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289: This Week: Tora! Tora! Tora!, Pearl Harbor, Wake Island

In this episode, we’ll learn about historical events that happened this week in history as they were depicted in these movies: Tora! Tora! Tora!, Pearl Harbor, and Wake Island.

Events from This Week in History


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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

December 6th, 1941. Washington, D.C.

The camera is facing a small, brown box with a lot of wires coming out of it as we see the text telling us the date. Quickly, the camera pans over to what looks like a typewriter next to it as it’s typing away automatically. No one is at the keyboard, but the machine—which says it’s an Electromatic on the front—is typing away on paper anyway.

Now we can see a couple men in the office where the box is, and one of the men in a brown military uniform stands over the machine as it’s typing. He seems to be reading the sheet of paper as it’s being typed. The other man is sitting in the foreground, and he seems to be actually typing onto another machine as he’s reading off a sheet of paper in front of him. Without any explanation from the movie, it looks like he’s translating something by reading something in front of him and typing it out on a typewriter.

But the movie doesn’t focus on that for too long, because another man enters through the door. He’s wearing a blue military uniform and a white hat. With a white scarf tucked under his coat, it looks like he just came in from the cold outside. Closing the door behind him, he asks the man in the brown uniform why he was called over here.

That man is E.G. Marshall’s character, Colonel Rufus S. Bratton. He’s the one wearing the brown uniform. The man who just entered the room is the Navy Lt. Commander Alvin Kramer. He’s played by Wesley Addy in the movie.

Reading from the paper the machine typed out, Bratton tells Kramer that Tokyo has just informed its embassy here to prepare for a very long message in 14 parts. Without replying to this directly, Kramer takes off his gloves and reminds Bratton that just last week he scared everyone with his report. Is this going to be a repeat of that?

Before he can answer, the door opens again. A woman enters and hands Bratton some papers. She says he needs to see the latest on the Japanese troop transports. Bratton reads it with a concerned look on his face, then hands it to Kramer with urgency. They’re only 14 hours from the coast of Malaya.

Kramer reads the report, then asks about the aircraft carriers. Bratton says they don’t know where they are; we’ve lost them.

Bratton tells Kramer he’s still convinced they’re going to attack us.

The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!

That sequence comes from the 1970 epic film called Tora! Tora! Tora! The event it’s depicting is the U.S. intelligence leading up to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Which, as I’m sure you can guess, we’ll get to the event itself later.

But, the movie is correct to suggest the U.S. had hints of an attack before it happened. The man we see in the movie, Colonel Rufus S. Bratton, was a real person. He was the Chief of the Far Eastern Section of the Intelligence Branch of the Military Intelligence Division in the War Department.

Whew, that’s a mouthful of a title, right? Haha! But in that role as Chief of the Far East Section, Colonel Bratton was one of the few people in the U.S. Government who had access to what’s known as Magic. That’s what U.S. Intelligence called a cryptanalysis project during the war where they were trying to decode and decipher transmissions from the Japanese secret codes. By that point, the Japanese were using modified Enigma machines they’d been given by the Germans so unlocking those communications was not easy—and it was something that not everyone had access to.

Bratton did, and not only that, but in his role he was one of the first to intercept the message from Tokyo to the Japanese diplomats in Washington, D.C.

Remember when the movie mentioned a long message in 14 parts?

That was a real thing, and it essentially was Tokyo telling their diplomats in the U.S. to break off diplomatic relations. And the other guy we see in the movie, Alvin Kramer, was a real person as well. He was also in U.S. Intelligence for the Navy. And there were others, of course, it’s not like it was a two-person operation.

But at first, neither Kramer or Bratton thought much of the 14-part message because it didn’t provide any military details and they already believed the Japanese were going to attack. They just thought it’d be somewhere in Southeast Asia and they didn’t know when it’d be. So, wait and gather more intelligence.

That changed soon after, at about 9:00 AM on December 7th, when Bratton was given an intercept to the Japanese ambassador telling the ambassador to wait until 1:00 PM to deliver the message of breaking off diplomatic relations to the U.S.

Both of those times are in Eastern Standard Time, which is the time zone for Washington, D.C. For Hawaii’s time zone, though, 9:00 AM in D.C. is 3 AM in Hawaii. 1:00 PM in D.C. is 7:00 AM in Hawaii.

