Watch CBSN Live

Where Were You?

It took 60 years for Bernice Kinsler to understand completely the tears that flowed during a family reunion at a New York City hotel on Dec. 7, 1941.

She was 12 then and confused when word spread of the attack on Pearl Harbor. “Suddenly all the women started crying,” she said. “I remember asking, why all of them?”

On Sept. 11, 2001, she finally, deeply, understood. “The flashback was overwhelming,” said Kinsler, a retiree in Sun City, Fla. “I started to cry. In that instant, I knew what they felt.”

The mists of six decades have hardly diminished memories of the exact moment when Americans heard about Japan's attack on the United States.

As with only a few other transcendent events in a lifetime — the assassination of John Kennedy, perhaps man landing on the moon, now the terrorist attacks — people remember where they were and what they were doing.

“There aren't many days in your life you can do that,” said Alf Jacobson, 77, of New London, N.H., who counts Pearl Harbor, high school graduation, his wedding day and JFK's death among them.

Dec. 7, 1941, was a lazy Sunday — a day for God and football on the radio. Ralph LaPerche, then 19, played pinochle with a buddy in Rhode Island. Joe Conners was at a Savannah, Ga., moviehouse with his dad.

“I was at a tea party, dressed in my pretty dancing clothes when we got the news,” says Elizabeth Estelle of Phoenix. “I thought, 'They're going to kill all our eligible young men.”' (She found one, John, and they wed shortly before he went overseas to fight in 1943.)

Many of those who can still remember that awful day were children then, of an age that allowed only the barest comprehension of what had taken place. Warner Bartlett, then 6, recently interviewed while waiting for a bingo hall to open in Las Vegas, said he did not know what a harbor was, much less Pearl Harbor.

Like the children of Sept. 11, they drew pictures of American flags and planes going up in flames.

Unlike many children today, they had close-knit communities to embrace them — World War I veterans on the block who could tell them about sacrifice, streets where kids in the guise of “junior commandos” could roam freely, picking up scrap for the war effort.

“There were no crisis counselors called in,” said David Wright, who was growing up in Tuftonboro, N.H., in 1941. “My father was in the Navy, the guy up the street got gassed in the Marine Corps, a couple of guys had been in the Army.

“The old-timers were perfectly willing to talk about it.”

In Pittsburgh's Polish Hill neighborhood, priests walked the neighborhood, offering solace, recalls Kitty Dlugonski, now 84. “Everyone felt sorry for each other.”

At the White House, President Roosevelt had just finished his lunch when he got a call at 1:40 p.m. about the assault in Hawaii, where it was morning.

Similarly, man families had barely risen from their noontime Sunday meal — then the special meal of the week — when they found out, too.

The attack killed 2,390 Americans and drew the nation into a world war that would claim more than 405,000 U.S. lives.

“It made our generation grow up really fast,” said Jean Davis, 75, of Denver, who had gone to the movies that day in her native Spokane, Wash. “We were all adults in our teens.”

Although they were caught by surprise, people remember that the mood was already thick with expectations of war, not like the blindsiding of Sept. 11.

They remember much from that moment 60 years ago, Associated Press reporters found when they asked people across the country to recall it.

The Rodeo:

In Jacksonville, Fla., Doris Pemberton, now 66, went to a rodeo with her parents and aunt and uncle. Afterward, they ran into an unexpected traffic jam.

“The men decided there must be a fire down on Main Street or something. As we got into town, we realized that everything had gone totally crazy. There was a kid on the corner selling newspapers. We were stopped in traffic and my dad jumped out of the car and went over and bought a newspaper.

“He stood, looked at it for a minute, got back in the car with tears running down his face. He said `Pearl Harbor has been attacked. We're at war,' and he put his arms around me and held me. I don't think anybody said another word all the way back home.”

The Radio:

In Birmingham, Ala., Reba Vaughn, then 19, was listening to a church service on the radio when news broke in. She says she remembers that moment probably more vividly than any other in her life.

“It was pure scary,” she said from Panama City, Fla. “We were shocked — shocked like we were on Sept. 11.” Her husband went off to war for three years.

After Sept. 11, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno told his players that three events were frozen in his mind: Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt's death on April 12, 1945, and the killing of Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

He was two weeks short of 15 when he heard about Pearl Harbor on the radio, while listening to football. (He thought it was a New York Giants-Washington Redskins game, but those teams were playing the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Eagles respectively that day.)

Those who didn't hear about it on the radio reached for one fast.

Mary Snyder, now 88 and a retired nurse, was told by visitors to her Flint, Mich., hospital room, where she had given birth to a boy on Nov. 28, back when maternity stays were longer.

“We turned a radio on right away and we learned the sad news and I was frightened and scared,” she said. “Just having a baby magnified things.

“Sept. 11 stirred up those old feelings for the first time since the war.”

The Headmistress:

For Marge Partridge, the first word of trouble came during dinner at her central Main prep school. The girls knew something was wrong when the headmistress came into the dining hall.

Mrs. Owens never ate with the children. She had come to break the bad news.

“I think it hit our parents worse than a bunch of kids at a prep school” said Partridge, then 14. Later in the war, she had friends and boyfriends overseas. “That's what had my attention.”

At Worship:

Denis J. “Deej” Kiely Jr. was 6, attending a civilian Mass in Vallejo, Calif., a Navy town. His father had gone to sea the day after Thanksgiving aboard a submarine tender.

A Navy officer came in and whispered to the priest, who in turn announced that all leaves and liberties were canceled and all military personnel must report to duty.

“My mom, of course typical Navy wife, sat there kind of solidly, but I know it jolted her. Then she turned to us and whispered something like 'I think we're at war.'”

After the officer left, the priest told the congregation: “Ladies and gentlemen, we've just received word that the Hawaiian Islands have been attacked by the Japanese, and I believe we're at war.”

Kiely saw his father once during the war — Christmas 1942.

He grew up to serve 30 years as a Marine fighter pilot, retiring as a colonel.

At Play:

Joe Conners, 10, went with his father to a Sunday matinee soon after Savannah's blue law against Sunday screenings had been lifted.

Halfway through, a man stood up in front of the flickering screen and told all military people to report to bases. After the movie, father and son stopped at a firehouse and while Joe waited outside, his friend Billy Sheen pulled up on his bike.

Pearl Harbor was bombed, Billy said.

“What's Pearl Harbor?” Joe asked.

Back at his Catholic school, he recalled, “The nuns had you pray every time you breathed.”

Written By CALVIN WOODWARD © MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed