On Dec. 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered what would become one of the iconic speeches in American history.

"Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan," Roosevelt said to a joint session of Congress.

"I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire."

FDR, as he was affectionately known, would ask the American people to prepare for war in a "fireside chat" broadcast to the nation by radio on Dec. 9, 1941, 79 years ago this week.

World War II would leave an indelible imprint on young men and women whose collective effort would be termed the Greatest Generation, one they would carry for the rest of their lives. 

Norman Reifsnyder clearly remembers hearing the radio news flash reporting that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.

It was a Sunday afternoon and, as was customary, the Reifsnyders were listening to a Pennsylvania Dutch radio program at their Penn Township farmstead.

"It upset us all," recalls Reifsnyder, 99, who still lives in the township. "It was devastating news to hear."

Reifsnyder, who was 20 years old at the time, had premonitions that one day he’d have to go to war to defeat Nazi Germany. As a student in Penn Bernville High School, where he was valedictorian of the Class of 1939, he had learned of Adolf Hitler’s fanatical ambitions in history class.

Reifsnyder’s instincts proved correct, and he would see combat as a radioman with the Army’s 80th Division in Europe during the Battle of the Bulge.

Donald J. Burns was having a Pepsi in a mom-and-pop grocery store in Shamokin, Northumberland County, when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor came blaring over the radio.

"It made me irritated, to say the least," recalls Burns, 96, who lives in Spring Township.

Like Reifsnyder's, 17-year-old Burns’ young life would be dramatically altered by the war.

He would also end up at the Battle of the Bulge, where he nearly died of pneumonia, in December 1944.

A shocking day

Berks County residents cringed at the startling headline in the Reading Eagle on Dec. 8, 1941.

"U.S. Congress Declares War On Japan. 3,000 Are Killed And Wounded In Hawaii. Japs Claim Smashing Sea And Air Victories," the paper spread across the cover in huge bold letters under the nameplate.

Early reports that two Navy warships had been lost were greatly underestimated.

When the smoke cleared, 21 ships and 300 warplanes were destroyed or damaged at Pearl Harbor, a U.S. military installation on Oahu island, by 200 Japanese aircraft. Included were eight battleships. And, 2,400 military and civilian personnel had been killed in the surprise attack.

In his message to Congress, Roosevelt revealed that the Japanese had also attacked Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippine Islands, Wake Island and Midway Island during the surprise offensive in the Pacific.

As commander in chief, Roosevelt ordered that all measures be taken in defense of the nation.

"No matter how long it may take to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory," the president said. "With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God,"

The joint session of Congress erupted in applause.

'Went through hell'

In quiet moments at his Spring Township home, on anniversaries of events like Pearl Harbor or the Battle of the Bulge, Burns thinks back to a time when he was young and the world was at war.

Growing up in Shamokin, a hardscrabble coal town, he’d been toughened for what he was to face after he entered the Army on Feb. 13, 1943, his 19th birthday.

"We were diehards who were willing to fight," he recalls. "Eight of us from my hometown went to World War II together."

Assigned to Gen. George Patton S. Patton’s 3rd Army, he rose to corporal during nearly three years overseas.

"Seeing people dying," he says, "is an unpleasant memory that’s hard to shove out of your mind."

During the Battle of the Bulge, fought in bitter cold in December 1944 and January 1945, Burns came down with pneumonia. He has little memory of it, except that he awoke four days later in a Paris hospital. He credits penicillin and sulfa drugs, relatively new at the time, with saving his life.

"I remember a doctor looking at me and saying, 'Don’t you want to live,' " Burns recalls. "I think that helped me get through it."

One of his most disturbing memories was of encountering former inmates of forced labor camps in Austria after Germany had surrendered on May 7, 1945. His unit was assigned to guard and feed them.

"Sometimes I wonder how on earth they ever got back to their hometowns," Burns said.

He was unemployed after World War II, but got a job at the Reading Railroad roundhouse on Sixth Street. He also worked at Textile Machine Works and worked in maintenance at Sovereign Bank in Wyomissing until he was 90 years old.

In his mind’s eye, Burns confides, he sometimes recalls amputees he saw while in a Paris hospital.

He thinks of his brother Gerald, who wore a back brace for the rest of his life due to combat wounds. And, of a buddy from Shamokin who survived the war, only to take his own life a year after returning home.

Despite the hardships he endured, Burns remains proud of his service to his country. It was, he insists, the right thing to do.

"I went through hell," he confides, "but it was worth it."

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