Pastor’s first day on job was Pearl Harbor day|[12/7/05]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 7, 2005

The Rev. Ed Hightower of Vicksburg has no trouble remembering his first day as a pastor. It was the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

About an hour after Hightower finished his first sermon at a church in a rural area south of Meridian 64 years ago today, hundreds of Japanese warplanes began a surprise attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands.

&#8220It was kind of a dark day for everybody in this country,” Hightower said.

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Hightower had just decided, nearly midway through his second year as a student at Millsaps College in Jackson, to leave school to accept the pastorate of a seven-church circuit based in Waynesboro. He was traveling with a friend and the friend’s wife back to his home in Meridian when the friend learned of the attack while in Abraham’s Grocery in downtown Meridian.

&#8220As we were going into Meridian she turned to him and told him that if he wanted some bread for breakfast in the morning, he better stop and get some, that they didn’t have a crumb at the house,” Hightower said. &#8220So we stopped at an all-night grocery store as we got into town, and she and I sat there in the car waiting for him to come back. And when he did, he looked like he’d seen a ghost of some kind or another.

&#8220He opened the door to the car and kind of tossed that sack with that loaf of bread in it onto the seat and he said, ‘My God, we’re at war.’”

World War II had begun in Europe more than two years earlier. About a year and a half earlier, President Roosevelt had transferred the United States’ Pacific fleet of eight battleships to Pearl Harbor as a presumed deterrent to Japanese aggression.

In a surprise attack by planes launched from aircraft carriers that began just before 8 a.m. in Hawaii – 1 p.m. in Mississippi – more than 2,400 Americans were killed, and all of the U.S. battleships were sunk or damaged.

After Hightower learned that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, he headed straight home and for his radio.

&#8220So I went on back home and got up the next morning and listened. In fact, I stayed up most of the night listening to the war bulletins,” Hightower said. &#8220And then Monday morning, I heard President Roosevelt’s declaration of war speech and got back on the highway and made it back to Jackson and Millsaps to be in class the next morning.”

For Hightower, Pearl Harbor Day also marked the start of a 46-year career as a full-time Methodist pastor in churches from Port Gibson to the Meridian area, including three years at Gibson Memorial United Methodist Church in Vicksburg, now at 335 Bowie Road, from 1969 until 1972, and six years at churches in Claiborne County, two in Hermanville and four years at Port Gibson United Methodist Church, 901 Church St.

After Hightower retired in 1987 from a church in the Hattiesburg area, he and his wife, Lillian, returned to Vicksburg to make their home. He returned to work in 1999, rejoining Gibson Memorial as assistant pastor and minister of visitation. He helps conduct services almost every Sunday and makes pastoral visits to church members in their hospital rooms and homes.

The Pearl Harbor attack made Hightower want to enlist in the military, he said.

&#8220Every time I came home from Waynesboro I’d hear about another one of my buddies, close friends, or some acquaintance who’d been either drafted or had gone into the service,” he said. &#8220And really I decided that I just wanted to sign up.”

Hightower said he went to Hattiesburg to talk with the church official who had appointed him pastor of the Waynesboro circuit several months earlier.

&#8220He said, ‘Listen, Ed, you just started in the work that you are doing,’” Hightower said. &#8220He said, ‘Your country thinks enough of what you are doing to give you a deferment, and if they really get to the point where they need you they know where you are.’ And he talked me into sitting out my service.”

Hightower added that despite that conversation he continued to consider what he thought was the avenue that would have given him the best chance of entering the armed forces – returning to college for his degree with the goal of earning a commission as a chaplain in the Navy. After writing the Navy to inquire about the option, though, he learned that he was excluded because the Navy would not take married men for such a job.

&#8220So I just went back to school,” he said. &#8220And just about the time I got my degree that would let me go in as a chaplain, the war was over.”

When the war ended – with Japan’s surrender on Aug. 14, 1945 – Hightower left school again and returned to the ministry fulltime. He eventually earned his degree from Millsaps and did graduate work at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.