History: After Pearl Harbor

History: After Pearl Harbor

In the days following the attack, locals rallied to support the war effort and each other.

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At 4 p.m. on Dec. 8, 1941, one day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the declaration of war against Japan.

The next day, at 1:15 p.m., air raid sirens wailed all around Washington, D.C. Rumors ran rampant. Enemy planes were in the sky headed for the Capitol, some people said. Bethesda schools were closed, and police stopped all traffic on Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road. Legendary basketball coach Red Auerbach and his highly-ranked Roosevelt High School team were ordered to turn around their bus and return to D.C., their game with Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School canceled. (Two days later, the B-CC Barons won the rescheduled game against Roosevelt, 33-31, in triple overtime.)

The sirens, it turned out, were only part of an air raid drill. But the community was shaken. If Pearl Harbor, then why not the nation’s capital? Germany had become increasingly belligerent toward the U.S. Would it send planes on a bombing raid? (On Dec. 11, Germany declared war on America.)

On Dec. 9, about 200 residents gathered at the Bethesda Fire Department to watch Chief Angelo Bargagni demonstrate how to fight fires caused by incendiary bombs dropped from enemy planes. Each household was instructed to secure a large bag or basket, fill it with 50 pounds of sand from either the firehouse or the Meadowbrook Saddle Club on East West Highway, and have it on hand to smother flames.

Homeowners were urged to keep their bathtubs full of water, and to leave a garden hose hooked up.  

Throughout Bethesda, the Civil Defense Corps appointed district wardens and organized block supervisors to help coordinate neighbors’ responses to air raid emergencies and blackouts. Chevy Chase resident Arch McDonald, the radio voice of the Washington Senators, became the area’s chief air raid warden, charged with overseeing emergency responses. The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion volunteered as aircraft spotters; the county commissioners eventually allocated $300 to build a lookout tower for spotting planes at Bradley Hills Country Club (now Bethesda Country Club) on Bradley Boulevard.  

The women’s division of the Civil Defense Corps took the jobs of daytime spotters and block supervisors when the men were at work. The leaders of The Potomac Hunt offered their horses and riders to carry messages and spread the word should the phone system break down.

In the few short days after Pearl Harbor, seemingly every citizen and business in Bethesda had joined in the homeland defense effort. The Bethesda Theatre gave Defense Savings Stamps—a way for ordinary citizens to invest in the war effort—as change at the ticket booth; at the Tastee Diner in Bethesda, employees agreed to accept two dollars of their weekly pay in savings stamps.

By Jan. 1, more than 4,000 Montgomery County residents were in civil defense training. Washington Tribune Editor W. Prescott Allen praised the citizens’ spirit. “There has been no public squabbling in Montgomery County about who’s who or what’s what or even about what to do,” Allen wrote. Eventually the air raid and blackout drills diminished, as the possibility of attack grew distant. But the area’s patriotic zeal never waned.

Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and living in Olney.


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