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Pearl Harbor: The first harrowing 24 hours on the Coast

Remembering Pearl Harbor

World War II veteran Marvin Westcott recalls what it was like to see the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack as his ship, the USS Balch, returned to the harbor early on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
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World War II veteran Marvin Westcott recalls what it was like to see the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack as his ship, the USS Balch, returned to the harbor early on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

The day Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, the Mississippi Coast shivered. Literally and figuratively.

Dec. 7, 1941, was a chilly Sunday by Coast standards, having plunged into the 30s in the early morning hours. Temps stayed in the 50s throughout the day as the story of the bombing of the U.S. Naval base in our Hawaiian territory unfolded.

As if on queue, at 2 a.m. that morning a vital 12-inch gas line that was the basis of heat or cooking in many Coast homes exploded, turning stoves and heaters cold between Bay St. Louis and east Biloxi. Many flocked to restaurants for a warm meal, but they had to settle for cold sandwiches. The Coast cold spell was bad timing, all around.

Information flow

If this were the 21st century, rife with lightning-speed, over-speculative social media, links between the Coast and Hawaii explosions might go viral. No connection existed, of course.

But this was 1941. TV was not commonplace, Internet was nonexistent as well as electronic devices such as personal computers and smart phones. The radio, phone land-lines and word-of-mouth were the main modes of communication, and by mid-afternoon radio waves were filled with a lot more important news than a local gas line exploding.

At 1 p.m. by the Central Standard Time used on the Coast, the first radio broadcasts were interrupted to announce death and destruction at Pearl Harbor. At the White House it was 2 o’clock because of Eastern Standard Time there. In Hawaii, it was 8-something in the morning and 37 minutes of bombing would stretch out another 1½ hours.

Presidential briefing

President Franklin D. Roosevelt first learned about the attack at 1:30 EST, and on the Coast at that time a Knights of Columbus charity football game between Biloxi and Bay St. Louis all-star teams was underway. Because the Biloxi team included soldiers stationed at Keesler Field, the stadium was peppered with servicemen out for Sunday entertainment.

Military guards showed up and whisked them back to the fledgling Army Air Corps station now called Keesler Air Force Base. The football game, one of two staged for the first-ever Shrimp Bowl, continued and the Bay all-stars won.

Where were you at the time?

Although not well-documented, the Coast was peppered with personal stories that became the remembrances of the day the nation was plunged into World War II. The generations then alive never forgot when and where they heard the news of the surprise Japanese attack on Hawaii, and soon elsewhere in the Pacific. Many didn’t know until that day where Pearl Harbor was.

Before 24 hours had passed, FDR was asking Congress to declare war on Japan. By then, most on the Coast were glued to their radios and Coast leaders were preparing for war. Seventy-five years later, the inevitable deaths and faded memories make piecing together the Coast’s first 24 hours of the story difficult. One of the most reliable sources is The Daily Herald, what this newspaper was called in 1941.

No regular afternoon edition, however, was published on Sundays in those days but the anxious stopped by the Herald’s Gulfport office for hot-off-the-newswire updates.

Mary Ussery reads a poem by her father Roger Ussery, a Pearl Harbor survivor, from a scrapbook he kept during his service in World War II, and forbade her to read. She finally opened it up Thursday.

First edition after

The 10-page Monday, Dec. 8, edition is chock-full of news. Three of the telling headlines are “Mississippi Officials Act Quickly,” “Coast is Beehive of Activity” and “Many Coast People Based In Far East War Theatre.”

The editorial that day called for unity in a country overheated by debates on whether to join the war. “Disunity in the United States has become unity. Criticism and caviling have been tamed to active support. All for one, one for all,” the Herald editorial read.

Military and civilians rally quickly

A front page story reflected the new cooperative attitude:

“In the face of fast-breaking developments which began yesterday afternoon, the Coast area presented a bee-hive of military activity today,” one front-page article began. “Small convoys of troops were beginning to move along the Coast highways and guards have already been thrown around some vital spots. The power plant located at the beach and 30th Avenue, Gulfport, was being patrolled as was the Gulfport harbor and airport.

