DATE OF EVENT: Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941
DATE PUBLISHED: Friday, Dec. 12, 1941, in The Kansas City Star
Editor’s note: The attack on Pearl Harbor was the defining moment of a generation.
World War II would change lives and the face of Kansas City — as it changed cities everywhere, bringing defense industries and an influx of workers to run them, sending troops to Europe and Japan by way of the railroad lines of Union Station, bringing women into the work force, rationing gasoline and food.
But all that was yet to come, with all its big headlines. But what many would remember was the stunning news and how it came during an ordinary Sunday.
Pearl Harbor Day in Kansas City was described by Bill Vaughan of The Star in an essay published on the editorial page five days after the attack.
This is for your scrapbook, and for the curious citizen of the future who will want to know what it was like in Kansas City in 1941 when war came. How did it feel to sit down to a pleasant Sunday dinner in a world where war was a headline and push back your chair at the end in a world, whether you knew it or not, in which the dive bombers were killing your neighbors’ sons? Your children’s children will want to know that.
Dec. 7 dawned to clouds. It was a day for sleeping late. If you went to church it was under a dappled sky.
In your newspaper that morning you had read that Japan was massing troops in an apparent threat against a place called Thailand and that Franklin D. Roosevelt, our President, had sent a note to Emperor Hirohito in an effort to save the peace in the Pacific. The article was full of grave portents, but the Japanese emissaries still were conferring with the State Department in Washington. There had been so much diplomatic seesawing, so many changes in position, the final plunge into war had been skirted so often, that although you shook your head, you really were not alarmed.
Besides, in two years of war in Europe, you had come to accept cities bombed with your grapefruit, grave conferences of foreign ministers with your luncheon and destroyers sunk with your after-dinner coffee. The picture of a lost child on the front page really was more interesting, and your casual talk that quiet morning was as likely to be of the Missouri Tigers’ chances against Fordham in the Sugar Bowl as of the course of the empire in the Far East. (Note to future historians: If you don’t get that part about the Sugar Bowl, just skip it.)
Your country had passed more than a year of intensive preparation including the compulsory training of its young men, yet here in the Middle West it had not touched you very deeply. You knew many men in the Army or the Navy, but their problems seemed to be one of morale — whether they were getting enough table tennis equipment and magazines — rather than anything that struck you as very vital.
Defense industries were expanding, you knew, but booms, housing problems and vaulting prices were things which affected you less than they would have if you had lived elsewhere. You were against strikes in defense industries, you were against Hitler and you had a “V for Victory” sticker on your car to show your approval of the desperate protest of the oppressed peoples of Europe — or because it was fashionable. You applauded such slogans as “Keep ‘Em Flying,” but it all seemed a little remote, a confusing picture you read about, but which had little bearing on your own daily business as usual.
It was with a good feeling that you sat down to dinner with your family at 1 o’clock. Sunday dinner, a tradition all the years of your life, seemed a firm and stable thing, a million miles away from men who died in snow or sand.
But by the time you were starting on your dessert and the children were squirming to get out of the doors, a copy editor of The Star, shuffling through a stack of news reports in the nearly deserted office, stifled a yawn as he reached for a ringing telephone.
It was the office of The Associated Press on the third floor of The Star building calling.
“Japan has bombed Hawaii!” an excited A.P. man cried. “The flash is in the tube.”
Before the Star man could understand fully, he heard one of the leather cylinders which carried the news through a pneumatic tube hit the desk beside him. He unsnapped the flap, and pulled out the slip of thin, white paper. That was at 1:22 p.m.
“FLASH - WHITE HOUSE SAYS JAPS ATTACK PEARL HARBOR.”
Those were the eight words on the slip, to be followed by the additional flash two minutes later that the Philippines also had been bombed, a report which later developed to be premature.
After a quick call to the managing editor at his home, the telegraph desk man sprinted up a flight of stairs to the studio of station WDAF and handed the paper to an announcer.
At 1:33 o’clock WDAF broke in on the University of Chicago Round Table, a program in which various pundits were discussing “Canada, Neighbor at War.” The interruption apparently was Kansas City’s first news of the almost unbelievable events in the East, although the other radio stations carried it within a few minutes.
If you were paying strict attention to your dinner, however, the chances are you did not hear that bulletin. It may have been during the New York Philharmonic broadcast that you first heard what was happening, the news flashes breaking in as a macabre counterpoint to Brahms.
Or perhaps you were out for a drive or taking a nap and didn’t know that Japan had declared war on the United States until The Star’s first extra hit the streets at 6:12 p.m.
These editions were the result of quick, exacting work by a staff hastily organized to quicken the pulse of the newspaper plant, which had slowed to its customary Sunday afternoon beat — slowest of the week.
It was the work of men, many of whom recalled America’s entry into the last war, much less dramatic, lacking the sharp, shattering event which started this one. And it was the work of young men who, even in their time, had printed much of many wars. The formal vote in Congress, of course, did not come until Monday, but these men knew the war had come, and you, in your home or in your motor car, knew it, too, when you heard the news. You all knew that the people of the United States could choose nothing but war with a foe who hissed politely the while he laid his plans for stealthy murder from the sky.
“Gotta whip those Japs!” the strong-lunged newsboys bawled. At the doors of the theaters, men and women emerging from the unreality within, from “Swamp Water” and Fibber McGee in “Look Who’s Laughing,” or from seeing Sally Rand dance with her fan and bubble at the Tower, saw the big, black headlines and rushed to buy a paper. At Loew’s Midland, the manager, John McManus, seizing an opportunity in the middle of a B picture (have they forgotten B pictures, lucky historian?) called “Niagara Falls,” when the action was scenic rather than dramatic, spoke the shocking news briefly through the screen’s loud-speaker. In the lobbies of theaters and hotels and in restaurants radios were going. Men took the news differently, of course, according to their several natures. There was surprise and indignation, covered often by a rough humor. There even seemed to be some of that strange relief, the feeling of “Well, here it is at last," which had been reported from nation after nation as the war of arms replaced the war of nerves.
To others, however, the news struck too deep even for the appearance of levity. From the time of the first flash until 7 that night the switchboard of The Star’s city desk handled a steady flow of calls. Mothers, many of them in tears, asked for word of their sons at Manila or on the USS Oklahoma, reported struck by bombs. Others wondered if their boys would be home for long-anticipated Christmas furloughs.
If you were like many Kansas Citians the coming of war upset you rather less than you might have expected. As you listened to the bulletins and read the extras, however, you had the urge to get out and see and talk to people. You may have taken the family for a drive through the downtown district which, strangely, was not changed from the way it had been in peace. You smiled at the irony of the signs which said: “It’s Christmastime,” as you drove by the gay windows full of holiday presents, and you tooted the horn of your car, not exactly knowing why you did it.
At 9:12, according to the weather bureau, the moon came up. It was a bomber’s moon, bright and only four days past full. The stars were out and in the Country Club Plaza the colored lights picked out the skeleton lines of shops and restaurants, familiar, cheerful and reassuring in the night on which you went to war.
— Bill Vaughan