Pearl Harbor, 1939

Today is the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day and while the news media will be focused on the events of December 7, 1941, I wanted to jump back in time two years earlier to Pearl Harbor, 1939. I’ve been somewhat haunted by a letter I came across during my Vacation in the Golden Age. It appeared in the July 1940 issue of Astounding (Episode 13). The letter was nothing out of the ordinary. Indeed, it was very typical of the letters appearing in the magazine at that point. It listed the best stories and worst stories. It had some interesting observations as well as some silly ones. The letter writer indicated what he thought were the best stories overall for 1939.

What made the letter haunting, what made it jump out and sent chills down my spine, was its signature. I always look at the names of the letter-writers because many of the fans in 1939 and 1940 would become big name writers later in the decade. I didn’t recognize this fan’s name, but his signature was still chilling. The letter was signed:

Yours for a good campaign in ’40–E. F. McGill, Patrol Wings, Communication Office, Pearl Harbor, T. H.

This letter was written at least 18 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor and so maybe Mr. McGill was no longer stationed there when the attack came. But what if he was? Did McGill survive the attack? Could he have been laying on his bunk, reading the latest issue of Astounding when the attack happened?

I did some searches of various database and websites. I found at least one McGill who survived Pearl Harbor but no E. F. McGill.

Reading that letter was almost like traveling back in time, as a time traveler might do, with all of the knowledge of what was to come but no ability to alter the future. It was a strange feeling that has followed me around ever since. Of course, E. F. McGill was just one fellow who happened to be a science fiction fan and may or may not have even been at Pearl Harbor. That thousands just like him died on that day is equally haunting. How many science fiction fans were among them? How many young men who read stories of rockets to the moon who would never live to see Neil Armstrong set foot there? Or see a robotic rover wander the deserts of Mars?

For someone of my generation, Pearl Harbor is difficult to imagine. The images are black and white and grainy so that it looks just like a World War II movie from the 1950s. Unreal. But a simple letter like that from E. F. McGill makes it seem so very real.

Whenever I think about that letter, there’s always one thought that dominates the undercurrents of my mind and that is this:

I sure hope he made it out, one way or another.

ETA: My mom found the following on

There was an Earle F. McGill in the Navy stationed at Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in 1937 and was released in Dec 1943. He died in Jun 2003. Not sure if he was your letter writer, but it would be nice to think so.


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