TV special traces how Pearl Harbor, World War II tilted N.C. lives

Orion Blizzard remembers the day, vividly.

He was "out a-courtin'" that Sunday afternoon in 1941 when he heard on the car radio that Japan had attacked the United States.

His reaction was like that of many in North Carolina at the time: "Where the heck is Pearl Harbor?"

Blizzard's recollections of the day that would shape history for his generation is one of dozens captured in "North Carolina's WWII Experience," a UNC-TV special (8 p.m. today, WUNG, Channel 58).

"It was an eventful day because it was like our 9-11," says Scott Davis, the documentary's co-producer. "Everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news Pearl Harbor was bombed."

Davis, with producer Brenda Hughes of Wilmington, set out in 2007 to capture the voices of those both in the war and those touched by it before the generation vanished. They had planned to make it more of a historical piece, but after they started interviewing veterans and those who remained on the home front, it shifted into a program about riveting personal tales.

"When we realized power of their stories, we reshaped it," Davis says. "We were lucky to find people who have these incredible memories and have this incredible energy on camera."

William Friday, who went on to lead the state's university system, is one of those whose voices is captured. Friday was a student at N.C. State when he heard the news. In the special, he recalls realizing how the world had changed in an instant.

"Here it is now. It's our war."

A flash from the Pacific

Chuck Paty of Charlotte was listening to the New York Philharmonic on the radio when the bulletin hit. His father took him down to the enlistment office at the Charlotte Post Office about 7:30 a.m. the next day.

Paty figured he was too early, that he'd have a couple hours to kill before the office opened, only to be surprised that there were already 100 men in line ahead of him.

Paty was rejected. He was only 17 and didn't weigh enough.

But the recruiter had some advice. Come back tomorrow with your parents so they can sign. And gain weight. Eat lots of bananas today.

Paty, his parents and the bananas did as instructed. He spent four years as a radioman aboard the USS North Carolina, the first battleship to join the fleet in two decades and whose thick hull would survive a Japanese torpedo off Guadalcanal.

From student to decoder

Marie Colton, a former state legislator from Asheville, recalls gathering at Sutton's Drug Store in Chapel Hill to discuss the latest war news while a student at UNC. She would go on to work for the Signal Corps in Washington, decoding Axis messages sent from Madrid.

Coming of age on D-Day

Tom Alley of Charlotte was a paratrooper dropped through exploding flak in the predawn of D-Day. "I came out the door of the plane and the tracer bullets were so thick, it looked like a stairwell you could climb down."

He and his sergeant killed six German soldiers before the sun rose. "The first person you kill is the worst," Alley says. "I'll never forget that. Never."

Jim Hunter of Charlotte was part of the 1st Marine Division invasion force at Peleliu. He was wounded the second day.

When he reached the ship with other casualties, they were met with a shot of morphine and a slug of Old Grand-Dad. Then the wounded were separated, he recalls, into three groups: those who needed immediate care, those who could wait and those for whom there was no hope.

North Carolina would contribute 360,000 men and women to the war effort and South Carolina 166,000. Blue stars were a common sight in the windows of homes, a sign that a son or husband was in service. Some windows had multiple stars.

And as the fighting ground on, many of those stars turned to gold, a sign that someone would not be returning. About 9,000 North Carolinians died in the war.

Horrors of the camps

Jesse Oxendine, now 84, went to war from his hometown of Pembroke.

With other members of his unit, Co. B of the 325th Glider Infantry of the 82nd Airborne Division, he liberated the Wobbelin concentration camp in Germany. He recalls being greeted by what looked like walking skeletons in pajamas.

Inside the barracks, the Americans found those too emaciated to get up.

"One guy was leaning against the wall, staring into space." Oxendine went to him and the man fell over. He'd just died with his eyes open.

Oxendine, a retired Charlotte pharmacist, went to a reunion with his unit this summer, one they all agreed would be their last. There were 11 of them left.

"We've lost so many guys, it just doesn't warrant having another one," says Oxendine.

In the three years it's taken to make the documentary, Davis says, two of those who appear in it have died - historian John Hope Franklin of Raleigh, who talked about his rejection at the recruiting office because he was black, and Charles McAdams, who kept European forces in beans and bullets as a driver on the famed 400-mile supply line known as the Red Ball Express.

"We're the last of our line - they should have made this film 40 years ago when some of the older guys were around," says Oxendine.

"But better late than never."

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