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Pearls of Wisdom

By Burl Burlingame

LAST UPDATED: 4:19 p.m. HST, Dec 7, 2011

The Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor is one of those rare events that Winston Churchill called a "hinge of history," the point at which everything changes. Only the Kennedy assassination has inspired more popular-history books than the Pearl Harbor attack, and you'd think that by this point, exactly seven decades later, we'd know everything there is to know. But new books keep appearing with fresh insights and information. Here is a selection of what's new:

"Wax (Pearl Harbor Changed Everything)," by Therese Ambrosi Smith (Blue Star, $13.95)

This novel is obviously a work of passion and knowledge by the author, a tour guide at various Kaiser shipbuilding sites in the Bay Area and an enthusiast of wartime history. The title gets it right: Pearl Harbor did change everything, particularly for women who entered the work force in trade positions usually held by men. The three women at the core of her story become shipfitters. They come from the largely isolated and rural California coastline, a region where, unless you were a farmer or fisher, real jobs were scarce. Smith, a resident of Half Moon Bay, writes knowingly about the region in wartime, and these portions ring true. She's not so smooth in laying out a multilayered plot. As a time-capsule ride through a largely forgotten social landscape, however, "Wax" generally delivers.

"Breaking the Code," by Karen Fisher-Alaniz (Sourcebooks, $14.99)

Connections. That's what cryptographers make when they decode enemy messages. That was Murray Fisher's job in the Navy, mostly stationed at Pearl Harbor during the latter part of the war, processing Japanese kata­kana code into English. His connection to his own daughter, however, was strictly formal. It wasn't until more than a half-century after the war, when he began having nightmares and obsessively studying every aspect of the conflict, that the parent-child barrier broke down.

This book is his daughter's memoir of that process, which began when he dropped hundreds of wartime letters in her lap. She learned what her father was like, both as a human being and as a bright young man thousands of miles from home, scarred by a ferocious Pacific war. The connection across time between the young sailor and the troubled man he became later in life is surprisingly tenuous, a skein stretched by memory and emotion.

Fisher-Alaniz has an unerring sense of gravity and affection for both versions of her father, and her memoir is well served by an attractive book package that uses typography and photographs in interesting ways.

"December 1941," by Craig Shirley (Thomas Nelson, $24.99)

On the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack, Hawaii lawyer Roy Vitousek and son Martin were aloft in a rented Aeronca light airplane. The unsuspecting civilians flew into the middle of the melee and managed to escape with some bullet holes in their plane. This anecdote is repeated in Craig Shirley's massive "December 1941" compendium, but Roy Vitousek is spelled "Ray Buduick." Shirley's sources for this are contemporary East Coast newspaper accounts, written the day after the attack. This, in a single factoid nutshell, illustrates why Shirley's big book is an interesting read but cannot be used as an accurate recounting.

"Fighting for MacArthur — The Navy and Marine Corps' Desperate Defense of the Philippines," by John Gordon (Naval Institute Press, $32.95)

This is the keeper of this year's crop, and proof there are still new stories to be told about that dangerous, desperate time. Gordon is focused simply on what happened to the Navy and Marine Corps personnel in the Philippines from the time of the initial bombing there on Dec. 8, 1941, to the surrender of beaten, battered U.S. forces on Corregidor five months later. Gordon rightly points out that Bataan histories always highlight the Army, except for period pieces like the contemporary memoir "They Were Expendable." American naval records are largely missing, making research difficult, so it's interesting that Japanese military records turn out to be more reliable.

Gordon shows skill with describing the choreography of combat, and the balance of factual detail doesn't overwhelm colorful anecdotes and streamlined storytelling. Gordon also takes pains to explain why the Navy despised MacArthur, so the book's title has a degree of irony. Naval Institute Press, in general an indifferent publisher, has hit one out of the park here.

"Tora! Tora! Tora! Pearl Harbor 1941," by Mark E. Stille (Osprey RAID, $18.95)

This is a perfunctory retelling of the attack in Osprey's attractive packaging. Stille touches on all the high points in a fairly dry manner, and he draws conclusions that rely on 20/20 hindsight, but at least he steps back to view the event as a seminal moment. Bert Kinzey's "Attack on Pearl Harbor," released last year, is a better value as a one-stop shop of Pearl Harbor facts, but this will do for the mildly interested.

"Joe Rochefort's War — The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway," by Elliot Carlson (Naval Institute Press, $36.95)

Another home run for NIP, this is a fine, engrossing biography of one of the major, and largely unknown, figures of the early Pacific War. Rochefort, the brilliant cryptologist in charge of deciphering the Imperial Navy's secret codes, worked in secrecy in the basement of an administration building at Pearl Harbor. An officer who mustanged up out of the ranks, Rochefort was fluent in Japanese and possibly the only naval officer who wasn't dazzled by Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto. Rochefort let himself be half-convinced the Japanese wouldn't strike Pearl Harbor, and he never forgave himself for that oversight. When he became convinced the Imperial Navy was going to strike Midway six months later, he stuck to his guns, alienating brother officers who refused to believe it. Pacific Fleet commander Chester Nimitz gambled on Rochefort's educated hunch, resulting in one of history's great naval battles and certainly saving Hawaii from invasion. But the bureaucratic damage was done, and Rochefort was abruptly relieved of command a few months later and assigned to a backwater task — and confounded his critics by managing it superbly.

Rochefort's supporters began a half-century task of seeking recognition of his efforts, succeeding with a medal posthumously awarded in the 1980s, which becomes a satisfying coda to the book. Author Carlson has managed to illuminate the usually murky and arcane world of cryptology with a well-told tale that strikes an engrossing balance between career highlights and personal struggles.

"Pearl Harbor — FDR Leads the Nation into War," by Steven M. Gillon (Basic Books, $25.99)

Gillon is a populist scholar for the History Channel, but don't let that deter you. This is an account of the very busy 24 hours at the White House between the time President Franklin D. Roosevelt learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor and his famous "day of infamy" speech to Congress. (His immediate response upon hearing the news — an agonized cry of "No!") This slim book is a fast read and rather hard to put down.


At the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, formerly known as the Arizona Memorial Visitor Center (details at

>> Pearl Harbor 70th Anniversary Commemoration Ceremony, 7:40 a.m. Wednesday, back lawn. Invited guests seated at 7:15 a.m., after which remaining seats will be available to the public. A moment of silence will be observed at 7:55 a.m., the moment of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack.

>> Hickam Field Attack Remembrance, 7:55 a.m. Wednesday at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Invited guests will be seated at 7:35 a.m., after which remaining seats will be open to the public.

>> Ford Island Control Tower Dedication, 11 a.m. Wednesday at Pacific Aviation Museum. A free shuttle departs for Ford Island every 15 minutes from the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park shuttle stop.

>> Mass Band Concert, noon Wednesday, pierside of Battleship Missouri Memorial, with more than 650 high school performers from across the country, under the direction of Pearl Harbor survivor Allen Bodenlos; live webcast at

>> USS Oklahoma Memorial Commemoration, 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Ford Island. A free shuttle departs every 15 minutes from the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park shuttle stop.

>> “Under a Jarvis Moon,” a documentary about Hawaiian youth pressed into service under fire in the South Pacific, presented by Bishop Museum and National Park Service, 6 p.m. Thursday in the theater.


>> Ewa Field Ceremony, 7:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Barbers Point Golf Course clubhouse.

>> USS Oklahoma Marker Dedication, 10:30 a.m. at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.

>> Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade, 4 p.m. Wednesday, at Fort DeRussy, proceeding down Kalakaua Avenue.

>> Hawaii Wartime HistoryWalking Tour with historian Steven Fredrick, a four-hour walk through downtown Hono­lulu to the sites of former dance halls, government buildings, pool halls, taverns and theaters frequented by servicemen during World War II. Tour starts on Fort Street Mall at 1 p.m. daily through Sunday. Cost: $35; reservations required 24 hours prior to tour date; email or call 395-0674. Visit

>> “From Here to Eternity,” the 1953 film set at Schofield Barracks before the Pearl Harbor attack, starring Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift, 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Doris Duke Theatre, Hono­lulu Academy of Arts. University of Hawaii English professor Jeffrey Carroll will introduce the second screening. Tickets: $10 ($8 members); call 532-8768 or visit

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