In Ian W. Toll's account, some on Oahu thought the attack on the island… (Associated Press )
Some historic moments lend themselves to the techniques of fiction, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, is one of these, rendered with a novelist's eye in Ian W. Toll's "Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942" (W.W. Norton: 597 pp., $35). In the following excerpt, the award-winning author of "Six Frigates" paints the scene on that fateful morning as people went about their routines, unalarmed by the sound of airplanes in Hawaiian skies in the moments leading up to one of the worst events in U.S. history.
For the inhabitants of Oahu, there was nothing unusual in being jerked out of sleep by guns and bombs and low-flying aircraft. The island was crowded with military bases, and live-firing drills were commonplace. In early 1941, as the danger of war had seemed to grow, the services took to conducting "simulated combat exercises" — mock battles pitting the army against the navy, the navy against the marines, the marines against the army. On these days, a colossal amount of ammunition was thrown up into the air, and the island's lightly built wood-frame houses would shake and rattle as if an earthquake had struck. So when the familiar racket started up, at a little before eight in the morning on that first Sunday in December 1941, most of the residents pulled a pillow over their heads, or turned back to their coffee and comic strips and radio programs, and tried to ignore the deep concussive thuds of distant bombs, the heavy booming of antiaircraft batteries, and the faint rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns.
But it was soon clear that these were no ordinary exercises. Floors shook, windows rattled, airplanes roared low overhead, and empty machine-gun casings fell on rooftops like hail. In Honolulu, civilians emerged from their homes, many still wearing pajamas and nightshirts. Explosions could be heard in the city, and smoke rose above King Street in the McCully district. Sirens blared, and to the west, above Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field, a gigantic pall of oily black smoke boiled thousands of feet into the sky. Looking up, observers on the ground could see a small armada of dive-bombers circling at high altitude in lazy figure-eight patterns. Every so often, a group of the aircraft would coalesce into an orderly attack formation; and then individual planes would peel off, one by one, to begin their dive-bombing runs.
The spectators were impressed: the flyboys were putting on a terrific show. Twelve-year-old Dan Kong, still in his pajamas, remarked to his brother, "Wow, spectacular maneuvers." The two climbed an avocado tree in their family's backyard for a better view. "I had to admit it was very realistic," another civilian witness recalled. A sailor at Pearl Harbor pronounced it "the best …drill the Army Air Force has ever put on!" The heavy smoke over Pearl Harbor was thought to be "smoke bombs" — or perhaps, as Honolulu mayor Lester Petrie supposed, a "practice smoke screen … I thought that was a perfect demonstration."
At four minutes past eight, KGMB interrupted its regular Sunday morning radio broadcast of organ music carried live from the First Baptist Church of Waikiki. The announcer, Webley Edwards, read a brief statement recalling all military personnel to their bases and stations. Normal programming then resumed, but new interruptions followed every few minutes, with announcements calling firemen, doctors, rescue workers, and disaster wardens to work. At 8:40 a.m., Edwards came back on the air: "We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this important news. Please pay attention. The island is under attack. I repeat, the island is under attack by hostile forces." Skeptical listeners refused to take the news seriously, assuming that the announcement was another element of an unusually vivid practice alert. Some recalled the panic caused by Orson Welles' fictional "War of the Worlds" broadcast three years earlier. Shortly before nine, Edwards returned to the air. In a quavering voice he pleaded with his listeners to believe him: "This is no maneuver. Japanese forces are attacking the island. This is the real McCoy!"
Reprinted from "Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942" by Ian Toll. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton.