Seattle’s first Pearl Harbor Day
It was 10:30 p.m. on Friday, March 7, 1941. With tensions rising in the Pacific and bombs falling on blacked out London — described poetically from the scene by local boy turned CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow — downtown Seattle itself was now suddenly plunged into darkness.
Though the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was still nine months away, Seattle was the first community in the nation to mount an intentional blackout of an American metropolis in preparation for war. In an eerie photo spread in Life magazine shot from atop the Northern Life Tower, Seattle became a temporary Atlantis, sinking beneath an inky sea of darkness for 20 minutes.
Americans sometimes forget that by the time Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, World War II had been underway for more than two years and momentous change had come to continental Europe. The Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Belgium, Holland, and The Netherlands. The British and French had been defeated at Dunkirk and evacuated to England. In June 1941, the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union.
As Europe crumbled, back in the United States we were lending and leasing, peacetime drafting, and America Firsting from the safety, comfort, and economic stimulation of the Arsenal of Democracy. Partly due to defense-related jobs, the Great Depression was receding into the distance, with retail spending in America jumping nearly 25 percent, from $44 million in 1940 to $54 million in 1941.
Just a few days before Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 2, radio legend Murrow, who was raised south of Bellingham and who had graduated a few years before from what was then called Washington State College in Pullman, had returned from London to be honored for his Blitz broadcasts.
During a dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, Librarian of Congress (and poet and author) Archibald MacLeish famously told Murrow and a radio audience listening at home, “You burned the city of London in our houses and we felt the flames. You laid the dead of London at our doors and we knew that the dead were our dead, were mankind’s dead, without rhetoric, without dramatics, without more emotion than needed be. You have destroyed the superstition that what is done beyond 3,000 miles of water is not really done at all.”
War heard around the world
So when radio reports told Seattle listeners of an aerial attack on a faraway place — and a real blackout came to the cold and rainy city — in early December 75 years ago, neither experience was completely unfamiliar.
Word of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached Seattle around 11:30 a.m. local time, and the news spread quickly. While shock and outrage was common all over the United States, residents of cities along the West Coast had the added element of palpable fear. The thinking was that if the Japanese could surprise the U.S. Navy in Hawaii, they could do the same to Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and right here in Seattle.
Even clear-thinking elected leaders voiced their concern. Rep. Henry M. Jackson told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if an attempt is made to bomb Boeings, although I am confident we have the air forces here in the Northwest to protect it. What does surprise me to some degree is that a bombing assault was not made in this area at the same time as at Pearl Harbor. The fact it was made only at the latter point makes it appear more likely there will be none here, although I don’t want to minimize the possibility.”
It’s no surprise that Jackson, who would one day come to be known as “The Senator From Boeing,” worked to promote the local airplane manufacturer, even in the midst of crisis.
“This Boeing plant manufactures our most effective potential weapon against Japan, long-range bombers,” Jackson told the P-I. “These bombers can strike at the heart of Japan itself and it is only natural that the Boeing plant is one of Japan’s air objectives.”
Jackson, who had just returned to Everett from the nation’s capital on that Sunday, turned around and headed right back. Northwest Airlines even made a special stop at Paine Field to pick up Jackson for the late Sunday flight to Washington, D.C.
On the local level, preparations for the potential of war (such as the blackout drill) had been underway since 1940, and the various military and civil authorities swung into action quickly on Dec. 7.
Seattle Mayor Earl Milliken slept in his office at the old County-City Building Sunday night, and the building became a 24-hour a day command center. Police officers were placed on 12-hour shifts, and some 3,000 volunteer air raid wardens took their posts in neighborhoods around the city. Though, because of a budget snafu, there were no air-raid sirens to alert anyone of possible attack.
All local military bases were put on alert and beefed-up security, including Fort Lawton in Magnolia, Sand Point Naval Air Station on Lake Washington, the Pier 41 Naval Base on the waterfront, as well as Fort Lewis, Fort Worden, Paine Field, McChord Field, and the Bremerton Navy Yard.
