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Sept. 11 wasn't first U.S. tragedy

“My first thought was, what a great pity that another nation should be added to those aggressors who choose to limit our freedom ... I find myself at the age of 80, an old woman, hanging on to the tail of the world, trying to keep up ... One thing that I am very sure of is that hatred is death, but love is light, but ... when I look at the holocaust that is going on in the world today, I'm almost ready to let go.” - Lena Jamison, Redondo Beach, Calif.

The above quotation, transcribed from an audio tape, was not recorded, as you may think, just after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 of last year, but a long time before - Dec. 9, 1941, two days after the Japanese bombed the naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy.” That interview, and many others recorded in the days immediately following the bombing, can be heard at a Library of Congress Web site called “The Day After the Day Which Will Live in Infamy.”

With the first-year anniversary of 9/11 upon us, great attention has been paid to the many efforts by news organizations and government agencies to document the thoughts and emotions felt by the victims' families and by ordinary citizens. That same desire drove the nation's folklorists to conduct and record street interviews 60 years ago, right after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The late Alan Lomax, legendary folklorist, was head of the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song at the time. He sent a telegram to fellow folklorists around the country, asking them to collect people's reactions to the bombing and the United States' declaration of war.

As described at the Library of Congress Web site, the reactions in general were passionate and patriotic, although a couple of the comments criticized President Roosevelt for wanting to go to war.

As described by Ann Hoog, a reference specialist at the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center, “When you listen to those voices from 1941, along with the street noises in the background, you are better able to imagine the whole context of that particular time and place.”

Here are a few excerpts of what you'll hear at the site:

“I'm gonna fight with hate in my heart. I'm an American not by birth, but by choice, and proud of it.” Jay Noreski, Polish World War I veteran, in Washington.

“I think the Japanese were forced into [the attack] by Mr. Hitler. He probably wielded an ax against them, economically, perhaps, perhaps physically.” Unnamed man in Washington.

“I heard the President's speech, and it suited me to a T. I think the sooner that we get down to the business of licking Japan, the better it will be for the whole world.” Fred Smith, maintenance foreman, New York City.

“I hope the U.S. will fight until the last man goes down. We are many Negroes that are proud of the United States. The Japanese attack on the United States was a very low, dirty trick.” William Clark, 16, a lunchroom counter boy, recorded at a Washington billiard hall.

“We could easily have stayed out of it. They did the wrong thing by electing President Roosevelt. But I'm gonna go ahead and fight anyway.” Unnamed man at the same billiard hall.

At another Library of Congress site are links to other World War II-related pages, including:

  • An annotated script of a Dec. 7, 1941, NBC news report on the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

  • The Veterans History Project, which collects and preserves oral histories and other documents related to America's war veterans.

  • “Now What a Time,” which features blues, gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festivals of 1938-1943 containing a variety of songs related to World War II.

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