The following article on what happened after the attack of Pearl Harbor is an excerpt from Bill Yenne’s Panic on the Pacific. It is available to order now from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
December 7, 1941, arrived as a quiet Sunday morning on the West Coast. It didn’t stay that way for long. In the early afternoon, in Washington, D.C., Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox told President Franklin Roosevelt that a message from Hawaii had reached the Mare Island Naval Shipyard north of San Francisco. It read: “Air Raid Pearl Harbor. This is no drill.” The message had arrived at 10:58 a.m. Cali- fornia time, 7:58 a.m. Hawaii time.
Knox told Roosevelt that the attack was in progress even as they spoke.
Secretary of State Cordell Hull was scheduled to meet that afternoon with Japanese ambassador Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura and special envoy Saburo Kurusu to discuss the American trade boycott of Japan. Roosevelt phoned Hull and told him to say nothing to the Japanese diplomats.
The president next called his press secretary, Steve Early, and told him to issue a statement to the wire services, and Early got the Associated Press, United Press, and the International News Service on a three-way call. At 2:22 p.m. Eastern Time, the first bulletins went out, reading “Washington—White House Announces Japanese Wave Attacked Pearl Harbor.” Within minutes, the radio networks were interrupting their regular broadcasts with the news.
The NBC Blue Network got the story in its most graphic form. A reporter with KGU, the NBC affiliate in Honolulu, had gone up to the roof of the Honolulu Advertiser Building with microphone in hand and telephone in the other and had called NBC with the first eyewitness account to reach the mainland. “This battle has been going on for nearly three hours…. It’s no joke, it’s a real war.”
By now, and over the course of the coming hours, additional bulletins flooded in, telling of the simultaneous Japanese air strikes against the Philippines and Thailand. Both Hong Kong and Wake Island were also under attack.
What happened after the Attack of Pearl Harbor
“Japanese parachute troops are reported in Honolulu,” CBS reported. “They have been sighted off Harbor Point. At least five persons have been reported killed in the city of Honolulu. The Japanese dive bombers have been making continuous attacks, apparently from a Japanese aircraft carrier. A naval engagement is reported in progress off Honolulu. And there’s one report that a Japanese warship is bombarding Pearl Harbor. Aerial dogfights are raging in the skies over Honolulu itself.”
Neither the naval battle off Honolulu nor the repeated radio reports about the Japanese paratroopers on the ground in Honolulu were true, but there was no immediate clarification, and in the days following, speculation fed a bonfire of anxiety that would rage beyond control.
In San Francisco, author and radio personality Upton Close, who was described by NBC as their “expert on the Far East,” opened his radio commentary Sunday afternoon by saying “there’s more behind this than meets the eye.”
He had picked up his phone, called the Japanese Consulate in San Francisco and asked to speak with Consul General Yoshio Muto. Instead, he was connected with Kazuyoshi Inagaki, who identified himself as the Consul’s secretary and who told Close that the Pearl Harbor attack came as a “complete surprise” to the consulate staff and that the first that he and Muto knew about it came in American radio bulletins. What happened after the attack of Pearl Harbor was wild speculation.
“That may prove to be true,” Close speculated. “It is very possible that there is a double-double cross in this business…. It is possible that this is a coup engineered by a small portion of the Japanese Navy that has gone fanatic…. It might be possible for the Japanese government to repudiate this action, to repair the injury to America.”
Though he was nurturing a conspiracy theory, he went on to accurately recall that in 1931, when the Japanese Kwantung Army had launched its offensive against the Chinese in Manchuria, the Japanese government in Tokyo had no advance knowledge of the action. Indeed, Close had verified this at the time by phoning the Japanese foreign office and speaking to the chagrinned diplomats.
Inside Japan’s consulate in San Francisco at 2622 Jackson Street, Muto and Inagaki were busily shoveling sensitive documents into fireplaces. The flames burst out of control and the fire department had to save the building.
That afternoon, Close reported, “Here on the Pacific coast where there are more Japanese than anywhere else, so far we have no word whatever of anything untoward having happened. I think we can take the word of the local San Francisco Consulate General that the Japanese community has been totally surprised by this action, and so far there is no indication here whatsoever that any sabotage has broken out or that any Japanese spies or saboteurs were warned in time to go into action.”
