Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941; A reporter remembers . . .

Forty years ago today Joseph C. Harsch was on assignment for the Monitor in Hawaii when he saw smoke in the distance. The Japanese had attacked. Mr. Harsch first joined the staff in 1929; today, his column, ''Pattern of Diplomacy,'' is a regular Monitor feature. His assignments have included stints as Washington correspondent and as chief editorial writer.

My wife, Anne, and I left San Francisco on board the SS Lurline in late November 1941, headed for Honolulu. My assignment from Charles Gratke, overseas news editor of The Christian Science Monitor, was to spend the midwinter months in Japan and China and then head for Moscow through Iran - provided the Soviets were still in the war by spring. At the time I had left Boston, the Germans were still pushing hard to take Moscow before winter closed in.

About these ads

I had been in Berlin from mid-October 1939 to the end of January 1941. I had come out then because reporting from Berlin - which had been easy until President Roosevelt beat Wendell Willkie in the 1940 election - became much more difficult the moment the Germans knew Roosevelt had won. They had hoped until then that the United States would keep out of the war. After the election, they made it drastically more difficult for us to travel, talk to people, and learn what was going on. To the Germans, we were future enemies. Several of us pulled out together at that time. I returned to Boston, wrote a series for the Monitor, turned the series into a book for Doubleday (''Pattern of Conquest''), covered the Army's summer maneuvers in Louisiana (where I was briefed on Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger's operations by his chief of staff, Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower), then took a holiday in California. My wife was going with me as far as Honolulu, leaving our son William with my parents in La Jolla. I was scheduled to fly out of Honolulu on a Pan American clipper on Dec. 7.

The Lurline landed in Hawaii on Dec. 3, and we went to the Halekulani Hotel . . . . Some time that day or the next, I checked in at the Navy public relations office in Honolulu and found there were two young officers in charge. Through that office, I put in a request to meet Adm. Husband Kimmel. I was told to be at his office at 8 o'clock the morning of Dec. 6. I had rented a car for the duration of our stay in Hawaii, so on Saturday morning, my wife and I rose early , drove to Pearl, and parked in front of the Pacific Fleet headquarters. Anne stayed in the car reading.

I had arrived about five minutes early and was taken into Admiral Kimmel's office right on schedule. He was surrounded by his staff. Lt. Comdr. Waldo Drake , the staff public relations officer, opened the conversation by mentioning that I had been in Berlin for the first year and a half of the war. The admiral and other members of the staff immediately began asking me questions about the German Army, its morale, quality of equipment, etc., and about the general public attitude toward the war. This must have gone on for about half an hour. They seemed intensely interested. Perhaps I was the first person through there for some time who had actually been in Germany for the beginning phases of the war. After I had answered everything I could, I took the initiative. The conversation, as I recall it, went as follows:

Harsch: ''Admiral, it's my turn now to ask a question.''

Kimmel: ''All right, go ahead.''

Harsch: ''I know nothing about the situation out here in the Pacific theater. I'll ask the obvious question. Is there going to be a war out here?''

Kimmel: ''No.''

About these ads

Harsch: ''Would you please explain why you seem so confident that there won't be a war?''

Kimmel: ''Yes. Since you have been traveling over recent days, you probably do not know that the Germans have announced that they are going into winter quarters in front of Moscow. That means that Moscow is not going to fall this winter. That means that the Russians will still be in the war in the spring. That means that the Japanese cannot attack us in the Pacific without running the risk of a two-front war. The Japanese are too smart to run that risk.''

I do not remember any further conversation. I suppose it went on for a while. But my memory does not carry anything beyond his positive assertion of no war for the US in the Pacific and his reason for that assertion. I have often wondered since then how confident he actually was - whether he really believed what he said or whether it was his stance for public consumption.

When I woke up in our hotel room the next morning, I heard a lot of banging sounds. I woke Anne and said, ''Listen to this, dear. You have often asked me what an air raid sounds like. This is a good imitation.''

She listened and remarked, ''Oh, is that what it sounds like?'' Then we both fell asleep again. Later, she woke me and suggested that it was time for our morning swim. We donned bathing clothes, went to the beach, had a swim, and started back in. At the shore, another bather was looking toward Pearl Harbor. We looked, too, and noticed several columns of black smoke rising.

