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"Time Was Running Out"
Saturday December 6, 1941, was just another welcome break in routine for workers and schoolchildren in the Washington, D.C. area, a reminder to housewives that Christmas was only seventeen shopping days away. Despite the date, for the past week the thermometer had flatly contradicted the calendar. Much of the United States basked in unseasonably warm weather. "Florists delightedly reported abundant supplies of late-blooming roses, and from New England came word that the pussy willow, which usually doesn't appear until March, was budding in time to be worked into Christmas wreaths." By 0800, that Saturday's temperature in Washington officially registered 46°, although a nippy westerly wind added a bite to the air.
The chilling wind from the west was symbolic of the rapidly deteriorating relations with Japan which had kept many in the executive branch of the government tied to their desks. Congress, however, saw no reason to remain in session and had adjourned on Thursday December 4 for a long weekend. Many in Congress looked on Japan as a nuisance rather than a menace, its navy as no match for that of the United States. Speaking that day at the opening of the welfare building at the Naval Air Station in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Senator Owen Brewster of Maine boasted that "the United States Navy can defeat the Japanese Navy at any place and at any time." The public had a right to assume that Brewster's comments were reliable, both because he was a member of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee and because, as a Republican, he was unlikely to be bolstering the administration's image.
The Japanese liner Tatsuta Maru, the last of three ships authorized to bring Americans back to the United States from Japan and to return Japanese from the United States to their homeland, was in her fourth day at sea. Yet she carried only twenty-three Americans. And back in Tokyo women members of the American Club looked forward to December 8 (Tokyo time), when they would attend "a lecture on antique Japanese combs."
As indicated by the headlines that crossed the front pages of the Washington Post, the Japanese were up to something: JAPANESE PLEA OF SELF-DEFENSE COLDLY RECEIVED; TOKYO SAYS TROOPS ARE BEINC MASSED MERELY TO COUNTER THREAT BY CHINESE. To this, the Post's editorial page snapped: "... if the Japanese expect Americans to believe such a story, they have a poor opinion of American mentality Thus all the circumstances conspire to show that the Japanese are preparing for another snatch in their career of Asian conquest."
That is why Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson decided to stay in town that day. He had hoped to escape from "this infernal hellhole they call Washington" long enough to spend the night with his wife, Mabel, at their Long Island home, Highhold. However, "as the morning wore on, the news got worse and worse and the atmosphere indicated that something was going to happen." Stimson held frequent conferences with Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall; Brig. Gen. Sherman Miles, acting assistant chief of staff, Intelligence (G-2); and Brig. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow, chief, War Plans Division. "We are mainly concerned with the supplies which are on the way to the Philippines and the additional big bombers which we are trying to fly over there and which are to start today," Stimson explained in his diary.
High-level attention in Washington centered on Japan's aggressive intentions toward Southeast Asia. At 1040, the State Department received a message from Ambassador John G. Winant in London, marked TRIPLE PRIORITY AND MOST URGENT: "British Admiralty reports that at 3 a.m. London time this morning two parties seen off Cambodia Point, sailing slowly westward toward Kra 11 hours distant in time. First party 25 transports, 6 cruisers, 10 destroyers. Second party 10 transports, 2 cruisers, 10 destroyers."
Capt. Roscoe E. "Pinky" Schuirmann, the Navy's liaison officer with the State Department, added in a secret memorandum to State:
Following report has been received from the Commander in Chief Asiatic Fleet dated December 6th:
British Commander in Chief China reports a twenty-five ship convoy escorted by 6 cruisers and 10 destroyers in Lat. 08–00 N. Long. 106–00 East at 0316 Greenwich time today. A convoy of ten ships with two cruisers and 10 destroyers were in Lat. 08–40 North Long. 106–20 East two hours later. All on course west. Three additional ships in Lat. 07–51 North Long 105–00 East at 0442 course 310° This indicates all forces will make for Kohtron in Lat. 10–01 Long. 104 East.
Commander in Chief Asiatic Admiral [Thomas C.] Hart's Scouting Force has sighted 30 ships and one large cruiser anchored in Camranh Bay.
Information copies of Hart's message went to the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (Adm. Husband E. Kimmel) at Pearl Harbor, as well as to the commandants of the Sixteenth Naval District at Manila and the Fourteenth Naval District at Pearl Harbor.
The records of the White House switchboard and those kept by Secretary of State Cordell Hull's office reveal calls flying back and forth between Hull, Stimson, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Marshall, Schuirmann, Chief of Naval Operations Harold R. "Betty" Stark, and other officials.
