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The Bell Curve:

Codes in the New Yorker

December 02, 2009|By Joseph N. Bell

Four days distant — on Dec. 7 — comes a date President Franklin Roosevelt said famously “will live in infamy.” To my generation, this wasn’t hyperbole but rather an accurate prediction. Pearl Harbor Day brings up a whole vortex of memories that in many ways have defined the lives of those of us who lived through them.

Except for the American Civil War, never before or since has an entire population been engaged so totally in a single cause. So it’s not surprising that the game of where-were-you-when-the- Japanese-struck? has dominated conversation on Pearl Harbor Day for more than a half century.

But in recent years, that talk has more and more turned into where-was-your-grandfather? And as a card-carrying grandfather, instead of milking that question for the 60-somethingish time, I’d like to re-visit a mystery that has always come into my mind on Pearl Harbor Day. It will probably never be solved, but it still makes for fascinating speculation.

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In 1944, I was piloting Navy transport planes in the South Pacific. Along with the wounded we carried out of combat areas, we sometimes had military passengers hitching a ride, and I would go back into the cabin to talk with them while the other pilot took over. One such group of hitch-hikers were the first Bataan Death March prisoners to be rescued and sent home. Always the journalist, even then, I went back to get as much of their stories as I could. But they were almost catatonic, and I ended up with one of their escorts, a young Naval Intelligence officer. And in the interminable hours of that flight, he told me this story about a previous assignment that had him baffled.

It started with an advertisement that appeared in the Nov. 22, 1941 issue of the New Yorker — two weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The ad was full of double meanings that the American Intelligence community saw — in hindsight — as a possible warning of the impending attack to Japanese officials then in Washington negotiating issues that would later be used as reasons for the attack.

He described the ad as best he could from memory and said it was accompanied by a half-dozen identical small ads showing only a pair of dice with the numbers 12 and 7— the date of the Pearl Harbor attack — exposed.

His investigation had run into nothing but dead ends. He found that the ad had been placed across the counter in New York City, and paid for in cash.

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