Today is the 65th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941 sneak attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese air forces, which wreaked havoc on America's Pacific fleet and killed more than 2,400. Pearl Harbor is the default comparison with the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists attack, which left nearly 3,000 dead.
This year, The New York Times has marked what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called "a date which will live in infamy," by unearthing a 64-year-old series that describes, in vivid, arresting detail the herculean salvage effort to rebuild the shattered battleships resting in the Hawaiian harbor like bloated corpses.
There was just one problem with the series; written one year after the attack by Robert Trumbull, then a Honolulu stringer for the Times, who ended his career in 1979 as senior foreign correspondent; until now his enterprising work never saw the light of day. Navy censorship that reached as high as Admiral Chester Nimitz, the man in charge of allied forces in the Pacific, made sure of that.
This is a fascinating multimedia package, merging the products of a vanished hot type era with today's digitized audio slide shows. The stories are a journalism artifact, one reflecting the realities of a far different era when military censors ruled with scissors and dispatches bore hyperbolic trace amounts of jingoism more than offset by reportorial bravery in pursuit of the facts.
Consider the second (nut?) graf of the series' opening story: "Its first full telling in this series of articles reveals the greatness of American industrial ingenuity, which has reached at Pearl Harbor a historic flowering."
But the series is also a tour de force of enterprise reporting, produced at lightning speed, especially compared to contemporary projects that consume many months.
"We have spent a full week on the story," Trumbull writes his managing editor, Edwin L. James, of the round-the-clock effort he put in along with Chicago Times reporter Russ Wheeler who had also jumped on the story. "Legging around by day, writing at night--all night a couple of times."
They even donned diving suits to gear to examine the capsized hull of the belly-up battleship "Oklahoma."
In addition to Trumbull's series, the Times also published the six decade-old exchange of letters and telegrams between its reporter and his bosses back in New York City--correspondence that sought mightily, but in vain, to reverse the government's spiking of the story.
From the remove of the present, the Navy decision seems clearly capricious, or at the very least smacks of the censors' version of Catch-22; Navy officials maintained it wasn't fair for Trumbull and Wheeler to scoop other reporters when the order of the day, like ours, was to spoonfeed the pack with press releases. They also cited security issues, although the Times said it would gladly submit to the censor's eraser. Six decades ago, the frustration of Times editors is on full display, as the paper's correspondence reveals.
On Dec. 24, 1942, a clearly exasperated ME James telegraphed Washington Bureau Chief Arthur Krock to "tell the Navy people that when a story is held up because it might give information to the enemy we have no complaint, but when an exclusive story is held up until it can be handed out to everybody we register a most distinct complaint and ask what the hell is the use of having special correspondents everywhere."
Journalists, historians, WWII veterans and buffs will no doubt feast on this blast from the past. But it's also an object lesson for anyone interested in understanding that the current sparring between the press and the government over today's war news is just another telling of a very old story.
Only after posting this, does it occur to me that perhaps the greatest irony of this act of censorship is this: Trumbull's story was good news, a positive report about rebuilding a shattered fleet at a time when America's prospects for victory were slim.
"It's a story that should make the country feel proud, and one that will wash away a few bad tastes" Trumbull wrote his editor in what now seems an eerily prescient letter. "I hope you will do something to get it out of the ice-box."