Remembering Pearl Harbor: Censorship, propaganda skew Tribune-Herald news accounts in the days following attack

  • 4590136_web1_HTH-Pearl-Harbor.jpeg
  • 4590136_web1_Pearl-Harbor-Book_Chri.jpg
  • 4590136_web1_Pearl-Harbor-Book_Chri-copy.jpg

Editor’s note: In observance of the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Tribune-Herald is republishing this article from 2001 that documented how the newspaper covered — or failed to cover, due to government censorship — the attack and its aftermath on the Big Island.


Editor’s note: In observance of the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Tribune-Herald is republishing this article from 2001 that documented how the newspaper covered — or failed to cover, due to government censorship — the attack and its aftermath on the Big Island.

On the eve of Dec. 7, 1941, the news was filled with stories of the war in Europe with Germany and Japan’s increasing aggressiveness towards its Asian neighbors.

News articles on the front page of the regular edition of the Hilo Tribune Herald on Dec. 7 — published prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor — told of Japanese troop movements in Indo-China and convoys steaming toward Thailand.

But despite the saber-rattling — President Roosevelt sent the Japanese government a letter of concern about its threatening actions, and Japanese officials claimed in turn that the U.S. was moving toward “further extending world upheaval” – war that morning still seemed distant to residents of Hilo and the Big Island.

An advertisement said “happy times” called for Mulsified Cocoanut Oil Shampoo. Items on the front-page News About Town column spoke of day-to-day goings-on, such as election of officers of the CYO Girls unit at the St. Joseph parish, and how Nelson Ahuna of the county real property tax office was enjoying his vacation.

But that world soon would be turned upside down.

DEC. 7

“OAHU ATTACKED!” screamed the giant headlines in a quickly prepared extra edition the Tribune-Herald published later that day.

“Entirely without warning, Japanese warplanes roared out of the sky over Pearl Harbor at dawn today, dumping tons of bombs which resulted in heavy loss of life and damage, thus plunging the United States into an all-out conflict with Japan,” read the first sentence of the Trib’s banner story.

The newspaper noted that the attacks were apparently part of a coordinated effort that included bombing of American bases in the Philippines and Guam.

The governor of the Territory of Hawaii, Joseph B. Poindexter, declared a “defense period” and appointed E. Doty to fill the newly created post of territorial director of civil defense.

A front-page editorial in the Tribune Herald appealed to Big Island residents to remain calm.

Entitled “Attention, Everyone!,” the editorial advised that readiness was the best defense.

“The important thing for all of us to remember in the emergency is to keep clam, obey instructions of military and civilian authorities, listen carefully to radio announcements, read newspaper notices carefully and avoid spreading rumors.”

Over the next month, that creed would be repeated constantly.

The editorial also hinted that the status of civil liberties was about to change:

“As long as there are no disturbances and the above instructions are carried out, no group need fear action by the authorities,” the editorial said. “Japanese aliens have been repeatedly assured by the Army and the Federal Bureau of Investigation that they will be treated fairly as long as they comply with the emergency instructions.”

What the editorial did not say, and the editor likely did not yet know, was that for some of Japanese ancestry, “fairly” would mean internment in camps.


The first orders from Civilian Defense Coordinator Robert S. Moir included a list: 1. Keep calm. 2. Stay home. 3. Keep your cars off the streets. 4. Don’t make any unnecessary phone calls. 5. Hold no public gathering. 6. Stay close to your radio and tune in clear and loud. 7. Expect a blackout tonight.

Moir also ordered that all movie theaters on the Big Island close immediately. The order relayed through Lt. John De Mello of Hilo police gave no explanation as to why. Schools also were closed until further notice.

Another of Moir’s initial actions included the closing of Hilo Airport road and requiring that traffic to and from Keaukaha stay on Kalanianaole Street.

The Japanese-American community on the Big Island was obviously prepared for emergency contingencies. The Dec. 7 special edition of the Tribune Herald contained a notice that the Hilo Japanese Association had called a meeting of its emergency committee. Its chairman, T.R. Saiki, said the group would “be on call should there be any help needed of them by either the local army units or the Hilo police department.”

