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“That morning the world fell apart.”
Those are the words of Newport News’ Kyle Osborne, who was just 19 years old when the Empire of Japan attacked the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
The following day President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the nation that Dec. 7 is a “day which will live in infamy.”
“The people of the United States have already formed their opinions, and well understand the implications for the very life and safety of our nation,” he said. “With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph so help us God.”
Roosevelt then asked the United States Congress to declare war with the Japanese empire, marking the nation’s entrance into the Second World War.
Three quarters of a century later, the day of infamy has not been forgotten by those who lived through it.
“It was panic the world over,” said Osborne, who was in Baltimore, MD at the time of the attack. “We didn’t know if we were next, or if the Japanese were going to strike the West Coast or D.C. next. We were a defenseless target.”
Poquoson’s Gerald Patesel, Jr. went on to join the Navy right out of high school in 1943. He served on the USS Ocelot in the Pacific theater and rose to the rank of Petty Officer Second Class before returning home in 1946. He was 16 at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor and echoed Osborne’s sentiments.
“I was in downtown Hampton,” said Patesel. “We went to the Langley Theatre and they came over the PA system and said, ‘Attention: the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.’ I didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was.”
Patesel said his initial reaction was fear. He didn’t know where a second attack might occur and worried the Chesapeake Bay would be next.
“The next day at school we heard Roosevelt say we were at war with Japan,” he said. “We had an assembly in the auditorium and we heard his speech over the PA system. That’s when I found out where Pearl Harbor was.”
Warner Robins of Yorktown was born in Hampton in 1924 and raised on his family’s dairy farm. He said he was gathering pecans at a grove of old trees near the farm when he heard the news.
“My brother told me,” said Robins. “He had driven up to pick up the bags of pecans that I had gathered and he said ‘Have you heard?’ And I thought he was joking at first. I just couldn’t imagine such a horrible thing having happened.”
As the nation entered a war it had long managed to avoid, many of Eastern Virginia’s young people enlisted into the service. According to William White, post commander at American Legion Post 39 of Williamsburg, 884 men and women from the City of Williamsburg and James City County served during WWII. Many of the young recruits were just barely 18, eager to join the war effort overseas.
“This is stupid to me now, but I was afraid the war would be over before I got out of high school,” said Patesel. “I wanted to go. All my older friends had gone. The attitude was ‘they hit us, we’ve got to beat them.’ I wanted to go.”
Robins said he served with the Eighth Air Force in England, where spent the winter of 1944 flying missions over wartime Europe in a B-17 bomber, eventually reaching the rank of Second Lieutenant. He got his wings in 1944, but was gearing up for combat in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“Two of my three best buddies were as anxious as I to go off to war,” said Robins. “You know how teenagers are, they’re strong on emotions and not too strong on logic. But the most logical one of the bunch wondered what was the point of all this. He couldn’t imagine why it had happened. Because it didn’t make sense to him, he wasn’t all that anxious to be engaged in it all.”
Osborne was drafted into the Air Force in early 1942, and was sent to India to fight against the Japanese forces in Southeast Asia. He flew more than 70 air combat missions over the Himalayas before eventually moving to Newport News, where he has lived since the 1960s.
At the age of 93, the WWII veteran continues to stay busy. He paints and operates his own beauty salon, which he says serves 20 customers a week.
Seventy-five years later, Roosevelt’s words proved prophetic. The attack on Pearl Harbor continues to live in infamy. Meanwhile, the remaining WWII veterans continue to live with memories of youth interrupted by war.
“Through the years I’ve met wives and mothers in my salon who lost their loved ones at Pearl Harbor,” said Osborne. “I’m saddened to this day.”
Adrienne Berard contributed reporting.