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A reporter recalls 'a day of infamy'

By Richard L. StroutStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 4, 1981


This is the story of how a war starts. . . . With those words I began an hour-by-hour account of Pearl Harbor day 40 years ago (Dec. 7, 1941), written down unbelievingly as it happened.

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But it only touches the high cracked voices of the crowd at 11 o'clock last night singing ''God Bless America'' on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House, or the look on the faces of the Cabinet as they came out in ones or twos and rolled off in sleek cars under the misty yellow moon that rose higher and higher all during the gathering, and looked as though mice had chewed away its upper part.

Those were the words I wrote, but we looked at each other in disbelief. The mood of the nation was anxious, somber. For 17 months Britain had fought alone. France had fallen, Europe had fallen, Panzer tanks pounded at the doors of Moscow. America had just extended the draft act yes, but by only one vote. That told the strain. The Monitor had sent me out to write 30 articles on the ''Mood of America.'' And the mood? Why, a bit like today, only vastly more menacing. If you can live matter-of-factly with the possibility of a nuclear war as we do today, you can live in 1941 with the hope of peace though the rest of the world is warring. We were all very matter-of-fact until Dec. 7.

3:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7

Listen to the radio, a friend phones. It says Japanese are bombing Manila (later denied - but later carried out) and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I go to the White House.

4:00 p.m. - Traffic thickens around White House, the (old) State Department blocked off. There's a crowd in the street, a movie camera set up.

4:56 - The White House press room blazes with light. Stephen T. Early has held four press conferences so far. It is jammed with reporters, broadcasters, technicians milling about. Some remove coats, calmly going to work for the night. Radios blare or rattle suddenly like machine guns or one of the phones rings.

5:10 - The third radiocasting microphone has been set up on a table. You can hear (the program) ''Baukhage Talking'' in person or tune him in on the radio and get him more clearly. Photographers are climbing on and under desks followed by assistants with glaring lamps. They are talking to me as I write this. Now they are after somebody else. Electricians loop wires.

5:17 - Nobody knows what it is all about. Is this a real attack or, as some suppose, a section of the Japanese Navy run wild? Everybody is telling how they heard the news first; reporter's instinct is to assemble here. ''There was nobody at my office so I assigned myself here,'' says one man simply.

5:20 - Radio says, ''We've just had a flash that Japan has also declared a state of war with Britain.'' First feeling of incredulity is hardening into something deeper: This unites the nation.

5:30 - There will be a Cabinet meeting at 8:30, a congressional meeting at 9.

5:45 - Everyone rejoices over what Cordell Hull told the Japanese ambassador. ''Cord's'' Tennessee vocabulary would skin a mule.

(Note - intercepts of Japanese coded messages brought translations to the State Department, under so-called ''Operation Magic,'' almost as soon as to the Japanese Embassy. ''This means war,'' FDR told Harry Hopkins when he got the latest ones on 9:30 p.m. Dec. 6. Cordell Hull knows Japanese plans at the ambassador's final call. But where would the strike be?)

6:00 - Radio blares that Japanese bombed British Pacific bases.

But wait - Steve Early is having another conference.

6:05 - Just back. Every telephone around me in use. Steve sat under a dozen movie spot lights, hot, red face showing weariness and sweat and gray stubble on cheeks, heavy damage has been inflicted in Hawaii. Manila report apparently wrong. Just as we left Steve said that ''a new wave of airplanes'' has appeared over Hawaii.

6:08 - Steve pokes head into press room. ''The Navy reports an unidentified squadron over Guam,'' he says. ''Get it?'' he repeats. Pandemonium.

7:00 - Nobody can come to rest except those who are typing. ''I've sent five 'flashes' and four 'bulletins,' '' says a cub reporter who never before sent a ''flash'' in his life. Steve comes out to chat. He goes over events of the day. He tells how President called him in; how he arranged conference circuit with three press associations.