Joan Fawcett rose early on the morning of 7 December 1941. The 21-year-old Englishwoman was a passenger aboard the Dutch ship Jägersfontein, travelling to India from San Francisco. After several days at sea, she was looking forward to arriving in Honolulu soon after breakfast. Joan didn’t want to miss a moment as the ship approached the Hawaiian island of Oahu from the south.


The other passengers were up early too. They were all enjoying the view of Diamond Head as they prepared to enter harbour. To add to the fun, the US navy was carrying out some sort of naval exercise ahead of them. As Joan later recalled: “I noticed a few puffs of grey smoke in the sky, just over the harbour, and as they seemed queer clouds I asked the boys what explanation they could give and we decided that they were the puffs from anti-aircraft fire.

“By this time there were many grey spots and soon we could hear the report of the guns. We thought it was just a practice manoeuvre and a welcome salute for us…

“By nine o’clock we had had breakfast and were all up on deck watching the planes fly over. We did see things drop into the water, and one only 50 yards away, but thought nothing more of it. Later we heard eight bombs were aimed at our ship. We made a beautiful target for we were entering the harbour, and being in the mined area could not swerve left or right in the cleared channel. We were thoroughly enjoying the display.”

The ship’s agent hurried aboard as soon as they docked. He told the passengers it was no exercise. The US navy’s Pacific fleet up the coast at Pearl Harbor was being attacked by the Japanese. Within hours, news of the outrage was racing around the world, leaving people shocked, dismayed – and, in some cases, delighted – in its wake.

The bombers appear

The attack was Japan’s response to the crippling sanctions imposed on the country by the United States. In an attempt to bring the Japanese invasions of China and Indo-China to an end, the Americans had frozen all Japan’s assets in the US. They had also put an embargo on the exports that Japan needed to wage war. These included gas, steel, scrap metal and, most crucially, oil.

In order to secure the supplies that they needed, the Japanese had therefore decided to invade various mineral-rich countries in south-east Asia, including Java and Malaya. To do so, they first had to put the American fleet out of action for at least six months.

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The raid on Pearl Harbor was intended to sink all the US aircraft carriers at anchor. Unfortunately for the Japanese, and most unusually for a weekend, the carriers were all at sea that Sunday morning. The attackers had to make do with the battleships instead.

Thirteen-year-old Michael Cunningham-Reid was watching from Alewa Heights as the Japanese appeared. He and his brother Noel were the sons of Conservative MP Alec Cunningham-Reid and his wife, Ruth Mary Clarisse Ashley, the younger sister of Lady Edwina Mountbatten (wife of Louis, a descendent of Queen Victoria). In view of their royal connection, the boys had been evacuated to put them beyond the reach of a German invasion.

They had fetched up on ultra-safe Oahu because of their father’s close relationship with the tobacco heiress Doris Duke. Said to be America’s richest woman, she kept a holiday home on the island and had agreed to act as the boys’ guardian during their stay.

Michael watched fascinated as the bombers appeared overhead: “These strange-looking planes came in, not very fast. They were floating, they had cut their engines, and they all appeared over the hill, masses of them coming down very quietly. They must have been about 300 feet above us, if that, and every one of the Japanese pilots waved to me as they went over… They were getting smaller and we saw explosions all over the place.”

Noel decided to alert their next door neighbour. Frank Tremaine was an agency reporter, the Hawaii bureau chief for United Press (UP). Fast asleep after a heavy night at the officers’ club on Waikiki Beach, he wasn’t happy to be woken by a British kid at an ungodly hour on a Sunday morning.

“I’ve got a scoop for you,” Noel told him. “The Japanese are attacking us.”

Unimpressed, Tremaine mumbled something about naval manoeuvres.

“If you just come out of the house, I think you’ll see that it’s not manoeuvres,” Noel insisted.

Tremaine took one look at the sky and ran for the phone. His first act was to send a cable to the mainland, saying Pearl Harbor was under aerial attack. He then booked a telephone call to UP’s San Francisco office, told his wife what to say when the call came through, and sped to Pearl Harbor to have a closer look at the bombing.

Tremaine was still dictating eyewitness accounts down the line an hour later when the US navy cut him off. They had shut down all radio communication to the mainland to prevent further Japanese aircraft from homing in on the signal. But Tremaine had done enough by then. Thanks to Noel Cunningham-Reid, he had got the story out and pulled off the biggest scoop of his career.

