There was nothing out of the ordinary for Rusk County citizens on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. They awoke and departed for morning church services on a cold and sunny winter’s day. But the peace was suddenly shattered that same afternoon, when reports came over the radio that naval bases in Hawaii had been surprise attacked by a force of Imperial Japanese bombers.
“It seemed so surreal, like some sort of horrible, horrible dream that you couldn’t wake up from,” said Rusk County native Helen Bagley. “What made matters worse was how slow the news came. It wasn’t like now where you could just turn on the television and have several different stations giving all the information or click on a website and read all the details […] because there was so much we didn’t know. We couldn’t help but be afraid that someone we knew and loved had died.”
The Henderson Daily News ran the headline “Congress Declares War” across the top of the paper the following day, with reports of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “day that will live in infamy” speech. Tom Swiley, staff writer, wrote that the city was peaceful at the moment, though any illusions of American isolationism had been shattered in the early morning attack.
“Henderson was singularly peaceful today, a few hours after plummeting Japanese bombs had blasted into oblivion all dissension and all speculation concerning the neutrality status of this country in the present world war,” Swiley wrote. “Only the raucous cries of newsboys here pierced the stillness of America’s first night under alien aggression […] with one accord the citizens of Henderson were on the alert, trusting, almost relieved, that the turn of events had placed them behind the protection of the American military forces.”
Henderson native and Henderson Daily News regular contributor Frances Gibson remembers being stunned at the news, and fearful for her fellow classmates who had just graduated from Henderson High School the previous summer, as well as her brother who was stationed aboard the USS Wharton with the U.S. Navy.
“We could only hope and pray for his safety as we waited for word from him,” Gibson remembered. “We found out later that his ship had left Pearl Harbor two days earlier […] according to records, there were at least 30 Rusk County citizens serving in the Pacific at the time of the attack.”
Swiley’s article mentioned these 30, adding that “the list is not complete in every detail since reports were received on most of the men several months ago.”
Among these were Fulton Bolton, Ray Propes and Edward “Buck” Reeves, recent Henderson High School graduates, were all reported as being on the USS West Virginia, which sank at her moorings in Pearl Harbor during the attack. Paul Brightwell was reported to be on the USS Dewey, stationed in Hawaii, and William C. Reeves Jr. was stationed on the USS Enterprise in Pearl Harbor, relatives told Henderson Daily News staffers.
“It seemed like everything just speeded up after that,” said longtime Rusk County resident Jimmy Parker who was attending school in Leverett’s Chapel at the time. “Then it never slowed down again until the war was over.”
Gibson said it seemed like the entire nation was united behind the cause of protecting the freedoms Americans cherished, and that the country would do well to remember those who were in harm’s way then as well as those who continue to fight for those freedoms now.
“May we never become so preoccupied that we fail to take time out on this memorable day, to thank God for the many sacrifices made by our servicemen and women,” she said. “And to ask for His continued blessings on our nation.”