home > archive > 2001 > this article
Day of Infamy
The day a nation grew up
Reviewed by Steven Martinovich
If it were possible to write the authorized version of a military action, Walter Lord's Day of Infamy might well qualify. Lord, who has seemingly written about every important battle in American history -- from The Alamo to Midway, is perhaps best known for his account of the sinking of the Titanic with A Night To Remember. As James Cameron's Titanic brought renewed interest in Lord's 1955 classic, so hopefully will Michael Bay's forthcoming movie Pearl Harbor put the spotlight on his 1957 account of the Japanese surprise attack on Hawaii.
In a welcome attempt to ride the wave of Pearl Harbor, Owl Books has reissued Day of Infamy. With 2001 serving the 60th anniversary of the attack and the gradual loss of those present at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Lord's account of that day is more important than ever and no less stirring with the passage of time.
Like the 50th anniversary edition, this new edition offers no new material but nor does it need it. It serves simply as the story of the day of the attack, beginning in the early morning hours of December 7. Four hours before the first Japanese airplane graced the sky over Battleship Row, it was quiet on Pearl Harbor. The personnel of the base and the residents of Hawaii were enjoying what was the final day of the weekend and what would turn out to be the last day of peace for nearly four years. Hundreds of miles to the north, a massive Japanese armada uncoiled and hundreds of planes began what Franklin Delano Roosevelt would one day later describe to Congress as a "day of infamy."
Within hours, the base was turned into a scene of carnage and death, with ships sunk and over two thousand dead -- over one thousand alone with the USS Arizona exploded. As Lord points out, there were several clues that an attack was coming. Submarines had been spotted near the harbor and radar crews noticed a blip what one operator called, "[s]o big he thought the set was broken...that somehow the main pulse and mileage scale had gotten out of kilter. It was a giant pinball machine gone haywire." Of course, what he saw was the first wave of bombers and fighter planes.
Lord paints some exceptional stories of bravery: how the band on the USS Nevada didn't break for cover until it was finished playing - under fire - the Star Spangled Banner for morning colors ... or how men grabbed any weapon available and began firing on the attacking planes. Bizarre stories also have their place, such as the man who calmly stopped for a cup of coffee during the attack or the sailor who inexplicably swam from a burning ship all the way to shore with a canned ham under one arm. Given its command of the facts and Lord's relaxed style, it's hardly a surprise that Day of Infamy is considered the essential read on the Pearl Harbor attack.
Critics could well point out that Day of Infamy should be considered incomplete because of Lord's failure to mention the immediate speculation that Roosevelt was aware of an impending attack on Pearl Harbor but sacrificed lives to draw America into the war. Outside of a solitary statement, "Later, Americans would argue bitterly about Pearl Harbor - they would even hurl dark charges of incompetence and conspiracy at one another - but on this day there was no argument whatsoever," Lord wisely avoids the issue entirely. His job was simply to tell the story of the men and women of Pearl Harbor and how their lives were changed in an instant. The machinations of politicians, which would merely take away from the stories of America's true heroes, were thankfully left to other writers.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
Listen to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" speech here. 7:43/953KB (RealAudio format)
Other related articles: (open in a new window)
© 1996-2013, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.