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JOSEPH N. BELL

Mystery of Magazine Ads Hinting of Pearl Harbor Attack Lingers 48 Years Later

December 07, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

Today is Pearl Harbor Day--the 48th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States abruptly into World War II. The prevalent game to play on Pearl Harbor Day among those of us old enough to remember was where-were-you-when-you-heard-the-news? But this year's anniversary reminded me of something quite different, a mystery I've carried around with me for more than four decades.

In 1944, I was flying Navy transport planes in the South Pacific. Along with the cargoes we delivered to combat areas, we often carried military passengers, and during the long hours between islands, I would often turn the plane over to the co-pilot and go back into the cabin to talk with the passengers. One of them was a young naval intelligence officer on his way to Okinawa.

We had some engine trouble on that trip and had to lay over unexpectedly in Guam. The trouble wasn't serious, and we were booked out the next morning. So my new intelligence friend and I went to the local officer's club to tip a few before we turned in. And there, over the third drink, he told me a story that he probably shouldn't have that stayed with me until I was home after the war.

He told me that the Nov. 22, 1941, issue of the New Yorker magazine--two weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor--carried an advertisement that in retrospect was full of double meanings and was considered by the intelligence community as a warning to someone about the timing of the upcoming Japanese offensive. He described the ad as best he could from memory and said it was accompanied by a pair of dice with the numbers 12 and 7--the date of the Pearl Harbor attack--exposed.

He had been assigned to investigate the ad and ran into nothing but dead-ends. It had been placed across the counter in New York and paid for in cash. Both the main ad and the smaller lead-in ads had been set in type somewhere else and a matrix pulled for delivery to the New Yorker. The clerk who had accepted the ads had no recollection of who placed them, and neither the game that was offered in the double-entendre copy nor the company whose signature was on the ad existed. So my friend had drawn a total blank, and it was still eating at him. He was convinced that someone--for reasons he couldn't fathom--had been instructed to convey information about the upcoming attack in this manner.

I never forgot that conversation, and when I returned to college after the war, I went to the library and found bound editions of the New Yorker. Although it was only a one-column ad in a thick magazine, it was easy to spot. And it was every bit as mysterious as the intelligence officer had described it.

The illustration above the ad copy showed an air raid in progress and, immediately below it, a group of people in an air raid shelter playing a dice game. The headline is "Uchtung, Warning, Alerte!" And the copy begins: "We hope you'll never have to spend a long winter's night in an air-raid shelter, but we were just thinking . . . it's only common sense to be prepared. If you're not too busy between now and Christmas, why not sit down and plan a list of the things you'll want to have on hand. . . . "

Then followed a list of items useful in an air raid shelter that concluded with this sentence: "And though it's no time, really, to be thinking of what's fashionable, we bet that most of your friends will remember to include those intriguing dice and chips which make Chicago's favorite game: THE DEADLY DOUBLE." This was followed by the sign of the double cross: two X's inside a shield--and a tag line that the game was available in department stores everywhere.

Then, scattered throughout the issue, were a half-dozen small ads repeating the headline and referring to the main ad, surrounding a pair of dice--one black, one white--containing numbers not found on conventional dice on which 12 and 7 and the double cross were prominently displayed. The small ads were signed by the Monarch Publishing Co., New York. I remembered the assurances of the intelligence officer that there was no such company and no such game in the stores, and the ads took on a significance--and a malevolence--to me that has been very real ever since.

It has been many years since I first read those mysterious ads, and when I remembered them the other day, I went to the UCI library to make sure this story wasn't some wartime three-martini fantasy. It wasn't. I pulled the bound copy off the shelf, and there were the ads, just as I remembered them. The principal ad is on page 70 of the New Yorker for Nov. 22, 1941, and the small ads are scattered through the book. You can look them up for yourself, just as I first did more than 40 years ago. And then you can carry the mystery around in your own head as I have all these years.

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