In her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
“Peace or war?” asked the St. Petersburg Times in its 1941 New Year’s Day editorial. The Times posed a question few could answer: “Will the star of destiny move westward across the Atlantic or eastward across the Pacific toward the Americas?”
On Saturday nights, the golden age of Hollywood drew throngs of fans to neighborhood movie theaters. The Tampa Theater and St. Petersburg’s La Plaza served as dream factories, helping moviegoers escape reality. On Dec. 7, 1941, Walter Brennan was playing the role of “Cottonmouth,” an Okeefenokee fugitive in Swamp Water at the Tampa Theater. The All-American halfback Tommy Harmon portrayed himself at the Seminole Theater in Harmon of Michigan. La Plaza customers enjoyed tough guy Edward G. Robinson starring in Unholy Partners.
Sundays revolved around church and family, rest and recreation. Rituals included reading the Sunday St. Petersburg Times or the Tampa Tribune at home or at the soda fountain. A printer at the Times was saving red ink for a special edition.
The first Sunday in December marked the official beginning of tourist season. Optimism borne of tourist reservations brightened the holiday mood.
Residents listened to the radio on Sunday afternoons. Thirty-one-year-old Sol Fleischman was becoming a familiar voice. On Sunday afternoon, Dec. 7, 1941, he began his broadcast: “This is WDAE, the Tampa Daily Times station, high on the Tampa Terrace Hotel in Tampa.” WDAE was a CBS-affiliated station, and around 1:15, Kate Smith was singing when her song was interrupted by John Charles Daly reading an emergency announcement: “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air!”
Fleischman, like most Americans, could not identify Pearl Harbor. When Kate Smith resumed singing, a confused Fleischman decided to visit the hotel’s coffee shop. He spotted an old friend in a military jeep: Clarence L. Tinker. Raised in Oklahoma as an Osage Indian, Tinker graduated from the Wentworth Military Academy in Missouri. He was also the most powerful man in Tampa Bay: Major General Tinker was commander of MacDill Army Air Field.
When Fleischman told Tinker what he had just heard on the radio, the general spat out his coffee and exclaimed, “Son, this means war.” His jeep sped back to the base. In June 1942, Tinker became the first American general to die in the war. His B-17 bomber disappeared over Midway. Tinker’s son was also killed in the Pacific campaign. Tinker Elementary School on Tinker Street in Tampa honors his memory.
Pearl Harbor shattered the long-held illusion that two oceans insulated America from European and Asian affairs. In an instant, America and Americans pivoted from the Great Depression to the Great Crusade. An old phrase dictated the new priority: “for the duration.” Sacrifice will be necessary on the battlefield and home front until the enemy has been subdued.
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The first Floridian to hear the news of Pearl Harbor was Brooke E. Allen of Tampa. She was speaking to her husband stationed at Hickam Field in Honolulu during the attack.
“In several theatres,” noted the Tampa Daily Times, “the call for servicemen to report to immediate duty was greeted by a moment of silence and then spontaneous applause ...”
Sunday afternoons meant chapel at Bethune Cookman College in Daytona Beach. Tampa’s Robert W. Saunders grew up in Roberts City, a West Tampa enclave. His parents were West Indian. Saunders was on a football scholarship at Bethune Cookman. Part of his “scholarship” was washing dishes Sunday afternoons. He heard about the Japanese attack on the radio and decided to interrupt Sunday chapel led by the imperious president and founder, Mary McLeod Bethune. “We slipped the note to someone on the stage in White Hall,” Saunders explained. President Bethune announced the news. “She remarked about serving our country and asked the choir and audience to sing ‘We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.’ I recall the male students were asked to respond with, ‘Do you think I’ll make a soldier?’ After that there was silence.” Saunders soon enlisted in the Army. He became NAACP field secretary in 1951 after his predecessor, Harry T. Moore, and his wife were killed in a bomb blast.
