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Shirley Povich Tribute

  At Redskins-Eagles Game, Crowd Was Kept Unaware That War Had Begun

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Columnist
Saturday, December 7, 1991; Page A15

"Keep it short."

Three little words. But freighted with news that would shake a nation.

That was the message over the telegraph wire, dot-dash, to Pat O'Brien, the Associated Press's man in the football press box at Griffith Stadium. This was eight minutes after the opening kickoff in the Redskins-Philadelphia Eagles game.

The curt command from the downtown AP office in the Washington Evening Star building left O'Brien much annoyed. He said to me, his press box neighbor, "For five years I've been covering these Redskin games and now some jerk is telling me how much to write."

To his operator, O'Brien said, "Ask 'em who's giving me these new orders."

This was on a certain December day in 1941, and enlightenment came speedily in a follow-up message to O'Brien:

"The Japs have just kicked off. Pearl Harbor bombed. War now."

Moments later an announcement was heard over the stadium's public address system: "Admiral W.H.O. Bland is asked to report to his office at once."

So what, people were always being paged by public address at Redskins games. No big deal. Anyway, how many folks in the stadium knew this particular admiral was chief of ordnance, U.S. Navy? Or that there was a sudden and very urgent need for the guns, ammunition and other materiel of war in his command?

Nor was much heed, if any, paid to the next announcement over the public address horns:

"The resident commissioner of the Philippines, Mr. Joaquin Eilzade, is asked to report to his office." At this point, not significant, either.

In the stands, the Redskin fans were 27,102 innocents. They had a preoccupation, anyway, because Slingin' Sammy Baugh had the Redskins in a drive deep into Eagles territory in the so-far scoreless game.

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.

Inevitably, shreds of the story began to ripple beyond the vicinity of the press box. But not all of the folks in the nearby seats would readily accept what they were hearing. The enormity of it invited disbelief and by many it was being put down as wild rumor unsubstantiated.

In a nearby box seat I spotted the former managing editor of The Washington Post, my old boss, Norman Baxter, and was prompted to alert him to the grim news. He also was an immediate skeptic.

"Something's wrong," said Baxter, sharp on geography. "How could their bombers overlook our bases in the Philippines and fly all the way to Hawaii?"

A good question, until my return to the press box where I was greeted with a follow-up message to O'Brien from the AP: "And they've bombed the Philippines, too."

Now there was a new announcement over the horns: "Mr. J. Edgar Hoover is asked to report to his office."

Soon the announcements began to cascade: "General so and so, and General so and so are asked to report to their offices immediately." Being heard also were calls for other admirals, and colonels, and Cabinet members. The crowd may have deduced there was some kind of an emergency, but a scarce few were in the know. To be remembered is that this was the era before fans took radios to the games, and the stadium was too vast for the news of war to spread quickly, even if the reports were to be believed.

But now getting into the act, too, were the city's five daily newspapers. Anticipating the urgency for extra editions, they began paging their respective circulation managers over public address. By the end of the first half, only one of what had been a swarm of photographers was now working the game. Most others had been summoned to the White House, and to the Japanese Embassy to record the burning of documents, the smoke scene, and to other points of interest.

At the game's end, at the stadium's exit, the Redskins crowd that had thrilled to Baugh's two fourth-quarter touchdown passes for a 20-14 Redskins victory experienced mass shock. Newsboys shouting "Extra papers!" were flourishing newspapers with big headlines that screamed "U.S. at War."

For almost three hours the stadium crowd had been ignorant of the sneak attack on their country, deliberately kept from them on orders of Redskins owner George Preston Marshall. On a day when the United States was suddenly plunged into the biggest war in history, with thousands of Americans already dead or dying, Marshall ordered his staff to make no public announcement to the stadium crowd.

Marshall's later explanation was a statement of his priorities, peculiar to himself: "I didn't want to divert the fans' attention from the game."

Shirley Povich began covering sports for The Washington Post in 1922.

© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post Company

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