This is no drill!
71 years ago, San Diego woke to terrible news, and wondered: where next?
Seventy-one years ago, today, San Diegans awoke to cloudy skies. When the sun pierced through, those who went outside for the Sunday paper looked forward to yet another pristine December day to brag about to friends back east.
A front page article comforted those following the Japanese fleet for the last few days. Japan had at most 5000 planes, and few experienced pilots.
Church attendance had been picking up as the holiday season approached.
Lt. Paul Stroop, tactical officer for the Carrier Division I staff, was playing golf at the nine-hole links course at North Island, which housed over 400 military aircraft. Stroop saw an officer running his way. He heard something about "Pearl Harbor." When Stroop recognized his Division Commander, Jake Finch, the look on the man's face matched his words: "We're at war! Come with me!"
That day, Stroop was so busy he never removed his golf spikes.
The Naval radio station on Point Loma (NPL) had received a message: "Pearl Harbor under attack. This is no drill." The station was the first in the United States to receive word from Radio Pearl Harbor. Using a link with the station at Mare Island in the Bay Area, NPL broadcast the message, and those to follow, nationally.
"In the bars, in the restaurants, in the streets," wrote the San Diego Union, "each new bulletin had special significance for the 300,000 who listened."
In hotels like the U.S. Grant, if you played a radio at all, you kept it at a whisper. From just a few minutes before noon, when the first message hit the coast, radios blared in hotel lobbies, but not as loud as the speakers on trucks going down Broadway roaring the news.
Extra edition newspapers sold out in seconds. "And yet it wasn't enough," wrote the Union. "You could still feel the city tense, listening greedily for more news, exact news, news that was revolting, yet news you had to listen to."
An estimated 47,000 newspapers were printed by 4:00 p.m. Initial reports gave few, often contradictory facts that encouraged rumors. The most prevalent: if Pearl Harbor's been attacked and the Pacific Fleet bombed, where next?
Half of the answer (the other being San Francisco) shot fear and resolve through San Diego.
Marines manned anti-aircraft guns, some even hitching rides from Agua Caliente racetrack to get there. By 2:00 p.m., 1200 people volunteered as enemy aircraft spotters.
As police diverted traffic from defense plants, Reuben H. Fleet, President of Consolidated Aircraft (Consair), sent a message to President Franklin D. Roosevelt: "we are on the job and at your command, sir."
Not entirely. Attempts to blackout the city failed that first night, in part because Consair refused to shut off its lights (asked why, an official replied, "we're building airplanes; we haven't got time to play games!"). The plant went dark when the Marines threatened to pull its power switches.
Many San Diegans refused to believe the news. And many who did, especially those combing the seas and skies, let their imaginations run wild. Fishing boats, called in for the war effort, became mistaken for enemy vessels. Birds could be far off bombers.
And even those who believed but didn't incite their imaginations knew that San Diego's first line of defense was, as Barry Alan Joyce writes, "more symbolic than effective."
Hollis Gillespie, whom Joyce quotes, was one of them. Wide awake he wondered "if the enemy would attack that night, or if we would all live to see another day."
More like this:
- The bunkers of Point Loma — May 29, 2018
- Atop Station White — Dec. 28, 2015
- Tuna boats go to war — March 20, 2013
- I Was a Prisoner of War in America — May 25, 2010
- From San Diego's 41st Street, Japan was a more odious enemy than Germany — Dec. 15, 1983