First World War veteran Brigadier General Carlyle H. Walsh of the Second Interceptor Command, the branch of the Army charged with protecting Seattle from airborne attack, told the P-I, “It’s just exactly the same as it was back in ‘17. We went from a peace to a wartime basis in quarter of an hour then, and that’s just what we did today.”
Along with Jackson, Rep. Warren Magnuson and Sen. Monrad Wallgren also flew back to Washington, D.C., on Northwest Airlines on Dec. 7. Before boarding the plane at Boeing Field, Wallgren told the P-I, “War with Japan will be no pink tea, and we are apt to suffer a few setbacks at the beginning.”
Dinner at the White House
Back in nation’s capital, Cougar alum Murrow, who had not yet returned to his CBS post in London, was scheduled to have dinner at the White House with the Roosevelts that Sunday. Murrow and his wife, Janet, assumed that the dinner would be canceled, but First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt called and said it was still on.
As it turned out, the couple dined only with Mrs. Roosevelt and Janet Murrow went home soon after. But Ed Murrow was asked to stay, and he had a private meeting late that night with President Roosevelt, who shared with Murrow far more details of the devastation than officially had been provided to other members of the press.
Early the next morning, Murrow, for whom the WSU communication program is now named, anguished over what use he could make of what the president told him, but ultimately decided it all had been off the record.
After dinner with the Murrows, the first lady was on the radio herself that night for her regular Sunday broadcast on NBC, sponsored by the Pan American Coffee Bureau. Two Roosevelt children lived on the West Coast — including daughter Anna Roosevelt Boettiger in Seattle — and Eleanor spoke of her concern for them in her broadcast.
Radio had proven its value as a news medium during the Munich Crisis of September 1938, and many Americans had followed developments in Europe via Murrow and other broadcasters throughout the first years of World War II. Radio coverage of Pearl Harbor was spotty, as there was no reliable means of voice transmission, and neither NBC nor CBS had correspondents stationed there. Further complicating radio’s role in Seattle on Dec. 7 was that stations were ordered or voluntarily chose to go off the air, to prevent their signals being used as homing beacons by enemy aircraft.
Even in cities where radio stations were not ordered off the air, radio coverage of Pearl Harbor was not “wall-to-wall” as a contemporary news consumer might expect.
While regularly scheduled newscasts provided as thorough coverage as possible, the regular programming schedule was left in place, with interruptions only for brief bulletins. Thus, one can listen to a recording of NBC’s The Great Gildersleeve being interrupted by a bulletin calling for soldiers to report to Fort Lewis. The somber war news fades out, and the studio laughter fades back in. This is due in part to the fact that most radio programs were underwritten by single sponsors, with complete blocks of time purchased outright from networks (rather than individual commercial spots that support most TV programs today). In the case of Gildersleeve, Kraft Parkay Margarine and its ad agency “owned” the program, and NBC was reluctant to preempt any show in its entirety and lose the revenue.
As night fell on Dec. 7, Seattle was a changed city, now on a war footing for the duration. The influx of money, defense workers, and members of the military over the next four years would change the city forever. However, all that was in the future. First, the city had to get through Sunday night, which was relatively quiet for most of the city. All that would change late Monday, when the Seattle would lay claim to its own little piece of wartime infamy.
Monday, Dec. 8, dawned cold and rainy, and Seattleites heard FDR’s famous “date which will live in infamy” speech on radio stations beginning at 9:30 a.m. local time.
While more volunteers and police officers took up positions to prevent sabotage of bridges, power plants, and other civic infrastructure, the Washington State Defense Council, operating out of the Armory (now main indoor gathering spot at Seattle Center) on Monday sought help from volunteer “civilian defense couriers,” asking for all “runners, roller skaters, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and carrier pigeon fans who wish to serve” in case of breakdown of regular communications. It’s unclear if they were trying to be funny.
Meanwhile, well in advance of FDR’s March 1942 Executive Order 9066 that sent Japanese Americans to what many now call concentration camps, local authorities had moved in to make wartime arrests. The Seattle Star on Dec. 8 reported that, “All thru the night Seattle police under Chief Herbert Kimsey rounded up 51 Japanese aliens considered dangerous by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The men were arrested and later interned in the United States immigration station. County and state police assisted in the work.”