''What's going on?'' I asked.

He replied, ''They have been having some kind of an exercise, but I guess it's all over now.

''We then went to our room, got dressed, and went into the dining room for breakfast. It was full of people, mostly naval officers and their wives. Mrs. Fairfax Leary was at her table. No one seemed aware of any untoward happening. While we were eating, Anne pointed to a ship out on the near horizon and said, ''What is it doing?'' The ship seemed to be dodging around, and there were splashes nearby. I replied that I supposed it was another war game. A little later, she asked. ''Where is that ship?'' Whether sunk or steamed away, the vessel was by then gone.

Before we had time to wonder more about the missing merchant ship, a woman came into the dining room in semi-hysterical condition saying such things as, ''The battleships are burning,'' ''I saw red balls under the wings,'' ''They were shooting at our car,'' ''I was taking my husband down to his ship.'' Someone who knew her had at first tried to be reassuring, saying it was only an exercise, but her repeated statements finally seemed to get through. All around the room, officers got up, shook themselves, and headed for the door. The idea that it was not an exercise but the real thing spread around the room - not suddenly, but slowly. When the realization finally got to my head, my first thought was that I was a war correspondent but with no credentials. So I told Anne I would have to go to town and get some. She watched me leave with a look of some anxiety on her face.

I went first to the downtown Navy public relations office where I was given a Navy war correspondent card. Then I went to the intelligence office at Fort Shafter. A cavalry colonel in riding britches and boots was in charge. While he was making out an Army credential for me, a typical Army sergeant's voice came on the intercom. It was announcing such things as ''paratroopers landing on Diamond Head,'' ''troop transports and cruisers approaching Kailua Beach,'' ''two battleships off Barber's Point.'' The colonel reached for his holster belt , strapped it on, and strode out the door and down the steps, presumably heading for the enemy. I pocketed my second credential, headed for a point overlooking Pearl Harbor, and then saw the wreckage. From there I headed for the cable office where I wrote out a quick account of what I had seen and handed it to the clerk. But at that moment someone came out of the back room and stated that a total blackout had been ordered; no cables would be sent.

Soon after the attack, one of the naval officers at the downtown public relations office invited Anne and me to join him and his wife at their house. We settled into a routine there. I did what reporting I could about what had happened, and about what was continuing to happen. I ran down as best I could all of the many rumors about Japanese sabotage - poisoned well, cables cut, water supply sabotaged, etc. I was unable to find any confirmation of hostile action by Japanese on the island - other than that sergeant-type voice on the intercom during what must have been the final wave of the attack. I wrote out a cable every day as though I had been able to file to my newspaper. I handed it in each day so that the collection of reports would go out whenever the communication ban was lifted.

We usually gathered on Waikiki Beach of an afternoon. One day, while sitting there comfortably wondering what was going on in the big outside world, the horizon filled up with ships. The four Matson liners soon appeared, surrounded by a swarm of destroyers and cruisers. Within a short time, the liners had discharged a reinforcement division plus about 30 war correspondents. The correspondents promptly interviewed the usual taxi drivers. The communication ban was lifted that night, and my stories went through. So did the lurid accounts of the new arrivals - full of poisoned wells and sabotage of every conceivable description. Also, we were informed that all civilians who wished to do so could go back on board the four liners on their return journey to the West Coast. Anne went back on board the Lurline.

By that time, I had become friends with Red Knickerbocker and Ed Angley of the Chicago Sun-Times. All of us had made our way to the Pacific Fleet headquarters and were by then well acquainted with Waldo Drake. One day shortly after Anne had headed back for home, Waldo called and asked me, ''Would you like a trip?'' To where, I asked him. He said that he couldn't tell me anything but that there would be a trip. . . .

The following morning, which was Jan. 11, 1942, we took all our gear with us and reported to the carrier Enterprise at Pearl Harbor. Soon after we had boarded and the ship was under way, an officer asked if we would like to meet the admiral on board. ''Yes, please,'' we said. He took us to the front of the flight deck, where we were presented to Vice-Admiral William Halsey. There were tears in his eyes - whether from the wind whipping in over the lip of the deck or from depth of feeling was an unanswered question. . . . This account is reprinted with permission from the book ''Air Raid: Pearl Harbor!'' (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md.).

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.