Four days distant — on Dec. 7 — comes a date President Franklin Roosevelt said famously “will live in infamy.” To my generation, this wasn’t hyperbole but rather an accurate prediction. Pearl Harbor Day brings up a whole vortex of memories that in many ways have defined the lives of those of us who lived through them.
Except for the American Civil War, never before or since has an entire population been engaged so totally in a single cause. So it’s not surprising that the game of where-were-you-when-the- Japanese-struck? has dominated conversation on Pearl Harbor Day for more than a half century.
But in recent years, that talk has more and more turned into where-was-your-grandfather? And as a card-carrying grandfather, instead of milking that question for the 60-somethingish time, I’d like to re-visit a mystery that has always come into my mind on Pearl Harbor Day. It will probably never be solved, but it still makes for fascinating speculation.
In 1944, I was piloting Navy transport planes in the South Pacific. Along with the wounded we carried out of combat areas, we sometimes had military passengers hitching a ride, and I would go back into the cabin to talk with them while the other pilot took over. One such group of hitch-hikers were the first Bataan Death March prisoners to be rescued and sent home. Always the journalist, even then, I went back to get as much of their stories as I could. But they were almost catatonic, and I ended up with one of their escorts, a young Naval Intelligence officer. And in the interminable hours of that flight, he told me this story about a previous assignment that had him baffled.
It started with an advertisement that appeared in the Nov. 22, 1941 issue of the New Yorker — two weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The ad was full of double meanings that the American Intelligence community saw — in hindsight — as a possible warning of the impending attack to Japanese officials then in Washington negotiating issues that would later be used as reasons for the attack.
He described the ad as best he could from memory and said it was accompanied by a half-dozen identical small ads showing only a pair of dice with the numbers 12 and 7— the date of the Pearl Harbor attack — exposed.
His investigation had run into nothing but dead ends. He found that the ad had been placed across the counter in New York City, and paid for in cash.
Both the major and the small lead-in ads had been set in type somewhere else and a matrix pulled for delivery to the New Yorker.
The clerk who had accepted the ads had no recollection of who had placed them, and neither the board game that was promoted in the double entendre copy, nor the company whose signature appeared on the ad existed.
I never forgot that conversation., and when I returned to college after the war I sought out bound editions of the New Yorker in the university library.
And although it was only a half-page ad in a thick magazine, it was easy to spot my target — and every bit as mysterious as the intelligence officer had described it.
Beneath the headline “Uctung, Warning, Alerte” in large black type was the drawing of a group of people in an air raid shelter playing a dice game.
And under that, the copy began: “We hope you’ll never have to spend a long winter’s night in an air raid shelter, but we were just thinking … it’s only common sense to be prepared. If you’re not too busy between now and Christmas, why not sit down and plan a list of the things you’ll want to have on hand …”
The list that followed concluded with this sentence: “And although it’s no time, really, to be thinking of what’s fashionable, we bet that most of your friends will remember to include those intriguing dice and chips which make THE DAILY DOUBLE.”
This was followed with the sign of the double cross and a tag line that the game was available in department stores everywhere.
Finally, scattered throughout the issue were a half-dozen small ads showing an overturned dice cup and a pair of dice exposing 12 and 7— numbers not found on conventional dice. And beneath it all was the signature of what I had been told was the non-existent Monarch Publishing Co.
It’s been many years since I tracked down that copy of the New Yorker, but if you’re curious enough and want an exercise appropriate for Pearl Harbor Day, you can do it, too. You’ll find the big ad on page 70 and the small ones scattered through the issue.
Then you can carry this mystery around in your head as I have for all these years.
JOSEPH N. BELL lives in Newport Beach. His column runs Thursdays.