A new book released to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor not only purports to offer the “definitive” account of the battle that provoked the United States’ entry into World War II, but also, teasingly, repeats an arcane conspiracy theory associated with the attack that rarely makes it into the history books.
On page 151 of Craig Nelson’s Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), within a timeline of events that occurred on both sides of the Pacific in the weeks leading up to the bombardment of the U.S. fleet in Hawaii, the following one-paragraph anecdote appears:
On November 22, a strange advertisement appeared in the New Yorker magazine. It pictured a group of people sheltered from an air raid, playing dice. Under the headline “Achtung, Warning, Alerte!” the copy read, “We hope you’ll never have to spend a long winter’s night in an air-raid shelter, but we were just thinking … it’s only common sense to be prepared. If you’re not too busy between now and Christmas, why not sit down and plan a list of the things you’ll want to have on hand. … And though it’s no time, really, to be thinking of what’s fashionable, we bet that most of your friends will remember to include those intriguing dice and chips which make Chicago’s favorite game: THE DEADLY DOUBLE.” Scattered throughout the issue were six smaller tag ads referring back to the main copy, with the dice numbered 12 and 7, numbers on no known dice. Later during the war, navy transport pilot Joseph Bell was flying a South Pacific route when one of is passengers, an intelligence officer, told him that many in intelligence considered this ad a secret warning. He had been assigned to investigate the matter, but every lead had led to a dead end — the ad’s copy had been presented in person at the magazine’s offices, and the fee paid with cash. Neither the game offered in the ad, nor the company that purported to make it, ever existed.
The advertisements Nelson speaks of were real, albeit bizarre and to all appearances inexplicable. “It’s a mystery to this day,” Nelson mused during an interview with Time magazine on 6 December 2016. In truth, however — as we shall show — the mystery was laid to rest long ago.
A ‘very real malevolence’
As stated in his book, Nelson’s account was based on that of former serviceman Joseph Bell, who had written of his own encounter with the “Deadly Double” mystery in the 7 December 1989 edition of the Los Angeles Times. Bell, a Navy pilot during World War II, recalled meeting a military intelligence officer who shared with him a story “he probably shouldn’t have”:
He told me that the Nov. 22, 1941, issue of the New Yorker magazine — two weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor — an advertisement that in retrospect was full of double meanings and was considered by the intelligence community as a warning to someone about the timing of the upcoming Japanese offensive. He described the ad as best he could from memory and said it was accompanied by a pair of dice with the numbers 12 and 7 — the date of the Pearl Harbor attack — exposed.
He had been assigned to investigate the ad and ran into nothing but dead-ends. It had been placed across the counter in New York and paid for in cash. Both the main ad and the smaller lead-in ads had been set in type somewhere else and a matrix pulled for delivery to the New Yorker. The clerk who had accepted the ads had no recollection of who placed them, and neither the game that was offered in the double-entendre copy nor the company whose signature was on the ad existed. So my friend had drawn a total blank, and it was still eating at him. He was convinced that someone — for reasons he couldn’t fathom — had been instructed to convey information about the upcoming attack in this manner.
When he returned to college after the end of war, Bell wrote, he looked for the ads among the bound volumes of New Yorker magazines in the library. He found them. They were just as they had been described to him. And they were haunting:
I remembered the assurances of the intelligence officer that there was no such company and no such game in the stores, and the ads took on a significance — and a malevolence — to me that has been very real ever since.
‘A set of cryptic advertisements’
The last time the ads had been covered in the media was in 1967, when military historian Ladislas Farago shared the story in a press release to promote his book, The Broken Seal: “Operation Magic” and the Secret Road to Pearl Harbor.
“The date, time and location of the Japanese surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor may have been contained in a set of cryptic advertisements published in the New Yorker magazine 16 days before the attack,” reported The New York Times on 12 March 1967:
According to Lasislas Farago, a former United States intelligence expert and military historian, the ads may have served to alert Japanese agents here that it was time to disband their apparatus.
… The first advertisement was set in one column and was two inches deep. It showed a pair of dice with six numerals written on their faces. There were the numbers 12 and 7, which Mr. Farago says could have stood for the month and day of the attack.
The figures 5 and 0 may have been the planned time for the bombing, which did not being until 7 a.m. A double X, or Roman numeral 20, appears on another face of the die, and Mr. Farago said that this could have been meant to signify the approximate latitude of Pearl Harbor.
The number 24 appears on the sixth face and, Mr. Farago said in an interview yesterday, “I haven’t any idea what that could mean.”
‘Deadly Double’ creator revealed
Farago found himself with a fair amount of crow to eat the next day, when the Times published a follow-up article identifying the creator, publisher, and advertiser of the game — which did exist — as Roger Paul Craig, whose widow had contacted the paper to set the record straight:
A woman who says she is the widow of the man who invented a game called “The Deadly Double” denied yesterday that advertisements for the game published in 1941 carried any warning of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The woman, Mrs. E. Shaw Cole of Montclair, N.J., disputed the suggestion that the ads had been designed to alert Japanese agents in this country.
… Mrs. Cole said she had helped her late husband, Roger Paul Craig, write the cryptic ads. She said the ads had been designed as “teasers” to promote the game.
One ad carried the headline “Achtung!” The other showed a group of people playing a dice game in an underground air raid shelter while searchlights and explosions lit the sky above.
Mrs. Cole said that she and her late husband were visited by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation after Pearl Harbor but that the relationship of the ads to the attack was just “one big coincidence.”
She said she had no idea how her husband happened to pick the numbers.
Asked to comment, Farago could only say, “What can I say?” (Interestingly, though Farago had mentioned “The Deadly Double” story in his press release, he did not include in his book. An editor for the book’s publisher, Doubleday, said the story was omitted because it was “inconclusive” and “not hard information.”)
‘A grossly inaccurate and malicious rumor’
Digging deeper, we discovered that the “mystery” of the prophetic dice game had actually been solved decades earlier, in May 1942 (five months after Pearl Harbor), when Los Angeles Times columnist Chapin Hall tracked Mr. Craig down and quizzed him about the advertisements:
Propaganda develops some odd reactions. It is a two-edged sword that may turn unexpectedly. An interesting example is the story of what happened to the promoters of a new game which was put on the market last fall with a fanfare of national advertising.
One of these advertisements appeared in the New Yorker magazine for Nov. 22. In it the words “alerte” and “warning” were used and the unpleasant possibility was suggested of a “long winter night spend in an air-raid shelter.”
Two weeks later came Pearl Harbor, following which, for some inexplicable reason, a lot of people turned back to the out-of-date issue of the magazine, apparently obsessed with the idea that the advertisement contained a prophecy of the tragedy in the Pacific.
Letters, calls and telegrams in profusion started coming in to the office of the company and to the editors of the magazine from would-be J. Edgar Hoovers and amateur G-men demanding an explanation of what they described as a tip-off to all loyal Japs in the United States and its possessions to make arrangements for protection from a surprise attack.
“If these seem farfetched,” Roger Paul Craig, an officer of the company, tells us, “you should see the complicated evidence that was marshaled to show that the numbers on the dice which the game (the Deadly Double) is played clearly announced the date of the forthcoming attack, 12-7. In other acrostic arrangements of the visible numerals, together with incongruous calculations based on the number of advertisements and the page numbers in the magazine, an additional code message to alleged Axis agents was read into the copy.”
The undertone of bitterness and sarcasm in Craig’s comments is understandable. His wife was later quoted as saying the game never sold well, despite the notoriety it attracted. In the end, Craig felt victimized:
Just how such a message was supposed to reach all the sons of the Rising Sun through such a medium is difficult to understand, but the message did carry into every section of the country, “and I promise you,” said Mr. Craig, “nothing travels as far and fast as a grossly inaccurate and malicious rumor.”
One final note, to prove, if nothing else, that real life abhors a tidy ending: According to his widow, “Deadly Double” inventor Roger Paul Craig went on to serve in the Office of Strategic Services — the military progenitor of the CIA — during World War II.