So, these together quickly convinced Bratton that the attack he already thought was coming at some point in the future was going to happen before 1:00 PM that very same day. That was just a few hours away since he’d only gotten that latest intercept after 9:00 AM. Of course, he still didn’t know where the attack would be.

He started making calls.

His first call was to the Army Chief of Staff, a man named General George C. Marshall. But Marshall wasn’t in the office; he was taking a horseback ride, something he normally did on Sunday mornings. So, Bratton left a message and then called the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, a man named General Sherman Miles.

General Miles was in, and quickly made his way to Bratton’s office. Soon after Miles got there, General Marshall returned Bratton’s call. For security purposes, Bratton didn’t want to talk about it over the phone, so he offered to deliver it directly to Marshall. But, Marshall said he’d go to Bratton instead. He got there at about 11:25 AM. That’s 5:25 AM in Hawaii.

Miles, Bratton, and Marshall all concurred on the meaning of the 14-part message along with the subsequent message with a 1:00 PM deadline. They thought it was most likely that American installations in the Philippines or Thailand would be the targets, but it’d probably be a good idea to alert the entire Pacific command of an imminent attack.

Their warning message was encoded and sent, but by that time it was too late. By the time the message made its way to Admiral Kimmel in Hawaii, the attack at Pearl Harbor was already over.

If you want to watch the way the movies portray the intelligence prior to the attack, check out the 1970 film called Tora! Tora! Tora! The text on screen telling us it’s December 6th, 1941 is at about an hour and two minutes into the movie.


December 7th, 1941. Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Our next movie is a continuation of the attack on Pearl Harbor from the last segment, just with a different movie.

There’s a black and white photograph of a Navy ship sitting in a small holder against the green metal of a plane’s instrument panel. Beneath it are letters written in Japanese to identify the ship. Since this is a movie, for our benefit, there’s an English translation printed beneath the Japanese lettering: U.S.S. Oklahoma. The camera switches angles to face the pilot, a Japanese man wearing big goggles looking straight ahead.

In the next shot, we can see his plane flying in the deep blue sky with white, puffy clouds covering a lush, green island below. As his plane nearly disappears into the clouds, another identical plane appears and follows his. Then another. And another…way too many Japanese planes to count are flying toward the island.

Back aboard one of the Japanese ships, a sailor delivers a message to an officer. Reading it, it says they’ve achieved surprise.

Now we’re back outside with the airplanes. They’re flying over the island now. A couple young boys are down on the ground and look up to see the planes flying low overhead. They just watch as more and more planes fly right over their heads.

In a quick cutaway, we see Dan Akroyd’s version of Captain Thurman reading a message saying that hostility is imminent…but where?

A second later, the movie cuts to an overhead view of Pearl Harbor. The blue water and green islands are beautiful and peaceful. Scattered in the blue water are rows of different kinds of ships. Down below on the ships, we can see some of the sailors sleeping in bunk beds.

Another quick cutaway, this time an overhead shot of the Japanese airplanes racing over the ground.

Now we’re back to shots of people sleeping, and other people going about regular things. Someone is hanging laundry out to dry as a plane flies just overhead. Some other boys are playing a game of baseball; more planes flying right overhead. They look like they’re mere feet above the ground, that’s how low they are.

Aboard one of the ships, we can see some of the sailors playing a game of dice. They look up to see the sky dotted with planes. But we’re not done with the cutaways in the movie yet, so we get to see someone else setting up a camera as planes fly over, and Josh Harnett’s character, Danny Walker, sleeping peacefully. He starts to rouse, though, at the sound of an airplane flying overhead. Ben Affleck’s character, Rafe McCawley, is sleeping in the seat of the car behind Walker—they’re both starting to wake up to sounds of airplanes. But, they shake it off. Walker asks why the Navy is practicing this early on a Sunday, and rolls back over to try and sleep.

The camera shifts to following the Japanese airplanes now as swarms of them are flying over Pearl Harbor. On one of the ships, a sailor glances up. He does a double take at the airplanes flying toward his ship.

Following some other airplanes, we can see them starting to fly lower to the water one after another with a single torpedo hanging down from each plane. The camera follows one of the torpedoes as it drops into the water. We’re looking at the back of the torpedo with its wooden fins as it shoots through the water. Then, from overhead, a white streak just under the surface of the water can be seen as the torpedo speeds forward.

