- Historic Sites
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941…”
The bombs that fell that Sunday didn’t just knock out some battleships; they roused America into a new age. Here is how the long, unforgettable day unfolded.
November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
At the Polo Grounds in New York City, no one expected the Brooklyn Dodgers football team to be leading the Eastern champion Giants, but that was exactly what was happening, and the radio audience was as intent on the play-by-play account as those in the stands were on the game they were watching. “It’s a long one down to the three-yard line,” the announcer shouted; the ball was intercepted by Ward Cuff, who picked up a nice block by Alphonse Leemans before he was hit hard around the twenty-seven-yard line—at which moment another voice broke in to say, “We interrupt this broadcast to bring this important bulletin from United Press: Flash! The White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor!” Predictably, the Mutual Broadcasting System was suddenly deluged with calls from furious fans, wanting to know what was happening in the game. Mutual put the Pearl Harbor story on the air immediately; astonishingly, NBC and CBS decided not to interrupt scheduled music programs but waited until their two-thirty news broadcasts to announce the news.
It struck some witnesses that the White House was the calmest place in town.
At Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, an Army officer whose exceptional performance in the Louisiana maneuvers a few months before had won him a brigadier general’s star was taking a nap after lunch, having told his aide that he was tired and didn’t want to be awakened under any circumstances. Under these particular circumstances, however, the aide decided that disobedience was warranted, and he called General Eisenhower. From another room, Mamie Eisenhower heard her husband saying, “Yes? When? I’ll be right down,” and as he ran for the door, pulling on his uniform jacket, he told her he would be at headquarters and didn’t know when he would be back.
Paul Tibbets was flying a Douglas A-20 bomber from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Savannah, Georgia, nayigating by tuning in to a Savannah station and steering by radio compass. He was listening to a Glenn Miller recording and was about twenty miles from his destination when someone interrupted the music to announce the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For Tibbets, that was the first news of the war whose end he would help bring about less than four years later, piloting a B-29 Superfortress called the Enola Gay over Hiroshima, Japan. (By some extraordinary turn of fate and timing, a few minutes after the atomic bomb dropped from the Enola Gay, Mitsuo Fuchida flew into the area. This was the same Mitsuo Fuchida who led the Japanese planes from their carriers to Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, bringing war to America, and as he flew past Hiroshima, he wondered what had caused the curious mushroom-shaped cloud he saw rising above the city. So the man who was present at the beginning was there at the end as well.)
In Manhattan the author Marcia Davenport was at one end of the apartment when she heard her husband, Russell, shout for her in a high, tense voice. He was listening to the New York Philharmonic broadcast, and when she ran into the room an announcer was talking about the attack on the U.S. fleet. Neither of them quite believed what they were hearing and they stared at each other, wondering if it might be a hoax of some kind, while repeating, “Japan? Japan? ” A few hours later they sat talking with friends they had invited for a pickup supper, stupefied by the news, not knowing what to do, half-expecting that Hitler might have planned an attack on the East Coast to coincide with Pearl Harbor, when suddenly they heard the wail of an air-raid siren. Everyone stopped talking and looked around the table at the others. What now? Was this real? Marcia Davenport turned on the radio and switched off the lights, and they waited in the dark until a voice finally informed them that the sirens were being tested on account of the day’s events.
The man the Davenports had tried so hard to get elected in 1940 was contemplating a trip to Australia on Sunday, December 7. That autumn the Australian government had invited Wendell Willkie to visit the commonwealth. As chance would have it, President Roosevelt had written him on December 5, saying he hoped Willkie would accept the invitation in the interest of Australian-American relations and the Allied cause. The letter reached Willkie after Pearl Harbor, and it was several days before he replied to the President, saying he would think further about the wisdom of making the trip.
Apart from that, however, he wanted to add something that was very much on his mind. Friends of Mr. Roosevelt were suggesting that he could be extremely useful to the President in the national emergency, and Willkie hoped they had not troubled the Chief Executive on that score. Noting the incredibly anxious and burdensome days that lay ahead for the President, he wrote: “What I am trying to say—honestly, but awkwardly I am afraid, because it is not easy—is this: If any such well-meant suggestions about me are brought to you, I beg you to disregard them. There is on your shoulders the heaviest responsibility any man can carry and I would not add to it in the slightest way. Even to volunteer a willingness to serve seems to me now only an imposition on your attention. Every American is willing to serve.”
On Sunday afternoon, December 7, that letter had not yet been written, but Wendell Willkie knew precisely what the mood of the country was: Everyone was willing to serve. The question for most of them would be how—and how soon.