At almost the exact moment hundreds of Japanese planes dropped armor-piercing bombs on Pearl Harbor — killing thousands of Americans and damaging eight battleships in a deadly surprise attack — Brig. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to take a nap.

Eisenhower, as usual, was working through the weekend. But around noon on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, he yawned and shoved aside the paperwork spilling across his desk in San Antonio, where he served as chief of staff for troops stationed at Fort Sam Houston.

Telling an assistant he was “dead tired,” the 51-year-old struggled into his car and drove home. Don’t wake me, Eisenhower instructed his wife, Mamie, before falling into bed: “[I don’t want to be] bothered by anyone wanting to play bridge.”

History compelled Mamie to disobey.

Eisenhower awoke to an urgent call from military higher-ups informing him of the news from Pearl Harbor. The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan.

The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed Congress. Here's an excerpt of the now-famous speech. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Four hectic, harried days after that, Eisenhower received another call — this one demanding he “hop a plane” and travel to Washington to develop the U.S. response to Japanese aggression, writes Stephen E. Ambrose in “Eisenhower: Soldier and President.”

It was a pivotal moment for the nation and for Eisenhower, who up to that point had “impressed every superior for whom he had worked,” but failed to garner any accomplishments worth mentioning “with pride [to] his grandchildren,” according to Ambrose.

“Had he died in 1941, at an age when most great men have their monumental achievements behind them, he would be unknown today,” Ambrose wrote. Speeding to Washington, “[Eisenhower] may have dared to hope that the war would give him an opportunity to use his talents and skills … for the good of his country and perhaps even for the good of his own career.”

But things did not start well for the ambitious, anxious future president.

Eisenhower had packed a small bag, told Mamie he would be back soon and boarded an afternoon plane to the nation’s capital — only to be grounded by bad weather a few hundred miles into the flight. Undeterred, he boarded a train in Dallas and chugged into Union Station relatively early on Dec. 15.

He immediately rushed to the War Department offices on Constitution Avenue (at the time, the Pentagon was still under construction). There, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall met him with a stunning request.

Marshall, known throughout the military as an ingenious but stern and demanding taskmaster, fixed Eisenhower with a steely glare and demanded, “What should be our general line of action?”

“Eisenhower was startled,” Ambrose wrote. “He had just arrived, knew little more than what he had read in the newspapers … was not up to date on the war plans for the Pacific, and had no staff to help him prepare an answer.”

For a few seconds, an awkward silence reigned. Then, returning Marshall’s gaze, he replied simply: “Give me a few hours.”

He retreated to a desk, stuffed yellow tissue paper into a typewriter and — without any further preparation or research (and without the benefit of anything like the Internet) — came up with a strategy to fight the Japanese in the Philippines. His very first order of business: tapping out the title, “Steps To Be Taken.”

Conventional military wisdom dictated a swift retreat from the Philippines to Australia, where U.S. troops could build a base to launch a counteroffensive, according to Ambrose.

“But the honor of the Army was at stake, and the prestige of the United States in the Far East,” Ambrose wrote. As Eisenhower concluded in his report to Marshall: “The people of China, of the Philippines, of the Dutch East Indies will be watching us. … They may excuse failure but they will not excuse abandonment.”

So he formulated a daring compromise. Eisenhower advocated shipping pilots, planes and weaponry out to Australia in preparation for a base there, while nonetheless keeping — and, as far as possible, bolstering — U.S. troops already stationed in the Philippines under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Just as dusk settled over the nation’s capital, Eisenhower returned to Marshall’s office bearing his typewritten recommendations. He knew the plan was fraught with potential pitfalls: “We must take great risks and spend any amount of money required,” Eisenhower wrote in the document. “We dare not fail.”

Marshall pored over the pages, looking grim, while Eisenhower watched. Once he finished reading, he paused and regarded the younger man with a piercing stare.

“I agree with you,” Marshall said finally, in barely audible tones, according to Ambrose. “Do your best to save [the Philippines].”

Marshall placed Eisenhower in control of the Philippines and the Far Eastern Section of the War Plans Division, according to Ambrose. That morning, Eisenhower had felt certain he was embarking on what would be a very short trip to Washington. Instead, he would not leave the nation’s capital again (apart from a 10-day visit to Britain) for almost eight months.

During that period, he labored to the point of exhaustion in a desperate bid to save the Philippines and, later, to develop a strategy to fight Germany, as well as Japan. Eisenhower found a temporary home with relatives who lived in Falls Church, Va., though he hardly ever saw them.

“He never saw the house in daylight,” Ambrose wrote. “His driver would pick him up before dawn to take him to his office on Constitution Avenue, and bring him back at 10:30 p.m. or later. … He wolfed down his meals, often no more than a hot dog and coffee, at his desk.”

He missed Christmas 1941, countless family events and even his father’s death and funeral in March 1942. The only expression of grief Eisenhower allowed himself on the day of his father’s passing was to leave work slightly earlier than usual, at 7:30 p.m.

“War is not soft,” Eisenhower wrote in his diary the next day. “It has not time to indulge even the deepest and most sacred of emotions.”

Despite his work ethic, Eisenhower’s record in the Philippines is mixed at best. As Ambrose put it: “His efforts were worse than fruitless, as [General] MacArthur came to lump Eisenhower together with Marshall and Roosevelt as the men responsible for the debacle on the islands,” which the United States ultimately lost in a humiliating, morale-shattering defeat that cost tens of thousands of American lives.

Nonetheless, Eisenhower proved his worth.

“Throughout that period, and in the months that followed, Eisenhower impressed Marshall deeply,” Ambrose wrote. “So deeply that Marshall came to agree … that Eisenhower was the best officer in the Army.”

Marshall promoted Eisenhower to major general, then commanding general of the European Theater of Operations and eventually (by Roosevelt’s dictate) Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. As Supreme Commander, Eisenhower’s successful oversight of the D-Day invasion earned him a place in history and set him on the path to the American presidency.

The later glowing successes — both Eisenhower’s personal victories and those won by the Allied Forces in World War II — would probably have been impossible without those initial tense hours in Washington. Everything stemmed from Marshall’s decision to set Eisenhower a near-impossible task, and from Eisenhower’s refusal to back down.

Correction: A previous version of this story included a photo caption incorrectly identifying Eisenhower as a brigadier general. At the time the photo was taken, he was a full general.

Read more Retropolis: