NEARLY 40 YEARS have passed since that bright

Sunday morning when Japanese planes pounced upon the great naval base at Pearl Harbor, but books about the event still roll from the presses. The day lives not only in infamy but in the ledgers of American publishers.

To appreciate fully the significance of the late Gordon W. Prange's At Dawn We Slept it is useful to know something about its provenance. Prange, who was a popular history professor at the University of Maryland, began his professional career teaching European history. After naval service in World War II, he worked in Japan as a civilian in General Douglas MacArthur's historical section, preparing monographs on Japanese World War II operations with the aid of numerous Japanese army and naval officers.

While engaged in this work Prange became fascinated with the Pearl Harbor attack, realized he had a unique opportunity for access to many of the people who had planned and carried out the attack, and began gathering information from them for a definitive book to be called "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (the code words uttered by attack leader Mitsuo Fuchida signifying that surprise had been achieved). Prange spent almost every spare moment-- evenings, weekends, and holidays--in this obsession. This volume notes dozens of interviews, meticulously recorded, with each of a large number of Japanese, including 50 with Fuchida and 72, "believe it or not," with Minoru Genda, operations officer for the attack.

With the intention of publishing his book in 1951 on the 10th anniversary, Prange persuaded a historian colleague who was returning stateside to take his Pearl Harbor materials and write a first draft of the book. Prange accepted the draft but felt that further information was needed, so the anniversary passed.

The first public appearance of Prange's work was in 1963 when Reader's Digest printed excerpts "condensed from a forthcoming book." The next surfacing was in 1966 when Tora! Tora! Tora! was published in Japanese by Reader's Digest in Tokyo. In 1970 a movie by 20th Century-Fox titled Tora! Tora! Tora! was purportedly based on Prange's book and The Broken Seal, by Ladislas Farago. The New York Times review of the film was aptly headlined "Tora-ble! Tora-ble! Tora-ble!"

Meanwhile, Prange decided his book should include the American side of the story. This involved a detailed study of the seven Pearl Harbor investigations and led to interviews with countless Americans--before Prange died in May 1980.

Now we have the first English-language book presentation of Prange's extensive research. At Dawn We Slept has been well edited by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon, two devoted and able assistants who were also his students. They cut his 3,500-page manuscript to the present length in only five months. Above all, they did something Prange could never bring himself to do: They sent the manuscript to press.

Most of the substance of the work is well known, but some of the detail has not appeared in English, such as minutiae about the Japanese First Air Fleet rendezvous at Tankan Bay before the attack. There must have been many conflicts in Prange's numerous interviews; interviews, after all, depend on human memory--a notoriously unreliable instrument--yet we have no choice but to accept the substance of these memories until disproven. The editors write that "Gordon Prange approached this study with as nearly an open mind as any American could bring to the subject," and quote him as often saying he had "no ax to grind, no one to attack, no preconceived thesis to prove, no one to defend." The editors' view that "he tried at all times to be as objective as humanly possible" appears justified.

The account is methodical and skillful in interweaving the action and thinking of Japanese and American leaders--military and political. Prange's determination and orderliness shine clearly through, as do many statements of the sort which delighted his students: "In short, Yamamoto's camel had its nose in Nagano's tent." But his conclusions, as might be expected at such a distance in time from a well-treated subject, are often as trite as the vapid last phrase of both the Reader's Digest condensation and this book: "The unexpected can happen and often does."

At Dawn We Slept carries 55 pages of notes, 22 of additional source material, a list of "major personnel," a 12-page selected bibliography, and an appendix, "Revisionists Revisited," which dismisses the charge that Pearl Harbor was Roosevelt's fault.

The story is well and thoroughly told as a result of-- and sometimes, it seems, in spite of--Prange's almost innumerable interviews. Technically, the book is not as polished as it should be: illustrations are unlisted; photograph captions are unclear, inaccurate, or inadequate; technical terms are misused. In addition to the usual small errors and solecisms--easily remedied in the inevitable future printings--there are altogether too many errors in the handling of Japanese names and words.

There is more Prange to come, much more. Goldstein and Dillon are editing the entire manuscript for publication in four volumes--to be called, at last, Tora! Tora! Tora!--after which Prange's vast storehouse of materials will be placed in the University of Maryland library. With the four full volumes we will be able to tell if At Dawn We Slept presents all the essential elements of the story, or whether every bit of Prange's prodigious labor bore golden fruit.

It is to be hoped that Prange's thorough treatment of participant accounts will be an example for others in using the wealth of Japanese communications related to Pearl Harbor intercepted by the United States, available since 1978 at the National Archives.

The hope of the editors that this is a good and enjoyable book has been fulfilled. It is also a book which any researcher of the attack on Pearl Harbor will ignore at his peril.

Richard Collier, a prolific British writer, calls his book The Road to Pearl Harbor, a title the late historian Herbert Feis employed 31 years ago.

Collier is a good storyteller. He gives moving, lurid accounts of savagery on the Russian front and of the extermination of Jews, as well as of many other events and people in the landmark year of 1941. There are stories about Winston Churchill and some pungent British epithets. He notes harbingers of the attack that would bring the United States to arms and make the war in Europe a worldwide struggle.

The attack itself and its aftermath occupies only the last third of the book, where the author understandably covers British events (the Prince of Wales and Repulse sinkings, the fall of Singapore) in some detail.

All are well-spun tales, but some do not tell enough. Brief mention of an American sailor's survival on Japanese-held Guam from 1941 until we captured the island in 1944 derives from that sailor's own self-serving account. Subsequent visitors to the island, of whom I was one, have found the Guamanians less flattering about the sailor.

All in all, an interesting volume, but look elsewhere for extensive lore on the planning and execution of the Pearl Harbor attack. The Feis book hewed closer to the subject suggested by the title.

In Air Raid: Pearl Harbor! editor Paul Stillwell uses 47 individual recollections from Americans and Japanese present at Pearl Harbor, many of them directly involved with the attack, to "provide a sampling of the many diverse viewpoints available, and to cover the broad spectrum" of the events of that day. These excellent stories range from the opening eyewitness account by the Japanese pilot who led the raid to an article by the man who was Pacific Fleet intelligence officer throughout the war. The narrators include 24 flag-rank officers, military personnel of lesser ranks and ratings, and several civilian men and women. They range from the pidgin of Chinese photographer Tai Sing Loo to the professional deftness of journalists Hanson W. Baldwin and Joseph C. Harsch.

Captain Wilfred J. Holmes' "Pearl Harbor Aftermath" and Rear Admiral Edwin T. Layton's "Admiral Kimmel Deserved a Better Fate" both pay homage to Joseph J. Rochefort's invaluable World War II work as a cryptanalyst and language officer. His work, unfortunately, never received proper recognition in his lifetime, and, for some reason, still has not been officially acknowledged--but should be.

The considerable task of synthesizing these stories is done well, without discernible interference or intrusion.

The book has 250 illustrations, some familiar, some rare, but all well chosen and arranged. Finding Pearl Harbor-vintage photographs of all 47 authors was a nice touch and no mean task. Borrowed drawings of the Oahu and Pearl Harbor areas are good, but large end- paper renderings of these areas, tailored specially to this book, would have been better.