For LIFE Magazine photographer Bob Landry, the "day that will live in infamy" was shaping up to be an easy assignment. On Dec. 7, 1941, he was on board a heavy cruiser off the coast of Hawaii, shooting a feature story that would highlight the competence and strength of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet.
So when the ship's captain announced early that morning that he would launch cruiser planes on a scouting mission, Landry and reporter Richard Wilcox rushed to the ship's bridge to document the event for LIFE. The takeoffs would provide an exciting break from practicing naval maneuvers; but pictures that at the time were merely documenting a routine mission would become the first professional images of a nation at war by the time they hit the pages of LIFE Magazine.
"This is a funny thing that just came in," the ship's captain said to Wilcox, showing him a message that had just arrived from his superiors. The message read, in all capital letters, "HOSTILITIES WITH JAPAN COMMENCED 8 THIS MORNING AIR ATTACK PEARL HARBOR."
The ship had left Pearl Harbor three days before, carrying the LIFE correspondents on board in hopes of showing them how the Pacific fleet operated, but the mission quickly changed its objective. For the days that followed, the LIFE correspondents would remain on board documenting the earliest days of war; a refueling scheduled for the end of the week provided an opening that allowed Landry and Wilcox to return to Hawaii after 10 days spent at sea. It was then that Landry was allowed to photograph the devastation that had occurred.
Coverage in the national media didn't exactly reflect the frenetic events that Landry and Wilcox had witnessed. Though President Franklin D. Roosevelt had declared war on Japan the day after the attacks, most information was coming from amateur photographers and service members stationed in Hawaii, and detailed accounts were yet to arrive. Many newspapers and magazines, TIME and LIFE included, scrambled well into Sunday night to add extra pages, filled with details from wire reporting, to issues already being printed. Landry, who was one of the only professional news photographers nearby when the attacks on Pearl Harbor occurred, would not see his photographs of the destruction published until two months later.
John G. Morris, a LIFE Magazine correspondent and photo editor in the magazine's Los Angeles bureau at the time, offers some insight as to why: "The story had to go through censorship," Morris says an issue he would deal with often on the war stories that would keep him busy for the next several years. "The Navy was very cautious about releasing pictures that would reveal how serious the damage was, and it was very, very serious indeed."
The Pearl Harbor raid has a special importance for Morris, who shares his birthday with the anniversary of the attacks and will turn 95 this year. In 1941 he was just 25 an era when photojournalists would have their rolls of film hand-delivered and shipped by plane from bureaus around the world to be developed and printed. LIFE rose to prominence because its photos, like Landry's, were high quality; the first photos transmitted by wires from Honolulu were grainy reproductions that paled in comparison. Morris recalls driving on the day of the attacks to a Japanese neighborhood in Los Angeles at about 65 miles an hour "I wasn't going to be late to my first war," he recalls thinking but the streets were quiet and nothing shot by the photographer he had assigned that day would be used.
World War II wasn't the easiest time for photojournalists. Censors clamped down on images that might give away the tiniest detail of U.S. forces' strength and strategy, keeping the public from getting the full picture of the war for weeks and even months. The military scrutinized every photo down to specific weapons that appeared and soldiers' ranks and insignias so the information could not be used by enemy intelligence.
For news photographers, this made for heavy delays at the best of times. Landry and Wilcox's original story, which LIFE hoped would combat the notion that the Pacific fleet was unprepared for war on December 7, didn't run until the beginning of the following year. Morris recalls a later story shot by LIFE staffer George Strock that showed American bodies washed up on shore in New Guinea; military censors refused to release the story, shot in January of 1943, until September of that year, after President Roosevelt personally intervened to lift a ban on images of military war dead. (Strock's photograph in LIFE was the first to be published after the ban lifted; it would become one of the war's most iconic images.) But in most respects censorship would remain a mainstay of the war, with Morris spending much of his time in California, New York, and London bureaus visiting government offices with film negatives in hand.
And so the story that hit newsstands on February 16, 1942, which showed twisted metal and gun turrets jutting out above sea level, touted Landry's images as "the first good look the country had of what went on at the Pearl Harbor naval base on the morning of December 7." They were as close as Landry had been able to get to the action, though the pictures reveal a quieter scene, after the fires had died down and salvage boats began to scour the remains. The partially sunken reminders of the tragedy appeared alongside reflective captions provided by service members present on the day of the attacks.
"I was struck with the inferno of the Arizona," one officer is quoted as saying. "It made one feel for a moment 'this can't be the real thing. It's just like the movies.'" Another recalled the fire and smoke that blanketed Pearl Harbor as "great molten fingers" and "a pall that recalled some of Dante's most vivid writing."
But the publication of the images, even months later, helped clarify the urgency of a war that America had been thrown into abruptly. And they offered a comprehensive view into an event that the press had been scrambling to cover. "Pearl Harbor was very serious stuff," Morris remarks. "We lost far more than we had admitted at the time."