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Harford residents remember where they were during Pearl Harbor attack 75 years later

Elizabeth Niswonger was 19 years old, recently married and about four months pregnant with her first child when the United States entered World War II 75 years ago Thursday.

Niswonger, now 93, and her husband, Harvey, lived several miles outside of Aberdeen at the time. They were Christmas shopping in Baltimore on Dec. 8, 1941 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced to the American people that their nation was declaring war on Japan after the Japanese military bombed the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the day before.

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Roosevelt called the day of the sneak attack, Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, "a date which will live in infamy."

Lester Orsburn Sr., 95, a 20-year-old Bel Air High school graduate, was in downtown Bel Air when he heard about the Pearl Harbor attack on the radio.

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"It was kind of just a shock thing," Orsburn said, describing his reaction as "like somebody close to your family dies."

When a generation defining event occurs, certainly its anniversary is not only worth remembering, but also a time for reflection, both about then and now. Such is the case with Dec. 7, 1941.

"The day that World War II was declared, my husband and I were at Sears down on North Avenue doing Christmas shopping," Niswonger recalled Monday. "It was on the radio when President Roosevelt declared war."

She and her husband were married in September of 1941. She was pregnant with the first of their four children, James Dale, who was born in May of 1942.

Her husband worked at the A & P store in Aberdeen at the time and later got a job at the commissary on Aberdeen Proving Ground. He did not join the Army until March of 1945, weeks before the war in Europe ended in May.

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"He was home on leave when the peace was signed," Niswonger said.

She noted he was sent to Japan as part of the U.S. military force that occupied it after its surrender in September of 1945. Japan surrendered after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on two of its cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Niswonger's family was just one of the many families in Harford County affected by the war. Her younger brother, Elwin Moretz, was drafted into the Army and served in Europe.

Niswonger lives in the same Stepney Road house where she raised her children. She and her son hosted a soldier assigned to APG for a few months during the war, after her husband joined the Army, as well as the soldier's wife and child.

Her mother also hosted civilian APG workers – the post was bursting with soldiers and civilian workers hired to build new facilities there.

"People came from all around to get jobs," Niswonger said. "There had been the Depression, and people were happy to get a job."

The noise of the planes broke the early Sunday morning quiet over Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The surprise attack 71 years ago killed 2,390 service members and 49 civilians.

Orsburn Sr., who still lives in Bel Air, was one of those civilian workers. He had been a construction quartermaster at Edgewood Arsenal – now the Edgewood Area of APG – building new structures.

He transferred to the War Department's war ordnance division after the U.S. entered the war, working in the shipping department of a unit that put explosive charges in gas shells and grenades.

Orsburn and his fellow workers were assigned to Edgewood Arsenal.

"[When] I think about that time, I met who became my future wife," he recalled.

His wife, Nellie, who died in May at age 93, worked for the Glenn L. Martin aircraft company in Middle River, "bucking rivets" in the fuel tanks of bomber planes. She later became a payroll clerk at Edgewood Arsenal. They were married in November of 1942.

Orsburn did not serve in the military during the war – the result of a childhood head injury – but his brother, Kenneth, was stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C.,, when Pearl Harbor was attacked,

Two younger Bel Air graduates, brothers Bill and John Becque, were in Pearl Harbor with their father, a military officer, when the naval base was attacked, Orsburn said. The Becque brothers joined the military after the attack, according to Orsburn.

Another school friend, John Miller, was in the Navy and was also stationed at Pearl Harbor. He was so badly injured that he appeared to be dead, and he was in a morgue for about four days until people heard him groaning and rescued him, Orsburn said.

Aberdeen's Memorial Day observance was held at Veterans Park at North Parke and North Rogers streets. It was organized by Legion Post 128, Aberdeen Memorial VFW Post 10028 and Korean War Veterans Chapter 271. (David Anderson and Dan Griffin, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

His brother, Kenneth, served in North Africa, Italy and France. Orsburn said Kenneth only mentioned his wartime experiences once, during a family gathering.

"Other than that, I never questioned him, and he never ever mentioned anything," Orsburn said. "I think he was just glad to try to forget whatever happened."

George Cairnes, 93, of Jarrettsville, was a student at the University of Maryland, College Park when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He soon enlisted in the Army Air Forces.

"My roommate and I, who were both interested in flying, we said, 'We don't want to walk through World War II, let's get down there and get signed up for the aviation program.'" Cairnes recalled.

He noted other students "couldn't wait to get in, and others changed occupations to keep out" of the war.

Cairnes was a flight engineer and pilot on the B-29 bomber aircraft, but he did not see combat. He was part of the Army crews that flew aircraft no longer fit for combat missions back to U.S. storage facilities.

"I was no hero, didn't do anything," Cairnes said.

Aberdeen Proving Ground has been part of the lifeblood of Harford County for just about a century.

Cairnes and his wife, Evelyn, were named Harford Living Treasures by the County Council in 2014. Cairnes was a farmer, and he ran the Cairnes Insurance Agency in Jarrettsville, which was started by his father.

The firm is still in business today as the Cairnes Tapley Insurance Agency.

County Councilman Jim McMahan, 78, of Bel Air, was 3 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, so he does not remember much about the attack itself. As a child during World War II, however, he does remember how everyone in the community pulled together to help the war effort.

He also remembers how the community was affected by the deaths of those who went to war. According to the National Archives, www.archives.gov, 110 Harford County residents were killed in action or missing in World War II.

"Losses were traumatic to not only the individual family, but to the Bel Air community," McMahan said.

He remembers how the mother of Capt H. Merle Bailey, a bomber pilot who died while serving in North Africa in 1943, grieved the loss of her son – the Baileys lived a few doors up the street from the McMahans. A statue honoring Capt. Bailey is in Bel Air Memorial Gardens, where more than 500 veterans of all wars are laid to rest.

"People of my generation remember those families and their losses, and we remember those that came home, also," McMahan said.

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