The camera cuts to two men hanging off the side of one of the ships. It looks like they’re either painting or cleaning the ship. They look down at the water just in time to see the torpedo slide into view and then hit the side of the ship, erupting into a ball of flames.

A distance away, the sound of the explosion jolts Walker and McCawley awake. They look out into the harbor as more and more explosions hit. The attack has begun.

The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie Pearl Harbor

That sequence comes from the 2001 movie directed by Michael Bay called Pearl Harbor. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor took place 82 years ago this year on December 7th, 1941, starting just before 8:00 AM local time.

That timing is important because, like we learned about in the last segment, U.S. Intelligence was alerted to a possible attack in the hours leading up to it. But also, as we learned, U.S. Intelligence wasn’t entirely sure where the attack would be until it was too late.

So, how well does the movie do showing the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor?

I had a chat with historian Marty Morgan, who specializes in Pearl Harbor and leads tour groups there, and in our conversation, I asked him exactly that question. Here’s a clip from my conversation with Marty:

[01:52:47] Dan LeFebvre: We talked a little bit about the attack itself earlier, but we’re at the point in the movie’s timeline where we see the attack and from a visual perspective, I thought the filmmakers did a good job putting together the effects of, you see the plane swarming in and dropping torpedoes as I think it was used in the trailers at the time.

There was a, the camera that follows the torpedo, the first torpedoes dropped into the water, it explodes against the ship probably. One of my favorite one is when it, it drops a bomb, not a torpedo, but an actual bomb that goes all the way down, impacts the ship below. And of course as we’ve talked about it.

The movie also portrays that the Americans just seem to be shocked into the reality of this situation, of what’s happening. They think it’s a drill and all the until all these explosions start erupting. A lot of them are just waking up, the sailors are sleeping on the ships and they wake up. It just seems to be pure chaos.

Overall, how well do you think the movie did showing the attack itself?

[01:53:46] Marty Morgan: It didn’t do well. And I’ll tell you why. You, since you mentioned those very memorable scenes where you see a bomb that has been dropped from a B 5 into torpedo bomber, because that’s how they killed Arizona. Arizona was not killed by a torpedo.

Arizona was killed by an artillery shell that had been modified and engineered into a free fall bomb. And it’s because the Japanese didn’t have any weapons that any, the Japanese didn’t have an aerial bomb capable of penetrating battleship armor. And the result of that was they had to create this, it was, they designated it the Type 99 Special Attack Munition.

And it was a naval gun shell that they put on a lathe and they tapered its walls back to where they were angular. They put a fin assembly on it and they put fusing on it so that, such that, it would penetrate a deck penetrate the armor of a deck and explode below deck. And it was using this method that they hoped to defeat the armor.

On American battleships and it worked because that’s what destroyed the Arizona, the section where they depict the death of the Arizona, I find especially the moment of the explosion, I find it to be very compelling because it’s, I think, quite well depicted, but leading up to that is one of the weirdest things I have ever seen in my life.

So you know the scene, you already referenced it, it’s the bomb strikes the ship, it penetrates through the deck immediately next to turret number one, or turret number two rather, it penetrates down, pushes into an ammunition storage room associated with the 14 inch main batteries of the ship, and you see the bomb kind of come crashing through, and there’s some sailors there, and everybody’s looking around, it doesn’t explode right away yeah, it doesn’t explode right away, and you see You Shells on racks that kind of come tumbling down and if you listen to the sound design this movie does some sound design stuff that I’m like what was wrong with you people because it sounds like 10 cans tumbling down it’s supposed to be 14 inch shells that weigh over a thousand pounds and it goes and if they’re tumbling down with clang it sounds ridiculous and then you see the bomb sitting there And they’re in the tail assembly of the bomb.

You see this little spinner that’s going g and then it stops! And there’s a moment of suspense and then kaboom! And then you see Arizona erupt and while the explosion, I think, is a very compelling way of depicting that, and I don’t have a criticism for that’s not how fuses on bombs work. HE Just for the record.

I had a feeling it wasn’t HE Yeah, that ain’t, and it’s not just once that it happens, it’s Twice because then there’s a scene where our two protagonist fighter pilot characters are rampaging around like pirates over the airfield and before they get in their planes and take off where they’re at an airfield that androgynously not identified that’s probably supposed to be Wheeler.

