Locals react to Japanese attack
On Thursday, Dec. 4, 1941, newspapers in Western North Carolina revealed cities in full holiday swing — ads for Philco tube radios, canned Christmas hams and silk stockings filled their pages, along with announcements for holiday parties and special sales.
The war that had been raging across Europe for more than two years was still a far-off conflict of little note to most Americans. On June 22, Nazi Germany double-crossed former ally Soviet Union by launching a surprise invasion. On Sept. 3, the gas chambers were tested at Auschwitz for the very first time, and on Dec. 5, the Germans abandoned their efforts to capture Moscow.
If the war in Europe wasn’t notable to much of America, the war in the Pacific was even less so; for almost a decade, the Japanese Empire had been brutally slaughtering its way through much of south and southeast Asia.
That July, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt froze Japanese assets in the United States in response to Japanese aggression, and suspended diplomatic relations; a month later, he enacted an oil embargo, which would prove to be the last straw.
Residents of Western North Carolina went about their usual business on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. Holiday shopping was on the agenda for many, as were the usual weekend rituals of time spent with family, and time spent in church.
While great swaths of the region congregated in their various houses of worship just before 1 p.m. local time, they could have had no idea that half a world away, at an American Naval base in an American territory that most of them had never heard of, hundreds of Japanese aircraft rained destruction upon the unsuspecting servicemen, many of whom were just waking up.
News reached the mainland relatively quickly, however most area newspapers were published only weekly, on Thursdays. And although Roosevelt’s historic “day which will live in infamy speech” had been broadcast by radio across most of the United States Dec. 8, many residents of Asheville, Bryson City, Franklin, Sylva and Waynesville only found out that the U.S. was at war on Dec. 11 when their local papers hit the streets.
The Bryson City Times headline, in large, all-caps type proclaimed “U.S. DECLARES WAR ON AXIS POWERS.” Other stories on the front page carried calls for enlistment and notified citizens that the Army had moved “over 800 men of the third battalion of the 39th infantry” from Fort Bragg to the area to protect “hydro-electrical plants” belonging to the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The Times also announced a meeting at the Bryson City Courthouse for the evening of Dec. 15, sponsored by the American Legion, the Chamber of Commerce, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and other local civic clubs. The purpose of the meeting, according to the story, was to “organize the county into a unified group for aiding in the defense of our nation and our homes.”
Another local paper, the Franklin Press and Highlands Maconian, issued a similar headline on Dec. 11 — “Congress Declares War On Japan” — just above calls from the Navy for Western North Carolinians to enlist. Roosevelt’s speech was reprinted in its entirety, right next to a story titled, “Recruiting Stations Packed as Men Flock to Volunteer.”
The Jackson County Journal’s Dec. 11 edition wasn’t much different than Bryson City or Franklin’s paper, except for its use of dated and culturally insensitive language that wouldn’t make it into most papers today.
Its headline “U.S. is at War with Nipponese” used an archaic term for the Japanese people, and in the subhead called the attack “treacherous” and “dastardly,” none of which is particularly outrageous. However, another front-page headline “Huns and Wops Declare War on United States” certainly seems cringe worthy by today’s standards, if even for announcing that the Germans and Italians were now America’s enemies.
The Asheville Citizen focused more on European developments than the attack on Pearl Harbor; with the U.S. declaration of war on Japan, Japan’s Axis allies — Germany and Italy — immediately sprung to her defense, declaring war on the United States Dec. 11.
On the Citizen’s front page, transcripts of speeches by Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler were reprinted, including Hitler’s recent speech to the Reichstag in which he said, “The sincere efforts of Germany and Italy to prevent an extension of the war and to maintain relations with the U.S.A. in spite of the unbearable provocations which have been carried on for years by President Roosevelt, have been frustrated. Germany and Italy have been finally compelled, in view of this, and in loyalty to the Tri-Partite act, to carry on the struggle against the U.S.A. and England jointly and side by side with Japan for the defense and thus for the maintenance of the liberty and independence of their nations and empires.”
The Waynesville Mountaineer’s focus was more local; its headline, “Haywood Ready to Help Win War” was indicative of the flurry of area activity that had begun to take place in response to news of the Japanese attack.
Stories in the Mountaineer told of a Norman Rockwell-esque community gathering in shock around their radios on Sunday, staying up late into the night to catch news of the attack. Those who didn’t own radios at the time “packed” Main Street establishments that did.
Monday was “marked by little business activity” as President Roosevelt’s noontime address was broadcast. The situation hovered “like a pall” over Waynesville, but by Wednesday people had “more or less settled down to acceptance of the grim reality, with a deep realization of the gravity of the situation.”
As astonishment gave way to more practical concerns, citizens of Haywood County began to explore ways in which they could conduct themselves during their new wartime reality.
Like in Bryson City, a “county-wide patriotic rally” was planned for Dec. 15, as was a “Food for Defense” meeting of preachers, teachers, and farmers.
Private industry got in on the act as well — Wellco Shoe Corporation announced it would become the first plant in the area to offer payroll deductions for workers who wanted to buy war bonds, which cost $18.75.