The FBI Radio Systems Are Put to the Test
The two radio operators were exchanging routine communications when their lives abruptly changed, along with the lives of millions of others that morning. Japanese airplanes were bombing ships and installations at Pearl Harbor. Shortly after the attacks began at 7:55 a.m. local time, a Honolulu employee on duty, Franklin Sullivan, ran to the radio station in the storage room to tell Mr. Eskridge that a telephone call had just come in about the attacks. The two of them rushed to the roof of the Dillingham Building and saw scores of Japanese airplanes, the first of the 353 aircraft that would descent in two waves that morning. The airplanes were flying so low and slow in their approaches that the pilots could be seen clearly in their cockpits. Noise from the bombs, and the resulting explosions, fires, and smoke, even at a distance, were tremendous.
Mrs. Eskridge stayed only briefly on the roof. He knew he had to get the word out, and he the means at his disposal. The radio system would get its first test in a crisis. He ran back to his radio station and tapped out a message at 8:30 a.m. local time:
“WFBB from WFBN, if you are still there, stand by for very urgent and important message.” Mr. Eskridge tensed during the moment it would take for his message to be received and acknowledged. He was relieved to hear a response from the speaker of his receiver and informed an astonished Mr. Corbitt about the attack. The FBI San Diego Field Office was notified by telephone, who in turn telephoned FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC.
Mr. Eskridge’s first radio message to Mr. Corbitt was among several initial messages about the attack sent from Hawaii by the U.S. military of civilians via radio or telephone. According to written accounts, the first word of the attack was transmitted at 7:58 local time by radio operators at Pearl Harbor at the direction of U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Logan Ramsey that became famous: “AIR RAID PEARL HARBOR. THIS IS NO DRILL.” This message was received 22 minutes later in the Nation’s Capital, where the time zone difference of 5.5 hours in those days meant the message was received about 1:50 p.m.
The exact times of transmission and receipt of all messages about the attack are not known, although it is certain that the radio message sent by Mr. Eskridge and received by Mr. Corbitt was the first notification to reach the FBI.
Later in the morning of December 7, in an oft-repeated story within the FBI, Robert Shriver, the Special Agent in Charge of the Honolulu Field Office, reached FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover by telephone to update him. Director Hoover was in New York City and was able to hear explosions from the bombing in the background.
Despite the existence of the telephone capability, the Honolulu shortwave radio station often was the only secure, reliable means of communication for the FBI in the critical early days of the war. Military communications facilities were overwhelmed by their own radio traffic, and commercial facilities were frequently disrupted. The value of the new shortwave radio system was obvious, and Messrs. Corbitt and Eskridge instantly had become indispensable.
However, Mr. Eskridge was the only radio operator in the Honolulu Field Office and could not be expected to operate the station alone indefinitely. As it was, he did not leave his post for 62 hours following the attack. On December 12, he was joined by another recently hired 22-year-old FBI radioman and fellow ham radio operator, Melvin H. Barrett, who had been sent 5,000 miles from the FBI Laboratory. The last leg of Mr. Baarrett’s trip, made on a Boeing 314 Yankee Clipper “Flying Boat” with a handful of other Americans, was the first commercial flight to attempt to make the 18-hour journey from San Francisco to Honolulu since the outbreak of the war. It took courage to make that trip. No one knew for certain the whereabouts or the strength of the Japanese armed forces, which just days before had shown such fury. The Flying Boat landed in an unobstructed area of Pearl Harbor itself, and Mr. Barrett thus became one of the first persons from outside the area to view the horrific destruction. Messrs. Eskridge and Barrett worked together at the radio station for months from that point on.
Mr. Corbitt continued at his San Diego post as well but was able to obtain assistance as needed from other FBI employees. The San Diego and Honolulu also processed radio, telephone, and teletype messages to and from FBI Headquarters and Bay Station Chesapeake in Maryland. Radio messaging continued to be extremely heavy for the duration of the war.
On December 11, Germany declared war on the United States as well due to Adolph Hitler’s desire to engage America along with Japan, whom he considered a military partner.
The advent of a world war put all FBI employees in Hawaii under tremendous pressure. All 16 Special Agents and 10 other personnel, in addition to Messers. Eskridge and Barrett, served not only under blackouts, curfews, and shortages, but also under constant concern of invasion by the Japanese. The threat eased only after the decisive U.S. Navy victory at the Battle of Midway in June 1942 made another Japanese attack unlikely.