Saiki received permission from Deputy Sheriff Peter Pakele Jr. to use the telephone to contact members of the committee. The article said the purpose of the meeting was to notify Japanese district organizations around the island of the need to “remain cool.”

The article also addressed the increasing concern about racial tensions. “Time and again,” it noted, the Japanese people in the territory have been assured that fair treatment will be given them if they “conduct themselves properly at all times.”

The article contained a statement from Army Lt. Col. Charles Benda that was delivered at a public meeting in Hilo 11 days earlier, in which he said actions would dictate how citizens are treated. They would be safe, Benda said, if they complied with the laws of the land.

“He will be in extreme danger if he engages in any overt acts to obstruct the defense effort,” Benda had said. “This statement applies to the citizens of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii as to all others.”

Benda said that the actions of a few could tarnish the reputation of an entire ethnic group. He called upon those of Japanese ancestry “to control any mistaken individuals who might discredit their entire group by committing rash acts of sabotage or of espionage … .” Benda went on to warn that such acts “might render it very difficult for our authorities to prevent innocent people from becoming involved in the extremely severe repressive measures which are sure to be applied to the guilty ones.”

Benda then shifted gears, moving from an ominous threat to a flattering appeal, describing those of Japanese ancestry as “potentially one of our greatest assets whether in peace or war.”

“This is your chance to convince the rest of the United States that you at least out of the many groups in America have become one with all Americans in the defense or our country and its American ideals. Once you Americans of Japanese ancestry have done this no one will dare to question your place in our community.”

Those words proved hollow just 11 days later when the first of some 2,000 Hawaii residents of Japanese descent were arrested and detained, some for years.


“WAR DECLARED!” read the headline of the Dec. 8, 1941, edition of the Tribune Herald. As casualties of 3,000 dead and wounded were reported at Pearl Harbor, a proclamation of martial law in which the military assumed control of law enforcement was announced.

Less than a week before the attack, Congress had declined to take up a bill proposed by the war department that would have allowed President Roosevelt to declare martial law in Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Sources close to Rep. Andrew May, chair of the House military affairs committee, said the Kentucky Democrat bottled up the bill to avoid controversial legislation which might arouse territorial residents and point the finger of disloyalty at them.

“There is no point in antagonizing the citizens of areas which bear a primary defense responsibility,” May said. “We need their cooperation rather than their resentment.” His action was taken after consultation with Hawaii’s delegate to Congress, Sam King.

The martial law decree from Lt. Col. V.S. Burton of the Hawaii District Headquarters in Honolulu on Dec. 8 said all civilians were to report to their voting precincts for “registration.” Persons found without their registration card, which carried instructions about restrictions on activities and movement, would be arrested and turned over to military police. Only citizens could operate motor vehicles, the decree said, and only after obtaining a permit to do so.

The first rationing was put into place as gasoline was to be reserved for military and police use and for residents to travel back and forth to work. Neither “joy riding” nor “luxury purposes” of vehicles would be allowed.

All Hawaii residents were required to surrender all weapons, ammunition and explosives at the nearest police station, and no one could leave the island without permission of the military officer of civil affairs operating out of the Chamber of Commerce room in Hilo.

The martial law decree limited sales at grocery stores to 35 cents per person per day. Warehoused food was to be impounded for possible military use and for pending rationing. It also banned the assembly of more than 10 people without “special authority.”

At first, not even churches were exempt from the prohibition on gatherings. Churches remained open all day Sunday for worshipping by individuals and small groups. Services also were being broadcast by KHBC radio.

Locally, Deputy Sheriff Pakele was commissioned as provost marshal under Army direction and charged with protecting the civilian populace.

The newspaper advised its readers to stay tuned to Hilo radio station KHBC for updates, even though the station now controlled by the Army would not always be on the air. An article under the curious headline “Volunteers To Be Paid” assured that all personnel commandeered for emergency duty would receive an unspecified wage and would be guaranteed to eventually get their civilian jobs back.

