America’s first day of infamy, the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, was a transformative moment for the United States, just as Sept. 1, 2001, was a decade ago. Author and biographer Craig Shirley reveals the never-before-told stories of how the nation geared up to overcome its isolationism and confront the foes of freedom in the dark days that followed Pearl Harbor. What follows is an exclusive excerpt from Shirley’s remarkable new book “December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World.” The book is being released today, and this excerpt is reprinted with permission.
Two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, America was in a panic. A war that had been oceans away now appeared to be on the coun¬try’s doorstep. News stories raced across the United States of more imminent assaults, including on New York City.
“The great metropolitan area of New York City was put on an air-raid alert twice within an hour shortly after noon Tuesday amid varying uncon¬firmed reports of an imminent attack by hostile planes,” ran the Associated Press wire. “The vast stretch of Long Island from the city to Montauk Point also braced itself for the reported possible attack. A million school children in New York and thousands on Long Island were sent home. Army planes took to the air after the first alarm was sounded . . . We have information that a squadron of planes is headed toward Long Island. Make all necessary preparations, if identified as enemy planes,” heard police patrolmen on their car radios.
No one seemed to know where the reports of the unidentified planes came from. Citizens were confused, not knowing what the sirens were for, and others claimed they didn’t hear the sirens. But this did not stop city fathers from going into a full-fright lockdown. Many New Yorkers, however, took it in stride, ignoring the air-raid sirens, going about their business. In Times Square, people took a decidedly “so what?” attitude. It was much the same in Brooklyn, Queens, and Harlem.
A policeman boarded a bus full of passengers and told them they had to get off and take shelter, but no one moved. Stymied, he said, “What was I to do? Use my gun on them?” A pretzel vendor got into an argument with another police officer who ordered him off the street, but the vendor, with hot wares to sell, won the argument, not budging. “Spotters” were looking in the sky, armed with field glasses, looking in vain for enemy fighters. Cops tried to get people off the streets and into shelters, while civil defense volunteers tried to get customers in department stores and restaurants to lie down on the floor. “In at least one fashionable East River apartment women volun¬teer wardens . . . ran through the building, breaking up early bridge games and rousing late sleepers; soon the halls were filled with women in dressing gowns, with cold cream on their faces.”
Military planes at Mitchel Field took off, searching for enemy planes. Radio beams that planes “rode” into airports were shut off. The New York Times said planes were guarding the city for “air raids,” antiaircraft guns had been deployed, and the police and fire departments were trying to figure out how to efficiently notify the eight hundred schools in the area. The paper also published a special feature, “What to Do in an Air Raid.” New York City did not have air-raid sirens in any of the five boroughs, so a Rube Goldberg operation involving the sirens on police squad cars and fire engines, in con¬cert, was employed.
Unsubstantiated rumors continued to wash all over America. A story opened in the Los Angeles Times, “As battle comes close to the Pacific Coast . . .” Boston also went on the alert, thinking it too was under imminent attack. The “approach of enemy planes” was heard broadcast over the radio. “New Englanders suddenly were confronted with the possibility that the war was about to burst on them with terrible realism.” Sirens in Beantown wailed for over an hour.
Civilians were barred from the Boston Navy Yard. Area schools were closed and children sent home. The Coast Guard “cancelled all liberty” on reports that enemy planes were headed for Boston.
In New York, guardsmen stepped up their patrol of the harbor, on the lookout for “incendiary” bombs. The docks were covered with armaments and one well-placed bomb could send the whole thing up. Fourteen thousand workers at the Bethlehem Steel Company at Quincy, Massachusetts, shipyard were sent home. Antiaircraft guns were deployed along the New England coastline. Teachers in the Boston schools were reported crying. “Conditions of near-panic were reported in several places . . . [amid] wild rumors that the Japanese were in New York, among other rumors.”14 Cars, headed for Boston, were halted in Cambridge.
The head of the Bay State’s Committee on Public Safety, J. Wells Farley, said, “Remember — panic is the worst danger.”
On the other side of the country, in San Francisco, a woman, Marie Sayre, was shot and wounded by a member of the Home Guard when her husband failed to stop their car as ordered as he approached the Golden Gate Bridge.
In newspapers across the land, it was reported that there were “unidenti¬fied planes” over San Francisco; the planes were never identified, nor took any hostile actions. The army claimed that thirty planes had flown over the “west coast sector” and consequently an air-raid signal was sounded and the civilian population went into hiding.
Searchlights lit up the sky as the air raids sounded at 2:39 a.m., and the darkness added to the sense of panic. The whole thing earned screaming headlines in American newspapers even though there was no real evidence that the planes were, in fact, the enemy. Gen. William Ryan claimed they had been turned back at the Golden Gate Bridge. Still, he did not know to whom the planes belonged. “They weren’t Army planes, they weren’t Navy planes, and you can be sure they weren’t civilian planes.” No one could account for the mystery aircraft that mysteriously vanished southward.
Also on the West Coast was a persistent rumor of an enemy aircraft car¬rier nearby. Ryan maintained that enemy ships had been “detected . . . about 100 miles at sea.” Then it was reported over the radio that the military was searching for “two or three Japanese aircraft carriers and some submarines reported operating off the coast.” Some supposedly saw fifteen planes flying south toward San Jose. “The lights went off in Oakland and most of her sister cities . . . and there were strange reports of planes being heard overhead but no confirmation.”
Military planes were sent aloft in wild goose chases looking for phantom ships and planes, but none were found. Stories also circulated that Japanese attacks on the Aleutian Islands and Canada were imminent. Alaska was on full alert status. Rumors begat fresh rumors. In this case, it was that the Japanese carriers in California waters were there to try to “panic” Washington “into calling [the] fleet back home,” presumably to join in the search for the phantom ships and phantom planes. The country was utterly con¬vinced that the Japanese were on the brink of attacking and possibly invad¬ing the West Coast of America, or were plotting to engage in a harassing naval action, much as the Germans had been doing in the North Atlantic for nearly a year.
Cities including San Francisco were completely blacked out at night, and many imposed curfews. In Seattle, a mob took to the streets and smashed the windows of store owners who were not complying with the blackout orders. “The crowd, urged on by shouting women,” totaling one thousand people, broke the windows of some thirty shops and stores that had left some lights on. Many radio stations, including those in Seattle, were ordered to stop broadcasting after 7:00 p.m., except those used to transmit official business to the worried citizenry. Blackouts were ordered in nearly every city on the West Coast, along with the U.S. Capital on the East Coast. In Washington, “Autoists should use only their dim lights and drive slowly, spotlighting of bridges and public buildings must cease, all theatre marquees must be turned out, all show windows must be darkened and outside advertising put out, street lights will be dimmed, although traffic lights will stay on; citizens must pull their window shades down.”
© 2001 by Craig Shirley
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