The small, old-fashioned radio at the entrance was a time machine for my father, Lester Bernstein, 92, who was getting a preview of the “World War II & NYC” exhibition at the New-York Historical Society.
A grown-up grandson was wheeling him through the exhibit, which opened on Friday. But suddenly my father was again a 21-year-old reporter for The New York Times faced with what seemed like an unexciting new assignment: to write hourly news bulletins for the paper’s nascent venture into radio broadcasting.
“I regarded myself as ‘stuck’ with the assignment,” he once wrote in an e-mail, looking back on a career that began as 17-year-old campus correspondent for The Times at Columbia University, and ended as the editor of an award-winning Newsweek magazine.
On the sunny Sunday afternoon when he was due to start, he was still at home on West 106th Street, listening to a New York Giants football game, when word from Washington interrupted the broadcast: President Roosevelt had just announced the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I rushed to 43rd Street with a sudden new interest in the job,” he said.
The Times newsroom where I work is now a few blocks from where my dad hustled to his date with history on Dec. 7, 1941. But his experience that day seems like the forgotten prehistory of today’s continuous news operation.
He found a growing pile of wire copy on his wooden desk and a Teletype operator waiting to transmit his words to WMCA. Collaboration between the paper and the radio station, precursor to a long relationship with WQXR, had been in place for only seven days. It made him the first Times staffer to provide the public with news that was already changing the world, the city and his life.
In the exhibit, a paragraph summarizes the devastation wreaked by the surprise attack, which killed more than 2,400 people, wounded nearly 1,200, wrecked 14 ships and almost 300 planes. But the compression of history gave way when my father recalled his scramble to turn out short, simple informative sentences on a day when such details were not public, and “the name Pearl Harbor didn’t mean anything.”
Even then, it was clear the damage was heavy and widespread, with much loss of life. The president was to address Congress the next day. My father remembers writing the line, “Full hostilities between the United States and Japan appear inevitable.’’
An old timer in charge of the city desk that day, Walter Fenton, was scandalized. “Hey,” he said, “You can’t say that!” But it was too late – the words were already on the air. And after all, they were true.
By then other reporters and editors were swarming in to volunteer. Among them was the senior reporter who headed the radio bulletin desk, Byron Darnton, known as Barney, who had been driving his family on vacation when he heard the news over the car radio. Later, he would lose his life as a Times war correspondent in Asia; his infant son, John Darnton, who grew up to become a foreign correspondent and longtime editor for The Times, would write a memoir about his lost father.
Like 900,000 other New Yorkers, my father, too, went to war.
“I was drafted in December ’42,” he said, gazing at photos of 1943 rallies at Madison Square Garden. That year, he was in the 102nd Infantry Division, 9th Army, in basic training in Texas, where he fell in love at a U.S.O. dance. In 1944, he shipped out from Fort Dix, N.J., to Europe, on a troopship so overcrowded, he said, that “the chow line wound through the latrines.”
“Mimi wrote me every day,” he added, naming the woman who became his wife, and is now a great-grandmother.
At the exhibit, high in a glass case, a sign from Katz’s deli made us laugh: “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army.” The owner’s three sons, all in the service, had supposedly discovered that in a pinch, kosher salamis served as ammunition.
There were other surprises, like a version of the vests that were placed on carrier pigeons and that had been designed by a New York brassiere-maker for Signal Corps paratroopers. “Well I’ll be damned,” said my father, who was in the Signal Corps.
We paused at a cryptography machine, an ungainly, oversize typewriter with extra dials and wheels. “I used to operate one of those,” he said. “You’d change the setting of the wheels every day, so somebody with the same machine would be able to decode what you wrote. This could be a German version, but it was very similar.”
Indeed, it was a Kriegsmarine Enigma model, developed by the Navy to help sailors find the real thing when they boarded enemy U-boats, some prowling right off Coney Island.
We admired the Cyclotron, part of the secret Manhattan Project at Columbia University. “One of my professors was very involved in that,” my father remarked. “John Dunning. Physics.”
Sure enough, his teacher for a science survey course appeared in a photo as a scientist racing the Nazis to build the atom bomb.
Time blurred again at the end, when we came to a huge painting of the delirious joy in Times Square as news of the Allied victory broke. Like many New Yorkers, my father had missed that famous home front scene on Aug. 14, 1945. He was still in Germany, where his division stopped 45 miles from Berlin.
But as he looked at the Times Tower soaring above the crowd in the painting, it recalled the thrill of his very first assignment as a full-time staffer for this newspaper, writing for the tower’s electronic “zipper” banner.
“I ran out into Times Square to see my stuff,” he confessed.
Seven decades later, a grandson grinned, too. “Like Twitter,” he said.