This year, the Wilmington Pearl Harbor Commemoration is combined with an evening of entertainment. On Friday, December 7th, the Hannah Block Historic USO/Community Arts Center will be decked out as if it were the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on December 6th, 1941.
The commemoration runs 5:30pm-6:00pm, and then it's time for dancing. Cape Fear Swing Dance Society will give dance exhibitions and lessons for 30 minutes. Live music is provided by Coco & the Cufflinks (musician Nicole Thompson created this ensemble for this event).
Tickets are available online, by phone at 910-341-7860, and at the door.
Listen to Wilbur Jones, the Chairman of the World War II Wilmington Homefront Heritage Coalition, above. See our extended conversation below.
Wilbur: The most important thing is the fact that, after 20 years of doing the Pearl Harbor commemoration ceremony every year, to just remember the day that we went to war. We're commemorating the day through remembrance, but also we're entertaining on that day because this year, after some 20 years of having a single ceremony to commemorate Pearl Harbor and to memorialize the three American sailors from Wilmington who died there at Pearl Harbor. And also to recognize and salute pay tribute to the Pearl Harbor survivors who live here in the Wilmington area—I know we'll have one this year and we expect to have two. They're still around. But this year we decided to change the theme completely—have it late in the afternoon, shorten the program. We won't have a speaker, but I will be presenting, as I always do, my memories of what Wilmington was like that day and even what was showing at the Bailey Theatre, to the weather report, to the NFL football game. I was listening to that kind of stuff and we will combine that with the USO Dance and in partnership with the Cape Fear Swing Dance Society. They'll be giving a half hour's worth of free lessons like Jitterbug and swing. That was the stuff in the 1940s, in World War II.
And then Nicole Thompson has put together an ensemble that will be playing World War II music, swing music, for three hours for the rest of the day. So it's remembrance and it's also entertainment. And the theme will be Hawaiian. The setting is the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, which in 1941 was the place to go—the "Pink Lady" on Waikiki. And we'll be serving up poor man's mai tais. If you like pineapple juice then bring a big straw 'cause we'll have non-alcoholic mai tais. And we asked people who come to wear their Hawaiian shirts, their muumuus. We'll have leis, we'll decorate them with leis when they walk in. We may even have a little Hawaiian music and as I said, I can stand up and sing "Sweet Leilani" or "Lovely Hula Hands."
The day we will recognize, and that we will imagine that we are on, is December 6, the day before Pearl Harbor. We're going back a day. The last day of peace. Tomorrow, we're at war, but we don't know that that night. And USOs had opened in Hawaii at that time. This USO Dance is being held in the Royal Hawaiian hotel. So we chose that theme, and you gotta admit, it's not often that an event goes back to the day before we went to war.
Gina: Yeah, that's poignant. I think that's a really interesting way to do it. There are a couple of speakers including Mayor Bill Saffo, Reverend Dr. Clifford Barnett having an invocation, and cadets from the Ashley Navy Junior ROTC will participate, correct?
Wilbur: Yes. And the American Legion Post Honor Guard will also participate as they usually do every year. And of course, the New Hanover County Commissioners will elect their new chairman and that new chairman is expected to be there for just welcoming remarks. So we won't have a formal speaker, which we usually do, but this year we're not.
Gina: There'll be a lot of dancing though. The dance lessons begin at 6:00, is that right?
Wilbur: Yes. The Swing Dance Society will be there doing an exhibition, and you and I can go out there and hold hands and do the dip and all this stuff that the kids did back in the 1940s. And then during the dance itself, later that evening, they'll continue to perform and make us all look bad. Those of us who thought we knew how to Jitterbug when we were kids.
Gina: Can you tell me some of the songs that we might hear during this party?