Since a blackout was in effect to deny enemy forces nighttime landmarks, street lights were shut off and Christmas lighting was prohibited “for the time being.”

Notices about canceled community meetings of all types began appearing the day after the Pearl Harbor attack. Groups calling off meetings included the Chamber of Commerce and Hawaii traffic safety committee. Even music lessons were canceled.


In one of the terse articles that were the style of the day, the Tribune Herald reported on Page 1 that according to the National Broadcasting Co., “approximately 800 Japanese were arrested in the United States and Hawaii last night and early this morning.” The notice, which contained no details, was one of only a few over the next six weeks that would mention the internment of Japanese residents – which would eventually become known as one of the darkest periods of the nation’s democratic history.

An editorial on Dec. 8 condemned the attack on Hawaii and the Philippines, Guam, Wake, Midway, Malaya and Thailand “by the desperate mad dogs of Nippon.”

“Sunday, December 7, 1941 – The day the most dastardly treachery conceivable was committed by a supposedly civilized nation,” the editorial said, condemning Japan for the attack that came even as a “peace” envoy from the Japanese government was in negotiations with the U.S. State Department over territorial disputes in the Pacific.

The editorial revealed a wartime rallying that would again become familiar following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

“For this treachery, Japan has automatically signed her own death warrant. The American people are aroused and determined. Whatever lack of unity there has been has now vanished. There are only Americans – fighting mad Americans.

“We in Hawaii have the tremendous task of re-adjusting our lives in whatever ways will contribute to the war effort. Separated from the rest of the United States, we must expect and prepare for necessary hardships,” the newspaper’s editorial said.

Many more Army announcements would come in the following days, including notice that because of the threats to shipping in the Pacific “food-stuffs and gasoline are not reaching this island at present.” It said sales of medical supplies, gasoline and oil, feeds and grain would be restricted immediately, and retailers and clothing manufacturers were told that all denim and khaki cloth and clothing larger than size 10 was to be reserved for the military.

“Hoarders and dealers” would suffer the severest penalties, the military said.

Because of gas shortages, Hawaii residents were asked to carpool, even if the word had not yet been coined.

“Walk to work whenever possible. If the distance is too great, club together with others in your vicinity and load all cars to capacity.

“Don’t get excited,” the article continued. “Remain calm. There is no danger, but military authorities are taking precautions to protect you.

“You MUST cooperate,” it said.


The government also called upon the “patriotic press and radio” to voluntarily abstain from reporting certain types of information, such as movements of vessels and troops.

Required to submit items for publication to FBI review, the Tribune Herald apparently took that call to heart. For weeks there would be virtually no mention of local military activities or, for that matter, little news about the impact of the war on island residents in general.

The military also announced that only two papers, the Hilo Tribune Herald and the Hawaii Press, would be allowed to publish on the Big Island, perhaps to make it easier to monitor what was printed.

In general, news from the war fronts contained a positive spin with little news of a negative nature, except for the reported sinkings of several Matson cargo ships on mainland cargo runs.

Even the shelling of Hilo and two other Hawaii towns by a Japanese submarine on Dec. 30 received scant mention on the next day’s front page.

Under the headline, “Subs Ineffective In Light Attacks on Three Islands,” the short Associated Press story said that Hilo, Kahului, and Nawiliwili, Kauai, were shelled by “enemy raiders” during the night.

“Very slight damage was reported to a small shed. Prompt counteraction was taken by our force,” the newspaper quoted army sources as saying.

A brief “official local statement” below the article said that the enemy fired a “few ineffective shots” at the Hilo Harbor area.

The statement said that the public remained calm, which military authorities said they “very deeply appreciated.”

Meanwhile, Japan’s government was doing some media manipulation of its own.

In a Jan. 5 article about Japanese propaganda, under the headline “Whotta Sense of Humor The Boys In Tokyo Have,” the Associated Press said that radio stations in Tokyo were reporting that the attacks in Hilo and other Hawaii ports destroyed a number of ships and damaged a U.S. warship.


