Tomorrow is the 74th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which plunged the United States into World War II. I have written many articles on this blog that somehow involve Pearl Harbor (here’s a list of them) and so I hesitated to do another one, especially another anniversary retrospective. I decided to do this one, however, because I thought it was worth exploring an aspect of the event that you don’t often hear discussed very much: the day before the great attack. Saturday, December 6, 1941 was in many ways the very last day of American history and society before it changed suddenly, dramatically and permanently. In fiction, “Eve of disaster” type stories have always appealed to me, and in fact years ago I had a vague idea to write a novel, set entirely on December 6 in Hawaii, titled Day Before Infamy. (When I learned that thriller writer Martin Cruz Smith wrote a similar book in 2002, called December 6, I gave up the idea). Whenever I think about the world-changing events of December 7, I often find myself thinking about what the previous day, December 6, the last day of peace (in the United States), must have been like.
Of course the U.S. was a latecomer to World War II. Japan and China had been at war since 1937, or even 1931 depending on how you define it, and Europe was engulfed in war in September 1939 with Hitler’s attack on Poland. By early December, Germany’s war against the USSR had been going on for almost six months, and in fact on December 6 Hitler’s army was just about at the end of its unsuccessful attempt to capture Moscow. Japan had already decided on war with the United States and on that Saturday the fleet was approaching Hawaii from the north, the order for the attack already having been given. America was still heavily isolationist in its political outlook and most people wanted to stay out of the European war. It is said that Franklin Roosevelt hoped to complete his third term as President without entering the war, though it’s also known that he believed U.S. entry was inevitable, so one wonders how realistic he really found this hope.
This classic aerial photo of Pearl Harbor was taken on October 30, 1941, and is pretty close to what the place looked like on the evening of December 6–and the following fateful morning.
In Hawaii, the site of the coming attack, December 6 was part of a tense time, though life was going on as normally as possible despite the situation. Military units were on high alert. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Army both thought an attack by the Japanese was at least possible, and various units were being shuffled around the Pacific to defend against one. On December 6 the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise was returning from Midway Island after dropping off planes to buttress the garrison there. Some military planners in Washington thought an attack was possible for a number of reasons, but the historical evidence does not validate the conspiracy theory, long since bandied about, that U.S. officials “knew” the attack was coming but decided to let it happen anyway. Preparations for theoretical military operations are very far from advance knowledge that such an operation is coming. All evidence shows that American officials, military and civilian, were caught flat-footed. Saturday, December 6 was the last day of their ignorance.
There are several cultural depictions of December 6, particularly in Hawaii. The 1965 Otto Preminger film In Harm’s Way, starring John Wayne and based on James Basset’s 1962 novel, has a lengthy opening sequence depicting Navy dances and various wayward romances occurring on the Saturday night before the attack. A similar short account of boozing and late-night partying the night before the attack appears in James Joyce’s classic war novel From Here to Eternity, just before one of the climactic scenes at Schofield Barracks during the attack the next morning. Some people don’t realize it, but the classic film Casablanca takes place on the days just before Pearl Harbor. At one point in the film Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) mentions that it is December 1941, but it’s clear that America is not yet at war with the Axis powers, so it could only be the first week of December. It’s entirely possible that the famous final scene of Casablanca, where Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) flies off with her husband, is meant to occur on the night before the attack, which would make it December 6. Incidentally the Martin Cruz Smith novel is evocative of Casablanca in many respects, possibly for this reason.
This scene from Coppola’s The Godfather, Part II appears to take place on the late afternoon or evening of December 7, 1941; the news was announced on the U.S. East Coast in the early afternoon.
Because the attack began in the morning Hawaii time, we tend to think of the pre-attack hours as being the Saturday night before. In fact, however, the attack occurred in the afternoon for much of the United States. Though it was 7:55 AM in Hawaii at the time of the attack, it was 12:55 in the afternoon on the East Coast. Many people in America, therefore, got up as normal on Sunday morning, went to church or perhaps relaxed about the house, and heard the news on the radio in the early afternoon. FDR was having lunch with Harry Hopkins at the White House when the news came. The New York Times front page for December 7, 1941 says nothing about the attack, because it went to press hours before; by the time its next edition came out, on Monday the 8th, the news was already old and its banner headline announced something that most people already knew had happened. Thus we can speak of a “long” December 6 referring not merely to Saturday, but to the hours on Sunday before the attack was known. One of the final scenes of the film The Godfather, Part II depicts, in flashback, the Corleone family gathering for their father Vito’s birthday celebration in their New York home on what must be the afternoon of Sunday, December 7, shortly after the news of the attack has come.
I often wonder what December 6 must really have been like. In my own life I have an analogue: because of the terrible events of the next day, similar in character to Pearl Harbor, I vividly remember the evening of Monday, September 10, 2001, the night before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. I went to a pub that evening called the Riverwood with a friend of mine, then went home and worked on my novel then in progress, Life Without Giamotti. That night was not dramatic or memorable by itself, but became indelibly so because of what happened the next morning. I imagine that December 6, 1941 was like that too. History has a curious way of making mundane memories significant, especially those minted on the eve of momentous events.