It’s not very Wheeler, but it’s supposed to be Wheeler. And bombs come in and they see a guy who’s of course in a position right next to fuel trucks and a bomb goes tink, and it bounces and skids up to where this guy’s position is. A few people run away and he looks down and he goes, Hey guys, it’s okay.

It’s a dud. And you see him once again, the spinning the spinner and then kaboom. And it sets off all this fuel and there’s a massive Michael Bay explosion. And my first thought was once again, that’s not how fuses work because. The fusing that you’re seeing there, that fusing is associated with arming the weapon.

The weapon when it’s carried on the airplane, it’s not armed because it’s really a dangerous weapon. And so they’re in a safe mode. And you’ll notice if you ever see ordnance that’s strung or slung beneath the wings or mounted on the hard points of an aircraft, you’ll notice that the ordinance is usually there and there’s usually a wire of some kind connecting something to the frame of the aircraft and that’s The wire that’s associated with they would retard that spinner by putting looping wire through a hole in the little blades on that spinner.

And then that wire would attach to the aircraft. That spinner, therefore, when the ordinance bomb, torpedo, whatever, if we’re going to go with bomb, when the bomb released from the wing of the aircraft, that wire will break. And it will allow that spinner to begin spinning. The spinner, after completing a certain designated number of spins, will release a plunger that arms the weapon.

That doesn’t mean the weapon explodes. It means that the weapon is now armed. And so for the type of bomb that was depicted in this scene, that’s supposed to be Wheeler Army Airfield, that would be a point detonating bomb. Meaning that the weapon has a plunger at the nose. And when that plunger is compressed, when the bomb hits the ground, kaboom.

The spinner is there. to pull something out of the way to allow that plunger to move backward and set off the explosion. In other words, that’s how you arm the weapon. For the Type 99 special attack munition, the type of modified naval gunshell that was turned into a bomb just for the Pearl Harbor attack.

You had different types of fusing and they were associated with arming that tail fuse assembly was associated with Arming that weapon because that was intended to be and so it’s not plunger or contact detonated Because you want it to penetrate armor and then explode the, that tail mounted fuse assembly was associated with arming the system so that when it made contact, you would get the delay was caused by two chemicals that were contained in two vials.

And when that fuse assembly was crushed on impact. It shattered those vials, allowing the two chemicals to mix and react, which then set off a chain reaction that caused the explosion. And that would provide just a moment of delay. And that moment of delay was all that was necessary to allow the strength of the bomb to punch through the armor of the ship and then go off.

So that if somebody had seen that bomb, the moment before it exploded below deck on Arizona, what they would not have seen would have been. An intact tail assembly with something spinning, almost like it’s an alarm clock. I realized that the filmmakers did that, and that they did it for the specific point, toward the specific point, of having a moment of suspense.

And, when I watch these movies I’m not constantly just, I’m not forever just this asinine pinhead that’s picking everything apart. I do tend to watch them to enjoy it. And, as, as absurd as that spinning fuse is, I watch it, that moment is delivered with all of the technical skill of Michael Bay in action filmmaking.

And it’s a good moment. It’s just not true. It’s just not the way these bombs worked. However, the explosion that’s depicted after that I remember watching it on the big screen for the first time. And that was the moment where I just went, and I went, okay, finally the movie got me. The movie finally dragged me in.

Because when I went to the premiere of it that we had here, it wasn’t until Arizona blew up that I finally had a moment where I was like, because the movie from start to that, and I think it’s over an hour into the movie, because this is a long movie, it’s over an hour in before I finally realized that, wow, that was that moment, and the computer animation of the explosion in Arizona I think was quite well executed.


That’s just a small part of my conversation with Marty about the historical accuracy of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. We went on to talk about how the movie shows Ben Affleck and Josh Harnett’s characters go up in their own aircraft to shoot down Japanese planes. Both of those characters are fictional, but there were some American pilots who made it into the air. So, if you want to hear more about that and the rest of the movie—like the Doolittle Raid—scroll back to episode #212 of Based on a True Story, or tap on the link in the show notes.

And if you want to watch how the 2001 movie Pearl Harbor depicts the attack, it starts at about an hour and 25 minutes into the movie.


December 8th, 1941. Wake Island.

