In this ongoing information epoch in which news is dispensed at the same speed as a Big Mac and French Fries, it’s hard to conceive of the fact that thousands in the political epicenter of the free world were for hours left blissfully unaware of the most significant military attack on the United States in the last century.
But that’s preceisely what happened on a late autumn day precisely 66 years ago.
At a quarter to 1 in the afternoon, it seemed like just another NFL Sunday at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. The Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles were set to duel for the 16th time in their still-nascent existences. Neither team was going anywhere beyond this day; the Redskins, blessed with a pair of Hall of Famers on the field and another stalking the sidelines, were simply trying to finish above .500, still somewhat hung over from their 73-0 NFL Championship Game loss to the Chicago Bears 12 months earlier.
The Eagles and Redskins played. Washington won, 20-14, to finish 6-5 and build momentum for the coming season, as the Redskins’ players, coaches and fans believed as they left the field and stands for the last time that year.
Then all learned of the news that had been made grimly apparent to the rest of the world hours earlier, news that broke just before the teams’ final kickoff of the 1941 season.
Something had happened.
Pearl Harbor had happened.
As longtime Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich would write a half-century later:
“Keep it short.”
Three little words. But freighted with news that would shake a nation.
That was the message over the telegraph wire, dot-dash, to Pat O’Brien, the Associated Press’s man in the football press box at Griffith Stadium. This was eight minutes after the opening kickoff in the Redskins-Philadelphia Eagles game.
The curt command from the downtown AP office in the Washington Evening Star building left O’Brien much annoyed. He said to me, his press box neighbor, “For five years I’ve been covering these Redskin games and now some jerk is telling me how much to write.”
To his operator, O’Brien said, “Ask ‘em who’s giving me these new orders.”
This was on a certain December day in 1941, and enlightenment came speedily in a follow-up message to O’Brien:
“The Japs have just kicked off. Pearl Harbor bombed. War now.”
The game plowed forward, with all who remained of the 27,102 attendees unaware that their nation, their station and their collective destiny as a people had changed irrevocably five time zones to the west. Aside from those government and military officials to be ominously summoned over the public-address system, none knew what had happened, just as few outside the stadium in Washington were cognizant that the Redskins had won the season finale.
Amazingly, Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, a man of dubious virtue because of his views on race, implausibly concocted a justification for withholding the terrible news from his patrons.
“I didn’t want to divert the fans’ attention from the game.”
And that’s how one pocket of Washington, D.C. was kept temporarily and foolishly shielded from the nation’s day of infamy.