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WPA Stories Caught the Quiet Before Pearl Harbor

On the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s hard to imagine a time when that name didn’t sound shadowed by a surprise strike. But just two years before the 1941 attack, family members spoke sunnily of their loved ones stationed in the faraway port in the South Pacific.
    The WPA life histories, lost in storehouses for decades, are now safe and searchable on the Library of Congress website.
   “By a strange coincidence, this boy, the pride of my life, is a soldier of Uncle Sam,” Eliza Brady of Fernandina Florida says of her son Anthony. She tells WPA writer Rose Shepherd proudly that he “is Lieutenant-Commander of the aerial squadron in Pearl Harbor at Honolulu, Hawaii.”
    Ernest Gerber, a Swiss-American farmer in Marietta Georgia, recalled his stint in Pearl Harbor during an earlier world war. “
    “In September 1917 they sent me to the hospital at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii,” he told A.G. Barie. “I was assigned to repair room and ward duties,” but he spent his off-duty hours exploring the island with photography, often by boat. He told his interviewer of a rare surprise during his stay:
   “A man who was preparing material for a book embracing a story concerning the eruption of a volcano had come to the island for inspiration, and he asked me if I would be willing to take a party to Launa Los. I had been planning a trip there myself so we got a party together and sailed over. One of the men was a camera man for Fox Films.” As they approached the volcano from the beach, “suddenly it seemed as if the earth itself was about to go to pieces. After a short sharp rumble a mass of smoke and fire shot up into the air hundreds of feet and a stream of lava rushed through an opening in the crater walls… This was the eruption of 1918, which furnished headlines for the newspapers, and stories for some of the magazines.”

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