Then and now, feeling an attack's immediacy

"The Americans simply did not know what was happening at Pearl Harbor. Now they're seeing this disaster unfold before their eyes, in unrelenting television coverage. They just did not comprehend Pearl Harbor in the same way."

I got a little tired of this comment from Russians in the weeks after Sept. 11. As a Russian speaker, I was on some radio talk shows broadcast from Moscow. I was overwhelmed by the sympathy I heard, and impressed by the sophisticated commentary of the Russian experts. In their comments about Pearl Harbor, however, they were wrong. I have firm evidence to the contrary.

In December 1941, Aileen Gibson Arnaudo, my mother-in-law, was working for the Atlantic and Pacific Bell Telephone Co. in San Francisco as a long-distance operator. Aileen was a native of the city, a glamorous Scot with long legs and soft brown hair. Like most girls who had just started with Ma Bell, she got the short end of the stick. She worked broken shifts: 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., then 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. - the busiest times for long distance.

On Sunday, Dec. 7, she was seated on her stool in front of the long-distance switchboard, earphones on and cord in hand. All of a sudden, every light on the board lit up - red, white, and green - across an area as big as a house wall.

"Not a single light was dark," said Aileen. Although no one knew what was happening, the lady supervisors stayed calm, saying only, "Girls, we must man the phones. Try to keep up."

After a while, one of the men who worked upstairs came down and said quietly that bombs had fallen on Pearl Harbor. "We all heard it," said Aileen, "and we all kept working, connecting calls as fast as we could."

Everybody was calling everybody. Many were businesses, trying to phone Honolulu; others were from the Army and Navy bases at the Presidio and Treasure Island. A lot were sailors and soldiers, calling their girls.

"Operator, give me a break," they'd say. "I don't have any money."

"Neither do I," the reply would come. "I work for the phone company."

The supervisors, who were fierce about extraneous chat with the customers, were pulling their hair out - but some of the servicemen got a break. Other customers, however, were not so much fun. "I got cussed at a lot that day," said Aileen, "when I couldn't get a line."

She worked from 7 a.m. to midnight that day, and the pace never let up. A couple of the girls fainted off their stools, and cots had to be set up. But nobody panicked. The worst moment, said Aileen, was when the big steel gates were rolled down over the windows to secure the building. If the attack should come to San Francisco, the telephone exchange had to be protected. She recalled thinking, "What is happening to this world?"

At midnight, Aileen walked up the hill to California and Pierce, where the cable car was still running. The elderly cable grip recognized her as a frequent rider from the phone company. "I bet you were busy today," he said. She was back on her stool at 7 the next morning, and worked every day for a week.

Aileen later married Charlie Arnaudo, a good-looking Italian who was building submarines at Mare Island. They raised three children, one of whom I had the good fortune to marry. Although Charlie died 20 years ago, Aileen is still hale, and lives in the Bay Area. Looking back on the Pearl Harbor days, she says, "That was a great time, but how the heck did we stay on those stools so long?"

I don't know how widespread the view is that I heard from my Russian colleagues - that somehow Americans felt Pearl Harbor less acutely than they do the attacks on New York and Washington. It just isn't so.

As we feel it now, we felt it then. Just ask a long-distance operator. And with Veterans Day approaching on Nov. 11, two months to the day from the horrendous attacks, Aileen is certain about what the future will bring: "Everybody pulled together then, and we will again."

Rose Gottemoeller is a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. During the Clinton administration, she was assistant secretary for nonproliferation and national security at the Department of Energy.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.