Henry Worthington's first thought. He was a 14-year-old in Broomall at his first boy-girl dance.
"We were at St. Anastasia's eighth-grade dance and Father Kane came down the basement to tell us what happened," said Worthington, 89, retired in Newtown Square. "We'd never heard of Pearl Harbor. So a couple of kids and me ran up to one of the classrooms and we found it on a map."
Shortly after 3, West Catholic was halfway through a 31-0 victory in what was billed as the "Catholic State Championship." Players were resting in the locker room when Brother James, the team's moderator, appeared.
"He was a real optimist, a backslapper. So when we saw him looking down in the dumps, we knew something was wrong," recalled Lhulier, who lives in Ardmore.
The news the cleric related ruined an otherwise dream day for Lhulier, a big West Catholic guard who that morning had been named to the city's All-Scholastic team.
Lhulier would join the Army in 1943. Three of his 1941 West teammates — Lionel Kenney, Joe DiFrancesco, and George Durning — would die in the war.
On narrow Camac Street in North Philadelphia, Cornelius Gaither, 13, was riding a bike when his father summoned him.
"He sent me up to the newsstand for a paper," the West Deptford resident, 86, recalled. "They had put out a special edition about the bombing."
At 22nd and Hunting Park, Police Sgt. Adam Judyki was directing traffic when a newspaper reporter gave him the news.
"We should wipe them off the face of the earth," Judyki said, "blow them right into China."
During a 20-14 loss to the Washington Redskins at D.C.’s Griffith Stadium, Eagles players were puzzled by frequent public-address pages for military and government personnel.
"In the stadium, they never made an announcement about what happened. We didn't find out until after the game," Eagles lineman Vic Sears said in 1991.
Within an hour of the attack, another prominent Philadelphian in Washington, Attorney General Francis Biddle, authorized a roundup of Japanese citizens.
Biddle, who had homes on Pine Street and in Ardmore, later admitted it was a mistake.
"The decision had been made by the president," he explained in his 1962 autobiography. "I did not think I should oppose any further."
Anticipating war, the FBI and Philadelphia police's Radical Squad had compiled files on area Japanese.
"The number … is few and they are well-known to police," said John Sears, who headed the bureau's local office.
While Sears said there were no plans for arrests, several Japanese — including Ben Matsui, an Ambler gardener who'd lived in America 41 years — were taken into "protective custody."
They were questioned at the U.S. Immigration Detention Barracks in Gloucester City, where by nightfall they were joined by dozens of Japanese and those Finnish seamen, whose ship had docked in Camden.
"The roundups were made quietly and the details kept secret," the Inquirer noted.
On Atlantic City's Boardwalk, someone hurled a rock through the window of a Japanese-owned novelty shop.
Troubled by the sentiment, a Japanese Philadelphian, identified only as "S. Kuvoda, a cook," voiced concern for his six children.
They "will suffer for this," he told the Evening Bulletin. "Their classmates will be crueler than grown-ups."
Area Chinese were quick to distinguish themselves from the suddenly despised Japanese.
Wong Ding, labeled "the unofficial mayor of Chinatown," posed for a photo Sunday as he and neighbors offered a toast to the U.S.
As some dazed Philadelphians moved toward City Hall, others were disappearing from downtown streets.
"One moment there were all these people in uniform," remembered George Hausman, 91, of Upper Darby, "and the next they were gone.
The sun set at 4:35, by which time city and military police were corralling all the sailors and Marines they could find. Starting at 5 p.m., the task was aided by local radio announcements urging all naval personnel to "return to the Navy Yard at once."
In the darkness at the southern tip of Broad Street, 50 young men, mistakenly believing they could enlist there, showed up at the Navy Yard's main gate. Hundreds more flocked to the closed recruiting offices at Second and Chestnut.
Perhaps the busiest area residents that Dec. 7 were Navy Lt. Reuben Reeder and his socialite fiancee, Rosemont's Helen Mannix.
Scheduled to marry on Dec. 27, they decided not to wait, since the attack had canceled Reeder's leave. The couple drove to Elkton, Md., where they failed to obtain a marriage license. Returning home, they somehow acquired one and at 7:30 p.m. were wed in Bryn Mawr's Church of the Redeemer.
At that moment, as crowds of pedestrians milled around City Hall and motorists circled it continuously, Samuel and his cabinet met.
When the session ended, the mayor went on the radio to urge Philadelphians to call LO 5100 if they witnessed any sabotage.
"The fateful hour of war is upon us," he said.
By then, in a shell-shocked city that would never be the same, it was old news.
This article draws on material found in the digital archives of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. Search the archives for yourself and subscribe for full access.