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"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.
Admiral Kimmel had spent the early afternoon discussing the situation with his staff. The Japanese were now burning their codes ... their fleet had changed call letters twice in a month ... their carriers had disappeared. On the other hand, the Japanese would naturally take precautions at a time like this; and the lost carriers might not mean anything — Navy intelligence had already lost them 12 times the past six months. Whatever happened, it would be in southeast Asia —Washington, the official estimates, the local press, everybody said so. As for Hawaii, nobody gave it much thought. To free Kimmel's hands, defense of the base was left to the Army and to the Fourteenth Naval District, technically under Kimmel but run by Admiral Claude C. Bloch pretty much as his own show. Local defense seemed fairly academic anyhow. Only a week before, when Admiral Kimmel asked his operations officer, Captain Charles McMorris, what the chances were of a surprise attack on Honolulu, the captain firmly replied, "None."
The staff meeting broke up about three o'clock. Admiral Kimmel retired to his quarters for the afternoon, went on to the Learys' party around 5:45. While they dined under the big hau tree on the Halekulani terrace, the admiral's driver waited in the car outside, slapping away at mosquitoes. At one point, Richard Kimball, the hotel manager, passed by and said he was sorry about the bugs. The driver replied he didn't mind the mosquitoes — it was the boredom that got him. If only the car had a radio. But it turned out he didn't need one tonight. The admiral left at 9:30, drove straight home, and was in bed by ten. It had been a long, tiring week, and tomorrow morning he had an early golf date with General Short.
Most of the officers stayed up later, but their evenings were hardly more spectacular. Rear Admiral Robert A. Theobald, commanding Destroyer Flotilla One, danced at the staid Pacific Club until midnight. Lieutenant Commander S. S. Isquith, engineering officer of the target ship Utah, played cards at the Hawaiian Bridge Center. Young Ensign Victor Delano — reared in the Navy and just out of Annapolis himself — spent a properly respectful evening at the home of Vice Admiral Walter Anderson, commander of Battleship Division Four.
The enlisted men were less circumscribed. Radioman Fred Glaeser from Pearl Harbor ... Sergeant George Geiger from the Army's bomber base at Hickam Field ... two thirds of Company M, 19th Infantry, from Schofield Barracks ... thousands of others from posts scattered throughout the island of Oahu converged on Honolulu in a fleet of buses, jalopies, and ancient taxis.
Most were dropped at the YMCA, a convenient starting point. Then, after perhaps a quick one at the Black Cat Café across the street, they fanned out on the town. Some, like Chief M. G. Montessoro, patroled the taverns of Waikiki Beach. Others watched "Tantalizing Tootsies," the variety show at the Princess. Most swarmed down Hotel Street — a hodgepodge of tattoo joints, shooting galleries, pinball machines, barber shops, massage parlors, photo booths, trinket counters — everything an enterprising citizenry could devise for a serviceman's leisure.
Jukeboxes blared from Bill Lederer's bar, the Two Jacks, the Mint, the New Emma Café. Thin shafts of light escaped around the drawn shades of hotels named Rex ... Ritz ... the Anchor. Occasional brawls erupted as the men overflowed the narrow sidewalks.
The Shore Patrol broke up a fight between two sailors from the cruiser Honolulu; caught a seaman from the California using somebody else's liberty card; arrested a man from the Kaneohe Naval Air Station for "malicious conversation." But the night was surprisingly calm — only five serious offenses as against 43 for the whole month so far.
The MPs had a quiet time too. They found perhaps 25 soldiers passed out — out of 42,952 in the islands — and these were sent to the Fort Shafter guardhouse to sober up. Otherwise, nothing special.
A surprisingly large number stuck to their ships, bases, and military posts. As the Army and Navy swelled with reservists, an ever-growing number of men seemed to prefer the simpler pleasures. At the Hickam post theater Private Ed Arison watched Clark Gable outwit oriental chicanery in Honky Tonk. In the big new barracks nearby, Staff Sergeant Charles W. Maybeck played Benny Goodmans and Bob Crosbys on his new phonograph. Up at Schofield, Private Aloysius Manuszewski had some beer at the PX, spent most of the evening writing home to Buffalo.
At Pearl Harbor, Boatswain's Mate Robert E. Jones joined the crowd at the Navy's new Bloch Recreation Center. It was a place designed to give the enlisted man every kind of relaxation the Navy felt proper — music, boxing, bowling, billiards, 3.2 beer. Tonight's attraction was "The Battle of Music," the finals of a contest to decide the best band in the fleet. As the men stamped and cheered, bands from the Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Argonne, and Detroit battled it out. The Pennsylvania band won; everybody sang "God Bless America"; and the evening wound up with dancing. When the crowd filed out at midnight, many still argued that the battleship Arizona's band — which had already been eliminated — was really the best of all.
Slowly the men drifted back to their ships; the Hotel Street bars closed down; the dances broke up — Honolulu's strict blue laws took care of that. Here and there a few couples lingered. Second Lieutenant Fred Gregg of Schofield proposed to Evolin Dwyer and was accepted; Ensign William Hasler of the West Virginia was not so lucky, but he happily learned later that a woman can change her mind. Lieutenant Benning drove Monica Conter back to Hickam, where she was stationed. There they laid plans for the following day —lunch, swimming, a movie, some barbecued spareribs. Another engaged couple, Ensign Everett Malcolm and Marian Shaffer, drove to the Shaffer home high in the hills behind Honolulu. He arranged to meet her for golf at one.
About 2:00 A.M. Ensign Malcolm started back for Pearl Harbor but discovered he would never make the last launch to his ship, the Arizona. So he headed instead for the home of Captain D. C. Emerson. The old captain had been senior dentist on the Arizona, and his congenial bachelor establishment was a sort of shoreside bunk-room for the ship's junior officers.
On arriving, Ensign Malcolm was quickly hailed in by the captain, who sat on the floor with three other officers, arguing about (of all things) Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points. Mildly bewildered, Malcolm joined in and they were all still at it when the clock touched three.
Only the people who had to be up were now abroad. Radioman Fred Glaeser couldn't find a bed at the Y, resigned himself to a cramped night in his car. Lieutenant Kermit Tyler, a young pilot at Wheeler Field, was up too — but he was already starting for work. He had drawn the 4:00-8:00 A.M. shift in the Army's new interceptor center at Fort Shafter. Now as he rolled along the road to town, he flicked on his car radio and listened to KGMB playing Hawaiian records.
About 320 miles to the north, on the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi, Commander Kanjiro Ono listened intently to the same program. He was staff communications officer for Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, commanding a huge Japanese task force of six carriers, two battleships, three cruisers, and nine destroyers that raced southward through the night. Admiral Nagumo was about to launch an all-out assault on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, and everything depended on surprise. He felt that if the Americans had even an inkling, the radio would somehow show it.
Excerpted from Day of Infamy by Walter Lord. Copyright © 1985 Walter Lord. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted December 25, 2003
Walter Lords' classic account of the Pearl Harbor attack puts the reader as close to the action as is possible. As he did with the Titanic in A Night to Remember, Lord tells this military epic in a very up close and personal way with recollections from both the American and Japanese perspectives. His research is amoung the best ever done on this subject, yet he doesn't make the story so tecnical that the reader gets lost. Quite to the contrary, you'll be turning the pages as fast as possible just to see what happens next. It is a most outstanding book on a subject that will never be forgotten.
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