MIGHTY HISTORY

The Army Chief learned about Pearl Harbor in 14 words

December 7, 1941, is a day which lives in infamy. But it dawned normally at 7:13 a.m. in Washington, D.C., and the attack on Pearl Harbor didn't begin until the afternoon in Washington. For leaders like Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall, the expectation would have been that it would be another tense day of preparing for war, at least until a single note was presented to him.


Then-Lt. Col. George C. Marshall in World War I.

(National Archives and Records Administration)

Marshall had spent years growing as an Army officer before he was tapped in 1939 to become the chief of staff. By that time, he had 37 years of experience in the military and had served in the mud of the Philippine-American War and of France in World War I, rising to colonel and serving as the chief of staff to then-chief of staff Gen. John J. Pershing.

After World War I, he led a number of units before taking over the Army as a whole, and he was experienced in making do with short spending. But it was probably by late 1939 that the growing regional wars would become a world war. (In an odd twist of history, Marshall's first day as chief of staff was September 1, 1939, the same day Germany invaded Poland.)

And so Marshall oversaw a large increase in military spending and re-armament. His role included deciding where the most direly needed equipment would be sent. And Marshall believed Oahu was nearly impregnable. So while he promised certain new weapons and reinforcements to Lt. Gen. Walter Short at Pearl Harbor, he also took back heavy bombers and other assets that he moved to places like the Philippines.

Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall in 1944.

(U.S. Army Military History Institute)

Marshall was the only high official eligible to see "Magic" intercepts who was not alerted on the night of December 6 that Japan was going to reject a U.S. proposal that Japan withdraw its troops from China and Indochina. And so he didn't know until he entered his office at 11:25, after his morning horseback ride, how closely America had come to an active war. He immediately ordered that the intelligence be passed to commanders in the field.

Even though the president, secretaries of State, Navy, and War, and the chiefs of Army and Navy war plans and Chief of Naval Operations had all known for hours about the building intelligence signaling war, Marshall was the first one to order the likelihood of war be briefed to the commanders in the trenches. Unfortunately, transmitting that intelligence would take over 8 hours, and Short wouldn't receive it until seven hours after the attack began.

So when the day dawned on December 7, Marshall was likely hoping that he could keep shifting resources to where he thought they were needed most, that he had a little more time to reinforce and improve positions across the Atlantic and Pacific. By noon, he knew he was likely out of time and that December 7 would be the day.

A digital scan of the actual note given to Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. George C. Marshall.

(U.S. Army War College)

Within hours, he would receive a message. It was not addressed to him, though most papers destined for the chief of staff's desk were laboriously drafted and then addressed to him. It was not typewritten or printed. It wasn't even written with particularly good handwriting.

But it likely made Marshall's blood run cold. In just 14 words, it confirmed that the suspected attack was underway.

To all ships Hawaiian area
Air raid on PH
This is no drill.
Urgent

Marshall would learn over the following weeks that over 2,300 Americans had died. He likely second-guessed some of his own decisions about Pearl Harbor after the stunning losses there, though it's unclear that any of the assets he removed from the island base would have made a difference.

(One of the biggest redeployments from Pearl was nine heavy bombers which, if they had survived the attack, would have been used in the hunt for the Japanese fleet and vengeance on December 7, but American hunters had almost no idea where the Japanese carriers were.)

The air raid pulled America firmly into World War II, awakening the "Sleeping Giant." America would chase Japanese forces all the way back across the Pacific and would pummel the island nation's allies in Europe.