Wilbur: Well, let's hope that we hear some Hawaiian songs like "Going To A Hukilau" and "Sweet Leilani," but I suspect that we will hear mostly World War II era, 1940s era songs. Many of the songs that were popular during the war—and are remembered with the war and were good for the morale on the homefront and the soldiers at the front—were popular in the 1930s, so late thirties, you know, like the Glenn Miller stuff. And even when Frank Sinatra was breaking in; Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, and so on. So it will be a lot of upbeat songs. Plus, when we start dancing, I mean, you want to hold your date close and dance to just normal regular old dance music, you know, slow music. So there'll be a good mix. And Nicole Thompson, for those of you who've heard of Nicole, she's with Wilmington Symphony, and she's wonderful vocalist as well as being a music organizer.
Gina: Nicole has some musicians coming in.
Wilbur: Local musicians, yes. She put together her ensemble. She's calling them CoCo & the Cufflinks. And Susan Habas of the Thalian Association and I, we can't figure out why she doesn't call them CoCo & the Coconuts! Well, it's Hawaiian theme, right? Maybe we can get her to change it right on the spot. Or CoCo & the Pineapples or something!
Gina: Coco and the Cufflinks... I like that Coco and The Coconuts.
Wilbur: I don't understand where she got the cufflinks, but anyway.
Wilbur: Tickets to the event are $15 and they're tax deductible because they're used for the building preservation fund to maintain the history of the building. World War II veterans and their escorts and families are admitted free. We'll have snacks, beer and wine, the usual; coffee, donuts. And of course that poor man's mai tai. We'll have plenty of things there to entertain people. For tickets, you can call the Community Arts Center, the phone number is 341-7860. Or their website at wilmingtoncommunityarts.org.
Gina: And will tickets also be available at the door?
Wilbur: Yes, 15 bucks. You can't beat it for an evening. And the remembrance as well.
Gina: Wilbur, tell me more about yourself.
Wilbur: I'm a retired Navy captain, author, and military historian. And I'm here as my longstanding volunteer position as chairman of the World War II Wilmington Home Front Heritage Coalition. But Gina, I also want to tell your audience how they can get tickets to come.
Gina: What kind of history is most interesting to you?
Wilbur: Well, because I was born and raised in Wilmington and was 7 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. I was born to be a military historian because we fought the war, we boys, on the homefront. I've always been a writer and I just finished my memoir, which will be my 19th book when it's published. And I write for the Star News as everybody in town probably knows. I just enjoy it, after a career in the Navy of 28 years, 41 years in the Defense Department. It was my calling, I guess, when I was very, very young. And I thoroughly enjoy doing it for the community, and passing on what I have learned, particularly regarding World War II history. I've made it my, not only passion and avocation, but also my professional pursuit to preserve the World War II history of North Carolina.
Gina: And your memoir is going to be published soon?
Wilbur: Oh, let's hope. I've got my fingers crossed. My agent has it before a number of prospective publishers now.
Gina: Do you have a title?
Wilbur: Yes, I do. The title is "The Day I Lost The President," and the subtitle is "How Barry Goldwater, Gerald Ford, Carolina, the Navy, World War II, and Never Giving Up Shaped a Life of Service To The Country."
Gina: Mm. That's long! [laughter]
Wilbur: It is. Well, that's a whole cover. I mean, you gotta turn inside to see the rest. But "The Day I Lost The President" is a real hook because some people know that I was in politics for many, many years, and I was an assistant and advantage representative in the White House to President Ford for over two years. And the day I lost the president was bicentennial day—July 4, 1976. And we were on a Navy ship in New York Harbor. It was raining like crazy. I was soaked. I'm holding the umbrella over the president and he's doing his duty and all of a sudden, the secret service and his body man and I turn around, we say "Where's the president?" And to make a long story short, the captain of the ship had taken him inside up to his cabin for a cup of coffee and we had no idea where he was. He could have fallen overboard, because it was Operation Sail, International Naval Review, our nation's bicentennial. He was gone for almost 25 minutes and we finally located him. And when he was coming down, we were running over with the umbrella—"Mr. President, where have you been? We were worried about you!" And he looked at me and he said, "Wilbur, I'm just fine. Are you okay?" I said, "Mr. President, I'm wet." I got a cold that day flying back on Air Force One. It was freezing. Anyway, so much for that. Glad you asked.
Gina: All right, that's great. Tell me how to get tickets.