transcribed and annotated by Jane Lancaster

As recorded in her diary by Helen Clarke Grimes, a not very typical Rhode Island housewife.

Introduction

This is just one day out of many—but a very fateful day. From her home in the village of Spragueville, Helen Clarke Grimes recorded exactly what she heard as the drama of Pearl Harbor unfolded on CBS radio. Her information on December 7th was fragmentary; the eventual toll of the "day that will live in infamy" was twelve ships sunk or beached (three of them, the Arizona, the Utah and the Oklahoma damaged beyond repair); 164 aircraft destroyed and 159 damaged; and 3,566 American casualties, including 2,388 deaths.

The way the networks reacted to the news of Pearl Harbor may seem a little strange to ears accustomed to twenty-four-hour news coverage. Normal, live, Sunday night programming continued, with Jack Benny followed by Edgar Bergen, with Judy Garland as a guest star. The programs, were, however, interrupted from time to time for news flashes. World War II became a turning point in American news coverage.

I have annotated some of the military references, and many (but not all) of the radio references, and would be very happy if any readers could supply more information. I have left Helen's spelling and punctuation as it was.

I can be reached at jane@janelancaster.com, and more information can be found at my website janelancaster.com.

Who was Helen Clarke Grimes?

Helen Clarke Grimes (1905-'87) was born in Mystic, Connecticut, and kept a diary for most of her long life, starting when she was only ten years old. Her childhood diaries have been published by the Mystic River Historical Society, under the title An Account of My Life 1915-1926: The Childhood Journals of Helen May Clarke of Mystic, Connecticut.

The diary from which the present extract is taken, which deals with Helen's life from 1931-'45, is in the Rhode Island Historical Society's manuscript collection, which is housed in the society's library at 121 Hope Street, Providence. Helen's experiences in the 1930s and '40s are detailed in her tiny, neat handwriting in four closely-written exercise books. She used a fountain pen or pen and ink, as evidenced by sections of text that start out dark and gradually lighten. Cheap, mass-market ballpoint pens weren't available until 1947.


Vintage 1940/'41 radio.
Image snagged from Etsy.

Dec. 7—This is a sleepy Sunday afternoon at home.1 We are in the little upstairs sitting room,—Mother sewing, I writing, and Dorrance listening to the portable radio.

I haven't anything to write about, really, and the Philharmonic2 is fast putting me to sleep although the broadcast is interrupted now and then with news bulletins on the tense "Far Eastern Situation." After all we have been more or less tense for months.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Later—I guess this is it! Japanese dive bombers have attacked Honolulu! 3

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

4:30 News bulletin. Taken down as given. Parachute troups sighted—Pearl Harbor attacked by dive bombers—Manila bombed—smoke of anti-aircraft guns over Pearl Harbor—from 50 to 100 planes from Japanese aircraft carrier—attachés of Japanese government at Washington burning secret papers.

We are shocked silent. Dorrance who is coming down with a cold is too carried away by the intermittent bulletins to realize how rotten he feels.

The Albert Spalding program, Victor Herbert selections, Carmichael's "Stardust", Castelanetz [sic] orchestra.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

5 P.M. At last more news—fragmentary, probably inaccurate.4

Washington: President Roosevelt is dictating message to Congress. Probable declaration of war tomorrow.5 Heavy damage and loss of life in Hawaii. It was a dawn attack, all aerial observation posts in Los Angeles ordered manned. Naval engagement reported. Pearl Harbor under bombardment.

Well, here it is: we're at war.

We hang close to the radio listening to program after program afraid we may miss a news bulletin no matter how vague or unconfirmed the reports may be. The Prudential (Insurance) Hour with Deems Taylor, Gladys Swarthout singing "Paradise in Waltz Time" from the motion picture Champagne Waltz.

At last, another bulletin. Japan announces she has entered a state of war with Britain and the United States from dawn to-day Dec. 7th, 1941. Government order just issued comes over WPRO: The Secretary of War orders that all plants working on defense orders institute a guard against sabotage.

Jimmie Cat jumps on my lap. The news has come to an end, the program returns to Gladys Swarthout.

5:45William L. Shirer, news commentator. Speaks of "flagrant aggression... a war after 23 years of and one month of uneasy peace... the battleship Oklahoma set on fire by Japanese bombs.

I should be reacting to this in somewhere way, but I remain incredulous and interested, nothing more as yet.

An attempt has been made to contact overseas—no result. Honolulu—CBS calling Honolulu—no answer. Calling Manila—CBS calling Manila, go ahead Manila—no answer.

We take time out for supper, our ears on the radio.

6:30—All marines notified to return to their stations... order from Quonset.

Guam has been attacked by a squadron of planes... Elmer Davis, commentator. He must have seen this happening months ago. Senator Wheeler, isolationist says sensibly enough that "there is nothing to do now but lick the hell out of them." The Japanese have struck at Singapore, sinking two British ships.

We know hear Albert Warner,6 Washington news commentator—and next, Maj. Elliot who says the Japanese plan plainly underway for two weeks during treacherous negotiations at Washington. I have a conviction we have been sold down the river again. A year ago Oliver7 said every navy man on Jamestown said we'd be at war with Japan shortly. I suppose Major Elliot didn't know, or our beloved President! Well, this is no time to think of that. We are at war.

Notice: all recruiting offices open to-morrow.

7:00—censorship on all out going cablegrams and radio messages. The Jack Benny Program... Don Wilson, the announcer... "J-E-L-L-O with that locked in flavor." An interruption; news from the office of the Providence Journal—Providence police are requested to round-up all enlisted men. War Extra editions are on the streets.

I am surprised at Mother. I expected her to be shocked, horrified, but she seems excited, stepped-up, her asthma forgotten.

The programs continue... a Dennis Day song. How are the performers reacting?—they must be getting this awful news.

More bulletins; Shanghai: the Japanese have taken over the American Light Company.

7:30—Providence Cake commercial... the Fitch (Shampoo) Band Wagon program with8—Oh, another news bulletin, from the Prov. Journal: Gov. McGrath has called a meeting... Newport takes immediate precautions... six Japanese planes said to have been shot down. Unconfirmed report that Wake Island is occupied by Japanese. A black-out of Panama Canal ordered for to-night.

Back to the scheduled program again: Horace Heit [sic] and the "Spheheard's [sic] Serenade," with Frankie Carl [sic] at the piano... "I'll Never Forget," this weeks [sic] Band Wagons [sic] top tune.

Just happened to remember that Elizabeth Colby and her husband are stationed at Honolulu.

News bulletin: 104 dead and 300 wounded, not including civilian population as a result of Japanese raid on Hawaii.

Horace Heit again, featuring a new arrangement of "Ezekial Saw the Wheel."

8:00—A Pinkerton Fur commercial... the Chase and Sanborn Coffee Hour with Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd on Edgar Bergen's knee. Just ordinary Sunday night listening mixed in with a world shakeing [sic] event.

Ray Noble's Orchestra... Abbott and Costello... Judy Garland, the guest star.

News: The Governor of the Dutch East Indies has declared war on Japan... likewise Costa Rica. Well, that will be a help!

In Shanghai bombs fall on the International Settlement... and Judy Garland sings, Zing Went the Strings of My Heart. Commercial: Shop at Newberry's first. News flash: All women and children in Manila ordered evacuated. Mayor La Guardia has issued an order that all Japanese nationals remain in their home until their status is settled.

Back to the regular programs—this one Carter's Little Liver Pills and it is terrible. A long wait this time lasting through an Inner Sanctum mystery story and into the Ford Musical Hour which comes on at 9 o'clock. Jimmie Cat is in my lap again, mother is embroidering a bureau scarf for Constance.9 Somehow small things seem important—things I can understand like the radiator clanking as the steam comes up, or the small spot of nail varnish flaked from my thumb nail.

9:30—At last more news. Washington officially announces 100 dead and 300 wounded. Wake Island is said to have surrendered to a superior Japanese force. There has been one—perhaps two—ship casualties. Japanese of San Francisco under careful watch.

Back to the Ford Hour, the second half of the program taking place at the U.S. Naval Training Station at Great Lakes, Illinois. There is a band, and a commanding officer, Rear Admiral John Downes thanks Edsel Ford for the new auditorium and recreational building presented by him to the Naval Training Station. We listen to the Training Station Chorus, the Training Station Band, and a Lieut. Edward Peabody who plays a medley of Southern airs on his banjo.

10:00—Commercial: This Christmas shoppers are using Gerber's lay away plan. News Flash: Canada has declared war upon Japan.

Grand Central Station is jammed with men in uniform rounded up by Shore Patrol and Military Police from theatres, restaurants and bars. All officers on leave called back to their posts. State of emergency declared in San Francisco. Mother says thank God Constance isn't there.10

At last they have established direct radio contact with the Phillipines [sic]. The commentator tells of one news reporter who broadcast over wrong chain in his haste.

The Telephone Company makes an announcement. Long distance so over taxed it is asked that no calls be made unless strictly necessary.

Clare Booth and Vincent Shean [sic] speak. Shean describes Wake Island and the base made there, and the 1100 American soldiers now probably the prisoners of the Japanese.

The Army and Navy Departments are flooded with pleas from families for knowledge of men in Hawaii and the Phillipines [sic].

10:30—Following a Nylon hosiery commercial11 comes a CBS special broadcast. There is an unconfirmed report of a big naval engagement at sea. Eric Severied [sic] reports from Washington: the city is swarming with reporters, the portico is lighted; there are lines of shiny cars and a mass of faces standing in the cold waiting news.

There has been heavy destruction at Hawaii. Unconfirmed reports state that we have lost two capital ships and the airfield has been leveled. President Roosevelt will address joint session of Congress at 12:30 to-morrow.

It is 4:30 in London. Parliament meets today to declare war on Japan directly after America.

A Columbia broadcast: Guam is in trouble... Shanghai bombed. I have smoked until my mouth is dry: I am too tired to write more. It is now eleven o'clock, we have been glued to the radio for hours.

[She added the next day:]

Dec.8—This Monday morning we face a turquoise and coral sunrise with the sick realization that we are at war, and that the radio bulletins are not something by Orson Welles.

We had turned the radio off at eleven o'clock last night, worn dull by hours of incessant listening, and were about to go to bed when Charlie and Harriett12 who had spent the day at his mother's, came home with two copies of the War Extra.

We talked until twelve, soberly with no fine frenzy to fire us.

Constance and Oliver phoned, but there was nothing to say.

Jane Lancaster is an independent scholar and a fellow of the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization at Brown University. She is the author of Inquire Within: A Social History of the Providence Athenaeum Since 1753, and Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreth, a Life Beyond "Cheaper by the Dozen."

Notes

  1. Helen Grimes lived with her husband Dorrance, a clerk at Brown and Sharpe, and her widowed mother, in the village of Spragueville, which is part of Smithfield, Rhode Island.
  2. The Grimes's duplex, a converted schoolhouse on Swan Road in Spragueville. Photo by Jane Lancaster.

  3. The New York Philharmonic broadcast live from Carnegie Hall every Sunday afternoon, and had done so nationwide since 1930. Coincidentally, the very first public performance by the Philharmonic (the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States), took place on December 7, 1842—ninety-nine years to the day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
  4. The attack began at dawn, Hawaii time, which was about 1:20pm Eastern Standard time.
  5. She is correct—the American public was told only that the U.S.S. Arizona was sunk and the Oklahoma capsized, and the number of casualties was seriously underestimated.
  6. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was to address Congress the following day. The Senate was unanimous in its vote for war; the only dissenter in the House was Representative Jeanette Rankin, who had also voted against war in 1917.
  7. Albert Warner was a prominent CBS commentator during the war.
  8. Oliver Clarke was Helen's brother-in-law. He was serving in the navy.
  9. Fitch's Bandwagon was an extension of Jack Benny's program. Benny would close with Phil Harris saying, "S'long, Jackson," and the scenario would pick up from there. The action centered on Phil's home life with Alice Faye, his (retired) film star wife, and his kids (Phyllis and Alice, Jr.), and on an incredible cast of wiseguys.
  10. Constance was Helen's younger sister, who was married to a distant cousin, Oliver Clarke.
  11. Constance and Oliver had recently returned from San Francisco.
  12. Nylon stockings were very new: the first time they appeared in American stores was May 15, 1940, when crowds lined up to purchase them. The four million stockings manufactured in the first batch were, apparently, sold out within four days.
  13. Charlie and Harriett were the Grimes's friends, who lived in the other half of their two family house in Spragueville.

For more on the diaries of Helen Clark Grimes, see the Rhode Island Historical Society's A Likely Experiment blog, or their online finding aid.

This article last edited December 7, 2015

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