The story explodes

It was picked up at once, all over the world. Journalists everywhere dropped whatever they were working on when they learned of the attack and hurried to find out more. In New York, in a studio above Grand Central Station, the attack became American television’s first breaking news story as CBS’s fledgling TV reporters struggled to report it on air.

They were all experienced radio men, but television was still only experimental. Without earpieces or autocues, two terrified presenters ad-libbed all afternoon as the latest UP updates were ripped straight from the teleprinter and handed to them on camera. Behind the scenes, CBS’s studio staff hurriedly scrapped the peacetime backdrop for the news room and built a wartime one from scratch.

In just under four hours, they constructed a new set comprising nine different geographic areas and dominated by a map of the world covering 16 feet by 5. The war had reached America at last.

Hardly anybody was watching TV, though. Radio was still by far the biggest source of news in the United States, particularly in the heartlands. The story broke just before three in the afternoon, Washington time. By early evening, millions of Americans in three different time zones had been outraged to hear that their country had been attacked by the Japanese without even a formal declaration of war.

President Roosevelt learned of the attack soon after lunch. He knew from radio intercepts that the Japanese were about to attack somewhere, but Pearl Harbor came as a surprise. Roosevelt was as shocked as anyone that they had chosen the US fleet as their target.

He was relieved too, happy that the war was in the open at last. Roosevelt spent the afternoon chain-smoking as he drafted a speech to deliver to Congress the next day. It has since become one of the most famous speeches in US history: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government.”

Hitting the streets

In Ithaca, New York, the future novelist Kurt Vonnegut was an undergraduate at Cornell. He was in the bath when somebody shouted the news through the door. A reluctant student (he would rather have gone straight into journalism), Vonnegut jumped out at once, dressed and ran along the street to the Cornell Daily Sun, where he was the night editor:

“I tore down to the office, and we laid out a new first and last page, keeping the stale insides of the previous issue… We took whatever was coming off the AP machine, slapped it in, and were, I still believe, the first paper in the state to hit the streets with an extra.”

Ensign Jack Kennedy of the US navy (later President Kennedy) was in Washington, driving home from a game of touch football, when he switched the radio on and heard the news. Meanwhile, Gerald Ford was driving home from his law office in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ernest Hemingway and his wife were in Texas, enjoying a leisurely road trip down to the Gulf of Mexico. They were particularly irritated to learn of the attack because they had recently visited Pearl Harbor on their way to China. They had been shocked to see so many warships crammed together in harbour, as well as long rows of fighter planes lined up like sitting ducks on the runway.

In Hollywood, Clark Gable was in his stables, grooming the horses, when his wife, Carole Lombard, dashed out to tell him the news. Fresh from his success in the film International Squadron, Ronald Reagan was still in bed when his brother rang. Marlene Dietrich was doing the cooking for a dinner party. She was delighted to learn that the United States had been attacked and the Americans had woken up at last.

Wherever they were, whatever they were doing, Americans reacted first with disbelief, then with puzzlement, then growing anger and a demand for retribution as the full details of the attack emerged. Sixty years later, their reaction was much the same when the Twin Towers were attacked in New York.

The reaction across the Atlantic was very similar too. Yet sympathy for the Americans was tempered by a feeling that it was about time they woke up. The overwhelming reaction to Pearl Harbor in Britain and Nazi-occupied Europe was not outrage, but relief that the world’s mightiest industrial power was joining the fight at last. A British squaddie explained it succinctly to Lance Corporal Dirk Bogarde when he burst into his room at Catterick: “The Japs have gone and bombed some bloody harbour in Hawaii. The Yanks are in!”

It was late in the evening by then, past nine o’clock on the Sunday night, when the BBC announced the attack on the radio. The lead story on the news was the Red Army’s counter-offensive in Russia, but three sentences at the end said that Pearl Harbor had been hit too. No further details were available yet.

