‘NY Times’ Prints Censored Pearl Harbor Story — 64 Years Late

By: Anna Crane

In 1942, Robert Trumbull, a New York Times correspondent based in Pearl Harbor, wrote a 15,000 word, six-piece series on the aftermath and reconstruction of the naval site bombed in 1941. Unfortunately, wartime censorship kept the piece from running in 1942 — but the Times printed the piece today on the anniversary of that infamous event.

Excerpts from Trumbull’s piece appear on today’s op-ed page of the paper, and its Web site hosts the full series. The Times has also posted correspondence between Trumbull, New York Times Managing Editor Edwin L. James, and various Navy officials, chronicling the killing of Trumbull’s piece. Through the correspondence posted on the Times’ Web site, it can be seen that the Navy made Trumbull jump through several hoops with his story, only to to have it withheld in the end.

Lawrence Downes, the author of an editorial on Pearl Harbor that appears in the Times today, stumbled across a cover letter from James to an Admiral Furlong, who was assigned to clean up Pearl Harbor. Downes found the letter while doing research on the Pearl Harbor ship yard, Andrew Rosenthal, deputy editorial page editor of the Times, told E&P today.

Interested in the story behind it, Downes did some more research and found more letters in the New York Times archives and the Library of Congress, and eventually came across the series itself in Admiral Furlong?s papers. ?One of the great things about online is that you can just put everything up,? Rosenthal said. ?There?s no great historical realization in this, but it just seemed like one of the things the Times could still do.?

The original series detailed the damage done to the many ships in harbor at the time of the attack and the efforts immediately after to clean up the mess that had been made — a job Trumbull described in a December 19, 1942 letter to James as “… heroic in its broad proportions, and which in detail was often seemingly impossible, frequently discouraging and always physically arduous, filthy, stinking and dangerous.”

While stationed as a correspondent at Pearl Harbor, Trumbull and a writer from the now-defunct Chicago Times, Keith Wheeler, both worked on stories on the Navy’s reconstruction efforts.

“It is a story that should make the country feel pretty proud, and one that will wash away a few bad tastes,” wrote Trumbull in the Dec. 19 letter.

It was also a story that he and Wheeler felt was an important contribution. “We both regard it as the best story we have ever worked on — and if it isn’t that, it certainly is the hardest work I’ve ever done,” said Trumbull in the Dec. 19 letter.

In a December 23, 1942 letter to Mr. James, Trumbull explained that his story had been censored by the naval department (which required approval before publication on any stories dealing with the Navy), “… on the grounds that it is contrary to fleet public relations policy to release an exclusive story on material desired by all correspondents.”

Since many reporters would be interested in the story, the Navy claimed, it would be unfair for Trumbull and Wheeler to be the only ones with access to this information — even though they had scooped the story, noted Trumbull.

The Navy initially told Trumbull that his story could be published after a “general release” of the information had been issued to all correspondents so that all reporters could report on the reconstruction. But before that could happen, the navy ruled that Trumbull’s story was “incomplete and inadequate,” and therefore unfit for publication.

James, in a Dec. 31 memorandum to Mr. Sulzberger, expressed his dismay over the Navy’s censorship. “Being of a cynical frame of mind, as you say, I did not take at its face value the statement that Trumbull’s story had been held up just for security reasons … I do not believe Trumbull’s story was inadequate. I just believe the Navy Press Relations Officer there did not want one paper to have the story. Maybe I am wrong, but that is my position until I am licked.”

Trumbull’s letters express almost a confusion over the censorship of the story, as he wrote on Dec. 23, “Wheeler and I feel that the story of the salvage and repair work on the battleships damaged December 7, 1941, will be of great value to the national morale, and reflect high credit on the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard.”

Despite numerous protests from the Times, and Trumbull’s concession that any security sensitive information could be removed from the story so long as its character was in tact, Trumbull’s story went unpublished until the Times released it today.

In addition to the full text of the series and the correspondence quoted above, the Times’ Web site also includes Trumbull’s obituary from 1992, and an audio slideshow of Pearl Harbor.

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