He reported that in Los Angeles, County Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz had “taken charge” of the city’s Little Tokyo district and “gathered up a number of volunteers and they have set up a volunteer watching post, and they’re watching the Japanese, but they haven’t had any reason to do anything. And people on both sides of the fence there are remaining calm and decent, which is certainly good news.”
At 4:10 p.m., the Jack Benny Program on NBC Red was interrupted on California affiliates with news of civilians reporting for volunteer duty, and to issue a warning about avoiding “hysteria.”
Many of the 9.7 million people of the Pacific Coast States wondered what they should be doing. The immediate fear was of air raids. The images from the newsreels of the London Blitz the previous year, the firestorms and devastation wrought by German bombs during the Battle of Britain, were deeply ingrained in the minds and imaginations of Americans. For those on the Pacific Coast, knowing that the Japanese had projected their airpower as far as Hawaii clearly suggested that they could reach Washington, Oregon, or California.
It was assumed that the best form of civil defense against air raids was a blackout—turning off all lights in the evening so as not to aid enemy bombardiers in identifying cities, bridges and other targets. Throughout the West, lights were ordered to be turned off at 11:00 p.m. Likewise, civilian radio stations went off the air, because aircraft could use radio waves to locate cities, though most people did not realize that this was why the radio was suddenly silent on the night of December 7. It was unnerving. It was scary.
At 6:56 p.m., the sky was already getting dark in Seattle when radio station KIRO, announced that “in the states of Oregon, Washington, and California…every farm house, every light of any kind in that area must be out by eleven o’clock. To test your blackout, you will have plenty of time between the hours of seven and eleven…to make arrangements to get heavy black paper to seal your windows, or heavy drapes or some- thing. . . . No lights are to be used on automobiles and no lights whatever are to be shown anywhere on the Pacific coast in the states of Oregon, Washington, and California until thirty minutes after daylight.”
As the sun rose on Monday morning, those in urban areas well knew that it had been an imperfect blackout. Many had not gotten the word that there would be a blackout and large sections of downtown areas, with their lighted neon signs, had remained bathed in their usual glow. In San Francisco, master switches plunged neighborhoods into darkness while Market Street blazed brightly. William Harrelson, the general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge District, ordered his bridge into darkness shortly after 6:00 p.m., but he turned the lights back on an hour later to prevent automobile accidents.
In the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, the Lockheed Aircraft factories, including the air terminal in Burbank went dark, but they were merely patches of darkness in a twinkling sea. In many places, streetlights were on individual timers and had to be turned off individually. There had been no prior planning to get this job done, and it was still not completed by morning.
Civil Defense volunteers swung into action, but most people were simply confused by the well-intentioned air raid wardens. The Associated Press reported that a woman in San Francisco phoned the police to report “a crazy man prowling about my place shouting ‘Lights out.’”
In the composing rooms of the newspapers, typographers reached for the largest fonts they had to set the headlines that screamed “WAR,” and readers stripped the newsstands as soon as the morning papers appeared.
“Japan has asked for it,” read the editorial in the Los Angeles Times. “Now she is going to get it. It was the act of a mad dog, a gangster’s parody of every principle of international honor.”
The editorial writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, agreed, reflecting that “If war had to come, it is perhaps well that it came this way, wanton, unwarned, in fraud and under a flag of truce.”
In many cases, it was only when they got their hands on the morning newspapers that many people learned the details of the would-be blackout, and the reason why the radio stations had gone mysteriously off the air.
In Portland, The Oregonian pointed out that the state’s coastal residents awoke to the “grim realization that the mouth of the Columbia River is the closest mainland point to Japan.” At Fort Stevens, near Astoria, the U.S. Army outpost guarding the mouth of the Columbia, Colonel Clifton Irwin ordered his 18th and 249th Coastal Artillery Regiments to “fire on any enemy ship in sight.” None were seen.
Shortly after 9:00 a.m. on December 8, most Pacific Coast radio stations went live to Washington to cover Franklin Roosevelt’s speech to a joint session of Congress. Roosevelt announced that the attack on Pearl Harbor was “a day that would live in infamy,” and he asked Congress for a declaration of war.
This article on what happened after the attack of Pearl Harbor is part of our larger selection of posts about the Pearl Harbor attack. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to Pearl Harbor.
Bill Yenne’s Panic on the Pacific is available to order now from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.