This NOT Just In: Wartime Blackout
President Roosevelt: "Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy. The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked."
While the attack on Pearl Harbor remains a well–known chapter of American history, one aspect of the immediate aftermath is now mostly forgotten. On the West Coast, with its proximity to the Pacific Ocean and Japan, the fear of further strikes by Japanese aircraft created panic. In one notable case, the fear of a Japanese attack was so intense it lead to chaos and destruction on the streets of Seattle.
Local radio provides one of the most chilling artifacts of that time. As part of a defensive blackout, all lights were ordered shut off to make it more difficult for enemy planes — feared to be waiting off the coast aboard aircraft carriers — to identify potential targets.
This is a broadcast from Seattle station KIRO just hours after Roosevelt's war declaration.
Reporter: "The blackout is not only for the city of Seattle, it includes every, every light between the California border, or rather the Mexican border and the Canadian border. Every farmhouse, every light of any kind in that area must be out by eleven o'clock."
As part of the blackout, West Coast radio stations were also ordered off the air — in another defensive move — to prevent the enemy from using radio signals as direction finders.
Reporter: "It's almost seven o'clock. Five seconds to go and we'll be back ladies and gentlemen with information when ordered by The United States Army Interceptor Command here in Seattle."
And then silence. At least for a few hours, until violence erupted in downtown Seattle that made front–page news across the country.
The danger and destruction came, not from Japanese saboteurs, but, instead, from homegrown hooligans who took it upon themselves to enforce the blackout.
The melee began at Fourth Avenue and Pike Street. Just after 11:00 p.m., a crowd started heaving rocks and cans at the neon sign of a clothing store that had remained alight past the deadline. The rioters then moved down the street, shouting, "Turn them out! This is war!" as they smashed the windows of a jewelry store, a shoe store and a movie theatre. All because small interior lights could be seen from the sidewalk. The group broke windows and did other damage to a total of 14 businesses before the riot was broken up by police just after midnight.
One newspaper reporter described the mood of the Seattle rioters as "patriotic ardor," a sentiment which might also apply to the post–9/11 world. Then, as now, wars rage far away against a mostly unseen enemy, and folks here on the home front sometimes get a little anxious.
As it turned out, the Japanese threat to the West Coast never materialized — there were no aircraft carriers, and no planes. The Seattle riot showed that the only thing we really had to fear, was ourselves.
I'm Feliks Banel for "This NOT Just In."
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- Seattle's First Pearl Harbor Day, by Feliks Banel for Crosscut.com
- 'Seattle Blackout' spread from March 24, 1941, Life
- Pearl Harbor Wiki
- US Navy Pearl Harbor History and Photos
- Pearl Harbor feature from National Geographic
- 'Pearl Harbor Blues' by Doctor Clayton
- 'World War II and Japanese Internment in the Seattle Star,' Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project