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A Sleepy Witness to the War of Dec. 7, 1941

December 07, 1986|Jack Smith | Jack Smith is a Times columnist.

On Dec. 7, 1941, my wife, Denise, and I were living in Honolulu. When the Japanese attack came, at about 8:05 that Sunday morning, we were leaving an all-night party at the home of Bill Tyree, of the Honolulu United Press bureau, not far from Diamond Head.

That sounds more dissolute than it was. Denise worked nights for Radio Communications of America, in downtown Honolulu, and I worked on the night news desk at the Honolulu Advertiser, a few blocks away. On Saturday nights after work it was common for us to go to late parties at the homes of other night workers. Often we stayed to see the pink Hawaiian dawn, sometimes driving out to to see the Pan American Clipper splash down after its long flight from the States.

This morning we were standing in Tyree's yard, saying goodby. I remember the chubby Tyree standing in the doorway in his Chinese pongee housecoat with a red dragon embroidered on it. Suddenly we heard a distant explosion--felt it as much as heard it.

"Probably just the gasworks," somebody joked. We laughed.

Later, we figured it must have been the battleship Arizona blowing up.

That night we had been celebrating the arrival and departure of Francis McCarthy, UP correspondent from New York. McCarthy was to be a war correspondent. He had arranged to hitch a ride on an American B-17 being delivered to the Dutch East Indies on Monday.

That Saturday morning our paper had printed a red banner across the top of Page 1: WAR EXPECTED OVER WEEKEND. Everyone felt that war was imminent. The Japanese were straining at their leash. But we thought they would fall on the Dutch. We had to live with the irony of that headline.

My wife and I didn't have a car. We caught a ride with Maj. Harry Albright, a former Advertiser reporter who had gone into the Army as assistant public-relations chief of the Hawaiian Division. He and his girlfriend were in riding togs; they planned to ride that morning at Ft. Shafter.

Francis McCarthy came along with a telephone operator he had met. They squeezed into the front seat with Albright and his girlfriend, the telephone operator, sitting on McCarthy's lap. I lay down in the back seat with my head on my wife's lap--fatigued but sober.

We were driving along Kalakaua Boulevard when I looked up through a window and saw two or three small planes streaking through the pretty blue sky. I was no expert at aircraft identification or altitude. But we saw military aircraft in the skies over Honolulu every day. They were always at their games. I knew their silhouettes. These looked strange. Small and shining in the sun.

"There's some funny-looking airplanes up there," I said.

Albright drove on, evidently looking forward to breakfast and his ride.

More planes came. I noticed that puffs of black smoke were bursting just below them.

"We're shooting at them," I said flatly.

Finally Albright stopped the car. He got out in the road, hands on hips, and looked up angrily at the planes.

"Damn those bastards," he cursed, kicking at the road with a polished boot, "I've told them and told them not to do anything like this without letting me know!"

He got back in and we drove on, each wondering about the strange phenomenon we had seen, but not comprehending.

That Oahu was under attack was simply too great an improbability to be imagined, even on such compelling evidence. We drove on through Honolulu, past the fire station at the Iolani Palace. It was empty, its doors open. A siren blared. That, too, was odd for a peaceful Sunday morning.

Albright let us off at our apartment over a garage and we went up to have breakfast and go to bed.

I learned later that Albright had dropped McCarthy and his girlfriend at the Alexander Young Hotel, which had a huge dining-room window on the street. They had taken a table by the window. A waiter hurried over and asked if they would mind moving to an inside table.

"We like it here," McCarthy said.

The waiter said, "I thought that if a bomb fell in the street, you might get hurt by flying glass."

Thus war came to Francis McCarthy.

Meanwhile, Albright drove on to Ft. Shafter, his unease growing. He arrived to find that Shafter had been strafed. Pearl Harbor was in flames. Albright soon had every correspondent in Honolulu pounding at his door. He set up the first war news desk.

I had stripped to my underwear, still dimly aware that something was amiss. "Something funny is going on," I told my wife, "but I'm too tired to care. I'm going to bed."

A minute or two later there was a hammering at the door and an old stateside friend of mine shouted, "Jack! The Japs are bombing us!"

I said, "I know it," and opened the door.

So, ingloriously, I accepted World War II.

Immediately I telephoned Tyree and shook him from his long-postponed sleep. "I think we're under attack," I told him, still not able to state it as a fact. "You'd better get to your office."

(He called his bureau chief, Frank Tremaine, who got the first bulletin through to San Francisco.)

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