We just marked the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 disaster, and it was one of those moments when all the TV commentators asked all of us, “Do you remember where you were when…?” Of course I remember, but maybe it is my advanced age. I keep thinking more about where I was when Pearl Harbor happened on 12/7/41. My dad was W4GLR, one of hundreds of amateuar radio operators (or HAM) at that time. My dad operated a short wave radio, which allowed him to communicate with other HAMS anywhere in the country or in the world.
He had his own radio equipment, which he designed and built himself shortly after radio was invented, and we our neighbors may have thought us eccentric with a fifty foot tower my father built in our back yard on Court R in Ensley. Electronics were not pocket-sized like they are today. He had two transmitters he also designed and built sitting on the back porch of our house, that are now in the collection of the Birmingham Museum of Flight at the airport.
My dad used this radio equipment to help many people in Birmingham keep in touch with loved ones from whom they were separated by distances that were not so easily bridged in those days. He He had a standing appointment on his radio each Sunday morning with a HAM in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
That was the only way I had ever heard of the place before then.
Probably it is harder for younger generations to imagine the difference in ways to communicate back then. A long distance call was for dire emergencies.
There were no cell phones, believe it or not. In 1941, even a land line was almost a luxury. Regardless, a short wave radio was blessing.
Someone in Jacksonville Florida had a son in the Army stationed in Pearl. My dad passed messages back and forth. The Sunday morning of 12/7/41, for along ago forgotten reason, I did not go to Sunday school or church that day.
My dad’s Pearl Harbor radio contact was interrupted that morning by what sounded like static that got worse and worse and louder and louder.
I was ten years old, lying on the floor, reading the Sunday comics in the Birmingham News near by my dad’s desk and radio receiver. When he finally could not get through to his contact, and not knowing why the “static” had taken over, he tried a new tack. He began calling “CQ! CQ!” CQ is HAM talk when you want to talk with another HAM.
“CQ! For anyone in Pearl Harbor. I have a message for Pearl Harbor,” he repeated several times. And he tuned back and forth to see if anyone was answering his distress call.
Our telephone began to ring and my dad stopped calling CQ to answer it. His face went totally white. I knew he was horrified and stunned. He said into the phone, “Awful!” and “Are you sire?” He thanked the caller and said, “Yes, I know the FBI regulation.”
He stated he would get off the short wave radio band and turn on the commercial bands. My brother and mother came into the room, asking, “What is it? What’s wrong?” Certainly I will always remember my dad’s tone of voice and unbelieving facial expression. He said his friend Smitty called to report that the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor right now. My dad turned to WAPI, the local radio stations and sure enough announcement were being made that confirmed the terrible news.
We had heard the bombing over the short wave. My dad was grateful his friend had telephoned. He knew calling Pearl Harbor with a message would have brought the FBI to our door.
The entire world changed immediately.
Short waves could not operate during times of war. It was illegal. They had to be shut off at once. Years went by before HAMs could operate again.
Not many people in the US heard Pearl Harbor being bombed, as I did on the floor in Birmingham that morning.
On 9/11 all of America knew almost from the beginning of the terrible situation developing at the World Trade Center in New York..
We saw and heard it, step by step, minute by minute over the TV.
There were no TVs in 1941. Special news was distributed by Extras the newspapers took to downtown areas yelling Extra Extra Read all about it. But 9/11 we saw unfold before our eyes. Last week we saw all the horrors again over and over on television.
But even without seeing it on TV, the memory of Pearl Harbor is still very vivid in my head. We went downtown to buy an Extra. I saw the newsreel of Pearl Harbor at the Alabama Theatre later that week.
We went to the Mickey Mouse Club every Saturday, that showed a movie for children for 10 cents. I don’t remember the movie we saw that morning, but I remember the newsreel with all the smoke and the ships on fire. The newsreel showed the Japanese planes with the rising sun on the side in that sneak attack. I saw the ships sinking. I remember I could not believe all the smoke, similar to 9/11.
I remember being frightened to think so many people could be killed at one time. It did not have the instantaneous nature of 9/11, but even 70 years ago, the tragedy of events that seemed so much farther away at that time came home to us in Birmingham just the same.
Ann Rose writes for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org