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Dec. 7 not just another day in Harford, now or in 1941

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.

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.

Like communities everywhere, many Harford County families had loved ones already serving in the Pacific when the attack occurred and immediately became concerned for their safety.

One such family was the Clarks of Indian Spring Farm near Churchville, whose 22-year-old son, Beech Clark, was serving as an aircraft mechanic at Hickam Field on Oahu, not far from Pearl Harbor, and which was also attacked by Japanese planes on Dec. 7. The next day, according to a Dec. 12 article in The Aegis, Clark's 18-year-old brother, Tommy, was on his way to Norfolk, Va., to enlist in the Navy. The Clark family found out on Wednesday, Dec. 10, that Beech was safe, information provided by Maryland U.S. Sen. Millard Tydings.

Astor, who eventually became an Army lieutenant colonel and moved to Harford County in 1977, retired from a civilian position at Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1993.

He recalled World War II as a time when people worked together for a common cause.

"Everybody felt it was a treacherous disaster and everybody pitched in to win the war," he said, recalling also the economic prosperity that ensued.

"Anybody who wanted a job could find a job," he said. "Everything was controlled by the government and everybody was willing to be controlled to win the war."

Astor said he believes Pearl Harbor Day is still well-remembered.

"By all means, we remember that at our cemeteries and remember all the people who had died," he said, adding flags are placed on veterans' graves in honor of the day.

Arch Handy, of Bel Air, was 16 years old when the attack happened and, like Astor, Handy was eager to join the Army.

He did not actually do so until 1944, when he was drafted and fought in three battles in France and Germany during his 18 months in the war.

"Our nation had been attacked," Handy remembered about Pearl Harbor Day. "I would have volunteered but I was drafted … People in their mid-teens were looking at the situation that they had to go into the military."

Handy also heard about the attack on the radio.

"A lot of people didn't even have radios then," he said.

Within a week of the attack, wartime life had already hit Harford County, as prices for animal feed skyrocketed, as did the price of milk, the major agricultural product of the county in 1941, according to the front page of the Dec. 19, 1941 edition of The Aegis. More local young men rushed to enlist. A 15-minute blackout was scheduled in Bel Air the evening of Sunday, Dec. 21, two weeks to the day after the attack. More such exercises were expected, Harford Civil Defense officials warned.

Handy said he gets tears in his eyes from thinking about how Pearl Harbor affected the nation.

His father was working at the Edgewood Arsenal before the war started, he said.

"Everybody talked about the war. It was a big, big thing to talk about," he said. "I became very interested in what was going on in the world."

"It changed the country for good," he said. "People in general were interested in the country after the attack on Pearl Harbor."

Handy said he thinks there may be more interest in Pearl Harbor now than in some times past, especially now that there are fewer and fewer people who were alive when the attack occurred.

"People like me are very much aware," he said. "People are a lot more interested than they would have been at an earlier time."

Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this article.

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