On Dec. 9 the subject of the new war began appearing in advertisements. A regular feature of Excelsior Dairy titled “Barnyard Bulletin” contained a “letter” ostensibly from “Elsie Mae, pure-bred Guernsey” which addressed the issue of blackouts.

“This blackout business is tough on most of us, but we can get used to it,” the letter in the ad said. “Everyone should cooperate 100%. If you think it’s hard on you people, just give a thought to us cows … imagine going into the milking room at midnight … pitch dark … but we’re not complaining … we’re behind Uncle Sam in this great emergency, and we are proud to do our bit to bring this whole she-bang to a successful climax.”

The war soon was creeping into more advertisements, such as one for Pick & Pay supermarket for merchandise “as specified by the United States Civil and Military Authorities.” An ad for the Tribune Herald said that by subscribing, residents could be assured of receiving the latest bulletins. Several weeks later T. Nakagawa and Son ran an ad that said for a reasonable price the company would build a bombproof shelter “according to U.S. Engineers’ specifications.”

In addition to many more meeting cancellations, the Dec. 9 front page also contained an appeal from Harry K. Brown, who was in charge of the County of Hawaii in the absence of Chairman Samuel M. Spencer, asking Big Island residents to cooperate with military authorities “in order that the wheels of territorial and national defense may roll with the greatest possible speed toward the ultimate victory of our great United States.”

On Dec. 10 the Tribune Herald published soothing words from President Franklin D. Roosevelt promising victory and the latest reports from the fronts of the new war in the Pacific, which included heavy fighting in the Philippines. It also contained an announcement that reports of parachute landings of Japanese soldiers in Guam, Midway, and Wake or elsewhere in the Hawaiian Islands were false and that the islands remained safe in U.S. hands.

Because of “a lack of delivery facilities,” the Hawaiian Telephone Co. began printing a list of names and addresses of people for whom it had received “wireless messages.”


The headlines in the Dec 11 edition noted somberly that Congress had declared war on Germany and Italy after those two countries announced they would join in Japan’s conflict with the U.S.

“Thus the United States entered its seventh major war and its second against Germany,” the article said.

State Sen. W. H. “Doc” Hill, who had just been appointed to take charge of civilian affairs on the Big Island, said he was “confident the general public will cooperate 100 percent with the U.S. Army during the present emergency.” Hill said he would do everything possible to administer “fair and just regulations.”

Just as occurred after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, in 1941 other nations began declaring their support for the United States. Countries in Europe and Central and South America rallied support; Argentina froze Japanese funds, and both that country and Chile granted the U.S. use of their seaports.

As it had for the past three days, the Dec. 12 edition of the Tribune Herald printed the text of the martial law declaration.

And again that day, cooperation and the need to make individual sacrifices was stressed in a front-page editorial.

The list of products for which sales were prohibited was soon extended to tires and radios. At the same time, residents were urged to “Buy Perishables!” such as fresh fruit, milk and eggs which were being removed from the 35-cent daily purchasing limit.

Later, Christmas candy, cookies, and cake would also be exempted from the allowance.

Despite its unpopularity, the ban on sales of liquor would continue “until otherwise directed,” the military said.

Elsewhere in the newspaper it was noted that the military would be practice-firing large-caliber weapons and advised residents of areas “facing Oahu” to open windows and doors – including automobile windows – and to take down pictures, mirrors and dishes, apparently to reduce breakage from shock waves.

Just as the Sept. 11 attacks inspired Americans to donate to charities, the attack on Pearl Harbor spurred wartime largesse. An article described how Milolii fisherman Tranquillino Manalili, a World War I Filipino veteran, had donated to the war effort the $680 he was due in veteran’s compensation. Manalili made the gesture despite having his three fishing sampans impounded by military authorities.

Aware that the money represented a major part of Manalili’s savings, Raymond Chang of the Hilo office of the then-Bureau of Internal Revenue insisted that Manalili take U.S. war savings bonds in return.