But the Star also quoted Mayor Milliken as saying, “Seattle must have tolerance toward American-born Japanese, most of whom are loyal. But I also want to warn the Japanese that they must not congregate or make any utterance that could be used as grounds for reprisals.”
Chief Kimsey, according to the Star, also appealed for tolerance and “announced patrols guarding the Japanese quarter, and said that any attempt to stir up anti-Japanese riots would be crushed with force.”
When darkness came Monday evening, air-raid wardens were again in place, and the Army’s Second Interceptor Command remained on duty. An even more effective air defense, the P-I reported, was Seattle’s climate. “The danger of an air raid was materially reduced by rainy weather, which was expected to continue today, serving as a natural anti-aircraft defense,” wrote reporter R.B. Bermann.
Silence, darkness on the West Coast
Local radio provides one of the most chilling artifacts of Dec. 8, with a recording made just before 7 p.m. by KIRO as the station prepared to leave the air by order of the FCC as part of a complete blackout of the West Coast. (Note: This recording is referenced in many places on the Internet as being from the night of Dec. 7, but I believe it is from Dec. 8, when a more formal blackout was instituted all along the West Coast.)
The first announcer says, “In the first place, there will be no radio broadcasting tonight after seven o’clock. Except, perhaps, for one of the Seattle stations, which will probably be KIRO. Leave your dial tuned to KIRO and you’ll get the information that is necessary. There will be no programs broadcast but any information necessary for the civilian populace will be broadcast over KIRO, probably. There will be a complete blackout tonight at eleven o’clock. The blackout is not only for the city of Seattle, it includes every light between the California border, or rather the Mexican border and the Canadian border. That is in the states of Oregon, Washington, and California. Every farmhouse, every light of any kind in that area must be out by eleven o’clock.”
Then, just before 7 p.m., the second announcer matter-of-factly signs off.
“And now, by authority of the Federal Communications Commission, KIRO transmits on a frequency of 710 kilocycles with its new power of 50,000 watts. It’s almost seven o’clock — five seconds to go — and we’ll be back, ladies and gentlemen, with information when ordered by The United States Army Interceptor Command here in Seattle.”
With a broadcast like this, it’s easy to understand why hysteria was rampant along the West Coast on Monday, the same day that two squadrons of Japanese planes were reported over San Francisco (reports later deemed erroneous). That night, as Seattle’s first full day of World War II came to a close and the 11 p.m. total blackout began (as it had been described by the KIRO announcer), violence erupted downtown that was front-page news around the country the next day.
The danger and destruction came not from Japanese saboteurs, but instead from a crowd of homegrown hooligans who insisted on violent enforcement of the blackout, with a little vandalism and looting along the way. The P-I, describing the mood of the rioters as “patriotic ardor,” provided details of a riot that began at Fourth and Pike, where rocks and cans were heaved at the neon sign of the Foreman and Clark clothing store that had not been switched off at 11 p.m.
With shouts of, “Turn them out … this is war,” the rioters then smashed a window at Friedlander’s Jewelry store, where green and red electric candles were on display. Next, they broke the windows of the Drew English Shoe Company, where a nightlight was illuminated at the back of the store. They kicked in the door at the Palomar Theater, where a light showed from an interior door. They took out a lighted clock outside Weisfield and Goldberg’s Jewelry Store. All told, 14 businesses suffered damages.
The scene of the largest clash between police and rioters was at Third and University, where officers’ attempts to break up the crowd were greeted by boos and catcalls. The crowd ignored repeated police orders to disperse, and did so only when officers drove motorcycles through the group shortly after midnight. Five arrests were made of Caucasians ranging in age from 20 to 35, including four men and a 32-year old woman.
This was how war came to Seattle in December 1941. We met the enemy, and the enemy (here on the West Coast, anyhow) was us.
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this piece was originally published by Crosscut.com in 2009, and on MyNorthwest Dec 5, 2016.