After a meeting of soldiers in an office, most of the men are leaving just as an irate-looking man with a wide-brimmed hat walks into the room. This is Albert Dekker’s character, Shad McClosky. He asks one of the soldiers why they have air raid alarm is going off again; it’s got all my men running around! The soldier calmly says the Major will take care of him and continues walking out of the door.

McClosky walks over to the Major Geoffrey Canton’s desk and asks for a piece of paper so he can resign his post. He’s that upset about the alarms, it seems. Major Canton, who is played by Brian Donlevy, tells McClosky that the Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor. McClosky looks up in disbelief. What?

Major Canton repeats the news, then says you’ll be able to leave the island as soon as possible. In the meantime, find shelter and stay out of the way. With that, Major Canton walks out of the building with another soldier leaving behind a bewildered McClosky.

In the next shot, we’re outside now. The island is peaceful, and although the soldiers are preparing a machine gun nest they seem to be doing so very lazily. When William Bendix’ character, Private Randall, walks up, the soldiers immediately drop their work on the machine gun and start chatting with the former soldier-turned-civilian.

A sergeant walks up and tells Randall that Major Canton has ordered all the civilians go to the slit trenches, and that includes him now. The soldiers all laugh as Randall is led away.

Then, the camera cuts to a couple lookouts using binoculars. One of the taps the other and points, “Enemy planes!”

The other one hops on a phone to call in the report. Then, the man who saw them first starts turning the crank on the air raid alarm to start the wailing sound that warns everyone.

We can see the dots in the sky now as airplanes are out over the ocean, but they’re closing in on the island fast. Alerted by the air raid siren, soldiers along the island jump to action as civilians jump into slit trenches for cover.

Overhead, the Japanese airplanes start their attack with dive bombers going almost straight down. They drop their bombs, sending explosions of sand, water, or whatever they hit below flying into the air.

The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie Wake Island

That sequence comes from the 1942 film called Wake Island. The event it’s depicting is something that gets overlooked by a lot of people because of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but at the nearly the same time as the Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor, they also launched an attack on the American forces at Wake Island. That happened on December 8th, 1941 local time in Wake Island, but because of time zone differences that’s December 7th in Hawaii—the same time as the surprise attack.

For some geographical context, Wake Island is in the North Pacific Ocean only about 2,300 miles, or 3,700 kilometers, to the west of Pearl Harbor. It’s also about the same distance to the east of Japan, which tells you the strategical significance it held as a place to put an airfield, a naval base, or anything like that.

However, because it’s on the other side of the International Date Line from Hawaii, it’s 22 hours ahead of it. That’s why the attack on Wake started at about noon on December 8th while the attack on Pearl was in the morning of December 7th, even though they were also just a few hours apart from each other.

Now, as you might expect, the movie Wake Island is essentially a war propaganda movie. After all, it was released in September of 1942, less than a year after the attack itself.

With that said, though, there were a few things from the segment it got right. For example, the idea of there being civilians on Wake Island at the time of the attack. There were over a thousand civilians on the island working as contractors hired to build a naval base on the island.

Something else the movie got right was to show that the soldiers on Wake Island knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor before they themselves were attacked. What the movie got wrong about that, though, was how quickly the attack happened after they found out.

In the movie, the attack begins almost immediately afterward. In the true story, it was a few hours before they were attacked. And, of course, it’s not like the message said Wake was going to be a target as well. It merely helped them have a heightened awareness.

To help us understand what happened this week in history, let’s hear from Professor Gregory J. W. Urwin at Temple University. He wrote what many consider to be the definitive book on the attack called Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of Wake Island.

So, here’s a clip from my chat with Gregory:

[00:19:15] Dan LeFebvre: According to the movie, the news of the attack on Pearl makes its way to wake. And immediately the men there are put on high alert.

That means four planes are going to stay in the air at all times. And the remaining eight planes are going to be in reserve. And then that same day. We see 24 Japanese planes are sighted. They start bombing the American planes on the ground and seems to just cause a lot of casualties and chaos as well.

How accurate did the movie do depicting the attack on Wake starting?

[00:19:49] Gregory J. W. Urwin: The basics are there. Wake was on the other side of the international dateline. So December 7th at Pearl Harbor is Monday, December 8th at Wake. But it’s 6 a. m. on the 8th of December. That Army radio van, which was on the airfield, gets a message that says S.

