For many families in the Tri-States and across the nation, December 7 is a day to reflect on the sacrifice and memory of what happened on the tragic morning of the attacks in Pearl Harbor. Ask almost anyone and they can provide a connection to either Pearl Harbor, or World War II.
In the case of one family in Pike County, Illinois, the story gets a little more unique.
David Montgomery was a chief radio operator stationed on Ford Island in 1941. He grew up in Petersburg, Illinois and graduated from Harris High School in 1935. He enrolled at Western Illinois University for one year before deciding to serve his country in the Navy.
"(Montgomery) had learned that the U.S. Navy had the best radio men in the world and he wanted to become a Naval radioman," Nanette Bess, who lives in Pittsfield and is a niece of Montgomery's, said.
Little did he know he would his path would lead him to sending one of the most important messages in United States military history.
"He saw the first planes come in, he saw them bomb the Arizona," Bess said of her uncle. "He was safe, at that point, so his commander (Ramsey) came right in and handed him the message and said, ‘Send this, stat.'"
The message Montgomery sent to nearby ships?
"AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR x THIS IS NO DRILL"
Future research and documentation would show that Montgomery sent the first message indicating an attack on the United States and Pearl Harbor.
According to a narrative Montgomery wrote, the day started as normal, until an urgent message came in from a pilot checking the perimeter of the island of Oahu.
(Read the narrative written by David Montgomery)
"At 7 a.m. we received a priority coded message from 14-P-1 that I gave to my Communication Officer, Ensign Rammage, who immediately decoded it and informed me that 14-P-1 had reported dropping depth charges and sinking a submarine off the coast of Pearl Harbor."
Montgomery continued, "While waiting on 14-P-1's verification, heard a plane diving on the air station. My assistant supervisor and I stepped outside and watched as a plane leveled off in front of us and headed for our hangers. We thought it was a plane from one of our hangars, until it dropped a bomb on hangar #6."
It was then Montgomery rushed to his office, where he was instructed to send out the message.
"I remember Uncle Dave telling me that there was so much black smoke from the Arizona and other ships, they couldn't see inside the building," Bess said. "He had to have someone in training, hold a couple of flashlights so he could operate the telegraph equipment, because they were just choking on all this black smoke."
"I could see Battleship Row through the office, across the hall from my desk," Montgomery wrote about witnessing the Arizona being destroyed. "When the Arizona blew up my messenger tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to look. It looked like the largest fireworks display in the world."
Montgomery and his crew moved to a munitions bunker, Bess said, but later headed into the mountains to continue communications operations from a safer position.
"I worked at my desk from early morning until midnight, handling hundreds of messages," Montgomery wrote.
Back home, it was a nervous time for the entire family and community of Petersburg as they waited for any news on the Dave's health.
"Dave's mom was a hard working farm mother and wife," Bess said. "She was so nervous, she'd get all of her chores done and say, ‘I'd have to keep my mind busy, so I'd sweep the drive way.' It was kind of a joke, but she was serious. She'd seriously sweep the path, just to keep her mind off things.
Weeks passed for the Montgomery family, until one day in January, when a letter arrived at the post office. As the postmaster examined the postcard and realized what it was, he skipped waiting to process it and immediately went to hand deliver it to Dave's parents.
"The postmaster got this card and didn't wait to have the regular postman deliver it," Bess said, "He saw it and got in his vehicle to a Rural Electric Association meeting where everyone was at. He knew Grandpa was there and interrupted. The whole community knew Uncle Dave was out there and they were waiting on word."
The postcard was dated December 14, 1941, but took over a month to arrive. Simple, but to the point, the message read as such:
"Dear folks, Just a note to say hello, and that everything is okay. Have tried writing about everyway to make sure that you are hearing from me. Will write as often as I can. Tell all hello and write. Love, D.T. Montgomery."
"Since we were at war, we couldn't just pick up a phone. They had to follow certain protocol," Bess said. "It's very bland. It doesn't say anything about where he is, what he's doing. "
"For Mary Ella (Dave's sister), she just remembered it being one of the happiest days of their lives," Bess said. "I don't know how long it was after that they got better verification. I know it was a long time."
Montgomery returned home from service in 1947 and later founded the Illinois chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association in 1963. He was honored by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2007 for his efforts.
"He was very proud of that, Bess said. "Those guys just shared something…they didn't even know each other, but they shared such camaraderie."
It was a spark that spurred others in the family to enlist for service. Bess' father, Raymond Montgomery, became a blimp pilot and flight educator, serving mainly in California. Her uncles, Ken Montgomery, Tom Allen and Tom Bergen also enlisted.
"That became part of our history," Bess said.
Montgomery died at the age of 90 on January 15, 2008, but not before passing his story onto his family. (Read Montgomery's online obituary)
"What he witnessed was horrific. He saw ships and people he loved and lived for go into the ocean. But he was never scared to talk about it. You had to ask, ‘Would you tell me more about Pearl Harbor?' And he'd gladly share."