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Pearl Harbor Put Marriage on Hold; Couple Married on Infamous Dec. 7

Article excerpt

Byline: Jessie-Lynne Kerr, Times-Union staff writer

For the 59 years of their marriage, Thelma and Elmer "Shep" Sheppard had no excuse for forgetting their wedding anniversary.

Or forgetting how they had crowded buses to thank for letting them spend their wedding night together.

The young couple was wed just as news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was reaching Jacksonville that Sunday evening, Dec. 7, 1941.

At 7:55 a.m. Hawaii time -- 12:55 p.m. in Jacksonville -- the Japanese sank or damaged 19 ships leaving 2,300 dead. The United States would declare war against Japan the next day and against Germany and Italy on Dec. 11.

Sheppard, an Army private in the 101st Airborne Division, was among all servicemen ordered to return immediately to their posts.

Sheppard and his bride-to-be, Thelma James, had tried to get married the day before at the Duval County Courthouse, but County Judge McKenney J. Davis, working a rare Saturday, thought they were under age.

"Shep was in civvies and I think I was wearing bobby socks," she recalled yesterday at her Lake Forest home. She was 20 and Sheppard was 22 at the time, but both were of short stature and looked younger, she explained.

"Judge Davis told us to go home and get our parents. He gave us his card with his home address and said that if we still wanted to get married, to come to his home," she said.

So the next day, Sheppard donned his private's uniform and James got her mother and grandmother and the four set out from her East Jacksonville home for the judge's house in Venetia.

When they got to the judge's home, they were told he was off hunting. But the determined couple decided to wait. It was after dark before the judge returned and the couple exchanged vows.

On the trip back to East Jacksonville, they saw newsboys selling Extra editions of the newspaper headlining the Pearl Harbor attack.

"There were long lines of servicemen at the bus station and at telephone booths," she recalled. "Jacksonville was a busy military town in those days."

Sheppard managed to find a telephone and called his commanding officer, asking if he was being ordered to end his furlough and return to base at Fort Benning, Ga. The answer was yes.

But because of the rush, Sheppard couldn't get a bus back to Georgia until the next day. Except for that first night, they never had a honeymoon, she said.

Sheppard underwent paratrooper training, and he and his wife shared a tiny apartment near Fort Benning. Shortly after their first daughter was born, Sheppard was shipped out to England. His wife returned to Jacksonville to live with her mother and grandmother.

She went to work for Western Union because she would get paid while in training, she said. …