The world reacts

It was enough to be going on with. King George VI listened to the radio at Windsor Castle and was quietly pleased. So were the American fighter pilots of the RAF’s Eagle Squadrons. Harold Strickland of No 71 Squadron at North Weald in Essex had opted for an early night when he learned of his country’s involuntary entry into the war:

“I was reading in bed when the batman pounded on the door, entered and shouted ‘Pearl Harbor has been attacked by the Japanese!’ He told me that the news had just been announced by the BBC and added that most of our battleships had been destroyed. I jumped into my clothes (literally) and headed for the bar (in the officers’ mess) where pandemonium was in progress.”

Near Londonderry, the American pilots of No 133 Squadron headed for the mess too. One recalled that this “was the start of a bash to end all bashes – with unashamed tears running down their cheeks and patting each other on the back and buying drinks for each other”. Next morning, the pilots contacted the American embassy in London and sought a transfer to the US Air Force now that their own country had joined the fight.

Winston Churchill was slower to grasp the implications of what had happened. He was spending the weekend at Chequers, sitting glumly at dinner with Gil Winant, the US ambassador, and Averell Harriman, America’s lend-lease envoy to Britain. Overwhelmed by all his war problems, Churchill nursed his head in his hands during the meal. He was silent when the butler brought in a portable radio at the end so that they could listen to the news.

The Americans’ ears pricked up at the mention of Pearl Harbor, but other guests wondered if they had heard correctly. One thought it might have been the Pearl river in China that had been attacked, not Hawaii.

A phone call from the Admiralty quickly put them right. Churchill jumped up at once, his gloom forgotten, and sprang into action. Thoroughly invigorated, he spent the rest of the night dictating memos and telegrams before going to bed happier than he had been for a long time, now that the United States was in the war: “Hitler’s fate was sealed. Mussolini’s fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder. All the rest was merely the proper application of overwhelming force… I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”

Oddly enough, Hitler’s reaction at his Rastenburg HQ in East Prussia was much the same as Churchill’s. He too had been glum at dinner, despondent at the Wehrmacht’s lack of progress on the Russian front. The Germans wanted to be in Moscow by Christmas, but the Red Army had launched a counter-offensive to stop them just as the Russian winter was beginning to bite.

Hitler was in his bunker after dinner when Otto Dietrich, his press secretary, brought him a news flash about Pearl Harbor. Like Churchill, the führer was delighted to hear it: “Hitler snatched the sheet of paper from my hand, strode out of the room and walked unaccompanied, without cap or coat, the hundred yards to the bunker of the Chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces. He was the first to bring the news there.”

Field-Marshal Wilhelm Keitel never forgot the moment: “Jodl and I were both present that night as – the only time during the war – he came bursting in to us with the telegram in his hand. I gained the impression that the führer felt that the war between Japan and America had suddenly relieved him of a nightmare burden; it certainly brought us some relief from the consequences of America’s undeclared state of war with us.”

Hitler apparently thought the United States would be tied up in the Pacific from then on, unable to continue supplying Britain and the Soviet Union with war materiel that was now needed elsewhere.

His immediate instinct was to support his Japanese allies by declaring war on America too, even though Germany was not obliged to do so under the terms of the Tripartite Pact.

War goes global

So it went on, through the night. Mussolini’s response to the attack was the same as Hitler’s: relief that the war with the USA could now be official at last. Chiang Kai-shek, already leading China’s fight against Japan, was told soon after 1am, and immediately began to plan a grand military alliance in the Pacific, spearheaded by the Americans. Mao Zedong at communist headquarters and Ho Chi Minh, leading Vietnam’s resistance to colonial rule from a hideout near the Chinese border, shared his thinking.

In Japan, prime minister Tojo’s wife learned of Pearl Harbor from the radio, soon after breakfast. The Australians learned at the same time and suddenly remembered that their country was closer than Hawaii to Japan. The South Africans surveyed an equally undefended coastline and imposed a blackout on Cape Town for the first time in the war.

The fighting finally went global on 11 December, when Italy and Germany formally declared war on the USA. The German satellites of Finland, Hungary and Romania followed suit, declaring war on the dominions of the British empire for good measure. Cuba, Haiti, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic joined their American neighbour against Japan. Four days after Frank Tremaine’s news flash from Hawaii, nations everywhere were at each other’s throats. The whole world was at war.

Nicholas Best is a former literary critic for the Financial Times, who has written more than 20 books, both fiction and non-fiction


This article was first published in the Christmas 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine