79 Years Ago This Afternoon
NW Mailing List
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Mon Dec 7 15:10:53 EST 2020
I wrote the original post several years ago on Pearl Harbor Day. I’ve edited several times since, and since not all of you are on Facebook, I thought that I’d share it here as well.
"We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin…..
The radio crackled through the static that fateful December day now 79 years ago. It was a typical wintery day in Roanoke, cold, but not freezing. Roanoke was still a small southern city, very much a small town feel. Sunday was a day of rest. For most folks, Sunday morning was for church, then home for family time, usually a large midday dinner. The depression was still in the recent enough past for folks to remember those difficult days, but things were improving.
Roanoke was a bit better off during the depression than many, as the Norfolk and Western had helped keep the economy going with the Shops still working. Sure, it was a reduced schedule, and people’s hours were cut, but unlike a lot of places, the railroad simply decided it was better to keep their skilled folks employed, rather than letting that skilled labor disappear while shut down. The N&W felt it was better to keep them for when times would get better.
Once home from church, the man of the house would check the coal furnace, perhaps make a few adjustments to the damper or grates, then head back upstairs, settle into his chair and open up the mornings Roanoke Times and catch up on the news of the day. Perhaps the family might turn on the radio to listen to some musical offerings.
During this time, railroad news was important to the Roanoke Valley, and today’s paper was no exception, the N&W was almost always good for a story. This Sunday it was headlined “Christmas Travelers To Tax Norfolk & Western Facilities.”
Only folks who had essential jobs were working on Sundays in that era. This was the era where office folks worked a half day on Saturdays as well. But like today, those nurses, doctors, news people, railroad workers and farmers always had work to do. With all the stores closed, downtown Roanoke was virtually a ghost town, as offices were empty. Christmas spirit was in the air, it looked like it might be a pretty good holiday season for the first time in years.
However, the railroad works 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Trains ran regardless of the weather, day of the week or time of year. This was one of those days, just another Sunday in December, just 18 days to Christmas. The N&W was going to be pushed in its service over the next few weeks, passenger traffic was high, express business was busy with Christmas packages traveling across the country. Traffic had been busy even before the outbreak of war on September 1, 1939, the country was, very slowly, moving to build up its military forces.
Regardless, things were moving forward, the economy was better, what was going on in Europe was still pretty far removed from Roanoke, Virginia. While war talk had been a prime newspaper subject for some time, most folks only considered it a European problem. Generally, the public opinion was ‘why get involved in another European war? So, lets just let them fight it out and keep our boys home’. Most readers had not paying close attention to the details that had been coming out of Washington over the last months.
However, even as the radiator clanked and hissed under the windows that chilly morning, far out in the Pacific Ocean (about 200 miles north and a bit west from Hawaii, the distance by rail from Roanoke to Williamson) things were unfolding to change that attitude dramatically. Pilots and crews of the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army were firing up their engines. Blue exhaust smoke and flame belching out in the damp early dawn hours as they began to roll off the decks of the aircraft carriers, and group up in formation.
Train No. 4 was probably not out of Roanoke very long when those first planes launched. Barely seven months ago, the Southern had introduced its new train “The Tennessean” and it was still primarily a stainless steel streamliner. With the brand new Class Js on the headend from Bristol, the train had little trouble making schedule (and occasionally even making up time!). The eastbound Tennessean was due to arrive at 2:30 pm. All across Roanoke when those mellow steamboat whistles of the new Class J sounded, most folks knew what that meant one of the streamliners was moving, you could almost set your watch by it. As of this moment, only two Class Js were running; 600 and 601 (600 in service on October 29, 601 was out of the shops on November 17). The third class J, 602 was due out of Roanoke Shops on Monday.
As the Tennessean rolled through Salem, having met its westbound counterpart families across the area sat down for Sunday dinner. If the radio was on just before 2:30 pm, a special news bulletin came in "We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by air President Roosevelt announced…” This stopped people in their tracks, had barely ever heard of Pearl Harbor prior to this.
Once the eastbound Tennessean pulled in on station track 3, the quiet station was in an uproar with people running about. The fireman looked out and certainly wondered what on earth was happening. As he climbed down to check the engine he asked one of the folks what was going on. The answer came back, “they’ve attacked Pearl Harbor”. The Tennessean was only to be in Roanoke for 9 minutes, and running a few minutes late shortened that even more. The fireman guessed it meant there was a war on. The new engine crew was ready to take the train east. By the time the Radford Division engine crew marked off, an 8-page extra edition of the Roanoke World News was on the streets. Everyone was hungry for news, remember there was no 24-hour news cycle in those days. Some folks may have questioned if this was a hoax, much like the “War of the Worlds” which was just over two years before.
Even if there is a war on, there was still a railroad to run, there were passengers, mail, express and freight to move. Now, people were panicking too. Of course, every soldier and sailor was now wanting to get home for what might likely would be their last visit for a very long time.
Over the next fifteen days, US railroads moved almost 600,000 members of the armed forces, an unprecedented situation. The N&W did its part passenger traffic was heavier than normal. On that fateful Sunday, there was at least one troop train moving across the N&W behind a Class A.
Pearl Harbor was a disaster for the US, 2,335 marines and sailors died an additional 68 civilians also lost their lives, bringing the total to 2,403 dead. Of that total, 1,177 were on the USS Arizona, almost half of the military deaths.
We remember and salute our rapidly disappearing World War II veterans, one of the best known was buried yesterday, actually riding out his last miles by rail. This is, of course, not to diminish the sacrifice of those who paid the ultimate price all those years ago.
Our latest magazine is devoted to the Norfolk and Western and World War II with a great article by Bud Jeffries on the N&W’s contribution to the war effort. Filled with photos of the war effort, it is well worth adding to your collection.
Like what you read? Please consider joining the Norfolk and Western Historical Society at:
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