  1. S. Island of Oahu. Attacked by Japanese dive bombers. This is the real thing. And the word is conveyed to the garrison and to the marine camp on the south side of the atoll and call to arms, general quarters, immediately sounded by a marine bugler who’s so rattled he starts playing all the wrong calls, like mess call and stuff, but he finally gets the right thing and sergeants are screaming, there’s no drill, get to your gun position.

So they go racing out and they reach them pretty quickly. Part of the problem though, is that the gun positions aren’t finished. Some are not completely sandbagged. Also, there are piles of ammunition around that aren’t in protected positions. So around 10 a. m. Devereaux calls up his various strong point commanders and says, okay, release most of your men to build up the sandbags and to create ammunition caches, move the ammunition around into smaller piles.

So if a bomb lands on one, you don’t lose all your ammunition, all your ready ammunition. So they’re engaged in that labor. And a lot of guys, the alarm was sounded at six and hour after hour goes by, nothing’s happening. And people are saying, oh, this is just another false alarm. There’ve been several alerts earlier at the autumn where nothing happened.

The general American racism kicks in. Those little blank blankety bags wouldn’t have the guts to attack Americans, I’ll fight Chinese, but they wouldn’t dare tangle with us. And as noon was coming on, Wake often was subject to sudden rain squalls, and a big bank of cumulus clouds comes creeping along from the south, toward the south beach, toward the airfield.

They did have four Wildcat fighters up in the air. Major Putnam decided, okay, during daylight hours, continue, continuous combat air patrol, continuous CAP. But the clouds are so thick that the wildcats climb above them because you can’t see anything if you’re in the clouds. The only trouble is that there were 27 not 24, but 27 Mitsubishi G3M2 Type 96 attack bombers.

If your listeners, if any are up on the Pacific war, they probably know them by their allied code name. They’re called Nell bombers, but there are 27. And they fly into the cloud bank and they use that as cover and they appear right over wakes south beach at 11 58 a. m. They’re about 15 seconds away from the airfield.

And when the Americans first see them, they can’t believe it’s the enemy. I interviewed one marine sergeant who was on Major Devereaux’s, in his command post, manning the field phone, and there was a marine on the water tower, which was the highest point on Wake, 50 feet off, off sea level, who called in and said, Hey Malek, look at the planes.

And Sgt. Malick joked, are they ours or theirs? And the voice came back and it wasn’t in a joking tone now. He said, they gotta be theirs. They’re dropping bombs, every GD one of them. And they hit the airfield. Eight planes on the ground. Ground crews clustered around them refueling. arming them. Pilots go running out trying to get the planes off the ground.

It’s a massacre. VMF 211 loses 32 personnel. Half its personnel are killed and wounded, including three pilots and 16 ground crew guys who were either killed in action or mortally wounded in action. Seven planes are destroyed. The guys on combat air patrol, they’re, they’re the ground, the radio on the ground air radio, they’re trying to calm down, but the radios are malfunctioning.

And they don’t know anything about this until their regular tour of duty ends and they come down to land and then they find the airfield in flames. Most of the aviation fuel’s burning. One of the landing Wildcats strikes debris on the airfield, so it’s damaged. It’s not flyable for the foreseeable future.

So they’re cut from 12 fighters to 4 in the twinkling of an eye. And most of their parts, all their repair manuals, a lot of their fuel and ordnance and ammunition, Gone. It’s devastating. The Japanese also hit the Pan Am hotel and killed Guamanians there, too, that first day.


While we don’t see this comparison in the movie, one of the key differences between Pearl and Wake, though, is the Japanese planned to put boots on the ground at Wake and take it over completely.

The attack on Pearl Harbor lasted for a couple hours: From 7:48 A.M. until about 9:00 A.M., local time. The attack on Wake Island lasted for weeks.

They were bombed almost every day.

On December 11th, the Japanese launched an amphibious attack supported by ships. And as we heard from Gregory, by that time, the defenders on Wake Island only had four Wildcat planes left—there were also less than 450 troops. Amazingly, the defenders repelled the attack on December 11th and dealt a major blow as they sunk two Japanese destroyers and a submarine, marking the first surface ship the Japanese would lose in World War II.

So, the bombings of the island continued.

Then, on December 23rd, 1941, the Japanese sent a second landing force of over 2,000 troops. This time the defenders on Wake Island were overwhelmed.

If you want to watch the event that happened this week in history, check out the classic film Wake Island from 1942. And, of course, a war movie like Wake Island isn’t going to be historically accurate, but that’s what we’re here for, right? Haha!

