The day everything changed

Franklin D. Roosevelt called it “a date which will live in infamy” — Dec. 7, 1941, the day Japan attacked the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, dragging America into a cataclysmic world war and dramatically altering the course of history. 

For USC students like Jim Pearce, the event had personal ramifications, as the immediate effect of the Sunday morning attack changed the mood on campus from pre-holiday gaiety to frenetic patriotism. 

“Firecrackers boomed on different parts of the campus, and every radio had a large audience when special bulletins were flashed,” The Gamecock reported. Professors quickly realized the futility of trying to lecture, and classes were canceled at noon — 
in time to hear FDR’s declaration of war.

Pearce was among those young Carolinians listening. A senior, he had been looking forward to graduating the following spring, but that was one commencement ceremony he would never experience. As they did for many draft-eligible seniors, university administrators gave him a handshake and his diploma several weeks before his official graduation. He soon shipped out with the First Marine Division, landing in the thick of fierce fighting in the South Pacific.

Back at Carolina, where student enrollment had already dropped from 2,051 in 1940 to 1,734 in 1941 as a result of a pre-war draft, university administrators feared that misguided fervor might spark a massive exodus. While they wanted students to do their part in the war effort, staying in college was the most strategic option for the country. 

In fact, an article in The Gamecock just four days after the Pearl Harbor attack advised juniors and seniors in engineering, chemistry and related fields to get written statements from their professors to present to their local draft boards. “This should be done at once,” the article stated ominously, mentioning serious labor shortages in those fields and the corresponding threat to national safety. 

Despite those admonishments, student enrollment continued to drop in 1942, and the university found itself in dire financial straits. Fortunately, the U.S. Navy opened three aviator training programs at Carolina, and the campus was once again filled with students, most of them in uniform. 

Meanwhile, Jim Pearce was fighting in some of the Pacific theater’s bloodiest battles. Along with Peleliu, Capt. Pearce’s wartime resume included the Battle of New Britain and the Okinawa campaign, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star. 

Discharged in 1945 after two-and-a-half years of combat, he made it back home in one piece and, with his brothers, turned the family grocery business into a regional food service distributor. Pearce, who died in 2016, would ultimately give more than $2 million to his beloved alma mater.

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