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Utahn who was there remembers FDR’s infamy speech

Frank Richards
Frank Richards
Lee Benson, Deseret News

PARK CITY — This weekend marks 78 years since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the attack that catapulted America into World War II. With each passing year, fewer and fewer eyewitnesses remain to give us firsthand accounts of a time when the country stepped off the brink to give its all to defend freedom and the American way of life.

But for the ones still here, their ardor remains timeless.

Frank Richards is one of them. He wasn’t at Pearl Harbor on that Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941. He was a 14-year-old high school sophomore at the time, living in Silver Spring, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C.

But he was there the next morning, on Monday, Dec. 8, 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt strode to the U.S. Capitol rostrum to address the hastily convened joint session of Congress.

“You don’t need to go to school today,” Frank remembers his mother, Helen, telling him when he awoke that morning. Next thing he knew, he was sitting next to his older sister Louise in the back seat of his family’s 1941 Mercury, driving down 16th Street toward the Capitol dome.

After they parked, he, Louise and their mom climbed the stairs to the visitor’s gallery, joining several dozen other spectators in the balcony, while Frank’s father, Franklin, a deputy commissioner in the Federal Housing Administration, proceeded to the floor to sit with other federal officials.

Frank Richards
Frank Richards
Lee Benson

Frank watched President Roosevelt walk into the House chamber in his heavy leg braces and, in defiance to both his polio and the country’s new threat, stride purposely to the head of the room to assume a commanding upright position in front of a bank of microphones broadcasting the message nationwide to CBS, NBC and MBS.

In a talk that lasted just seven minutes, FDR began:

“Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

When he had written the speech in the Oval Office the day before, Roosevelt had crossed out the words “world history” and replaced them with the word destined to define his message: “infamy.”

It took the Senate and House less than an hour after the infamy speech to follow the president’s lead and formally vote to declare war on Japan and the Axis powers.

Frank Richards remembers the sober atmosphere that permeated the Capitol as FDR talked to a country that had been taken by “complete surprise.”

“People could hardly believe it happened,” he says. “The first reaction was shock. The second was people got mad. ‘Those dirty buggers.’

The Richards family drove home on the same street they came in on, but in an entirely different world.

Overnight, the Office of Price Administration was set up, overseeing the rationing of everything from gasoline to rubber to nylon to sugar (half a pound per person per week). The draft board was established, requiring every male between the ages of 18 and 35 to register with Selective Service. Automakers were asked to stop making cars (there wouldn’t be another new model until 1946) and start making tanks. To conserve gas and tires, a national speed limit was established — at 35 mph.

“It completely changed our way of life,” says Frank. “The war had an amazing galvanizing effect on the country. Everyone did as much as they could.”

With the war still going on when he was about to turn 18 in June of 1945, Frank joined the Navy, expecting to soon be fighting in the Pacific — until atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and six days later, on Aug. 15, Japan surrendered.

The bombs and the surrender, Frank recalls, “were as unexpected and surprising as Pearl Harbor.”

After nearly four years of fighting, the closing lines in FDR’s infamy speech proved to be prophetic:

“With confidence in our armed forces — with the unbounding determination of our people — we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.”

Frank Richards got on with his life. He served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Uruguay, graduated from the University of Utah, raised a family, became a real estate developer, an appraiser, a mortgage broker, and part time rancher/cowboy who rode quarter horses in cutting competitions for more than 50 years. In the 1990s he was as instrumental as anyone in bringing the 2002 Olympic Winter Games to Utah when he secured virtually every vote from Latin American members of the IOC — without a hint of impropriety.

At 92, and still going strong, Frank offers two thoughts while looking back at the war years of his teens.

One is the lesson Pearl Harbor taught about the importance of being ready.

“Don’t be caught unawares,” he says. “Remember the Scout motto: Be prepared.”

The second thought from one of the few humans — perhaps only — remaining who can say “I was there” when President Roosevelt stood up to rue the day of “infamy”:

“Don’t forget the sacrifices that have been made for freedom and the wonderful land we live in. People paid a high price and some gave their all to protect what we have. The more time passes, the more I’m afraid that might be kind of fading into the sunset.”