Check the show notes for a link to episode #171 of Based on a True Story where you’ll hear my full discussion with Gregory to dig into the true story of what really happened at Wake Island.


December 10th, 1911. Stockholm, Sweden.

We’ve already done our three events this week, so this’ll be quick, but because we had a lot of war-related events this week, I wanted to include something that’s not related to World War II.

So, for our next movie segment, we’re in a very elegant building. A man in a nice tuxedo clears his throat, catching the attention of two people sitting on a bench. One of them is Rosamund Pike’s character, Marie Curie, while the other is Ariella Glaser’s character, an 11-year-old Irene Curie. They both look at the man who cleared his throat.

He welcomes her to Sweden and asks if she has everything she needs. She smiles and says that yes, she does. The young girl catches a tone in the dialogue and after the man leaves, tells her mother that they don’t like her here.

Marie says that’s nonsense, they merely have a hard time separating her personal life from her professional life.

In the next shot, we can see Marie Curie standing at a podium on a stage in front of a beautifully elegant room filled with people dressed in tuxedos. Well, the men, at least. There are mostly men. But, there seem to be a few women here and there, as well. The camera cuts to a few of the people in the audience. Then, slowly, one woman in the audience stands to clap. Then, another, and another. All the women in the audience are standing to clap. Then, slowly, the men follow suit and before long everyone is giving Marie Curie a standing ovation.

The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie Radioactive

That sequence comes from the 2020 movie called Radioactive. The event it’s depicting is when Marie Curie received her second Nobel Prize, which happened this week in history on December 10th, 1911.

One of the things we get from the movie was the idea of people having a hard time separating her personal life with her professional life. And that was a very real thing. Here’s a clip from my chat with Lauren Redniss, the author behind the book they based the movie on to tell us more:

[00:34:13] Lauren Redniss: It was there was a confluence of events in this kind of extraordinary and unprecedented way, which was, she was the first woman to have won a Nobel prize. And then in 1911, she’s awarded a second Nobel Prize. So, no one has won two Nobel Prizes at this point in history. And certainly a woman to win two different, two Nobel Prizes in two different sciences. She won physics and chemistry. So here she is like one of history’s most celebrated scientists. And just at that moment is when the scandal breaks.

And so the Swedish Academy actually writes to her and says, maybe it’s better if you don’t come. Maybe you should just turn down this prize, spare us all the embarrassment. And of all people, she’s supported by Albert Einstein, among others, some people step to her defense and she, again, to her credit is stoic.

And she says, this is nonsense. My work is being recognized and my private life has nothing to do with the value of my work. And I’ll be in Sweden to accept that Nobel prize, thank you very much.

If you want to hear more about the scandal that Lauren is talking about, we covered that in more depth back earlier this year on #234 of Based on a True Story. As always, there’s a link to that in the show notes.

And while we don’t hear the speech she gave in the movie, here an English translation of the speech that Marie Curie gave—originally in French—at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, Sweden on December 10th, 1911:

I thank the Academy of Sciences for the great honor it has given me. I believe that this honor is not addressed only to me. For many years, Pierre Curie and I devoted all our days to work on our shared discoveries of radium and polonium. I therefore believe I am interpreting the Academy’s thinking in its true sense, by saying that this Nobel Prize that has just been awarded to me is also a tribute paid to the name of Pierre Curie.

Please also allow me to express the joy I feel when thinking about radioactivity. The discovery of radioactive phenomena only dates back fifteen years. Radioactivity is therefore a very young science. This is a child that I saw born and that I contributed, with all my strength, to raising. The child grew up, he became handsome. Radioactivity is a new science which has very close relationships with physics and chemistry but which is nonetheless absolutely distinct. Today we have institutions and laboratories for radioactivity; many scientists devote themselves to the study of radioactive phenomena. The development has been admirable; but one could not have hoped for greater encouragement than that which young science received from the Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awarded three Nobel Prizes, one in physics, two in chemistry, to the four researchers Henri Becquerel, Pierre Curie, Marie Curie and E. Rutherford.

I’ll add a link to the show notes to that speech if you want to see the original French.

And if you want to see the event that happened this week in history portrayed in the movie, check out 2020’s Radioactive. We started our segment today at about an hour and 21 minutes into the movie.



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