At Opana Point Radar Station, set on the highest point on the island of Oahu, two young army privates noticed what looked to be a huge grouping of planes headed for the island. A call was placed around 7:00 a.m. to Lt. Kermit Tyle, who was the morning duty officer, informing him of “many planes.” Tyler, thinking the two were seeing a squadron of American B-17s due in that morning, told them to forget about it. They turned off the radar and went to breakfast. An earlier radar “blip” had also been ignored.
A private pilot was up for a quiet and leisurely flight over Honolulu early that morning. Ray Buduick, a lawyer, expected to have the airspace all to himself and his 17-year-old son, Martin. Shortly after takeoff, he realized that his expectations were wrong. All of a sudden, the skies over the island were filled with hundreds of airplanes. “A private plane owner reported he was given a salute of machine-gun bullets by the Japanese planes. His craft was damaged but he managed to land.”
A female flight instructor was also aloft, giving a lesson, when she was overwhelmed with hundreds of planes bearing a red flaming ball.
A squadron of Japanese fighter planes, being faster than the bombers, arrived at Oahu at 7:30 and orbited the island for 25 minutes while they waited for the slower planes to catch up.
On a beach in Santa Monica, a group of sun worshipers was out early playing volleyball when one of them heard something over the radio and tried to catch the attention of the others who were uninterested at the moment in anything other than the outcome of their morning match.
The first wave of 183 planes, including dive bombers and torpedo planes on approach to Oahu, continued unmolested and basically undetected. They’d been transported in secret since November 26, at 0900, having departed their home waters of Tankan Bay. The six carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku, and Zuikaku, could deploy hundreds of war planes. They were under the orders of the fleet commander, Isoroku Yamamoto, and the command of Chuichi Nagumo. The massive fleet halted in mid-ocean to refuel on December 3. The standing order was radio silence and, if not recalled by Tokyo, to attack.
As they flew over the island, on their approach from the north, over the sugar cane and pineapple fields, they saw no puffs of antiaircraft black smoke in the sky, no airplanes rising to meet their challenge. Realizing they had succeeded in their audacious sneak attack on the American fleet, the code indicating their achievement was transmitted: “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!”
“Tora! Tora! Tora!”
Along the Waikiki beach, some early morning fishermen were out. “Downtown nothing stirred save an occasional bus.” Then came the Japanese planes. “They whined over Waikiki, over the candy pink bulk of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.”
A commercial liner just making port from San Francisco slipped into the harbor at Honolulu. Thinking themselves lucky to be witnessing naval war games, what with the planes diving overhead and all the puffs of black and white smoke, “scores of delighted passengers crowding the deck remarked that it was mighty fine of the United States Navy, timing it so nicely with their arrival.”
Initial reports out of Hawaii were light. The first bulletin went out over the local airwaves, garbled, not from a military source or official government spokesman, but from a broadcast personality, Webley Edwards, who hosted the popular radio show Hawaii Calls on CBS, which was heard all over the mainland.
“Attention. This is no exercise. The Japanese are attacking Pearl Harbor. All Army, Navy, and Marine personnel are to report to duty.” Shortly thereafter, a government-ordered blackout was secured on Hawaii, but long-distance phone calls, telegrams, or messages from ham radio operators continued. The phone lines eventually became jammed as the Navy was frantically using them.
But this didn’t stop anybody from hearing about the attack all across the mainland. It went out over the airwaves, repeatedly, with regular programming interrupted, on every radio station in America. News spread by word of mouth, from neighbor to neighbor, parents to kids. The words “Pearl Harbor” were questioningly and angrily on everybody’s lips. In the living rooms of America, people huddled around Philco or General Electric radios, listening to war news that for the first time directly involved the American people. On the sidewalks, people huddled around car radios, listening to the flash bulletins.
The headlines of the morning newspapers of Dec. 7, 1941, contained no news about the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor as they had gone to bed hours before the attack. Plus, there was a five-and-a-half-hour difference between the East Coast and Hawaii. But by that afternoon, hurriedly rushed “Extra!” editions of newspapers were being printed in large-point type by the droves, nationwide.
At the meaningless football game at Griffith Stadium in Washington between the Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles, 27,000 attendees — including many military personnel and journalists — “were the last to know anything about the world-stirring events.” Throughout the game there was no announcement whatsoever through the loudspeakers, although radio broadcasters in the booths continually were breaking into their accounts of the game with war bulletins. Listening on the radio, fans heard, “Japs bombed Pearl Harbor — Japs make direct hit, killing hundreds.” People in the bleachers heard none of this. The famed sports reporter Shirley Povich of the Washington Post recalled that a colleague had received a private message from his newspaper. “The Japanese have kicked off. War now!”
In the interval after the first half it became evident to the football fans that something extraordinary was in progress. Throughout the intermission and the second half there were constant calls over the public-address system for various newspapermen, believed to be at the game, to get in touch with their offices immediately and for high-ranking army and navy officers to call their departments. “Important persons were being paged, too many important persons to make it a coincidence.” In the first half, the chief of the Bureau of Ordnance with the navy was paged. So, too, was a high official with the Philippine government. Of the flock of cameramen there to cover the game, by the second half only one lone photographer stood vigil, the others sent to the Japanese embassy and others now to more interesting and important locations.
As the rumor of war spread, the seats emptied. One enterprising wife sent her husband, who was attending the game, a telegram. “Deliver to Section P, Top Row, Seat 27, opposite 25-yard line, East side, Griffith Stadium: War with Japan Get to office.” The Redskins ownership later said using the PA to announce the war news was against its management’s policy.
It was reported initially that the Japanese had struck at 7:35 Hawaiian time, 1:05 (EST). According to A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy, the time was 7:55 a.m., local time. Because Hawaii had gone into a news-broadcasting blackout, it is likely that there were many in the scattered Hawaiian Islands who did not know about the attack until nearly everybody in the world knew about it.
In all, some 353 Japanese fighters and bombers descended on Oahu, more than 3,500 miles from their homeland. “An NBC broadcast said Japanese planes — estimated as high as 150 in the opening assault — struck at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor.” Initial reports said the planes appeared over the harbor out of the south coming over Diamond Head. Civilian locations were also bombed and strafed. One of the first to die in the attack may have been a ten-year-old Portuguese girl.
A reporter for the International New Service, Richard Haller, filed this report:
Japanese war planes brought sudden death and undisclosed destruction to the beautiful Hawaiian Islands in their sudden raid this morning. A flotilla of planes bearing the Rising Sun of Japan on their wingtips appeared out of the south while most of the city was sleeping. The planes dove immediately to the attack on Pearl Harbor and Hickam field, the giant air base lying nearby. . . . Three battleships were struck as they lay at anchor in the naval base. One . . . was reportedly set afire. Another . . . we hear has been sunk along with another warship. There was no confirmation of the sinkings by officers of the Fourteenth naval district. . . . I wasn’t able to confirm reports that Japanese paratroopers had landed. But the report spread through Honolulu like wild fire. There were rumors that a number of prisoners were taken. From the rooftop of The Honolulu Advertiser building I saw a thick pall of smoke rising from the Pearl Harbor and Hickam field areas. Three separate fires were raging there. A staggering series of explosions came shortly after 10 o’clock when the attack was already two hours old. Army authorizes later reported that a direct torpedo bomb hit had been made on the Hickam field barracks. The army said it was feared that 350 men had been killed. A few minutes later the Japanese planes, flying at an immense altitude returned over Honolulu. . . . Waikiki, the world famous resort beach, was also subjected to sudden attack as the raiders tried to silence the big guns of Fort De Russy, guarding the entrance to Honolulu Harbor. . . . The raiders fantailed over the residential districts and dropped what appeared to be incendiary bombs over Pacific Heights and Dowsett highlands. Some fires were ignited.
Associated Press reporters in New York could clearly hear over the phone the bombing in the background, as an unidentified local NBC reporter standing on the roof of a building, microphone in hand, “radioed direct from the scene.” He noted that although two local broadcast stations had reported on the raid, local citizens did not heed the warning to take cover until the sound of bombs was heard. Some did not go home but instead to the hills over the harbor, to get a good look at the ensuing battle.
The reporter from the local NBC affiliate then said, “We have witnessed this morning the attack of Pearl Harbor and a severe bombing of Pearl Harbor by army planes, undoubtedly Japanese. The city of Honolulu has also been attacked and considerable damage done. This battle has been going on for nearly three hours. One of the bombs dropped within fifty feet of the KGU tower. . . . It is no joke; it is a real war,” he said, before his connection died.
A few minutes later he began broadcasting again. “We have no statement as to how much damage has been done, but it has been a very severe attack. The army and navy, it appears, now have the air and sea under control.” Then his line went dead, this time for good. John Daly of CBS also broadcast early reports from the scene for a time.
Right in the middle of the attack, a squadron of B-17s making a refueling stop on their way to the Philippines from San Francisco arrived as Japanese war planes buzzed around them. The squadron was commanded by Maj. Truman Landon, who remarked, “Hell of a way to fly into a war! Unarmed and out of fuel!” Radio station KGU in Hawaii had kept broadcasting all night so the B-17s could use their radio locators.
The Japanese planes did likewise.
FDR and the War Department were hampered by misinformation coming out of the Pacific. Nearly all initial reports were sketchy, incomplete, and often woefully false. One news report said that the Oklahoma and the West Virginia battleships were engaged in sea action against the Japanese. Another said Japanese planes had glided in over Pearl Harbor so as to escape detection.
Wild speculation was one thing; the lack of full information and detail was another. One of the first “Extra” editions out was the Maryville Daily Forum based in Missouri. Over the top one-third of the broadsheet read in huge, old Western-style wanted-poster type face, “Japs Attack Manila” with the subheads “Reports Stagger London” and “Far East Crisis Explodes!” Another said, “Little information is immediately available regarding the strength of the Japanese air attacks.”