Within days, the Tribune Herald began accepting contributions for the American Red Cross, which had just announced a nationwide $50 million fund-raising campaign.


Racial tensions continued to rise even as the nation rallied together against the Axis powers.

Gov. Poindexter issued a statement strongly condemning businesses that refused to take checks from Japanese residents and insisted on cash. Poindexter said such actions obstructed authorities’ efforts to partially freeze bank accounts, allowing the withdrawal of $200 a month by Japanese residents for living expenses.

Violence was a major concern, as reports were being received that some of the islands’ Filipinos were considering reprisals against those of Japanese descent because of brutal battles in the Philippines.

“All persons on the island, including Japanese nationals, will be protected fully and completely from molestation of any kind,” Lt. Colonel Burton said.

But the rights of Japanese-Americans were obviously eroding.

A foreboding announcement made on Dec. 15 that the writ of habeas corpus, the law which requires documentation of charges before imprisonment, had been suspended and that military courts could hear any case involving offenses committed against the U.S. or its military.

At the same time, Oahu authorities announced that “all aliens” must obtain permits to travel to and from work or to visit friends or relatives.

On Dec. 16 the war moved closer to the Big Island as the Associated Press reported that a Japanese submarine had attacked Maui as well as Johnston Island overnight. Only slight damage resulted when the submarine shelled a Maui “shipping center.”

The news arrived on the same day the military released a statement saying that another attack on Hawaii from the air or sea was possible but “hardly probable.”

At the same time the public was also told not to be alarmed by the sound of gunfire as machine gun practice would be conducted in the area of Hilo’s pier.

In the Dec. 18 edition it was announced that Hawaiian Airlines had been instructed not to take on Japanese aliens as passengers. In general, Japanese in Hawaii were also forbidden to travel by air without written permission from the provost marshal.

On Dec. 19, military authorities issued a decree which said all “alien Japanese” age 14 and older should obey all laws of the U.S. and Territory of Hawaii.

“…So long as they shall conduct themselves in accordance with the law, they shall be undisturbed in the peaceful pursuit of their lives and occupations and be accorded the consideration due to all peaceful and law-abiding persons, except so far as restrictions may be necessary for their own protection and for the safety of the United States,” read General Order No. 6.

The order went on to say that no alien Japanese should possess firearms, weapons or “implements of war,” including radio or signal devices, cameras, codes or papers or documents “in which there may be invisible writing.”

Two days before Christmas, the war department revealed that 273 Japanese aliens in Hawaii had been interned. Ironically, the notice added that “for the most part, the Japanese population of Hawaii has given no evidence to disloyalty.”

That was one of several conflicting reports about the threat posed by Japanese residents. In one article, Navy Secretary Frank Knox said he believed “there is strong evidence to support the belief that some Japanese engaged in fifth-column (espionage) activities and provided the enemy with valuable military information prior to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor,” the war department said.

However, Delegate King would later tell reporters that no sabotage had occurred in Hawaii.

Meanwhile, the Tribune Herald, which had yet to report directly on Big Island detainments, published an editorial Christmas Eve that praised ideals that later would be found lacking:

“What greater fight could we have then to have this great country, and the equally great principles for which it stands? The privilege to help in the present fight for the cause of democracy, freedom and the dignity of man?”

Military decrees took an even more ominous tone the day after Christmas when a “final warning” was issued by the provost marshal for “certain misguided individuals” who were “breaching the peace” through unspecified remarks and actions.

“It must be borne in mind that a number of Japanese nationals are residing in our midst,” Release No. 128 continued. “These persons will be permitted to live in security in our midst subject to regulations from time to time promulgated by district headquarters. The severity of these regulations will depend upon the behavior of offending persons.”


In the same edition, an article told of a five-year prison term at hard labor handed out by a military provost court to Kenjiro Matsumoto, hometown not given, who had been charged with illegal possession of “firearms and knife weapons.” Other cases such as theft and loitering on the street after dark were also listed, but sentences for those crimes were suspended.

