December 7: War Comes to America
As Japanese fighters bombed the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, the Washington Redskins played on at Griffith Stadium
At 8:54 a.m., on the island paradise of Oahu, Hawaii, the crew of the USS Raleigh was desperately pitching every piece of loose materiel they could find off their deck and into the oil-drenched Pearl Harbor.
The Omaha Class light cruiser had taken a Japanese torpedo to her port side amidships during the first wave of the Japanese air assault, and the second wave of 167 fighters and bombers had seen her bombed several times more. Even as the ship listed, the crew members jettisoned as much materiel as they could, hoping to save their badly wounded vessel from capsizing.
Other American ships were taking a pounding under the relentless assault of the unprovoked sneak attack on the U.S. Navy in Hawaii. The date was December 7, 1941, a date that would come to live in infamy.
Five time zones and approximately 14 minutes away, Patrick O’Brien was fuming. “For five years I’ve been covering these Redskin games, and now some jerk is telling me how much to write,” he muttered to Washington Post Sports Editor Shirley Povich. Eight minutes into the game, O’Brien, the Associated Press reporter assigned to the game, had just been handed a telegram from the Washington, D.C., office with a simple order: “Keep it short.”
The last game of the season was an admittedly pointless matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Washington Redskins. The Eagles were hoping to scratch out some shred of victory after an abysmal season that left them 2-7-1, while the Redskins were hunting for one final win to give their season an overall finish of 6-5, just enough to call it a winning season.
The futility of the game was moot; O’Brien demanded the operator find out who had the nerve to tell him how to report his game. The message he received back was just as vexing: “The Japs have kicked off.” Before he could demand a straight answer, he received one in the form of a telegram:
“Pearl Harbor Bombed. War now!”
Before O’Brien could react to the news the Griffith Stadium speakers sounded with a message: “Admiral W.H.O. Bland is asked to report to his office at once.” Loudspeaker summons like these were commonplace in the nation’s capital. No reason to panic. Redskins owner George Preston Marshall was personally seeing to that. He had forbidden his staff from making any public announcement about the attack. When asked later why he would impose such a gag order, he replied, “I didn’t want to divert the fans’ attention from the game.”
As Povich looked out at 27,102 football fans, cheering while, unbeknownst to them, their native soil was under attack; he recalled:
“They had not even a hint of a hint that their country had just been mugged into World War II, that the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers and sailors had just been lost in a dastardly sneak attack in the Pacific. For a few moments, it was our exclusive secret — Pat O’Brien’s and his telegraph operator’s and mine. And hard to grapple with was the stupefying news.”
The crowd continued to cheer as Joaquin Elizade, the commissioner of the Philippines, was called away, but with the next announcement, people began to take pause:
“Mr. J. Edgar Hoover is asked to report to his office.”
Following this, the levees of bliss began to breach as a flood of announcements calling for everyone from senior White House officials to Army colonels followed. Something was happening, but what? The loudspeaker at Griffith Stadium made announcement after announcement for men in uniform or key government positions to go to their offices immediately. One enterprising wife sent a telegram to her husband, an Army officer, to report to his duty station immediately. And yet, with all the announcements, the owner of the team, George Preston Marshall, a racist, a laundry magnate and an odious man, would not let it be announced that America was at war, later saying it was “against policy.”
Just as the referees were calling halftime to a 7-7 game and Redskins coach Ray Flaherty and Eagles coach Greasy Neale were planning how to win their meaningless game, the Japanese Battlegroup commander, General Chuichi Nagumo, was weighing the most important decision of his military career. His attack on Pearl Harbor was a resounding success thus far. He had achieved tactical surprise, and two waves of Japanese fighters had crippled several capital ships, killed thousands of American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and civilians, and suffered minimal casualties. It had been a surprise attack that shocked an otherwise invulnerable and isolationist nation. What was simply a war in Europe became increasingly real for this island and for this nation. Now Nagumo’s pilots called for a third wave.
