Santa Claus came to town in time for the annual Christmas Parade on Saturday, but by the next afternoon music lovers in Columbus were tuned into WRBL radio’s broadcast of the Columbia Symphony until Happy Hank interrupted the solitude of a typically peaceful Sunday with a news bulletin that changed the city forever.
His real name was Henry East, but listeners of the city’s only radio station knew him as Happy Hank, a 23-year-old announcer whose job on Sundays was to make sure the network signal from New York was coming in loud and clear. He had done that so many times that it was as easy as putting on his socks.
East had worked around the AM station since he was in his teens and by 1941 he was living upstairs in rooms that owner Jim Woodruff had long ago converted into an apartment. Only a staircase separated the announcer’s living quarters from the studio on Second Avenue.
It was quiet, and it was Sunday.
“I was just sitting there enjoying life,” East said. “Then all hell broke loose.”
Hell really broke loose at a faraway naval base known as Pearl Harbor. At 7:48 a.m. Hawaii time, hours before church bells would chime, 353 ships and planes of the Imperial Japanese Navy struck like a poisonous snake leaving in its wake 2,403 American casualties and 1,178 wounded. In addition to the human losses, four battleships were sank and eight more were severely damaged. A flock of specialty ships were also lost. Our invincible psyche was yesterday’s news, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that America was now at war.
We know these things 75 years later but on Dec. 7, 1941 the country was too shocked to sort out the events that occurred on that unknown Navy base. And between Hawaii and Columbus stood Happy Hank and a clattering teletype machine.
East didn’t punch the clock until 1 p.m., and within half an hour, he heard the banks of bells start ringing on a squadron of International News Service wire machines. That sound signaled that a major story was about to transmit.
The young radio announcer was well trained. “I read the one-line bulletin from INS in a hurry and decided that I had better put it on the air,” he said.
In one motion, he turned down the symphony feed and opened up his microphone. The words he spoke to Columbus were simple and direct: “We interrupt this program to bring you a news flash: The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.”
For the rest of his life Happy Hank would tell folks that he beat CBS News to the punch by two whole minutes — an eternity in the news business. The network voice belonged to John Charles Daly, who in the early days of television became the host of “What’s My Line?” — for years a popular quiz show on Sunday nights.
After reading his words, Happy Hank went back to the music of the symphony. By 2:30, CBS had cancelled all of its regular programming and turned into a news station. Phones at WRBL radio started to ring. Listeners couldn’t believe what they heard and those who believed wanted to know more. Even station owner Jim Woodruff.
“He probably thought I’d had an extra beer too much,” he said. “I assured him it was factual.”
NUPTIALS AND MANEUVERS
Columbus went about life on the 6th of December as it always had.
Shoppers — many in uniform — created a traffic jam on downtown sidewalks.
There was a local election being held, though by law you had to be white and a Democrat to vote for either incumbent Buck Key or challenger W.B. “Doc” Bridges.
Southern society turned out in force to celebrate the union of Lt. Howell Hollis Jr. and the former Janet Bowers at Trinity Episcopal Church where the sanctuary by Woodwardia fern and ropes of laurel that entwined the choir rail.
Out at Fort Benning, troops awaited the return of colorful Col. George Patton and his Second Armored Division after 10 weeks of rigorous maneuvers in North and South Carolina making them too tired to shop or throw rice at the happy couple.
Show windows at Kirven’s Department Store were brightly decorated for the season and if an undecided soldier didn’t know what to buy his honey, Kitty Kay and her squad of personal shoppers were ready to help.
When buyers tired of retail, S&S Cafeteria featured a full meal for a quarter. Crowds were so thick at the Empire Cafe on 12th Street that owner George Monoxelos locked his doors and let one customer enter as another left.
Scott Rivers and his 10-piece colored band were at Idle Hour Park in Phenix City presenting “Harlem Rhythms.”
Johnny Mack and his orchestra were at Club Matag for your dancing and gambling pleasure.
At Memorial Stadium in Columbus, Morris Brown defeated North Carolina College 7-0 in the Peace Blossom Classic earning the National Negro Football championship.
A tired city turned in early, going home to start their Saturday night rituals, shining shoes, pressing pants, taking baths and studying their Sunday School lessons one more time. The threat of war had been with them for some time but when lights were turned out that night no one knew how close they were to fighting.
A DAY OF UNREST
Columbus remembered the Sabbath and kept it holy and so they did on the 7th of December.
Members of St. Paul Methodist Church downtown were overjoyed to worship in their main auditorium even though the new carpet was not completely in place. The Rev. Kenneth McGregor’s sermon was titled “Enjoying the Peace We Have.”
The Columbus Community Chorus was getting in one last rehearsal for a 2:30 p.m. concert that afternoon at the Second Armored Division Hostess House on post. Around that same time, a funeral was planned for Clifton Taylor, a 21-year-old mess sergeant who had died in a collision with a school bus near Dawson, Ga.
Not long after the Sunday sermons were preached, the contents of Happy Hank’s bulletin began to spread around town. Jordan High senior Joe Posey was visiting friends in Upatoi when he heard about the coming of war. He was scared enough to hurry home.
After he calmed down, Posey began to plan a sale of savings stamps at school that would bring him and the school national acclaim. By the end of the war, he was in uniform.
Bradley, the post commander, was tending his garden at Riverside when a member of his staff stopped to tell him about the attack. Bradley said little. He just excused himself, hurried inside, and put on his uniform. He went straight to Building 35.
W.C. “Cliff” Tucker, a second-generation editor of The Columbus Enquirer, was at the funeral for the mess sergeant at Benning. Back in town, he went straight to his brother-in-law’s house where he called the newspaper just to check in. A colleague told him the news about Pearl Harbor for the first time.
His wife Daisy remembered that call. “He was a rearing-tearing kind of man when he was excited, and when he put down that telephone he just pushed us aside. He was so upset that he wasn’t in the newsroom when the news came.”
The Tuckers had recently moved to a house on 12th Street so it did not take long for him to walk to the office. He got the staff ready to publish two four-page extra editions that afternoon. The first one, which sold for a dime, contained only the bare essentials. The second, which cost a nickel, had more details.
Hawkers joined the crowds on Broadway and they had no trouble finding customers. People were hungry for information in an age where delivering the news was a challenge. There was no Internet, no social media and no television or cable stations where somber anchors could inform the public.
Downtown’s three movie houses were open and business was good. Newspaper carrier Ernest Weaver — whose paper route included Broadway — was watching a movie at the Rialto. He left when an eerie voice on the speaker said Pearl Harbor had been bombed.
At the Bradley Theater, future WRBL-TV weatherman Doug Wallace and his wife went to an evening show. They knew about the attack already but it was still beyond their imagination. During the movie it became real.
“Every now and then they would announce that members of so-and-so unit were to report to their barracks. A few men would get up and go. No rush. No panic. No fear that the world was about to end. It was orderly. The impact came on you gradually,” Wallace said.
People stayed downtown, feeling a need to be close to others.They talked about neighbors who were stationed in Hawaii and wondered about their fate. When they talked about the Japanese military they used terms that would not be appropriate in a politically-correct world.
On the morning after, long lines formed early at recruiting stations in Columbus. First to enlist was Herbert Sturkie, a local textile worker.
“I think this is an appropriate time for every able bodied man to come to the aid of his country,” said Sturkie, who joined the Army. He was not alone. If recruiters would have accepted them Old Soldiers would have joined the young guys.
“We’re too old to serve, but not too old to help,” said Thomas Fowler, commander of the Charles S. Harrison Post of the American Legion.
Spirits were high and there was an epidemic of optimism. But in the coming years, as friends and family were lost, Columbus came to understand what war was really about. They watched the Fort Benning assembly line turn out trained fighting men at a rapid clip. They read daily reports from Europe and Japan and realized that the commanders of these outfits were alumni of Fort Benning.
As people grew weary of the sorrow and the sacrifice, they wondered when the war would end, never imagining that Col. Paul Tibbets —a frequent visitor to his in-laws in Columbus — would be the one to deliver a powerful new bomb with a code name of “Little Boy” that would help bring the conflict to an end after four bloody years.
By the end of the fighting in 1945, Dec. 7th had become a dream and so had Happy Hank’s bulletin on the radio. “Remember Pearl Harbor,” a popular slogan said. And 75 years later, Columbus still does.