The following day, another Japanese resident, Kazutoshi Nitta of Puna, was found guilty of not turning in a firearm. The 59-year-old Nitta, who had lived on the Big Island for 40 years but reportedly spoke no English, told the provost court he had only learned of the order to surrender firearms from his daughter the previous day and could not afford the transportation charges to Hilo. Nitta said he had thrown the firearm into a lava fissure, “thinking by so destroying it he had complied with the spirit of the law,” the article said.

The provost judge sentenced Nitta to two years at hard labor but suspended the sentence, telling him to go home, remain loyal to the country which had supported him for the past 40 years, and to grow vegetables.

Meanwhile, General Order No. 6 demanding allegiance to the U.S. was expanded to include citizens of Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, and Croatia – nations which declared war on the U.S. – as well as “persons owing allegiance to these countries… .”

General Order No. 9 was also issued. It required registered aliens to carry their registration card with them at all times. It said they could go about their business during the daylight hours without special permits.

The warnings were also countered with propaganda. Announcing “another statement from leading American of Japanese descent,” the Associated Press reported that Dr. Shunzo Sakamaki of Oahu condemned Japan’s attack and called for “complete destruction of the totalitarian governments.”

Fear of a Japanese invasion was rampant, especially after it was announced that families of servicemen and defense workers on Oahu were being sent back to the mainland. Military authorities said it merely meant there would be fewer people to house and feed in Hawaii and would also avoid distractions to their loved ones involved in the defense effort.

On Dec. 20, authorities announced an air-raid drill would be held that day and participation – which included taking cover and keeping distance from one another – was mandatory for all residents.


Several weeks after the attack, some semblance of normalcy was returning to the Big Island. Movie theaters were reopened, but the movie-goers were reminded that they must walk, bike or take a bus to the theater as anyone using a private motor vehicle would have their auto impounded. Japanese films – and those in any language other than English – also were banned.

An article later noted that many more people were being seen on bicycles, including Fred Koehnen – who rode to his downtown business from Waiakea Homesteads – and others who rode “all the way from Keaukaha.”

Radio broadcasts from Hawaii to the mainland eventually resumed, the newspaper reported, but without the usual Hawaiian music. The KGU broadcast instead included a “Hawaiian touch,” a new slogan: “Pau, pau pilikia. Let’s go for broke.”

The latter phrase would eventually become the slogan of two army groups –the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion – made up of Japanese-American soldiers.

President Roosevelt soon announced that censorship of outgoing international communications would begin. Domestic mail was to be excluded, but that apparently only applied to the mainland.

The next day it was announced that mail in Hawaii would be censored by the Army “to prevent spreading of false rumors.”

Further censorship of outgoing mail was announced on Dec.24, including any mail containing unclarified rumors or “horror” stories and detailed references to the Pearl Harbor attacks or military activities.

The edition also included publication of General Orders No. 18, which established the post of “alien property controller.” It called for a receipt to be given to any person who had property commandeered or confiscated by military authorities.

On Dec. 30 there was another article – only the third in the newspaper so far – regarding the interning of Japanese residents. The latest article out of Honolulu said that friends and relatives were allowed to send them clothing.


The following month, an United Press article carrying a Honolulu dateline quoted Army authorities who said a former internee had expressed his “heartfelt appreciation for your very strict but fair treatment” at an unnamed camp.

The Army quoted a letter from the unidentified Japanese man, who had been detained because he was suspected of being an “enemy alien,” saying he hoped to send fruit back to those still being detained and asked that Christian services be provided.

“In closing I wish to repeat thanks for your very good treatment while I was in the detention camp. Thank you again and again.”


An editorial in the Tribune Herald several days later replete with irony said the “fair treatment” demonstrates “Christian humanity,” compared to the “pagan mercilessness” shown to “the unfortunate souls who are in the concentration camps of Japan, Germany, and Italy.”

“We are fighting this war simply because we won’t have anything of the latter,” the editorial concluded.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email