Fayette County

70 years later, memories of Pearl Harbor are fresh

Various military uniforms are part of the World War II exhibit, A Salute to Lexington's Greatest Generation, at the Lexington History Museum. The exhibit, designed to show life in Lexington during the war, opens Wednesday.
Various military uniforms are part of the World War II exhibit, A Salute to Lexington's Greatest Generation, at the Lexington History Museum. The exhibit, designed to show life in Lexington during the war, opens Wednesday.

It was a cool Sunday in Lexington, with temperatures in the 40s, but hearts were warm at the newly organized Hillcrest Baptist Church, which was holding its first-ever service that morning.

The church had no building yet, so the congregation had gathered in the basement of a little grocery store owned by J.B. Day, at 1424 Versailles Road. The Rev. R.D. Aubrey, the recently named pastor, was presiding.

At some point in the service, Day, who had been listening to the radio upstairs, rushed in with the news that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, a place many had never heard of. Aubrey immediately halted the service to offer a special prayer for those who had been killed, and for those who soon would be going off to war.

Ella Ritchey Flynn, who was in the congregation that day, mainly remembers being "shocked and scared." She was only 14, but her life would soon be changed. By the time Flynn was a high school sophomore, she'd be making parachutes for the war effort.

In Pikeville, Christine Hall and her husband, Hugh Benjamin Hall, were in waiting mode that day. Christine was in labor with her first child, and her doctor, who lived next door, had promised to drive her to the hospital when the time was right.

The telephone rang. Benjamin Hall answered it, and he heard a friend shout, "Turn your radio on. All hell has broken loose!"

Christine Hall remembers that when they finally reached Pikeville Methodist Hospital, it was "in complete bedlam, with doctors and nurses rushing everywhere." About 7 p.m., Hugh Benjamin Hall Jr. came into the world, born on arguably the most famous date in American history: Dec. 7, 1941.

On Wednesday, America will observe the 70th anniversary of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, which shocked the nation, crippled the U.S. fleet and thrust Americans into the middle of the biggest war in history. It remains a defining moment in history that affects us to this day.

In previous years, the Herald-Leader marked the Dec. 7 anniversary by interviewing the old soldiers, sailors and airmen who survived the attack. After 70 years, the number of survivors gets ever smaller.

The Kentucky Chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association now lists just 15 attack survivors alive in the state, according to chapter president Jon Toy of Mount Sterling.

"Those are the ones we know of, although there may be some others out there who never joined the organization," Toy said. "We had 105 members at one time. But they are going fast."

Because of that, the Herald-Leader took a different approach to this year's Pearl Harbor anniversary.

Some weeks ago, we invited readers to send us their personal stories about Pearl Harbor, members of their families who were there, what they were doing when word of the attack came, how they were affected by the event.

From today through Wednesday, we'll tell the Pearl Harbor story through their stories and recollections. They'll include the memories of some people who were there, some who lost family or loved ones, all touched in some way, including a Lexington woman who was nine years old and living in Japan when the attack occurred.

There are varying opinions as to just when word of the attack first reached average Americans.

The most-cited hour, however, is 2:31 p.m. Dec. 7, when CBS announcer John Daly interrupted regular programming to say, "The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor by air, President Roosevelt has just announced."

Lexingtonians remember hearing the word on radio, or hearing newsboys shouting the news as they sold special editions of the Lexington Herald on the streets. All who heard it knew that everything had changed.

"It was quite a Sunday," says Ella Ritchey Flynn, now 84. "Everybody was shocked because the Japanese were actually in Washington at the time. Two boys that I grew up with were at Pearl Harbor that day.

"It was frightening, but if you were young, it was also a sort of romantic time, a very exciting time. In my sophomore and junior years at Lafayette, I worked in a parachute factory out where Pepsi-Cola is today.

"Sometimes it scared me. I hoped I didn't overlook something that might cause someone to plunge to their death. But I felt like I was doing something wonderful for the servicemen."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader