More than 70 years after the first Japanese bomb exploded at Pearl Harbor, it can be hard to imagine how people here responded when the news reached Hampton Roads.
Theaters interrupted their screenings to call servicemen to duty. Radio stations broke into their popular Sunday programming with updates and bulletins.
Traffic jams formed outside the main offices of the Daily Press in Newport News as the newspaper rushed to print an extra edition that hit the street only 4 hours after the first waves of Japanese airplanes struck.
But unlike much of the rest of the nation -- where the news of Dec. 7, 1941 seemed to come out of the blue -- the region that already ranked as one of America's largest and busiest defense centers seem to have been better prepared for the shock.
For months before, the growing fleet at Norfolk had been patrolling the Atlantic, helping to protect British convoys from German submarines.
Langley Field in Hampton was so well prepared for war that -- according to the Daily Press of Dec. 8 -- it "was the first army post to quietly but quickly go on alert."
"If you lived in Hampton Roads in the months before Dec. 7, 1941 -- and you still didn't know a war was coming -- you just weren't paying attention," says curator Joe Judge of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
"Why didn't we do something about it before?" the wife of a Newport News World War I veteran told the Daily Press on the evening of the attack.
"Instead of waiting all this time."
Just 6 months before Dec. 7, the Navy at Norfolk reported its highest personnel count to that date, including 10,000 new recruits as well as more than 15,000 men on station and another 14,426 on patrol.
Few of them were caught by surprise when the Japanese struck, and the giant base shifted into a full wartime footing so quickly that Adm. Manley H. Simons reported "doubling of protective forces has been carried out smoothly in accord with preconceived plans.
At Langley Field, the staff officers of Col Eugene A. Lohman met within 30 minutes of receiving the news, alerted by the field officer on duty.
All leaves and furloughs were canceled, all the men ordered to return to base at once and the air field placed under double guard and closed to civilian traffic.
"We at Langley Field seem to be two jumps ahead of all the orders we have received thus far," an officer confided, noting that the staff and men had a a long-established set of plans to follow.
At Fort Monroe, the executive officer of the coastal defense artillery defending Hampton Roads and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay was less forthcoming, announcing only "that there would be no announcement about any actions of his command.
But his men were already making the trip across Hampton Roads to garrison Fort Wool, and news soon leaked that "the big 16-inch coastal defense rifles at Fort Story would be manned 'within the hour.'"
Still, the local telephone exchange in Newport News was so jammed that it had to call in three times its normal complement of a dozen operators to handle all the traffic.
Uniformed servicemen brandishing side arms and rifles began surprising residents in their new roles as guards at such strategic locations as the Lee Hall and Big Bethel Reservoirs, the ferry docks and the James River Bridge.
At Newport News Shipbuilding -- where previous counter-sabotage measures had already completed fingerprinting, photographing and issuing photo IDs to every one of 18,000 workers -- soldiers from Fort Eustis arrived on Dec. 9 to survey the plant for the placement of new anti-aircraft guns.
With seven aircraft carriers already under construction, there was little doubt about the need for extra protection.
Nearly four dozen B-26 bombers left Langley Field the same day, filling the sky over the Peninsula with the roar of their engines as they flew across the continent to bolster the air defenses on the West Coast.
That thunderous sound and sight may have inspired the chief air raid warden in rural Deep Creek, who issued an immediate call for more volunteers, arguing that, "After all they caught them asleep in Hawaii and the Philippines."
By Dec. 10, local army and navy recruiting offices were choked with eager recruits in what officials described as a "stampede."
Black out and air raid instructions soon followed in a newspaper whose stories, editorials and even cartoons were transformed almost overnight by the sudden conflict.
"A mattress under a table combines comfort with safety," the readers of the Daily Press were advised, as they made the shift from peace to nearly 4 years of war.
-- Mark St. John Erickson
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