Hull did not remember the details of all his telephone conversations and other conferences held during that day; however, "the Japanese large-scale military movement from the jumping-off place in Southern Indochina was very much in the minds of all of us who were called upon to consider that situation. "This information confirmed that the "long-threatened Japanese movement of expansion by force to the south was under way. The critical character of this development, which placed the United States and its friends in common imminent danger," was an important subject of discussion between Hull and representatives of the armed services.
The implicit threat to the Philippines, then under the American flag, particularly worried these officials. Stimson and Marshall discussed whether thirteen B-17s scheduled to begin their long flight from Hamilton Field in California to Manila might be attacked over the Pacific. After careful consideration, Marshall authorized their departure that evening. He had sent Maj. Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, who commanded the Army Air Forces, to the West Coast to ensure that the planes were fully equipped to take off. "Naturally, the young men, the squadron leaders, could not be told all the various factors in the case except that we wanted them to leave as quickly as possible." Arnold phoned Marshall shortly after his arrival to say, "These damn fellows don't realize how serious this thing is." Marshall told him, "Well, you are there and they are your people. You start them out."
In the Security Section of the Navy's Communications Division (Op-20-G), tension had never been higher. JN-25, the Japanese Navy's operational code, as yet unbroken, was under attack by the "first team" of the Navy's code breakers—Mrs. Agnes Meyer, "Miss Aggie" Driscoll, Ens. Prescott H. "Wimpy" Currier, and Mr. Philip Cate. Those working on material encoded in a high-level Japanese diplomatic code, J-19, were, in the words of the section's chief, Cmdr. Laurence F. Safford, "batting their brains out trying to achieve solutions with minimum volume in any one key." The Americans had broken J-19, but the keys changed daily, and it was "plenty tough" to break them without a certain amount of material to work with.
Those concerned with Japan's top diplomatic code, Purple, had a technically less challenging task, thanks to the amazing mechanical system known as Magic. But the sheer volume was daunting. The very fact that the Japanese used Purple to encode a dispatch meant that it was important, and the Japanese used the code worldwide. As Safford explained, the Purple team had varied duties. It "had to code and decode messages exchanged with London and Corregidor, plot direction-finder bearings of German submarines operating in the Atlantic, and 'process' messages coming in from other parts of the world, as well as handle Purple exchanges between Tokyo and Washington."
General Miles of G-2 also felt a sense of urgency that day as he said goodbye to "an old naval friend," RADM Thomas C. Kinkaid, Kimmel's brother-in-law. Kinkaid was leaving to command a cruiser division. Miles told him that he hoped he would hurry; otherwise he "did not know whether he would make it or not." By this time Miles "rated quite highly the probability of an involvement immediately, or certainly in the fairly near future, of a Japanese-American war."
The Japanese Embassy faced an exceedingly trying morning. A virulently worded message from Tokyo, intended for retransmission to the ambassadors and ministers in Central and South America as well as to Ottawa, indicated the beginning of an all-out propaganda campaign to drive a wedge between the United States and the rest of the Americas. It read in part:
1. The recent occupation of Netherlands Guiana by American troops, or call it what you will—occupation it is, is the first example in the present war of the United States' invading South America ... now that the situation is tenser, the hitherto good neighbor, the United States, will no longer hesitate to use arms. This at length has come to the surface, and we must be on the strictest alert.
2. Based on an agreement with France, we penetrated Southern French Indo-China for joint defense. Scarcely were our tracks dry, when along comes good old nonchalant America and grabs Netherlands Guiana. If she needs any of the American countries for her own interest, hiding under the camouflage of joint defense, she will take them, as she has just proven. This is a menace to the Latin American nations; so will you please at every opportunity, impress upon the Government and people of the country to which you are accredited that the United States bodes them naught save ill ...
Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo knew that no one in the Washington Embassy would be in a position to do any propagandizing. Within approximately 24 hours, Japan's diplomats in the United States would be, at best, under house arrest as enemy aliens.
At 1100, Saburo Kurusu, Tokyo's special envoy to Washington, received a visit from an old friend, Ferdinand L. Mayer. The two had once served their respective governments in Peru. Their rapport was such that they immediately picked up the threads of old acquaintance. As Mayer later recalled, after the two had reminisced briefly about old times, Kurusu burst into a "lengthy conversation" about his mission. Apparently he was "extremely anxious to talk about it with an old friend and with someone in whom he had entire confidence." Throughout their talk, which lasted an hour and a half, Kurusu "seemed very apprehensive of being overheard by members of the Embassy staff, repeatedly turning his head to see if anyone were approaching."
