News of Attack Shatters a Lazy Sunday in Baltimore

Marylanders spent much of the lazy Sunday of Dec. 7 encased in a final bubble of prewar naivete. Then news of that tumultuous morning in the Pacific burst it.

For many, word of the Japanese attack that changed the world came by radio. The reaction was often disbelief verging on denial. How, after all, to understand that war -- so remote and foreign in the morning -- was a loaded gun to your head by afternoon? How to acknowledge that events totally beyond your control suddenly pushed your life down dark paths?


The chilly Sunday morning contained no hint of the cataclysm around the corner.

The morning paper, ignorant of the aircraft carriers steaming toward Pearl Harbor, tracked the Japanese troops moving on Thailand. The Sun's Frank R. Kent, a harsh critic of the New Deal, reminded readers that "next year taxes of undreamed-of severity will be imposed upon the American people." The Sunday magazine told toy shoppers that Buck Rogers and American Indian suits were out; bombers, battleships and soldiers were in.



PETE KARANGELEN, 17, a stocky Greek kid whose family sold candy at Cross Street Market, awoke that morning at home in Federal Hill, grabbed The Sunday Sun and turned to the sports section. He was proud to see himself, jaw jutting out, pictured as right guard on the 1941 all-star scholastic football team.

At the Klevan house in the 4700 block of Reisterstown Road, father David, 48, owner of a Lexington Street tobacco shop, was recovering upstairs from a heart attack. Sons Albert and Irving had a late breakfast downstairs and sat around the table reading the papers.

In Highlandtown, Wilma Lawrence Berryman, a young woman of 19 with a taste for fashionably long skirts and dressy hats, went to church at East and Dillon streets, enjoyed a big Sunday dinner and loafed, waiting for a Fort Meade soldier from Iowa to come to supper.

Claude Merckle, 21, and Wilda Reed, 19, spent the day fixing up a second-floor apartment on the outskirts of Hagerstown. Childhood sweethearts who grew up on the same block, they were to be married that night at the Church of God.

A week of mild, foggy days had given way to brisk weather and sunshine -- perfect for a six-mile race at Clifton Park and the half-dozen soccer leagues that took over city playing fields on fall Sunday afternoons.

More sedentary folks eased into overstuffed armchairs after the midday repast to read William L. Shirer's "Berlin Diary" or John P. Marquand's "H. M. Pulham, Esq." Others clustered around radio-phonographs to listen to 78-rpm recordings of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald or to tune into WCAO to hear the New York Philharmonic play Shostakovich.

Stores were closed, and the downtown streets were peopled by scattered window shoppers. Moviegoers, men in broad lapels and women in furs, spilled out of the Hippodrome ("The Men in Her Life" with Loretta Young) and the Mayfair ("Week-End in Havana" with Carmen Miranda) to drift past the windows of Hutzler's and Stewart's, Hochschild Kohn and the May Co.



PETE KARANGELEN in Federal Hill and Albert Klevan on Reisterstown Road both were listening to the Brooklyn Dodgers-New York Giants professional football game over WOR when they heard the first bulletin. It was 2:25 p.m.

"They broke in with just one statement that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, and they said we'll be back with more news," said Mr. Klevan, now a retired technical illustrator. "My brother and I just looked at each other in complete disbelief, just dumbfounded. I thought it was some kind of radio play, like Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" [a mock report of a Martian invasion]. Then they started to give more detail, and we figured ++ this had got to be true."

Mr. Karangelen, now owner of the Kent Lounge restaurant on York Road, said: "I didn't know where Pearl Harbor was, I have to admit it. I didn't know it was Hawaii."

Wilma Lawrence Berryman, now a retired teacher, didn't hear until a radio bulletin interrupted a late-afternoon family supper of sandwiches and potato salad with the soldier from Des Moines. "This poor guy, I thought he would faint when he heard the news," she said.

Claude and Wilda Reed Merckle finally got the word when they arrived at Mrs. Merckle's sister's house for a pre-wedding supper. "I was shocked," said Mr. Merckle, retired president of a sheet metal company. "We didn't pay too much attention to Japan. It was a real bombshell when it hit. I asked her, 'Do you want to call this [wedding] off? I'll probably get called up this week.' "


The bride declined. "I felt like facing whatever came together," she said.


GEORGE M. LUCAS, then a 30-year-old advertising copywriter, was preparing a full-page ad for the Fight for Freedom Committee, urging the United States to get into the war to save British democracy. When he and a friend heard the news, "we stopped and said, 'Well, there's no point in running this.' We were in the war willy-nilly. We went out of business that moment."

So did the Maryland chapter of the isolationist America First Committee. "I think Japan has committed suicide," its president said.

By late afternoon, the attack was the talk of Baltimore. Citizens stood at Sun Square, Baltimore and Charles streets, and read news flashes on the Trans-Lux electric board. The Sun published a four-page extra. Gov. Herbert R. O'Conor dropped all engagements for the day.

Some youngsters drew a crowd at the corner of Homewood and Chase streets by hanging an effigy of a Japanese with the sign, "This Jap Tried to Invade the U.S."


The attack "left Baltimore startled and only half-believing it could havehappened," The Sun reported.

"A stupid thing for Japan to do," Seaman Bill Damone of the Curtis Bay Coast Guard depot said then. "But this means curtains for Japan. . . . We feel that our navy is plenty strong and can handle those boys without too much trouble."

IRONICALLY, MARYLANDERS continued to underestimate the Japanese, even in the face of the best evidence -- the attack on supposedly impregnable Pearl Harbor -- that to do so was fatal.

At the Naval Academy, Fred Schnurr, a midshipman and tackle on the Navy football team in those leather-helmet days, was on watchwhen he heard a roar from the mess hall.

"My first reaction was Japan had made a hell of a mistake," said Mr. Schnurr, an Arnold retiree. "We thought like every American that our Navy would walk right in there and wipe them out in three months."

Other football players and their dates were at Buchanan House, the academy superintendent's quarters, for a dance in honor of their recent victory over Army. "While the midshipmen and their pretty drags danced the conga, most of the adults hovered over the radio for the latest news of the Japanese attack," the Evening Capital reported.


Capt. Bill Busik, then star left halfback and now executive director of the Naval Academy Alumni Association, remembers a more somber scene. The superintendent was called to the phone and came back to announce we were at war. He told us to go back to the hall. The 'jimmy legs,' the guards at the gate, were armed, and we indeed were at war," he said.

Adm. Isaac C. Kidd Jr., then a midshipman studying for final exams, was dining with his mother at Carvel Hall hotel when "the head bellman, a sort of institution, Marcellus, came rushing into the dining room, announcing that we were under attack."

It was not until later that Ike Kidd found that his father, an admiral, had been killed in the explosion of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.


MARYLANDERS WENT ON with their lives that night, savoring whatever normalcy was left. The Baltimore Orioles hockey team beat the Johnstown Blue Birds before the biggest crowd of the season.

Albert Klevan, encouraged by his mother, went dancing and then had a root beer at Park Circle. The popular drive-in was "abuzz with conversation about the war. Strangers were talking to strangers," he said.


He went home to his second great shock of the day -- his father had died. Despite the family's efforts to keep the outbreak of war from him, "Everyone seemed to think he somehow had heard the news and that might have given him the second heart attack," Mr. Klevan said.

Claude Merckle and Wilda Reed were married that night 50 years ago after the evening service at the Church of God. She wore an aqua wool dress with a hat to match. The next morning, they packed up their 1935 Chevy and headed to Niagara Falls, listening to radio reports of unidentified aircraft spotted off the Atlantic coast.

The big war, the "good war," had begun for Americans. Nothing would ever be the same.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor -- an obscure U.S. base in the territory of Hawaii -- was ravaged by a Japanese attack.

The devastating surprise assault propelled the United States into World War II, forever changing the face of the globe.

From Dec. 1 through tomorrow, The Sun is publishing recollections of the days that encompassed Pearl Harbor, and recalling the lives and times of Marylanders on the eve of cataclysm.