An Associated Press wire story with the dateline of Honolulu carried the headline “Two Japanese Bombers Appear over Honolulu; Unverified Report Says a Foreign Warship Appears Off Pearl Harbor.” The excited reporter filed his story via the transpacific telephone cable as the battle was actually taking place. The story noted that no bombs had apparently been dropped on Honolulu and that civilians were being taken off the streets by military personnel. The initial report noted there were no casualties yet known.
Within minutes, the AP story made its way around the word, with reactions from Berlin, New York, and Washington. America’s great and loyal ally, Russia, was quiet on the attack. The Third Reich had no comment initially, and the story out of the nation’s capital announced that President Roosevelt had called for an “extraordinary meeting of the cabinet for 8:30 p.m. tonight and to have congressional leaders of both parties join the conference at 9 p.m.”
Another local report was filed, this one by Frank Tremaine via the United Press: “Flash — Pearl Harbor under aerial attack. Tremaine.” His initial dispatch was sent via cable to UP offices in San Francisco and Manila. Subsequently, he filed additional reports as his wife, Kay, sent them along.
A newlywed couple, Wallace Holman and Rosalie Shimek, had been married the day before in Baltimore and spent their honeymoon in New York City at the Roosevelt Hotel where that evening they listened to Guy Lombardo perform at the hotel. The next day they were strolling along a street in New York, startled as furious shopkeepers began throwing out anything that bore the brand “Made in Japan.” No one knew where Pearl Harbor was, including the couple, and one merchant told them it was “off New Jersey.” But all knew America had been attacked by Japan. A little boy, Gerald Eckert, in Rochester, N.Y., heard about an attack on Pearl, but wondered why the Japanese were attacking the old lady down the street whose name was Pearl.
Rumors mixed easily with reports. One said the Japanese fleet, having blasted the navy out of the water at Pearl Harbor, was now steaming north to the Aleutian Islands to attack military outposts there. Yet another said that American ships were in hot pursuit of the Japanese fleet now heading for its home waters.
In Washington, the formerly sleepy town quickly began to take on a war atmosphere, as pedestrians huddled around cars to listen to the radio, citizens called newspaper offices, hungry for details, and others called to inquire about the location of air-raid shelters. “The shrill voices of newsboys calling war extras broke the ordinary Sabbath evening calm.” In bold type, the Washington Post’s Extra edition boomed, “U.S. AT WAR! JAPAN BOMBS HAWAII, MANILA.”
As soon as Roosevelt had been notified by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, he summoned his press secretary, Stephen T. Early, who then called together the White House press corps to make an official announcement at 2:22 p.m., Eastern time. “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor from the air and all naval and military activities on the Island of Oahu, principal American base in the Hawaiian Islands,” said Early, reading from a statement given to him by the president. Early responded to the first question, “So far as we know, they came without warning.”
Some 150 tense reporters were in attendance then, and throughout the day. The White House became the country’s hub for information on unfolding events. Roosevelt remained in his private library in the second-floor residence, taking reports and meeting with staff, including his “two secretaries, Marvin McIntyre and Maj. Gen. Edwin S. Watson.” The president “ordered war bulletins released at the White House as rapidly as they were received. A sentence or two was added to the story of the surprise attack every few minutes for several hours.”
Early called press conferences all throughout the afternoon, and reporters ran back and forth from their cubbyholes to the press secretary’s office, writing fresh copy or issuing radio broadcasts with each new announcement. As each new development was ready to be announced, a Secret Service man would stroll across the hall and remark, “Press Conference!” setting off a stampede for Early’s desk. Telegraph boys rushed about.
At each press conference, Early would attempt to elaborate on the coordinated and unfolding attacks by the Japanese throughout the Pacific. In case no one missed the duplicity by the Japanese, he said,
So far as is known, the attacks on Hawaii and Manila were made wholly without warning when both nations were at peace, and were delivered within an hour or so of the time that the Japanese ambassador and the special envoy, Kurusu, had gone to the State Department and handed to the Secretary of State Japan’s reply to the Secretary’s memorandum of November 26. As soon as the information of the attacks . . . was received by the War and Navy Departments it was flashed immediately to the President at the White House. Thereupon and immediately the President directed the Army and Navy to execute all previously prepared orders looking to the defense of the United States. The President is now with the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy. Steps are being taken to advise the congressional leaders.
At 3:18 p.m. Early’s personal secretary told the reporters the attacks were apparently still underway. Halfway through the afternoon, Early appeared to retract the story that Manila had been bombed but later retracted the retraction.
Unfortunately, there was no plan for the defense of the United States. The navy in the Pacific was either obliterated or scattered, and the Army Air Corps in Oahu had simply been annihilated. A second wave of 171 planes then hit Hawaii. And then another round of news came, this time confirming the worst fears: “Admiral C. Bloch, commandant in Hawaii had reported ‘heavy damage’ to the islands, with ‘heavy loss of life.’”
— Craig Shirley is author of December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World, from which this is excerpted.