“A dismal hell of unutterable confusion”

On the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the New York Times has published a six-part series entitled A Day of Infamy, Two Years of Hard Work consisting of a series of dispatches written and sent by Times correspondent Robert Trumbull in December 1942 on post-attack salvage efforts.

Trumbull reported back to his editor that the stories had “received provisional approval” by a Navy censor, only to be “impounded by the Pacific Fleet public relations officer.” Not due to any concern for national security apparently, but “on the grounds that it is contrary to fleet public relations policy to release an exclusive story on material desired by all the correspondents.” The Navy as Department of Justice, arbiter of scoops?

That explanation wasn’t going to satisfy a reporter with a “clean cut scoop” on his hands. Numerous telegrams, letters and requests for information later, the Navy position was that “CINPAC held them up, partly for reasons of security, partly because the stories were considered incomplete and inadequate and principally because the Navy had decided…to tell its own story of the salvage work when it had assembled all the information.”

64 years later, the Navy has had the opportunity to tell its story and the security concerns have evaporated, but one of the reasons for writing the story in the first place hasn’t: Back then, Trumbull felt “that the story of the salvage and repair work on the battleships damaged December 7, 1941 will be of great value to the national morale.” Stories of American triumph in the face of insurmountable odds are always good, especially when current conflicts appear intractable.

National morale aside, the articles are just plain interesting. For example, the Arizona, now an untouchable tomb, was originally destined for the scrapyard: “The Utah, like the Arizona, had been abandoned only as a ship of war; she will, like the Arizona, yet serve her country well as a resevoir of valuable scrap metal and still usable machinery.”

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