On December 7, 1941, two members of the U.S. Army Signal Corps stationed at Oahu, Hawai’i, were utilizing the newest electronic long-range detection system when they observed what appeared to be a “large flight of planes” heading toward Pearl Harbor early in the morning. They immediately reported their findings, but were told to “forget it” and the warning went unheeded. Moments later, planes of the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, inflicting devastating losses and touching off America’s involvement in World War II.
Pearl Harbor ranks as one of the most important and well-known events in the United States and worldwide, so it is not surprising that two different award-winning docudramas have been produced, by some of the most famous names in movie history. Docudramas are essentially re-enactments using actors, but are intended, generally, to adhere closely to established historical facts.
Both of these movies include a depiction of the event described above, when the two Signal Corps privates using the new system detected the incoming attack. But what is surprising is that although both movies were intended to be as faithful to the facts as possible, the two versions of this event could not be more different. In fact, other than the basic facts, few of the details in the two versions are the same. For example, one film shows two privates involved, the other presents only one. The time these events occurred, as shown by wall clocks, is off by 20 minutes. And so on. One would hardly know this was the same set of facts being depicted.
These varying interpretations may help to account for the wildly different futures of the two young privates after that fateful day. One went on to immediate reward and acclaim, while the other was relegated to the shadows. Both men lived in Monmouth County at one time, one for only a matter of months, the other for more than 30 years.
But is it possible that the man in the shadows got the last laugh?
The Radar at Pearl Harbor
In December 1939, the 515th Army Aircraft Warning Service (AWS) began using a new technology system to defend American territory. It employed the SCR-270B, the first U.S. long-range search apparatus, created at the Signal Corps Laboratories at Fort Monmouth in 1937. By 1941, the system was still so new it didn’t even have a name yet, and was so secret it had been given a standard Signal Corps Radio (SCR) number, the same as every other radio or other communications device developed by the Signal Corps. It would eventually become known as “radar,” standing for “radio detection and ranging.”
The AWS established six mobile radar detector sites on Oahu, including Opana Point, a location 532 feet above sea level with an unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean. The SCR-270 set comprised four trucks carrying the transmitter, modulator, water cooler, receiver, oscilloscope, operator, generator, and antenna. The antenna generated an electrical pulse into the sky. If anything interrupted the electrical beams, the radar’s oscilloscope reflected the object as an echo. Some echoes appeared constantly, such as from the nearby hills and cliffs, but others were temporary, and those were the ones the operators were focused on. These signals showed and tracked planes intersecting the radar transmitter’s beams.
On December 7, 1941, the Opana Point site was manned by Private Joseph L. Lockard, 19, and Private George Elliot, 22.
Joe Lockard was born on October 30, 1922, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in August 1940, and was sent to Schofield Barracks, Hawai’i, for basic training in December 1940. After completing basic training and basic radio operator training, he was assigned to the Army Signal Corps and was then trained as a radar operator. Opana Point was his first assignment as a radar operator.
George E. Elliot Jr., a native of Chicago, joined the Army in 1940 and first attached to the Army Air Corps before transferring to the Signal Corps early warning system. He was an apprentice radio operator on the day of the Japanese surprise attack.
Just after 7:00 a.m., Pvt. Elliott saw “something completely out of the ordinary” on the screen: a huge blip, due north, 137 miles out. Their shift was to end at 7:00 a.m., but as the truck to take them to breakfast was late, the pair continued to practice with the radar equipment. They kept tracking, and the blip grew so large that Pvt. Lockard figured the radar set was broken. The more experienced Lockard took over the dial controls, and Elliott went to the plotting board. They calculated a large flight of planes off Kahuku Point, approaching at three miles a minute.
Lockard and Elliott notified the information center at Fort Shafter. On duty was switchboard operator Pvt. Joseph McDonald and new Air Corps Lt. Kermit Tyler. Lockard told Tyler that the radar blips suggested “an unusually large flight – in fact, the largest I have ever seen on the equipment.”
Tyler replied, in effect, “Forget it.” It was 7:20 a.m. Tyler assumed the planes were B-17s from the west coast, bombers from Hickam Field near Honolulu, or Navy patrol planes.
Lockard and Elliott continued to follow the temporary echo until 7:39 a.m., when it was lost in the permanent echo created by the surrounding mountains. A short time later, the truck came to take them to breakfast. About 10 minutes later, the first bombs were falling on Pearl Harbor.
Lockard and Elliott could see the oily black smoke down in the harbor on their way to camp; back at camp, they knew immediately what it was they had seen on radar.
Lockard, 19 years old at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, had been in the Army a little more than a year. In the aftermath of the attack, he was given almost complete credit for spotting and reporting the approaching Japanese aircraft. He was promoted to sergeant and sent to Officer Candidate School and awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
On July 12, 1942, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps, one day ahead of the rest of his class of 855 new Signal Corps officers at Fort Monmouth. Lockard left the Army in December 1945 and held a variety of jobs. He started first as a trackman for Pennsylvania Railroad; when he left, he was a maintenance supervisor. He worked for Sylvania Electric and then AMP Incorporated, from which he retired in 1986. He was an inventor for AMP and holds some 40 patents for switches and connectors. He has the original patent, for instance, on the switch inside your garage-door opener.
A Notable Signaleer
In addition to his promotions and medal, Joe Lockard is honored as a U.S. Signal Corps “Notable Signaleer,” one of just 18 such honorees. Other Notable Signaleers include award-winning film director Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life), current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., Walt Disney, and even Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Both the Army and Navy enlisted top creative minds from show business during World War II and used them to create propaganda films, document major events, and generally support the war effort. Also among the Notable Signaleers are a Medal of Honor recipient, and several Signal Corps leaders who marked milestones in diversity. In the Notable Signaleers writeup on Lockard, George Elliott is mentioned as having been there right alongside Lockard, the entire time, but only Lockard received the Signal Corps honor.
lliott was transferred to Fort Monmouth in 1942, like Lockard, to attend Officers’ Candidates School, however, he “just missed” getting a commission. But Elliott did meet the former Margaret Wright of North Long Branch, and they were married. George served in the Army stateside at a number of posts (some reports say he spent the rest of the war at Fort Monmouth) until his discharge as a sergeant in 1945; he was relegated to being a footnote to the Opana Point event until joint Congressional hearings on the attack in 1946.
After his testimony, and lobbying from senators, the Army awarded Elliott the Legion of Merit for his actions on that day, but he refused to accept the medal, saying he should not be given a lesser medal than Lockard. Years later, he said that he had refused the medal because they were just doing their jobs, just looking at screens, and that it might be different if lives had been saved. After the war, he decided to return to Long Branch, where he lived, and worked for New Jersey Bell Telephone for 33 years.
The Pearl Harbor Movies – John Ford’s December 7th (1943)
The use of radar to detect the incoming Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor was included n two award-winning movies that presented very different versions of these events.
The first came out in 1943, while the U.S. was embroiled in combat in Africa, Asia, and Europe. The Department of the Navy wanted a film to be produced that presented an unvarnished accounting of what had happened on December 7. Ultimately, legendary Hollywood film director John Ford was brought in to lead the project. Ford was at the top of his craft at the time, following the success of his blockbuster hits Stagecoach (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940).
But Ford’s version of Pearl Harbor was not well received when it came out. He had signed on as producer and initially hired Gregg Toland to direct. Toland was one of Hollywood’s most celebrated cinematographers, with noteworthy credits including Citizen Kane (1941). But December 7th was the first, and only time Toland ever directed a film. Ford ended up firing him and taking over the director’s chair.
The original film was 82 minutes long, with most of the first half devoted to a telling of the history of Japan and Hawaii and showing the Japanese people in very stereotypical ways, e.g., with thick round eyeglasses and buck teeth. The film also dwelled at length on the concern that native Hawai’ians of Japanese ethic origin were acting as spies and saboteurs, and essentially suggesting that the entire native population was not to be trusted in a time of war. Film censors cut all of these scenes.
Other scenes adhered to the Navy’s desire for an unvarnished account of the facts, but then it was felt the film went too far in showing all of the ways that the various systems, people, and processes that should have prevented such an attack ultimately failed. These scenes were cut by the censors too. The film that eventually came out was down to 34 minutes in length. Despite all this, the film was awarded the Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subjects, in 1944.
But even after those cuts, it still included this scene, with veteran actor Joseph Lowery (Drums Along the Mohawk, 1939) playing the part of Pvt. Lockard:
It’s important to note that this film was released in the middle of World War II. Depicting events faithfully was the assignment, but an accurate portrayal of cutting-edge technology of the day such as the SCR-270B was unthinkable at a time when combatants were all racing to have the best long-range aircraft detection systems. So the lack of accuracy in the equipment Lockard is seen using is entirely reasonable. The utter and complete omission of Pvt.Elliott, the many who actually spotted the Japanese planes, is not.
The Pearl Harbor Movies: Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
When considering Tora! Tora! Tora!, in this Timeline story, it’s useful to examine two key figures involved in the film’s production who were not included in the movie credits.
The first of these is Darryl F. Zanuck, who is one of the towering figures in American film-studio history, having been instrumental in driving the success of the Warner Brothers studio before leaving to form what would become the 20th Century-Fox Film Corp., where he produced blockbuster hits such as The Mark of Zorro (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), the latter two directed by John Ford.
Zanuck became involved with helping to create training films for the Signal Corps in 1941, as the U.S. teetered on the brink of entering the war. On Monday, October 8, 1941, Lt. Col. Zanuck visited the Training Film Production Laboratory at Fort Monmouth for the first (and quite possibly only) time. While there, he discussed challenges in producing training films with Lt. Col. Melvin E. Gillette, who was in charge of the unit.
When the U.S. finally entered World War II, Zanuck was commissioned as a colonel in the Signal Corps and assigned to the Astoria Studios in Queens, New York. Chafing at such a small role in the war effort, he insisted on serving in action, and was stationed in London during the bombing. He later served as supervisor for Signal Corps training films and the photographic record of the North Africa invasion. He was awarded the Legion of Merit.
Zanuck worked with John Ford on several major projects, and the two were considered adversaries, despite their collaboration on The Grapes of Wrath and other successful films. They clashed over their roles during World War II, and eventually Zanuck resigned.
Two decades later, Zanuck produced a landmark blockbuster film about the D-Day invasions called The Longest Day (1962), which won critical acclaim and box office success. This would inspire him to create a similar take on Pearl Harbor, the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, for which Zanuck served as an uncredited executive producer. Tora! Tora! Tora! was poorly received by critics and audiences alike, although it went on to achieve cult classic status for its adherence to reality, including using only real Japanese actors, directors and producers to tell that side of the story. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning for Best Special Effects in 1971.
While December 7th has only the one scene relating to radar, again, in all likelihood for very good reasons of wartime security, Tora! Tora! Tora! has numerous scenes that show how the new Army aircraft detection technology was rolled out on Oahu, and how the SCR-27B looked when in transit mode, as well as when fully assembled and used by Pvts. Lockard and Elliott. This depiction of what happened in the hour before the attacks tells a completely different story than John Ford’s version:
The starkest difference is that in this version, it’s Elliott who spots the planes, and insists on taking action, while Lockard is passive and somewhat uninterested. This movie clearly positions George Elliott as the hero of this situation, and not Lockard.
How do we account for such dramatic differences in two films supposedly dedicated to the facts?
The screenplay for Tora! Tora! Tora! was based on the book by the same name (and another book that focused on the events in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, relating to the attacks). The book Tora! Tora! Tora! relies heavily on government documents and testimony from the various Congressional hearings that were held on this subject.
Such as the one George Elliott showed up for, by surprise, at the last minute.
So it’s possible that the film merely reflects facts that came to light well after John Ford’s movie was released.
As a matter of pure speculation, the question also arises as to what sort of motivations Darryl Zanuck might have had to differentiate his movie about Pearl Harbor from that produced by his nemesis, John Ford. As a colonel in the Signal Corps, perhaps Zanuck wanted to see the role of the Signal Corps men involved in Pearl Harbor told in more detail, and with a very different take on what actually happened.
But there is another possibility. George E. Elliott Jr. served as an uncredited technical advisor for Tora! Tora! Tora! So when it was time to portray what happened that day on Opana Point, there was only one voice being heard, and Pvt. Lockard was nowhere to be found. Elliott even made a celebrity appearance at the New York City premiere of Tora! Tora! Tora!, where he posed for photos alongside the men who orchestrated the Japanese attack in 1941.
Aftermath and Legacy
The timing of the detection of the incoming Japanese attack is such that had the planes departed 30 minutes earlier, the outcome might have been a little different. The radar sites in Hawai’i at that time operated for only three hours per day, from 4:00 – 7:00 a.m., and in the peacetime Army in Hawai’i, after 7 a.m. the sites were unmanned. Had the planes been detected even just a short time earlier, the Army and Navy might have been able to put up a more effective defense.
However, it is also important to remember that the Japanese had planned three waves of attacks, but called off the third when pilots returning from the second wave reported there were no more viable targets left to attack. If the radar warning had enabled the Americans to mount a more effective defense, in all likelihood that would have triggered the third wave of attacking Japanese planes. At that time, it was still believed that the defenses aboard dreadnought battleships like the USS Arizona were more than up to the task of defending against enemy aircraft, but Pearl Harbor disproved that notion entirely and permanently. The American aircraft carriers, which, given advance warning would have been able to make a significant contribution to the defense of Pearl Harbor, were out in the Pacific Ocean, on maneuvers, on this day. In this scenario, advance warnings might have effected a more vigorous defense, but in light of a third wave of attacks, without carrier aircraft available for the defense, it’s difficult to imagine a different outcome.
The Opana Radar Site is a National Historic Landmark that commemorates the first operational use of radar by the United States in wartime. It is located off the Kamehameha Highway just inland from the north shore of Oahu, Hawai’i, south of Kawela Bay. Situated within a modern Navy telecommunications station, it is not open to the public. Since the 1941 radar was a mobile unit, there is no physical evidence of the original radar equipment at the site. There is a commemorative plaque on the grounds of the Turtle Bay Resort at the foot of Opana Hill.
George Elliott, 85; Warning on Pearl Harbor Went Unheeded. (2003). The Los Angeles Times, December 26, 2003, Part A, P. 2. Available: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-dec-26-me-elliott26-story.html
George Elliott Jr., radar operator, dead at 85. (2003). Associated Press, in the Honolulu Advertiser, December 24, 2003. Available: http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2003/Dec/24/ln/ln44a.html
Klaus, Mary. (2012). Remembering: Joseph Lockard, was in the Army during Pearl Harbor attack. The Patriot-News, December 7, 2012, updated January 5, 2019. Available: https://www.pennlive.com/midstate/2012/12/remembering_joseph_lockard_was.html
Lt. Col. Darryl Zanuck Visits Film Lab Here. (1941). Fort Monmouth Signal, Published weekly for the officers and men of Fort Monmouth by the Daily Record, Long Branch, N.J., October 8, 1941, P. 8.
Pearl Harbor – PVT Joseph Lockard. Notable Signaleers. Office of the Chief of Signal, U.S. Army Signal School. Available: https://cybercoe.army.mil/SIGNALSCH/OCOS/HISTORY/whoswho_notables.html
Prange, Gordon W. (1969). Tora! Tora! Tora! New York, N.Y., 1969.
Price, Ed. (2003). George E. Elliott, Jr., Army radar operator who warned in vain of Pearl Harbor attack. Asbury Park Press, December 22, 2003, P. 15.