This is the first of three pieces about events in the early hours and days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Pearl Harbor – The Day After
December 8, 1941
Ila Armsbury had big plans for the week-end of December 5, 6, and 7, 1941. Marguerite Coffman, Ila’s best friend who had joined the U. S. Army with Ila on the same day in December, 1940, had received a three day pass and driven to Kansas City (K. C.) from Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis with another Army nurse. The three women planned to sleep in, enjoy leisurely shopping and dining in some of Kansas City’s swankiest stores and restaurants, and see the sights including the Christmas light display on the Plaza. But by Sunday mid-afternoon they were tired and winding down from their three days of play. They had decided to go for one more spin around Kansas City then Margie and her friend were going to drop Ila off at the front gate of Fort Leavenworth and head back to Jeff. Barracks.
One of the three – Ila never said who – decided to turn on the radio so they could listen to music, maybe one of the hits of the day: “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” by the Andrews Sisters, “God Bless the Child” by Billie Holiday or the number one hit for the year, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” by Glenn Miller.*
They were enjoying the music. Ila loved to dance so she may have been tapping her foot in time to the beat, humming along, maybe even singing a few lines of a song, until they heard this:
“We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this important bulletin . . .”
Everything changed the minute they heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Margie dropped Ila off at the home of some family friends, then she and her other friend headed back to Jeff. Barracks. Ila spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening with her friends then returned to Fort Leavenworth where she probably spent a sleepless night worrying about her parents.
Ila’s folks had differing views about her decision to join the Army. Her mother, Florence, had been adamantly opposed while her father, Ira, was supportive and proud. He’d been unable to enlist for WWI because he was already married with three children. Perhaps he thought that Ila’s enlistment redeemed the family name.
Sometime on December 8 or 9, 1941, Ila decided she needed to write her folks. I call that letter “The Pearl Harbor Letter.” It’s one of the most moving and troubling I’ve ever read. Moving because Ila tried to prepare her folks for the possibility that she might be sent over seas and that she might die. And troubling because she needed her folks, especially her mother, to be supportive.
You’ll see the first page of her letter below, but because it’s hard to read I’ve re-typed it as well. You’ll notice that the letter is undated, but the content of the letter implies that it was written one or two days after the bombing. Additionally the envelope has a postmark of 5PM December 9, 1941. I’m guessing that Ila wrote the letter the evening of December 8, 1941, after she got off work, and mailed it sometime during the day on December 9th, hence the postmark.
When you read the letter you may think it sounds like the dialogue from an old war movie. I did the first time I read it. But I finally concluded that the dialogue from old WWII movies was an example of art imitating life, not vice versa. I hope that you find the letter as moving as I do. It’s one of my favorites.
My Dearest Mother and Daddy: —
I feel that I must write some words of condolence, but I hardly know what to write. I must be cautious, and many things I cannot write.
It looks as though that trip next summer is ‘gone with the wind.’ Undoubtedly I shall be far away by then, but we cannot plan always as we would like.
I hope it isn’t too much of a shock. I know that surely, in your hearts you knew and felt it was coming, but facing the reality of the thing is much different.
I can find no words to describe my mental reaction when the news broke. Margie had driven up for the week-end and we were cruising around K.C, The girl whom [sic] road with her, became hysterical, and of course they left immediately for Jeff. Barracks. I went out to the Hermans, ate dinner, and had a lovely evening with them. I felt intermittent waves of nausea, and couldn’t seem to put my mind at ease. It’s no use asking for a leave now. It’s too late. I suggest your coming down if possible, as soon as you can. It may be unnecessary, but since people are leaving with 6 hrs notice – you couldn’t possibly make it if that should happen to me. I don’t want to scare you, nor do I want to leave without seeing you. You aren’t allowed to come on the post now, so I would have to meet you in Leavenworth.
Oh! It’s all so uncertain, I don’t know what to tell you. You and Daddy talk it over, and do what you feel in your hearts. I can’t think that God would take me without my seeing you first, however, we can’t see ahead.
In facing the situation, I feel quite calm, and pray that I shall always have the courage to do my duty to God and my country. I’m so sure that I’m safe wherever I go, that, I can’t seem to be afraid. I’m so sure I’ll come back, (as all bad pennies do) and I guess I’m the only one who feels that way. The rest say “Well, I won’t come back – if I go, I know I won’t.” But – not me – I’m going with my chin up, and a smile, and when I come back I’ll be the same old crazy kid.
Seems funny doesn’t it? I mean, well, here it is – I can’t believe it yet. Of course, they need nurses here, and I have just as much chance of staying as I do going, so I see no use of worrying. If I could feel that all was well in the hearts and minds of my family, especially you and Daddy, if you can see this as I do, and not say “Why must you go?” – or “can’t you get out of it?” or “I don’t want you to go” – or anything else on that order, then I can go and have much more courage, and faith. You and Daddy mean more to me than I can say, and I love you dearly. More than anything else in the world. You are the finest parents a girl ever had, and I know you’ll always help me. And in this hour of need, I do want help. Just a lot of letters, and not just from you, but from all of you – Eloise, Metta, and Wava.+
Everybody keep their fingers crossed, and maybe — It’s a 50 – 50 bet anyway. ha
Tell everyone hello, kiss them all for me, and now, lets all laugh good — It’s a swell world anyway.–
All my love to you
^We Interrupt This Broadcast. Disc 1. 1998. Sourcebooks, Naperville, Il.
+Ila’s three sisters.