News of Attack Shatters a Lazy Sunday in Baltimore

December 07, 1991|By James Bock

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."

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