Most accounts of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor that plunged America into World War II focus on actions at the distant naval base itself, or give passing mention to the fact that those on the home front heard the news on their radios on a Sunday afternoon.
The home front part in particular has always struck me as distressingly incomplete.
In Maximum Moxie, the latest book in my Maggie Sullivan mystery series, I wanted to give a more detailed, close-up view of what occurred in one city (Dayton, Ohio) in the hours immediately following initial word of the attack. It was, after all, the Christmas season. Children were stringing popcorn and making paper chains to decorate the tree for Santa’s visit. Women were baking. It was the last ordinary day in what would be a very long time.
To appreciate how news of the Pearl Harbor attack shattered that day, imagine the sudden horror and uncertainty of 9/11 — but without modern communications.
For some, the effect of the first, brief radio bulletin about the attack was immediate and tragic. In Berkeley, California, Sidney Arthur Higgins, who had worked on construction of the Panama Canal and served as an Army captain in World War I, was listening. When he heard the news, he shouted to his wife to come listen. By the time she got there, he was having a heart attack. He died less than a month later on Jan. 2, 1942.
But how people reacted, and the speed and variations in how the news reached them, varied considerably.
At the time, the United States had just two national broadcast networks. One, NBC, split its programming into two feeds but had no Sunday newscasts. The other, CBS, had a regularly scheduled news program, “The World Today”, that was about to begin when news of the attack started arriving on wire service teletype shortly before 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time. CBS was therefore able to shift from scheduled news to that of the attack, and to provide steady coverage as fresh details came in.
Dayton, where the Maggie Sullivan mysteries are set, was like many other cities. It didn’t have a CBS station. It got only a branch of NBC. There a program featuring Sammy Kaye’s orchestra was just ending, and a scholarly discussion, “The Chicago Roundtable” about to begin, when wire-service machines clattered out news of the Pearl Harbor attack. NBC was able to cut the start of the Roundtable program to provide news bulletins – but then it returned to regular programming. Interrupting programs with commercial sponsors required permission from the sponsor executives, so the network was largely limited to providing updates during breaks.
That’s how it was for the rest of the day. Distant horror, with occasional details trickling in.
Only the following day, when Dayton papers carried photographs of the attack, could residents picture the scope of what had befallen them. Only through maps printed there did many readers begin to understand where the distant U.S. base that had been the target of the attack was located.
In contrast to the era’s slow communication, however, Dayton’s emergency preparedness, even by today’s standards, was amazing. Activation of a plan to move the city to a wartime footing began within hours of receiving news about the attack.
(Next week – Part II: Immediate Response)
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