It was Dec. 5, 1941 - just two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The 31 -ship Japanese battle fleet wassecretly steaming toward Hawaii, about 1,000 miles to the south. Suddenly a small freighter, coal smoke whisping from its funnel, came into view.
The huge battleships of the fleet lowered their guns at the vessel. But the freighter's radio was silent. It made no effort to warn the Americans. Soon the small ship had churned westward, into obscurity and then out of sight.
What was the name of that freighter? Why did it never try to alert the US fleet at Pearl? Could the captain of that ship have changed history?
History writer Robert D. Haslach thinks he has found the answers. In a paper prepared for the Sixth Naval History Symposium this week at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Mr. Haslach says he has narrowed down the possibilities to two freighters traveling the northern Great Circle route to Asia.
Both ships were Russian. Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, commanding officer of the Japanese First Air Fleet, noted in his log only that the freighter was from ''a third nation.'' But Haslach, after extensive interviews and study of shipping records, says the ship was either the Soviet vessel Uritsky or the Soviet vessel Pavlin Vinogradov.
The more likely candidate was the 1,282-ton Uritzky, which cleared Portland, Ore., just a few days earlier. Both ships were bound for the port of Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan.
The Japanese Navy and the Russian captain each had reason for caution. The Soviets were engaged in a desperate struggle with Germany. They were at peace with Japan - and wanted to stay that way.
The Japanese were equally careful. Their forces were pushing south in the Pacific, determined to conquer the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, the Philippines. They were challenging the Americans. They didn't have resources to fight Russia, too.
There is a final ironic twist to the story: Both Soviet ships were loaded with supplies from the US to help with the Russian war effort.