The death and devastation of the surprise attack transformed the “Paradise of the Pacific” into a veritable “Hell on Earth.” This is the story of but a few of the brave who soared to meet the challenge on that day.
“At approximately 0755 on 7 December 1941 the first Japanese aircraft struck the Territory of Hawaii. In less than two hours they inflicted upon the Hawaiian Air Force the most terrible destruction it had ever received. All the anti-saboteur alerts, mock battles, and practice deployments proved to be of no avail during the actual attack. Only the individual courage and sacrifice of personnel acting in fear and desperation prevented the Japanese from completely destroying the Army Air Forces on Oahu.”
Over 2,400 souls were lost and over 1,200 others were casualties of the appalling attack. While all the histories are well-focused upon the devastation of Pearl Harbor and the valiant struggle of the Pacific Fleet, one cannot also forget the courageous struggles of the airmen of the Hawaiian Air Forces on this day. Here is but one short history of men we boast…
What follows is the account of the Air Force opposition to the Japanese attack on Oahu, taken from 7 December 1941: The Air Force Story:
The first confirmed takeoffs by American pilots against the attack occurred at Haleiwa Auxiliary Field. 2d Lts George S. Welch and Kenneth M. Taylor traveled by automobile from Wheeler Field to Haleiwa when they realized the island was under attack. Their squadron had deployed to Haleiwa for gunnery practice, and the Japanese had not attacked there. Ground crews got the P-40s armed and ready to go when Welch and Taylor arrived so they could immediately take off. The time was around 0830. Ground control directed the two pilots to head for the southern tip of the island where the Japanese from the first wave were still strafing the Marine base at Ewa. Spotting a group of enemy planes in a long line, both pilots jumped into the line and began shooting down aircraft, each getting two confirmed kills during this first engagement. Taylor fired on a third plane but did not see the crash. Both pilots were running out of ammunition and low on fuel, so they returned to Wheeler Field to rearm and refuel.
At Wheeler, things were in turmoil. The Japanese attack had destroyed or damaged most of the P-40s. One hangar had received a direct hit and secondary explosions from the ammunition stored in it continued for several hours. As ground personnel reached the flight line, they began pulling the aircraft away from the immediate area into the protective revetments around the field. Once the aircraft were clear, they returned to the hangar area to gather as much ammunition as they could find and returned to the aircraft to arm and prepare them for flight. By this time there were many more pilots available than aircraft ready to fly, so it became a contest as to who would get which aircraft. 1st Lt Lewis M. Sanders picked three experienced pilots and told them to grab the first available aircraft and follow him for a four-ship attack. Lts John M. Thacker and Philip M. Rasmussen stayed by their aircraft until they were ready to go and then jumped in and began to taxi. Lt Othneil Norris assisted in getting an aircraft ready, but left it to go get a new parachute; 2d Lt Gordon H. Sterling, Jr. spotted the unattended aircraft, jumped in, and taxied out to join Sanders and the other two pilots. This practice of grabbing any aircraft ready to fly would happen several more times before the day was over.
Once airborne, around 0850, Sanders led the flight east toward Bellows Field. Spotting the Japanese second wave over Kaneohe, the four P-36s immediately engaged. Sanders got on the tail of an enemy aircraft and shot it down. Coming off the attack, he spotted Sterling in hot pursuit of a Japanese plane that was diving toward the water. Behind Sterling another Japanese had gotten into the fight and was shooting at Sterling. Sanders came up behind this aircraft and opened fire. Rasmussen observed the four aircraft: the plane that Sterling was attacking crashed; Sterling, close behind, also plunged into the sea, shot down by the Japanese on his tail; Sanders meanwhile had set fire to this fighter, but Rasmussen did not know whether it, too, went into the water. Just before witnessing Sterling’s death, Rasmussen had charged his guns, only to have them start firing on their own. While trying to stop the guns from firing, a Japanese aircraft passed directly in front of him and exploded. Things began to happen fast after that, and he soon had two Zeros on his tail. Taking evasive action, he lost them in some cloud cover. Meanwhile, Thacker dove into the battle, only to discover his guns had jammed and would not fire. He kept making passes at the Japanese until hit several times, then broke off the engagement and returned to base. Sanders found himself alone with a Zero and was quickly losing the flying contest. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, he broke off the one-sided contest and headed back to Wheeler Field. So far the Americans had managed to get six aircraft airborne and had shot down seven Japanese with two more probables at the cost of one P-36.
From that point on, the story became confusing; and, because pilots were taking off individually from two different fields and then joining up after getting airborne, takeoff times were difficult, if not impossible, to verify. About the same time Sanders’ flight was mixing it up with the Japanese over Kaneohe, Welch and Taylor were ready to head out on their second flight that morning. Welch got off first, and just as Taylor was ready to go, another Japanese attack hit Wheeler Field. Taylor waited until what he thought was the last in the line of Japanese aircraft and took off after them, guns blazing. Just after he became airborne, another Japanese got on his tail and opened fire. For a few seconds it looked grim; but Welch had stayed in the immediate area, saw what was happening to Taylor and scored his third kill for the day. This allowed Taylor to break free and gain altitude. Although wounded in the action Taylor was still able to fly, so he continued attacking Japanese aircraft wherever he could find them, damaging at least one more. Welch, meanwhile, headed back to Ewa and got a confirmed kill on another Japanese, bringing his total for the day to four.