"'Fred, we are in an awful mess,'" he burst out unceremoniously. He explained that a severe attack of conjunctivitis had delayed his departure from Japan for two months. "This complicated the situation because time was running out, from the point of view of restraining the military element ..." When he left Japan, "the Civil Government was up against it to know how to canalize the military effervescence so that it would do the least harm to American and English relations.... [They] had decided that the least harmful alternative was to allow the military to move into Indo-China since that neither directly threatened Siberia and the United States nor Singapore and Britain."
Kurusu knew that troop movements "would be regarded with great suspicion in the United States and would, inevitably, jeopardize the success of his mission." But he hoped for three weeks' grace in which to bring about "some concrete result with which the Civil Government would feel able to hold off the military."
This left Kurusu in an awkward position. Obviously he could not explain this background to Hull, "who seemed to feel suspicious at once, not only at the troop movements but of the evident desire of Kurusu to arrive at results speedily." Kurusu entreated Mayer to explain the situation to Hull, and Mayer promised to do so.
The principal problems, as pinpointed by Kurusu, were "the State Department and the national sentimentality with regard to China" on the American side and the militarists' "lack of humor" on the Japanese side. But the real sticking point was how to pull the Japanese out of China. Kurusu believed that "the show was up in China, that the militarists knew this as well, or perhaps better, than anyone else and that they were all looking for a way out to save their faces." He compared the dilemma to that at the end of the Russo-Japanese war: Japan victorious but exhausted.
Kurusu insisted that he expressed the real views of the military. Japan was "absolutely war-weary, had no enthusiasm for this or any other conflict, but must be restored to peaceful conditions where normal trade could be resumed." Kurusu added that "naturally, the militarists continued to bluster and roar, but that this was merely normal face-saving, particularly in the Army...." Both "the militarists' power" and pro-Axis sentiment in Japan were "definitely on the down-grade." He went so far as to say that he and "the thinking people" of Japan realized that German victory might be more dangerous for Japan than for the United States: "Germany had no intention of assisting or even permitting Japan to retain any benefits that she might derive from her Axis victory."
Mayer suggested that Japan could best improve relations between their two countries by a concrete demonstration "of her change of heart with regard to the Axis and a throwing-in of her lot with the British and the Americans." Kurusu agreed, but "most ruefully" reminded Mayer of both the Anti-Comintern and the Tripartite Pacts. He had signed the latter but "had resigned as Ambassador to Germany the next day." They discussed how a change could come about without Japan's breaking its commitments to the Axis—which, as Kurusu suggested with wry humor, would offend the American government's "great interest in the maintenance and sanctity of treaties!"
Mayer pointed out that the whole business boiled down to restoring mutual confidence. Again Kurusu agreed heartily, explaining that he had been "most disappointed" when the proposal for a meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and former Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoye had come to naught and that he still hoped for a summit conference. He realized that Japan's desire to garrison China for some time aroused American suspicions. But the United States "had taken considerable time to withdraw from Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba. These things could not be done overnight ..."
Mayer reminded him that he, Kurusu, was in the same uncomfortable spot that former Ambassador Katsuji Debuchi had occupied during the "Manchurian Incident": "he was making statements in the morning to the Secretary of State which the militarists would repudiate in the afternoon...." Kurusu acknowledged this painful truth, but said that "the militarists were so much on the run and in such a difficult position that, unless hot-heads among them upset the applecart—which might be done at any time—he felt that the better element in Japan was really on the way to control the situation."
While this discussion was going on, some members of the Embassy attended a farewell luncheon at the Mayflower Hotel for Second Secretary Hidenari Terasaki, who was under orders for Rio de Janeiro. Then a group of the guests returned to the Embassy. Among them was Masuo Kato, Washington correspondent for Domei, the Japanese news agency. He noticed no unusual activity and began a game of table tennis with a correspondent for Mainichi. Katsuzo Okumura, secretary of the Embassy, looked on for a few minutes. Then they began to speculate on whether the Tatsuta Maru would actually reach the United States.
"Of course it is coming," said Kato.
"I doubt it," Okumura answered. When Kato asked why, Okumura replied shortly, "It just looks that way." The two Japanese placed a dollar bet on it, but Kato did not take the wager too seriously, for Okumura had been pessimistic all along. With his reporter's nose for news, Kato asked around the Embassy whether Okumura had "any inside information on which he had based his prediction." They all assured him to the contrary. Kato snooped about for almost an hour, but saw only "the usual Saturday afternoon calm."
Excerpted from December 7, 1941 by Gordon W. Prange, Donald M. Goldstein, Katherine V. Dillon. Copyright © 1988 Anne Prange and Prange Enterprises, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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