Delaware remembers the ‘date which will live in infamy’

The, often overlooked, Pearl Harbor Survivors Association memorial sits across from the WWII Memorial on veterans’ triangle by the intersection of Loockerman and State streets in Dover.
(Delaware State News/Ian Gronau)

DOVER — Three quarters of a century ago today the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

At 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian time (12:48 p.m. local) on a Sunday, a violent aerial assault by 353 fighter planes, bombers and torpedo planes began that would leave all eight U.S. battleships in the Hawaiian harbor damaged (four sunk), 188 U.S. aircraft destroyed and 2,403 Americans dead along with an additional 1,178 wounded.

Although the duration of a the attack was a mere 110 minutes, the day has lived in infamy ever since.

It’s true that Pearl Harbor is about 5,000 miles from Delaware, but distance isn’t usually factor in an event of it’s magnitude. Like the 9/11 attacks, often called the younger generation’s Pearl Harbor, no state was left unaffected by its aftermath.

When Delaware heard

Deciding when residents in Delaware first heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor is, of course, speculation. However, University of Delaware history professor Steven Sidebotham can make an educated guess. In a seminar he regularly gives called “World War II Through Oral History,” he’s spent years interviewing veterans of the war. He’s collected 282 veteran interviews, about 240 of whom are U.S. servicemen.

“One of the things we’d always ask is ‘where were you on Dec. 7 and how did you hear?’” said Mr. Sidebotham. “The vast majority of people say they first heard about Pearl Harbor on the radio. Some, who may have been out and about, say they heard it from a friend or neighbor.”

Most Americans, coast to coast, would have heard about the attack within 24 hours.

The B-17G in the Air Mobility Command Museum at the Dover Air Force Base is one of the popular planes of the WWII that could have been found at Pearl Harbor during the attack. This retired plane was modeled after “Sleepy Time Gal” a B-17 that served in the European theater. The swastikas painted on the side represent enemies bested in air combat. They appear backwards as a retort to German rival pilots’ habit of marking their planes with upside down American flags.
(Delaware State News/Ian Gronau)

“Most everybody in Delaware and on the East Coast would have known by the end of the day,” said Mr. Sidebotham. “If they didn’t, then they certainly did know by Monday because they’d have seen it in the newspaper and heard (President Franklin D.) Roosevelt make the declaration of war right around noon” over radio.

The president immortalized the date with his opening words in his declaration of war speech to Congress: “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy …”

By Dec. 11, the weekly paper that served the Dover area at the time, The Index, was encouraging citizens not to panic.

“Don’t be panicky!” reads a headline to a news brief. “At a time like this, when war is declared on another country, not a few Americans are inclined to become panicky. Many of our people bring about a state of unsoundness and turmoil by calamity-howling. Such persons should study the history of World War One, when numbers of our citizens acquired more wealth and greater security and independence that ever before or since.”

Its call to action is echoed by a letter to the editor written by Dover resident L. Lee Layton Jr., on Dec. 9, that appeared in the same edition of The Index.

“We must fulfill our duties as citizens by keeping posted on national affairs,” wrote Mr. Layton. “As long as we are a free people, we have the right and duty to criticize our government in the interest of the U.S.A.

“The world will be different after this World War is over. The kind of world it will be can be determined by the co-operation given by all citizens now.”

Delaware’s involvement

The construction of what would become the Dover Air Force Base, known at the time as the Dover Airdrome, was actually completed on Dec. 17, 1941, 10 days after the Pearl Harbor attack. At the time, it was intended to be a municipal airport, but the war changed that.

“It seemed that after the attack and at the time of the war declaration the city of Dover offered what we had for an airport to the federal government as a coastal patrol base and it later became Dover Army Airbase,” said Delaware State University history and political science professor, Dr. Samuel Hoff.

The airbase got this designation on April 8, 1943. It changed again later with the establishment of the United States Air Force and later became the Dover Air Force Base on January 13, 1948.

Another popular connection the state has to the Pearl Harbor attack is being the birthplace of Wilmingtonian Lt. George Welch.

Lt. Welch was one of the few pilots stationed in Pearl Harbor during the attack able to get in a fighter plane and retaliate.

“As a result of that, he received the Distinguished Service Cross, the highest USAAF medal,” said Mr. Hoff. “It was rather unique to be one of the few pilots to fight back. The Japanese didn’t just bomb the harbor, they went inland. That could have been a mistake relative to a few of their bombers who were shot down by pilots like Welch.”

Lt. Welch made such a splash that he is portrayed in several Hollywood films about the Pearl Harbor attack. Ben Affleck plays a character loosely based on him in the 2001 film “Pearl Harbor” and Rick Cooper portrays him in the 1970 film “Tora! Tora! Tora!”

The Dover Air Force Base keeps his memory alive with his namesake school, the George Welch Elementary School, on base.

Mr. Sidebotham mentioned a lesser known local serviceman that he came across several years ago during his interviews — Newark resident Ray Holder.

At the time of their discussions, Mr. Holder explained to Mr. Sidebotham that he was serving aboard the USS Ward during the Pearl Harbor attack.

“The destroyer USS Ward was patrolling off Pearl Harbor the night of the 6th and morning of the 7th,” said Mr. Sidebotham. “They thought they saw a periscope peeking up so they shot at it. They sank a Japanese mini-sub with a 4-inch shell through the sub’s conning tower about an hour before the start of the air attack. Their report to headquarters in Pearl Harbor was dismissed.”

If the Navy and Army administration had acknowledged the report and acted, Mr. Sidebotham said, they still wouldn’t have had time to evacuate their battleships, but they could have gotten fighter planes airborne and anti-aircraft guns prepared.

“The story of the USS Ward was discounted for years until they actually dived down 60 odd years later and found the wreckage of the sub right where the USS Ward said they sunk it,” he said. “That was actually the first shot of the Pearl Harbor attack — we shot it.”

Where to remember

The Vietnam Veterans/Legacy Motorcycle Club will have their annual memorial service on the shores of Lake Como in Smyrna today at 9 a.m. The public is invited to come and pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the attack.

Visiting the Air Mobility Command Museum at the Dover Air Force Base is also a good way to remember servicemen who perished in the attack, said Paul Roy, a tour guide at the museum.

Mr. Roy pointed out that the large B-17G showcased on the main floor of the museum is the same type of plane that was on its way to Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack.

“The Harbor’s radar actually picked up some of the Japanese airplanes as they came in, but there was a flight of B-17s that were actually inbound at the same time. So the Harbor just assumed that it was them and ignored the signal,” said Mr. Roy.

That B-17 group did eventually show up a few hours later, he added. Luckily, the air strips hadn’t been too damaged during the bombing and they were able to land.

A simple way to remember the Pearl Harbor attack is to stroll by the often overlooked Pearl Harbor Survivors Association memorial. The stone and plaque stand on veterans’ triangle, across from the World War II Memorial by the intersection of Loockerman and State streets in Dover.

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