December 7, 1941 cover from Hawaii?

Not As It Seems

By Todd Ronnei

December 7, 1941--the date that will live in infamy--is perhaps the one of the most significant dates in history. The Japanese surprise attack on the United States military installations at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii brought the U.S. into World War II, changing the course of the war and everything that followed.

Philatelists, especially cover collectors, are keen to remember such important dates through their collections. Production of event covers was widespread during the war, particularly after Pearl Harbor. But actual event covers postmarked on the day of the attack are scarce, mostly because cover producers were just as much caught off-guard by the attack as the military was, and because December 7, 1941 was a Sunday, when most post offices across the country were closed.

Fake 1941 Cover
William Sunner's fake Pearl Harbor cover: still fooling people today.
The scarcity of genuine Pearl Harbor day covers led to the inevitable creation of fake covers. Bogus covers dated 12/7/41 are known from Victory, Vermont and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, among other locations. One of the more audacious fakes is at left. The cover purports to note the 154th anniversary of Delaware statehood, conveniently postmarked at Aiea, Hawaii (the post office closest to Pearl Harbor) on December 7, 1941 at 8 a.m.--shortly after the bombs began to fall.

The incredible coincidence is no coincidence at all. The cover is a post-war creation of one William Sunner of Brooklyn, New York. Sunner was a printer by trade who faked several event covers, including a German military fieldpost cover dated September 1, 1939, the date of Germany's invasion of Poland. Sunner even attempted to re-write philatelic history by pushing the date of cacheted event covers back to 1917 with a fake cover noting the U.S. declaration of war against Germany during the first World War. (That cover made a 2004 appearance in FIRST DAYS, which wondered if the cover was genuine.) Sunner died in the late 1980s.

Sunner's nefarious work continues to fool people today, including some that should know better. The above Pearl Harbor cover is currently being offered in Greg Manning's May 21, 2005 auction, lot 5144. The Manning firm presents the cover as genuine, with an estimated value of $100-$150. I sent an email to the Manning firm telling them the cover was a fake, and offered to provide documentation of its bogus status. I've received no reply as yet, and the lot remains in the auction.

My source for this information is the definitive book for World War II cover collectors, Dr. Lawrence Sherman's United States Patriotic Covers of World War II, published by the Collectors Club of Chicago in 1999. Dr. Sherman devotes a section of his book to phony covers under the heading "Weeds in the Victory Garden." His discussion of Pearl Harbor covers carries a blunt warning: "A hand cancel dated December 7, 1941, and found on a patriotic cover represents unauthorized and back-dated use of the device, or back-dating of the cachet, or both." It's advice all collectors of this material should heed.

Update, May 26, 2005: I never heard from the Manning firm before or after the auction. However, it does seem they were paying attention, since lot 5144 does not appear on the prices realized page. That suggests the lot was withdrawn before the sale.