A third wave had been planned but the ultimate decision was his. Its targets would be the repair docks, oil yards, and submarine bases ignored by the first two waves. This was a dangerous move. Pearl Harbor, though crippled, was now on full alert and every anti-aircraft gun still serviceable was now manned. Fuel would run low, and there were three unscathed American aircraft carriers somewhere beyond the horizon. A third wave could cripple Pearl Harbor, but the objective of the attack on Pearl Harbor was not Pearl Harbor.
“Whatever is asked of us, I am sure we can accomplish it. We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America.”
The objective was to cripple the U.S. fleet (thereby giving Japan time to consolidate and capitalize on its other attacks throughout the Pacific) and shatter American morale. Fleet losses shatter public morale, not shipyard losses, as far as the Japanese command was concerned. The resources to repair and refit were moot. Looking at the crippled fleet, the loss of so many Pacific bases, thousands dead, and the full might of Imperial Japan at war, surely the Americans would surrender before those shipyards could shift the balance.
With that, the orders were given: The fleet would return home.
Slingin’ Sammy Baugh did it. Despite a 7-point Eagles lead at the start of the fourth quarter, Redskins quarterback Baugh threw two touchdown passes that gave the Redskins a 20-14 win. A weak season ended strong, and out of the mass of photographers normally present at such games, only one was now present. While thousands had left the stadium, a strong contingent of die-hard fans remained. As Redskins fans left the stadium with their heads held high, they were overtaken by, as Povich recalled, “mass shock.” Newsboys shouting “Extra papers!” were brandishing newspapers with big headlines that screamed, “U.S. at War.” The blissful ignorance was broken; the horror of a nation at war began to set in.
As the crowd at Griffith Stadium reeled from the news and the Japanese fleet came about, the crew of the USS Raleigh took stock. By sheer will and skill, they saved their ship and despite the heavy damage, not a single crewman had been lost. Their gunners had claimed five Japanese aircraft, and they awaited a tow to port that wouldn’t come until the next day. Though almost a world apart both the stadium attendees and the crew of the Raleigh wanted vengeance. A vengeance they would have.
In the war to come, the U.S. Navy sank every Japanese aircraft carrier, battleship, and cruiser that attacked Pearl Harbor. Although the attack claimed the lives of 2,403 Americans, of the eight battleships attacked, only two were total losses; the others were all returned to service and one never even left service. Those dry docks and oil fields made all the difference, and the aborted third wave will be remembered as one of the worst decisions in military history.
That night a group of Redskins players joined a crowd and marched on the Japanese Embassy. From Pearl Harbor to Washington, D.C., that morale-shattering fear never came to the American people.
As Franklin Roosevelt prepared to address a joint session of Congress and the American people the next day, his wife Eleanor was the first Roosevelt to address the nation, going on national radio the night of the 7th, calling forth the morale and courage of the American people. “We must go about our daily business more determined than ever to do the ordinary things as well as we can and when we find a way to do anything more in our communities to help others, to build morale, to give a feeling of security, we must do it,” she had said as listeners tuned in. “Whatever is asked of us, I am sure we can accomplish it. We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America.”
It was just the first of many firsts in this new world war, a war that would go on to change everything in America and everything in the world. A first in a war that would shape the rest of the century, and indeed the one after that.
Author’s note: the personal account of Washington Post Sports Editor Shirley Povich was critical to the writing of the piece, and we encourage you to read it in its totality. It can be found here.
Craig Shirley is a New York Times best-selling author and presidential historian. He has written four books on President Ronald Reagan, as well as his latest book, “Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative,” about the early career of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. He lectures frequently at the Reagan Library and is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, the 40th president’s alma mater. He also wrote the critically acclaimed, “December, 1941.”
Andrew Shirley is a Navy veteran and a graduate of Mary Mount college. He was the principal researcher on the New York Times best-seller “December, 1941.”