For Mildred Cox, Dec. 7 carried special memories. On that day, she married Jim Coffee at Sacred Heart Church in Tampa. Following the reception, Mrs. Coffee was showing the matron of honor her trousseau when her aunt, who had just been informed of the news, whispered, “Hurry up! Get in the car and go!”
The newlyweds headed for Indian Rocks Beach. Mildred recollected: “So I turn on the radio, and he flips it off. ... I started crying, My mom told me this would happen — men were different after the wedding! Jim then turned and explained (Pearl Harbor). ... We get to the causeway and (saw) the attendant. ‘Are you in the service?’ he asked, looking at Jim’s uniform. ‘Soldier, where are you stationed?’ Jim said Camp Blanding. ... The attendant then looked at the ‘Just Married’ sign on the window and said, ‘Soldier, take your coat and cap off and git! I never saw you!’ The next morning a telegram was slipped under our door: ‘Report to Camp Blanding.’ I went with hm on the bus to Starke. Soldiers were everywhere, Jim walked across the street and waved to me.”
Few places exuded more romance on Sunday afternoons than El Centro Español in Ybor City. The Sunday Tea dance attracted “Latins,” Spaniards, Cubans and Italians. Maria Pasetti, the daughter of Sicilian immigrants, was a teenager in 1941. She recalled: “Sunday was the most exciting day of the week. ... We would spend all morning getting ready for the Tea Dance. Aunt Pauline came along to chaperone my sister Phyllis and me. It was absolutely forbidden to have a boyfriend! ... As we approached El Centro, there was an excitement. We would go up the stairs and hear the music of Don Francisco.”
Maria explained that suddenly Don Francisco stopped playing. He told the audience the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Many of the young men were already in the Army, the result of the 1940 peacetime draft. They were told to report to MacDill or Drew fields. Many of the young girls went to the balcony overlooking Seventh Avenue. When the men boarded the buses, “There was a tremendous amount of screaming and crying.”
Bowling alleys conducted brisk traffic on Sunday afternoons. William P. Wallace recalled his brush with history: “I was in St. Petersburg with friends at Corn’s Bowling Alley on 4th St. N. and 16th Ave. I believe we all headed for our respective homes after the news. My parents were greatly alarmed because my older brother, John, was a college freshman at the time, and soon went into the Air Force. Our family strongly resisted any criticism of the Roosevelt administration since my uncle, Henry A. Wallace, was vice president of the U.S. at the time.”
In 1941, 10-year-old Leland Hawes Jr. resided in Thonotosassa, where his father owned vast tracts of groveland. Since 1940, Hawes “published” a weekly newspaper, the Flink Lake Diver When he heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawes “hastened to put out an extra edition.” Hawes became a beloved journalist for the Tampa Tribune.
Dec. 8 brought the grim news that Theo T. Byrd Jr., a 20-year-old from Tampa, was killed at Wheeler Field near Honolulu. The war that seemed so far away soon arrived in Florida. Germany unleashed Operation Drumbeat, a savage U-Boat effort to starve and freeze Great Britain by sinking vessels plying the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coast.
Patriotism spiked. When Navy recruiters arrived at the Tampa office on Monday morning, Dec. 8, they discovered 9 young volunteers. William Emerson of St. Petersburg, today remembered as a successful business executive and philanthropist, was an undergraduate at the University of Florida. On that fateful Sunday, he was necking with his girlfriend at the Duck Pond. When he heard the radio announcement, he took his date home and slept on the courthouse steps and enlisted Monday morning. He joined the Marines, serving as a flight instructor and piloting B-25 bombers in the Pacific Theater.
The military served as a mirror of American society. Master Sgt. Warren Bryant was stationed at Tampa’s MacDill Field. “When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor,” Bryant recalled, “all of the whites at MacDill Field were running around with loaded guns. We (Blacks) had no guns and no idea of what was going on, so you can imagine what was running through our minds. ... We trusted them just about as much as a coiled rattlesnake.”
For decades, local leaders had criticized Ybor City’s and West Tampa’s Spanish, Cuban, and Italian inhabitants as “un-American.” But Pearl Harbor galvanized Latins and burnished their image as patriots. “Notable was the stirring pledge of Centro Asturiano, Tampa’s largest Latin club,” a reporter noted on Dec. 9, 1941, “to throw the force of its 8,000 members behind the call for unity.” Members of El Centro Español pledged all its resources to the cause. The Italian Club followed suit, reaffirming its loyalty and condemning Mussolini.
In 1941, only 90 Japanese lived in Florida. Several Japanese families had settled in St. Petersburg, operating truck farms and a garden nursery on Goose Pond (the area around today’s Central Plaza). Authorities immediately restricted the lives of the settlers. Using what is now a slur, a Dec. 9 St. Petersburg Times headline read, “US Rounds Up 14 Japs and $14,000 in St. Petersburg.” Authorities shuttered the Nikko Inn. Japanese residents could not own weapons, even ax heads employed on the farms. In Tampa’s “five-and-dime stores,” reported the Tribune, clerks removed all Japanese merchandise.
The Clearwater police chief ordered Japanese residents to stay indoors and report to the police department. Meanwhile, the Clearwater Rifle Club announced free firearm instruction for locals.
On Dec. 8, 1941, Congress declared war against Japan, soon followed by Germany and Italy. But the war needed a name. President Roosevelt complained that he did not like “World War II.” An April 1942 Tampa Tribune headline read, “White House Swamped with Suggestions for War Name.” Suggestions included “Rat Killing”” Civilization’s Last Stand,” and “Totally Totalitarian War.”
On the eve of Pearl Harbor, Florida boasted about 20 military bases and installations, a number spiraling to nearly 200 by V-J Day in 1945.The Sunshine State quickly became the Fortress State. In Tampa, MacDill and Drew Army Air Fields were mega-bases. Henderson Army Air Field was located near present-day USF. Pinellas County boasted Coast Guard and Army Air Force bases.
The war transformed Florida. As many as two million G.I.s trained in Florida during the war. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, Florida was the smallest state in the South, its population had not yet crested 2 million. World War II is the linchpin between a distant and sparsely populated state and a 2021 mega-state that approaches 22 million residents and attracts 100 million tourists.
Consider pre-and postwar Tampa Bay. In 1940, Hillsborough County had reached a population of 180,000 residents, booming to 250,000 inhabitants by 1950. Pinellas County numbered 91,000 residents in 1940, expanding to 160,000 a decade later. Pasco County was scarcely 14,000 inhabitants in 1940, rising to 20,000 in 1950. Hernando resembled a frontier county, as its 1940 population was barely 5,600, rising slightly to 6,700 in 1950. By 2020, these counties had ballooned to a combined mass of 3.8 million residents.
Veterans flocked to Florida following V-J Day. In 1946, a beachfront lot in Pinellas County was $4,000. A home in Hyde Park, “splendidly located, lovely condition,” sold for $9,000. The G.I. Bill wrought a revolution in higher education and medical care. St. Petersburg offered free building lots to local veterans.
Every Dec. 7, journalists seek out residents who remembered Pearl Harbor. The numbers of Pearl Harbor survivors (probably less than 100 now), World War II veterans and home-front Americans have dwindled. Of the 16 million veterans who served in the armed forces, fewer than a quarter million are alive today.
A sense of perspective: The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor claimed 2,403 U.S. personnel and 68 civilian lives. In his magisterial World War II trilogy, author Rick Atkinson begins An Army at Dawn with a sobering sentence: “September 1, 1939, was the first day of a war that would last 2,714 days and it brought the first dead of a conflict that would claim 27,600 lives an hour, or 19 a minute, or one death every three seconds.”
Lest we forget.
Gary R. Mormino is scholar in residence at Florida Humanities. His father, Ross Anthony Mormino, was a “Fighting Seabee” who saw combat in the South Pacific.