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A World Gone Mad

A Stanford sophomore records his observations as news of Pearl Harbor reaches campus.

Stanford Archives

READINESS: ROTC men in the Quad.

By William Coughlin

Japan has just attacked the United States. It is 2:30 Sunday afternoon. Most of my fraternity brothers are downstairs, grouped around the radio in the living room. I have broken away and come up to my desk because I want to put down what I feel, while I feel it.

The fellows are listening to the news reports from Hawaii and Manila, and they are laughing and making jokes about it, but it is easy to feel the tenseness in that group. They pretend they aren’t worried, but they are. These are the fellows who will have to do the fighting. They kid about going out with their girls and having a big time, because it is the last big time they will have before they are in the Army.

Then the announcer says that at least 350 American soldiers have been killed in the bombing of Honolulu, and the fellows get mad and call the Japanese names. And those who have family and friends in the islands are beginning to worry. But they try not to say so, for whenever someone does, the other guys make cynical remarks about how those friends were probably killed by the first bomb that dropped. And then the boy who has loved ones out there laughs very loud before falling silent.

When the news first came through that the Japanese had attacked Honolulu, no one believed it. Everyone was sure there must be a mistake; the broadcasting company must be wrong. That was around noon. But when the reports kept coming, the truth began to sink in. It was then that the fellows began seeking explanations. Maybe it was a German-instigated move. Maybe some admiral in the Nippon navy had gotten overambitious. Maybe, maybe, maybe—there were lots of possibilities. The fellows still laughed, except occasionally when they would think of Americans lying dead in the streets of Honolulu. And then they would get mad again and call the Japanese some more names.

We read the sports pages and funny papers only halfheartedly today. Flash Gordon and his ray gun seem childish beside what is going on in the Pacific. The fact that Texas walloped Oregon 71-7 seems awfully unimportant. The men in the house are just lounging on the couches and stretched out on the floor listening to the radio. When they speak, they shout. Two of them were tossing the football around the room until someone hollered, “For Christ’s sake, sit down!” Whenever the announcer reports a bulletin, everybody strains to listen, and if anyone talks, he is told to shut up. When the bulletin ends, everyone talks at once in that strange, loud way.

The possibility of a West Coast attack is being discussed, and three of us have agreed to go up to San Francisco if it is bombed. We are curious, like children with matches. If San Francisco is going to be blown to hell, we want to see it happen. We haven’t yet taken this thing seriously. But that radio is still going downstairs, telling of those who have been killed.

My friends will probably stay down there until late tonight, when the stations go off the air. They will have their laughs and make their jokes, but they will listen, and gradually it will dawn on them that the United States of America is at war, and that they will be fighting it. They will have to leave their girls behind, just as their fathers did in the First World War, and go out to get killed or to come back crippled or with their brains seared by horrible memories of men killing each other, because the world has gone mad.


William Coughlin,’44, MA ’50, now living in Ireland, was a Phi Kappa Sigma who served as a P-38 pilot and became a Fulbright scholar, foreign correspondent and Pulitzer prize-winning newspaper editor. On the fates of his fraternity brothers, he says: “One was killed in Europe, one wounded in the South Pacific. Of the four who joined the Army Air Corps, all got their wings and survived the war.”

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