Meanwhile, at Bellows Field, 1st Lt Samuel W. Bishop and 2d Lt George A. Whiteman attempted to take off to join the defense. Whiteman was hit as he cleared the ground and crashed just off the end of the runway. Bishop managed to get his P-40 into the air; but before he could gain altitude, several Zeros attacked him, and he crashed into the ocean. Whiteman was killed instantly, but Bishop was only wounded and managed to swim to shore. While this was going on, Haleiwa launched aircraft as fast as pilots showed up. Lt John Dains and John Webster both got off at different times in P-40s, while Lts Harry Brown and Robert Rogers each took off in P-36s. From Wheeler Field, Lts Malcolm Moore and Othneil Norris entered the fight, also flying P-36s. Brown and Rogers headed out to Kahuku Point, where they engaged the enemy without any confirmed kills, but Rogers damaged one enemy aircraft. From there they joined up with Moore and Webster damaged one aircraft, but could no confirm a kill. Rogers was cornered by two Japanese; and Brown plowed into the fight, shooting down one attacker. As the action started to wind down, Moore opened up on one retreating Japanese aircraft but failed to down it. Brown spotted the smoking ship and also fired but, like Moore, could not hit a vital spot, and the aircraft got away. Rogers started to run low on fuel, so he returned to Haleiwa and got off a second mission in a P-40.
By this time the Japanese had completed their attack and were returning to their carriers as fast as they could. Wheeler Field and Haleiwa kept launching aircraft for the next hour with little coordination or direction for the pilots. No additional combat with the Japanese occurred. One mystery still remains concerning the action that occured in the air that Sunday morning. Radar operators at the station at Kaaawa watched a P-40 shoot down a Japanese Zero during the height of the battle. The operators were positive the American aircraft was a P-40, and they identified it both from its distinctive silhouette and the sound of its engine. None of the pilots that survived that morning’s action remembered flying in the Kaawa area. The only pilot whose action was unaccounted for was Lt John Dains, who flew two missions that morning in a P-40. Both times he was separated from the other American fighters and fought by himself. After landing the second time, he switched to a P-36 and joined up with George Welch for a third mission. Neither pilot spotted anything because by that time the Japanese had cleared the area, so they decided to return to Wheeler Field. On the return flight, antiaircraft guns at Schofield Barracks opened up on the two aircraft, killing Dains. There were three plausible explantions. First, the radar operators could have been mistaken in what they saw; second, some other P-40 pilot downed the Japanese plane and was unaware where the action occurred; or third, we suspect that Dains did get the enemy plane as the ground personnel observed and just never got the chance to tell his story.
The Japanese would concede the loss of twenty-nine aircraft from all causes that morning. The Hawaiian Air Force claimed ten of those losses with four more probables and two Japanese aircraft damaged. If Dains’ kill is added to the list, the score comes out to eleven Japanese aircraft destroyed in air-to-air combat with a loss of four American planes, which were flown by Whiteman, Sterling, Bishop, and Dains. Sterling was the only pilot lost in actual combat with the enemy; the Japanese downed Whiteman and Bishop during takeoff, and friendly fire shot down Dains…. More important under the circumstances that morning, however, was how the personnel of the Hawaiian Air Force in fact responded. From the lowest ranking ground personnel to the hottest fighter pilot in the command, everyone did the best they could with what they had. The men of the Hawaiian Air Force might have been caught by surprise, but they most certainly did not give up.
When it was all said and done, 679 members of the Hawaiian Air Forces were killed, wounded, or missing in action on 7 December 1941.
To You, Our Fallen
The barracks now are silent, Where once your laughter rang,
The steel guitar is broken, Where around your bunks we sang.
As the stars give way to morning, In Oahu’s cloud-swept sky,
Old Glory’s proudly waving there, Seeped in heroes’ crimson dye.
Can you hear us there in heaven, As the dawn patrol takes flight?
On silvery wings your memory soars, In holy freedom’s fight.
The kona wind blows softly now, The palm trees whisper low,
But all America will remember, Whence came this dastard’s blow.
Let the Nipponese remember this, As they cringe beneath the sky,
At Hickam’s flaming vengeance, For you, the first to die!
— Sergeant W. Joe Brimm, Hickam Field
Richard (Rich) F. Ganske is an officer in the U.S. Air Force, B-2 pilot, and weapons officer. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. Rich is an editor for The Bridge. Follow him on Twitter at @richganske. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the policy or position of any official organization.
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Header Image: Message Transmitted From Pacific Fleet Headquarters Ten Minutes After Initial Attack (U.S. Navy Image)