"Isn't That a Beautiful Sight?"
Monica Conter, a young Army nurse, and Second Lieutenant Barney Benning of the Coast Artillery strolled out of the Pearl Harbor Officers' Club, down the path near the ironwood trees, and stood by the club landing, watching the launches take men back to the warships riding at anchor.
They were engaged, and the setting was perfect. The workshops, the big hammerhead crane, all the paraphernalia of the Navy's great Hawaiian base were hidden by the night; the daytime clatter was gone; only the pretty things were left the moonlight . . . the dance music that drifted from the club . . . the lights of the Pacific Fleet that shimmered across the harbor.
And there were more lights than ever before. For the first weekend since July 4 all the battleships were in port at once. Normally they took turns six might be out with Admiral Pye's battleship task force, or three would be off with Admiral Halsey 's carrier task force. This was Pye's turn in, but Halsey was out on a special assignment that meant leaving his battleships behind. A secret "war warning" had been received from Washington Japan was expected to hit "the Philippines, Thai, or Kra Peninsula or possibly Borneo" and the carrier Enterprise was ferrying a squadron of Marine fighters to reinforce Wake Island. Battleships would slow the task force's speed from 30 to 17 knots. Yet they were too vulnerable to maneuver alone without carrier protection. The only other carrier, the Lexington, was off ferrying planes to Midway, so the battleships stayed at Pearl Harbor, where it was safe.
With the big ships in port, the officers' club seemed even gayer and more crowded than usual, as Monica Conter and Lieutenant Benning walked back and rejoined the group at the table. Somebody suggested calling Lieutenant Bill Silvester, a friend of them all who this particular evening was dining eight miles away in downtown Honolulu. Monica called him, playfully scolded him for deserting his buddies the kind of call that has been placed thousands of times by young people late in the evening, and memorable this time only because it was the last night Bill Silvester would be alive.
Then back to the dance, which was really a conglomeration of Dutch treats and small private parties given by various officers for their friends: "Captain Montgomery E. Higgins and Mrs. Higgins entertained at the Pearl Harbor Officers' Club . . . Lieutenant Commander and Mrs. Harold Pullen gave a dinner at the Pearl Harbor Officers' Club . . ." the Honolulu Sunday Advertiser rattled them off in its society column the following morning.
Gay but hardly giddy. The bar always closed at midnight. The band seemed in a bit of a rut its favorite "Sweet Leilani" was now over four years old. The place itself was the standard blend of chrome, plywood, and synthetic leather, typical of all officers' clubs everywhere. But it was cheap dinner for a dollar and it was friendly. In the Navy everybody still seemed to know everybody else on December 6, 1941.
Twelve miles away, Brigadier General Durward S. Wilson, commanding the 24th Infantry Division, was enjoying the same kind of evening at the Schofield Barracks Officers' Club. Here, too, the weekly Saturday night dance seemed even gayer than usual partly because many of the troops in the 24th and 25th Divisions had just come off a long, tough week in the field; partly because it was the night of Ann Etzler's Cabaret, a benefit show worked up annually by "one of the very talented young ladies on the post," as General Wilson gallantly puts it. The show featured amateur singing and dancing a little corny perhaps, but it was all in the name of charity and enjoyed the support of everybody who counted, including Lieut. General Walter C. Short, commanding general of the Hawaiian Department.
Actually, General Short was late. He had been trapped by a phone call, just as he and his intelligence officer, Lieutenant Colonel Kendall Fielder, were leaving for the party from their quarters at Fort Shafter, the Army's administrative headquarters just outside Honolulu. Lieutenant Colonel George Bicknell, Short's counterintelligence officer, was on the wire. He asked them to wait; he had something interesting to show them. The general said all right, but hurry.
At 6:30 Bicknell puffed up. Then, while Mrs. Short and Mrs. Fielder fretted and fumed in the car, the three men sat down together on the commanding general's lanai. Colonel Bicknell produced the transcript of a phone conversation monitored the day before by the local FBI. It was a call placed by someone on the Tokyo newspaper Yomiuri Shinbun to Dr. Motokazu Mori, a local Japanese dentist and husband of the paper's Honolulu correspondent.
Tokyo asked about conditions in general: about planes, searchlights, the weather, the number of sailors around . . . and about flowers. "Presently," offered Dr. Mori, "the flowers in bloom are fewest out of the whole year. However, the hibiscus and the poinsettia are in bloom now."
The three officers hashed it over. Why would anyone spend the cost of a transpacific phone call discussing flowers? But if this was code, why talk in the clear about things like planes and searchlights? And would a spy use the telephone? On the other hand, what else could be going on? Was there any connection with the cable recently received from Washington warning "hostile action possible at any moment"?
Fifteen minutes . . . half an hour . . . nearly an hour skipped by, and they couldn't make up their minds. Finally General Short gently suggested that Colonel Bicknell was "too intelligence-conscious"; in any case they couldn't do anything about it tonight; they would think it over some more and talk about it in the morning.
It was almost 7:30 when the general and Colonel Fielder rejoined their now seething wives and drove the fifteen miles to Schofield. As they entered the dance floor, they scarcely noticed the big lava-rock columns banked with ferns for a gala evening they were still brooding over the Mori call.
General Short had a couple of cocktails he never drank after dinner and worried his way through the next two hours. Perhaps it was the Mori call. Perhaps it was his troubles with training and equipment (there was never enough of anything). Perhaps it was his fear of sabotage. To General Short, Washington's warning had posed one overwhelming danger an uprising by Hawaii's 157,905 civilians of Japanese blood, which would coincide with any Tokyo move in the Far East. He immediately alerted his command against sabotage; lined up all his planes neatly on the ramps, where they could be more easily guarded; and notified the War Department. Washington seemed satisfied, but the fear of a Japanese Fifth Column lingered that was the way the Axis always struck.
By 9:30 he had had enough. The Shorts and the Fielders left the officers' club, started back to Shafter. As they rolled along the road that sloped down toward town again, Pearl Harbor spread out below them in the distance. The Pacific Fleet blazed with lights, and searchlight beams occasionally probed the sky. It was a moment for forgetting the cares of the day and enjoying the breathless night. "Isn't that a beautiful sight?" sighed General Short, adding thoughtfully, "and what a target they would make."
General Short's opposite number, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet known as CINCPAC in the Navy's jargon of endless initials had an even less eventful evening back in Honolulu. He was dining quietly at the Halekulani Hotel, a Waikiki landmark that maintained a precarious balance between charm and stuffiness. Several of the Navy's top brass lived there with their wives, and tonight Admiral and Mrs. Fairfax Leary were giving a small dinner, attended by the commander in chief. It was anything but a wild party so slow, in fact, that at least two of the wives retreated to a bedroom upstairs for some refreshment with a little more authority.
But Admiral Kimmel was no party admiral anyhow. Hard, sharp, and utterly frank, he worked himself to the bone. When he relaxed, it was usually a brisk walk with a few brother officers, not cocktails and social banter. Proudly self-contained, he looked and acted uncomfortable in easygoing surroundings he even disapproved of the Navy's new khakis as "lessening the dignity and military point of view of the wearer."
He was a difficult man to know, and his position made him more so. He had been jumped over 32 admirals to his present job. Relations were utterly correct, but inevitably there was a mild awkwardness a lack of informal give-and-take between himself and some of the men who had always been his seniors. Finally, there was his responsibility as CINCPAC enough to kill the social inclinations in any man: refitting the fleet with the new weapons that were emerging, training the swarm of new recruits that were arriving, planning operations against Japan if hostilities should explode.
Copyright © 1957, 1985 Walter Lord