Harford remembers Pearl Harbor

The front page of The Aegis from Dec. 12, 1941,was the first edition published following the Dec. 7 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (Patuxent Homestead / December 7, 2011)

Seventy years ago today, at shortly before 8 in the morning of Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, in Hawaii, the first wave of Japanese aircraft attacked the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, plunging the United States into World War II.

But two days before the attack, a surprisingly calm Harford County was more interested in the outcome of a spectacular murder trial in Bel Air involving a 16-year-old drifter from Virginia and two teenage girls, who were accused of shooting a man as they drove through the county two months earlier, according to the front page of The Aegis from Friday, Dec. 5, 1941.

Meanwhile, the Town of Bel Air was on the verge of acquiring land from the Burns family for an alley to be built east of Main Street between Pennsylvania Avenue and Courtland Street, a deal that was expected to improve traffic in the business district.

Two days later, however, the focus of the news, and the citizens, changed dramatically.

"Like" exploreharford's Facebook page

Besides killing about 2,400 people, the surprise attack in Hawaii led the United States to declare war on Japan and Germany, the latter which had begun the fighting in Europe more than two years earlier. Until the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. had been neutral in the European war, but had been gradually preparing for the inevitable. A few days before the attack, Harford County had fulfilled its latest draft quota of 30 young men, whose names were printed on the front page of The Aegis on Dec. 5.

As The Aegis reported in its lead article of Friday, Dec. 12, "So certain were Harford citizens of an early outbreak of war, little excitement and no fear prevailed on Sunday when announcement of actual warfare with Japan came over the radio. It was what everyone expected, and the only surprise was that firing began quite so soon, or in such a treacherous manner."

But, what may or may not have been expected, was no less unforgettable, either then or 70 years later.

Two Harford County residents, who were alive during the attack on Pearl Harbor and who later served overseas in World War II, recalled Tuesday that it was a grave time for the nation — and the world.

"The next day, President [Franklin] Roosevelt declared war and said this is a day of infamy," recalled Havre de Grace's Ray Astor, one of many local residents who entered the military in the wake of the attack.

For Astor, who served in the Army for 20 years, it marked the start of his military career.

He was a first-year engineering student in Chicago and a cadet in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps when the Japanese attacked Hawaii.

"I was with a friend and his dad said, 'Come over to the radio. There's something very serious happening,'" Astor recalled. "We spent the whole rest of the afternoon listening to it."

Astor realized the event would change the course of daily life.

"We were all aware of how severe it was," he continued. "When it had time to sink in the next day, and the president declared war, we knew we were in a world war because the National Guard had been called in the previous year for training."

After the Pearl Harbor attack, "that was scrapped and they were in there for the duration," Astor said.

Astor stayed in college and signed up for the Army after graduating, where he went to the Army Air Corps. He worked as an aircraft engineer and helped train the "Tuskegee Airmen," the first black military aviators in the armed forces.

"I just couldn't wait to get in," Astor said about joining the Army, but noted he was encouraged by the military to finish school first.

"They said, 'You would be more valuable that way,'" he recalled.

The week after Pearl Harbor was attacked, local, state and military police in Harford County were busy rounding up soldiers and sailors who were home on duty and making sure they got back to their bases, according to stories in the Dec. 12, 1941, edition of The Aegis.

By Monday morning, Dec. 8, Capt. E.R. Burkins, commander of the Company D of the Maryland National Guard based at the Bel Air Armory, had called his men to active duty and a contingent was already doing guard duty at the facility. Security was stepped up at the gate of Edgewood Arsenal, and provisions were being made for air raid drills in the community, especially in schools. A campaign was announced by the Red Cross to raise $50 million nationwide, and a committee was appointed in Harford County to oversee raising the local share, which had been set at $12,000.