“At the U.S. Army recreational camp located on the western section of Gulfport no civilians were being admitted to the camp. Contacted this morning Major S. Minikes, commander of the area, said he was unable to give out any information.

“However, the camp site was being taken over as headquarters for the 145th Infantry from Camp Shelby consisting of 1,000 men. The men, it was said, will be placed on duty all along the Coast guarding strategic spots, such as the railroad and highway bridges at Bay St. Louis, Biloxi and Pascagoula against sabotage.

“The Keesler Field commanding officer announced today that all precaution have been taken...No instructions have been received from the War Department as to any policy to be adopted.”

Protecting Ingalls

The Herald said “it has been reported” that guards are protecting Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula where Navy ships were under construction.”

Camp Shelby, today the largest state-owned and operated training center for National Guard and other military, had opened in World War I. Keesler, however, is a product of the pre-war buildup for a conflict the U.S. suspected it would one day join. Keesler was activated in June 1941 as an Army Air Corps aviation mechanics school, in the early throes of construction when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Within less than 24 hours of the attack, Coast cities were working on National Guard volunteer rosters. Soldiers on the Coast that weekend for R&Rs were rounded up and taken back to Camp Shelby by patriotic drivers who ignored an on-going bus strike

Quickly protecting our own

Organizations, unions, businesses of all manner discussed how to contribute to the war effort. One example is Common Laborers Union No. 469’s purchase of $10,000 in national defense bonds, about $165,000 today. On the New York Stock Exchange, “securities tumbled and commodities soared.”

City, county and state leaders held planning sessions and made uncharacteristically fast decisions.

“Officials of Louisiana and Mississippi acted quickly on the heels of the Pacific war to guard defense industries, bridges and highways,” an Associated Press story explained. “Gov. Paul B. Johnson immediately called for a declaration of war against Japan.

Mississippi’s Johnson and Louisiana’s Gov. Sam Jones “pledged their states” to President Roosevelt.

“Police stopped attaches of the Japanese consulate in New Orleans from burning papers, ledgers and documents and confiscated a handful saved from the flames as a crowd of 2,000 gathered,” the AP story explained. “The port of New Orleans was being guarded and immigration officials were ordered to prevent the arrival or departure of any Japanese.”

Names of service members

On such short notice, the Herald reporters gather names of Biloxian who were in the Pacific, and later editions would include names from the other Coast communities.

Among those listed in the Dec. 8 article are Prof. Malcom Clower Jr. of Biloxi, stationed at Hamakuapoko Maui in the Hawaiian islands as school superintendent and his wife as a teacher. The daughter of Charles Rose of Biloxi lived in Honolulu with her Marine husband, Capt. W.S. McCormack. Lt. Commander W.S. Parson, his wife and two young children, also lived in Honolulu.

Ensign Aloysius Barthes, 25, was stationed on Midway Island. James Allen Cook, 18, was serving on a supply ship in Pearl Harbor. Seventeen-year-old Henry Agregaar Jr., stationed in Honolulu three months, was one of the few able to contact his Biloxi parents. Many families would not know for weeks if their loved ones survived the attack. The Dec. 7 bombings killed more than 2,403 Americans, wounded another 1,200 and decimated the American Naval fleet.

Heading to war

Home-bound Americans didn’t know the statistics yet but they knew the death and destruction was monumental. That’s why homefronts like the Coast immediately began gearing up for a role in the war.

The Herald that day told the story of Harrison County Deity Sheriff George Houtz, who was driving down Highway 49 the night of Dec. 7 when an automobile whizzed passed him “and began weaving in and out of traffic at what the officer described as a reckless rate of speed.”

The lawman followed and finally caught up with them at a gas station where one of the soldiers in the car stepped out in frantic haste.”

“Give us five gallons of gasoline, quick,” he told the attendant. “We’ve got to get back to the field. Gotta go to war!”

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

The remains of U.S. Marine Alva Jackson “Jack” Cremean, who died in the Pearl Harbor attack of Dec. 7, 1941, arrived at Fresno Yosemite International Airport after finally being identified so his family could give him a proper burial.

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