Chronicle of the 'day of infamy' . . .

Monday Book Reviews

December 02, 1991|By Bynum Shaw

LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO WAR: DECEMBER 7, 1941. By Stanley Weintraub. Truman Talley Books/Dutton. 706 pages. $26.95.

ON DEC. 7, 1941, 50 years ago Saturday, six Japanese aircraft carriers lying in a task force 230 miles off the Hawaiian coast launched 123 planes in a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Americans who lived through that "day of infamy," as President Roosevelt termed it, can remember exactly what they were doing the minute they heard the news. The United States was at war -- shockingly ill-prepared and without any degree of enthusiasm for blood-letting.

Stanley Weintraub, Evan Pugh professor of arts and humanities at Penn State University, has gone moment by moment over the 29 hours leading up to the attack and for some hours afterward. For his detailed account, he interviewed thousands of participants in high places and low, consulted diaries and official proclamations and traced the actions of belligerents and non-belligerents world wide.

The result is a shocking portrayal of the indifference of American military planners and diplomats to the threat of an armed confrontation which, despite adequate warning, they callously declined to take seriously. On the eve of the attack, all over the world American troops and their commanders were playing golf, sitting in bars and dallying with party girls in utter disregard of the possibility that their world could fly apart without notice.

And some of those who golfed and drank and partied would die within hours.

Not that there was no warning at all, or at least warning signs which should have been observed more closely. At a mobile radar station on Oahu, manned only part-time to cut expenses, Pvt. George E. Elliott hunched at his screen at 7:02 a.m. and saw something "completely out of the ordinary." He and his assistant, staying overtime, had picked up a flight of planes 137 miles out.

Checking with his duty officer, Lt. Kermit A. Tyler, a fighter pilot in the 78th pursuit squadron, Elliott was told to relax, that a flight of B-17s was due in and that the U.S. planes apparently were on course. "In the paradise that was Oahu," Weintraub writes, "everyone -- or nearly everyone -- lived in a haze of immunity from attack."

In a few moments, that haze would become smoke punctuated by bomb blasts as the Japanese planes zeroed in on the Pacific fleet -- at anchor in Pearl Harbor and almost wholly defenseless.

Gen. Walter E. Short, roused early and still grumpy, asked a subordinate, "What's going on out there?" Came the reply, "I'm not sure, general, but I just saw two battleships sunk."

"That's ridiculous!" Short said, and turned away.

Meanwhile, back at the Japanese offshore fleet, the radio reports filtered in: "Battleship Pennsylvania, direct hit." "Battleship West Virginia, sunk." "Cruiser Helena, heavy damage." "Battleship Oklahoma, capsized." And on and on, a terrible registry of doomed warships.

Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, alerted by phone, ran outside his home, Weintraub relates, "buttoning up his uniform as he went. He was just in time -- his home had a splendid view of Battleship Row -- to see the Arizona 'lift out of the water, then sink back down -- way down.' His heart sank with it, and so he knew, too, his naval career."

A thousand men died when the Arizona went under.

"Long Day's Journey" is not just about the attack on Pearl Harbor. It ranges the world, tracking the defeat of Hitler's hordes at the gates of Moscow, recounting the engagements between Montgomery and Rommel in North Africa and filling in with accounts from Washington, Tokyo, Manila, Thailand, Malaya and other troubled spots.

In trying to cover so much territory in short blocks of narrative, all quite authentic, the book assumes a kaleidoscopic quality. There is no central thread which one can pick up and follow, and some of the entries seem diverting and intrusive.

But what Weintraub has accomplished is a real tour de force which no doubt will be used as source material for years to come by historians, novelists and journalists.

In a kind of afterword, Weintraub suggests a conclusion to his monumental work. It is insightful, but it is not really needed. We all know how World War II turned out.

Bynum Shaw, a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University, is a former reporter and editorial writer for The Sun.

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