The "date which will live in infamy," 7 Dec., 1941, occurred 68 years ago. Anyone alert at that time recalls it quite well. I was in seventh grade at St. Charles School in Bridgeport. I remember hearing the announcement on an Emerson table radio; my sisters were at the local movie watching Smilin’ Through (1941) with Jeannette MacDonald. As they exited the theatre, they heard the news on the streets. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and destroyed most of our capital Pacific Fleet – except three aircraft carriers, which were out to sea. The very next day, a Declaration of War against the Empire of Japan was made by the Congress; and on 11 December, a Declaration of War against Japan’s axis collaborators, Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich (which was supposed to last 1,000 years) and Fascist Benito Mussolini’s Italy.
The world was at war, and Christmas was just weeks away. Although we were just emerging from the Great Depression, a new wave of austerity began.
For months, America’s position was tenuous. By early April, the Bataan Peninsula was seized by the Japanese; Corregidor fell to the enemy by early May. One of my next-door neighbors, whose family had emigrated from Germany following World War I, perished during the infamous "death march." He had volunteered for service shortly before Pearl Harbor.
Scant encouraging news occurred for the United States until June 1942, when the Battle of Midway turned the tide in the Pacific against Japan. And in the European Theatre, the British invaded North Africa in November of the same year. By July 1943, the U.S. and Britain were in Sicily.
World War II continued in Europe all the way to almost the end of my graduation from high school, 1945. By taking advanced courses every summer, and by adding an extra course for three years, I was able to complete public high school in three years instead of the usual four. Early in my third year, I was advised by an assistant principal that I would have enough credits to graduate at the close of my third year, and that I was to be one of the graduation speakers. It meant that I was only 17 when I graduated; anyone 18 was called up in the draft before he was able to graduate. As it turned out, I registered for the draft while in my first year of college in the seminary, but the war in Europe had already ended. In the Pacific, the abrupt end came two months later.
World War II brought rationing; I still have at least one "ration card." Shoes (leather shoes) were rationed; sugar and butter, also; finally all food. For Christmas meals, for example, one must "save up" food stamps beforehand; the same for Thanksgiving. Kerosene was rationed. (I remember taking the bus to one of Bridgeport’s harbors when a shipment of kerosene came in, then boarding a returning bus, with two heavy glass kerosene drums. The lines at the pier numbered in the hundreds.) Gasoline was also rationed; professionals like physicians, I recall, were entitled to a few extra gallons per week. Tires were rationed; rubber exports from southeast Asia had been interdicted by the Japanese.
My diary for 1944 reads that on 19 December, heavy snow blanketed all of Fairfield County. On Friday, 20 December, I led two general assemblies in school. As assembly leader, I used to explain the meaning of Christmas and the Christmas tree, then introduce various Christmas carols, which our choir sang. Then I would turn over the assembly (about 1,500 students) to a Jewish girl, who would explain Chanukah and the Chanukah candles (menorahs). Her name was Rhea. We all listened respectfully and learned.
I recall giving speeches on the radio, or in movie theatres (between features!) to encourage the sales of War Bonds. I also served as a junior Air Raid Warden.
As the war continued, senior classmen were excused from studies for the first two periods on Mondays, to learn "pre-induction swimming" at the nearby YMCA.
As president of my home room, I would begin each day by reading a psalm from the Bible. We all joined in praying for the GI’s on the front lines. Through it all, we grew up quickly; there was no time to waste, no time to forget that the War was not yet over.
Faithfully, we kept praying. We prayed especially for the GI’s whom we knew; sad news used to arrive almost every week. No one dared advise us not to pray, or not to read from the Bible.
Each Christmas, especially, we prayed in hymns for the GI’s who were fighting for us and for the essential "Four Freedoms" which President Franklin D. Roosevelt emphasized in his celebrated address to Congress on 6 Jan., 1941: Freedom of Speech; Freedom of Religion; Freedom from Want; Freedom from Fear.
One hymn we all learned and repeated often in those days (including in concerts in several Protestant and Episcopalian Bridgeport churches) is the Latin round, Dona nobis pacem ("Grant us peace"). We need to pray these words again this Christmas, and every Christmas. The source of true and lasting peace is necessarily and always God. As Americans, we must take seriously the Biblical axiom, "In God we trust."
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor ofThe Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.