‘WAR!’ How a stunned media broke the Pearl Harbor news.
By Michael E. Ruane,
For a time on Dec. 7, 1941, millions of Americans were getting their news about the attack on Pearl Harbor through a person named Ruthjane Rumelt.
She was an aide to White House Press secretary Stephen T. Early, and she relayed pieces of the story as it came in to reporters in the White House press room.
At the Redskins-Eagles game, in Washington’s Griffith Stadium that Sunday, the Associated Press football writer got word from headquarters to keep his story short, because: “The Japanese have kicked off.”
And an editor attending the game got a telegram from his frantic wife, addressed Section P, Top Row, Seat 27, opposite 25-yard line, East side, Griffith Stadium. It read, “War with Japan. Get to office.”
That surprise attack by Japanese planes on the complex of U.S. military installations in Hawaii was not just one of the most significant moments in American history, it was also one of the biggest news days. On Wednesday — the 70th anniversary of the attack — the National Archives is hosting a special program on Pearl Harbor and the media.
Titled “It Is No Joke — It Is a Real War: How Americans First Learned of Pearl Harbor,” the free program is being held in conjunction with the Newseum and is scheduled to be moderated by veteran broadcast journalist and scholar Marvin Kalb.
The program is slated to begin at 7 p.m. in the main Archives building downtown.
In the decades since the attack that plunged the United States into World War II, many have recounted where they were that day, but fewer have said how they found out.
Radio was then the dominant medium, Kalb said Tuesday.
“There were 45 million radios in the U.S.,” he said. “And people were listening to the radio an average of four and half hours a day. Newspapers were way down below that. So the most important means of communication was the radio.”
Across the country, broadcasts of all kinds were interrupted.
In New York, an announcer on WOR broke into a Giants football game.
“We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this important bulletin. . . Flash. Washington. The White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Stay tuned . . . for further developments. . . .”
Another radio reporter delivered a dramatic account from the roof of a building in Honolulu.
“We have witnessed this morning . . . a severe bombing of Pearl Harbor,” the reporter said, speaking deliberately over the background static.
“The city of Honolulu has also been attacked and considerable damage done. This battle has been going on for nearly three hours. . . . It is no joke. It is a real war.”
Most Sunday newspapers had been printed before the early morning attack and missed the news at first.
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin came out with “extra” editions Sunday to announce the calamity.
“WAR!” its headlines blared.
“OAHU BOMBED BY JAPANESE PLANES”
On the East and West coasts, the story didn’t break until later in the day, and many newspapers carried their first detailed reports the next day.
In San Francisco, the Chronicle’s giant headline — “WAR!” — took up the top third of the front page.
In Washington, The Post proclaimed: “Japan Declares War Against U.S.”
The 27,102 fans at the Redskins game — Washington won, 14-7 — were not told of the attack, but the public-address announcer summoned numerous VIPs and military officers to report to their headquarters throughout the contest.
At the White House, worried crowds gathered outside the iron gates while, inside, Ruthjane Rumelt passed bits of the unfolding story from her boss to the press.
At 3:18 p.m., she entered the press room and said: “So far as the President’s information goes, and so far as we know, at the moment, the attacks are still in progress. In other words, we don’t know that the Japanese have bombed and left.”
Back in Hawaii, the last Japanese planes had departed about 30 minutes earlier, littering Pearl Harbor with smashed American ships and thousands of dead, and leaving the date one that would live on in infamy.