By John Gilman – The “Pearl Harbor Baby”
My father, LaSelle Gilman, the author of adventure novels like Shanghai Deadline, The Golden Horde, and The Dragon’s Mouth, all set in exotic far-flung places, lived for many years in Shanghai where he was a foreign correspondent for Reuters and the International News Service (INS). He was also doing double-duty as editor of the Shanghai Evening Post & Mercury and Peking’s China Press, both publications geared to English and American expats.
In later years, he claimed, “Newspaper work was to be my shorthand to fiction writing, although it took me 20 years to get there.” In reviewing his 1954 novel The Dragon’s Mouth, the New York Times called it “well written and exceedingly topical.” The Times also called him a “composite Orientalist” which in those days was not construed as racist—think Charlie Chan, the enormously popular Chinese detective from Honolulu. Other reviewers found his portrayal of contemporary China authentic and said that his scenes could only come from one who had won his journalistic spurs after years of service on the Oriental scene.
One night at a party, a bomb coming through the roof at the elegant French Legation in the International Settlement convinced my father that it was finally time to leave. Japan, in its decade-long war with China, was no longer honoring the No Combat Treaty covering the city of Shanghai. He sold the movie rights to Shanghai Deadline and, with my mother Helene, hopped on a China Clipper flying to Honolulu. There, he invested the movie money into a house at 1631 Kalakaua Avenue not far from Waikiki’s famed beach. He took a good job as the columnist for the Honolulu Advertiser, Hawaii’s premier territorial newspaper.
He greeted VIPs arriving by plane or boat, often bringing them home for Aloha cocktails. One such guest was none other than the noted Madame Chiang Kai Shek who became a special friend of my mother. In their tropical paradise, they were happy and became a real family with the arrival of my brother Peter in January 1940 and myself in October 1941. However, two months later, the good times were over. On the balmy Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, Gil (no one called him LaSelle) picked up the phone. His colleague at the Honolulu Advertiser, Harry Stroup, told him to get downtown right away; they were going to drive to Pearl Harbor in his car.
World War II began at 7:53am when 43 Mitsubishi fighter planes and 140 Nakajima torpedo bombers and Aichi dive bombers swooped down on Pearl Harbor and other naval and military installations on the island of Oahu. At 8:55am, a second wave of 183 Japanese fighters and bombers struck again. Gil’s and Harry’s firsthand eyewitness account of their adventures that morning appeared in a front page article in the first newspaper published after the sneak attack; it was an eight-page double ‘EXTRA’ edition of the Honolulu Advertiser combined with the Honolulu Star Bulletin, dated December 8, 1941. I, as an adult, found the paper in a wooden frame in an antique shoppe in South Jersey. The two papers had co-published because the Honolulu Advertiser’s printing press had mysteriously broken down late Saturday night. Under a banner headline incorrectly claiming, “SABOTEURS LAND HERE!,” the lead article was headlined “ADVERTISER MEN WATCH GRIM SHOW,” By LaSelle Gilman and Harry Stroup. Following below, with a few edits, is the entire story.
“This is a factual account of what we saw on a trip between the Advertiser building and Pearl Harbor, a distance of nine miles. It is uncolored and unvarnished. Shortly before 9am, while aircraft shells were bursting everywhere in the blue above Pearl Harbor, we drove around by way of Vineyard Street to avoid military personnel. The streets were lined from one end of the city to the other with men, women, and children, some still in their pajamas and nightshirts. All were looking westward with perplexed expressions on their faces. Thousands of cars sped toward Pearl Harbor.
“You’d think the road would be closed,” Stroup said to Gilman. “Got to get these men back to their jobs and there’s no time to fool around,” Gil said. “There’s a plane there low down, just over our heads,” Harry said, shouting for no reason at all. “You keep your eyes on the road, I’ll watch the planes,” Gil said.
We saw a military ambulance driving toward town on Vineyard Street and later we passed four other military ambulances driving toward the city.
“Looks as if there have been a few casualties,” Gilman said. We could hear the sharp rat-tat-tat-tat of machine guns and the heavier firing of anti-aircraft batteries. While speeding along Pearl Harbor Road, we got our first taste of real excitement. A plane, we don’t know whose, zoomed close overhead from the rear and we could hear the now familiar rat-tat-tat-tat. Then, suddenly, the tops of several small banyan trees on the mauka side of the road started falling off. Then we noticed red sparks bouncing up from the pavement in front of us; a car blew a tire and went zooming into the ditch on the makai side of the highway. Within a few minutes, we were at the Navy yard gate and on our way. An hour later, we started back to Honolulu after learning that it was impossible to telephone the paper. An officer bluntly informed us that all lines were being reserved for the Navy. We understood.
And so ends the account. (What happened inside the gate could not be published due to press censorship.)
The dead that day included 2,335 military personnel and hundreds of civilians. Over a thousand people were wounded, 21 ships, including three cruisers, and eight battleships were sunk or damaged, and 188 aircraft were destroyed. Simultaneous Japanese attacks occurred at Guam, Wake Island, the Philippines, and other strategic points in the Pacific. War with Japan was declared on December 8th. Three days later, it was declared on Germany and Italy. Martial law was declared immediately in Hawaii, strict night curfews were imposed, and complete blackouts were instituted for the duration.
In the years that followed, my father brought different folks by the house, people on their way to the Pacific to entertain the troops—Bob Hope, Jerry Colona, Dorothy Lamour, and singer Francis Langford who (according to my mother) held me in her lap and declared, “This is the Pearl Harbor Baby.”
John Gilman is a Village resident, WestView contributor, and the co-author, with Robert Heide, of Home Front America –Popular Culture of the World War II Era, published by Chronicle Books. It is available on Amazon.