Schenectady County

Pearl Harbor put Schenectady on high alert

Schenectady reacted quickly to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 73 years ago. Guards were quickly
Chris Hunter, curator of the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady, pulls a World War II-era U.S. Signal Corps radio from a storage shelf at the museum.
Chris Hunter, curator of the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady, pulls a World War II-era U.S. Signal Corps radio from a storage shelf at the museum.

Charles Cary, Lionel Fallows and Michael Lazzari were all in.

It was Tuesday, Dec. 9, 1941, and while most people in Schenectady were just talking about Pearl Harbor, Cary and the other men were taking action: They joined the Army.

On Dec. 7, 1941 — 73 years ago today — the early morning Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor shocked the country. The aerial bombardment of the U.S. naval base on the south coast of Oahu, Hawaii, killed about 2,400 armed forces personnel and civilians.

According to the U.S. Navy Museum, eight battleships were sunk or damaged. Another 12 ships, including destroyers and cruisers, were damaged or capsized. Aircraft losses were also heavy — the museum put the numbers at 169 destroyed, 159 damaged.

Pearl Harbor will be remembered in Rotterdam on Monday. The town’s 21st annual Pearl Harbor Day Service will be held at 1 p.m. at Town Hall, 1100 Sunrise Blvd. Several local veterans groups will participate.

The 1941 attack occurred shortly before 8 a.m. Oahu time. It was just before 1 p.m. in the Capital Region, so word spread during the early afternoon. Schenectady reacted quickly. Guards were quickly doubled at the General Electric Co. and American Locomotive Co. as a precaution against attack. Some people listened to their radios and took action on their own.

According to articles in The Schenectady Gazette, employees of General Electric’s ordnance division voluntarily reported for work minutes after hearing the news.

“Within the hour all the staff had reported except for one man who was out of town,” The Gazette reported. “Before the day was done, the whole staff had reported and was awaiting orders.”

Other General Electric staffers received secret work orders. Their jobs began at the airport.

“After the attack on Pearl Harbor, there were some ships like the Arizona that weren’t salvageable,” said Chris Hunter, curator at Schenectady’s Museum of Innovation and Science, where General Electric Co. archives are stored, “but there were other ships that had sunk, I think the California, the West Virginia and the Oklahoma. The Navy studied them and thought they could get the ships back out and in an operation again.

“Because GE had installed a lot of equipment in the ships originally, they called GE and said, ‘We need 50 guys here ASAP, and you can’t tell anybody what we’re doing because we don’t want the Japanese to know we’re actually rebuilding the ships.’ ”

Hunter said at least 15 of the members of the top secret squad were from Schenectady.

“It was a mixture of Schenectady and Lynn, Massachusetts, where they made a lot of the marine turbines.”

Extra guards weren’t the only security measures around the Schenectady plant. After Pearl Harbor, the General Electric badge system started. Everyone had to wear one.

“There were different color codings on the badge, so you knew you were supposed to be in that particular location,” Hunter said. “There was a fear that if the mainland United States was attacked, then Schenectady would be a prime target because it made so much of the power-generating equipment. Air raid wardens and blackouts became the norm.”

Editors at The Gazette marveled at Japan’s brazen, unprovoked strike.

“In the city, the unanimous reaction was, ‘Why did Japan declare war? Does she honestly believe that she is capable of taking on as formidable a foe as the United States after 10 years of war with China?” read a front page story in the Dec. 8 edition.

“Schenectady was puzzled and angry, probably more angry than puzzled,” the story added. “Defense leaders and other authorities, charged with the responsibility of protecting the city and its industries during war time, went ahead with the tasks that have been mapped out for several months, but they were as angry as the ‘man in the street.’ ”

City police received extra chores. Chief Joseph A. Peters had men guarding utility plants, railroads and electrical powerhouses. Peters said every man on the force had been ordered to remain instantly available, and headquarters was to know every man’s whereabouts at all times.

City firefighters checked in with the head office and also had to be ready for duty at any time. The Schenectady City Council authorized City Manager C.A. Harrell to employ guards to protect Schenectady’s water supply against sabotage. The 27-man force would work around the clock.

Others were watching the sky. There were no private planes in the air over Schenectady on Dec. 8. City and state police began a 24-hour guard at the airport, watching hangars and planes.

Local pilots had been grounded after the attack. The Civil Aeronautics Authority relaxed the grounding orders that Monday, with new requirements for fliers using the facility. Among the new rules were photo and fingerprint identification. Pilots also had to be prepared to prove citizenship by displaying their birth certificates.

Personal recommendations were also required before take-off.

“They must have letters from two competent citizens vouching for the pilot’s loyalty,” The Gazette reported.

The emergency activity must have seemed surreal to people who had been spending a Saturday night at favorite restaurants or taverns. The Rainbow Grill at 868 Eastern Ave., the Swing Club at 207 Broadway and Ted Howard’s at 1553 Van Vranken Ave. were all open for dinner and dancing.

That Sunday, others might have been at the movies. Abbott and Costello’s service comedy “Keep ’Em Flying” was at Proctor’s Theatre and Humphrey Bogart’s detective story “The Maltese Falcon” was at the Colony on Upper State Street. Film lovers may have been surprised to hear the news when shows ended. In some places around the U.S., theater managers interrupted films to make announcements Japan had attacked.

While Cary and others waited until Tuesday to enlist, others showed up Monday. The first wave wanted a piece of the Axis powers.

More than 200 sat for interviews with the Navy. Chief Gunner’s Mate Harold Gray, who was in charge of the recruiting office, accepted 35 men. Gray had spent eight years as chief gunner’s mate on the battleship Oklahoma; his old ship had been hit by up to nine torpedoes at Pearl Harbor, listed quickly and rolled almost completely over.

“According to Chief Gray, the first man to arrive at the station got there about 6:30 a.m.,” The Gazette reported. “But when the doors were finally opened, more than 25 men literally poured through the door. Among the many young men were about 30 married men who were accompanied by their wives, who were willing to sign waivers to permit them to enlist.”

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