Caught on the Ground

Dec. 1, 2007

Pearl Harbor is remembered as the greatest naval disaster in American history, and rightly so. The main target of the Japanese surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941 was the US Pacific Fleet.

At 7:55 that Sunday morning, sailors on ships moored in the harbor looked up to see Japanese airplanes sweeping in low from the sea. They met virtually no resistance as they dropped their bombs and torpedoes into the midst of the vulnerable fleet. When it was over, eight battleships, three light cruisers, three destroyers, and four auxiliary ships had been sunk, capsized, or severely damaged. Navy casualties were more than 2,000 killed and hundreds wounded.

“Remember Pearl Harbor” became an instant and lasting motto. The USS Arizona Memorial, where the remains of one of the battleships can still be seen, draws 1.5 million visitors a year. The story of the Navy debacle at Pearl Harbor has been told many times and will not be recounted here.

The Navy was not the only service caught by surprise, though. Nor did it take all the casualties. Army Air Forces bases in Hawaii were struck at the same time. US Army forces on the island belonged to the Hawaiian Army Department. On its orders, the only alert in effect was for potential sabotage. The pursuit wing at Wheeler Field had the weekend off. The fighters were parked wingtip to wingtip in precise rows on the ramp. At Hickam Field, the bombers were similarly clustered and wide open to attack. The Japanese attackers caught them on the ground.

The Hawaiian Air Force, the Army’s Hawaiian air arm, took 690 casualties that day, including 244 killed. Seventy-six of its aircraft were destroyed outright and many others were damaged. In contrast to the fumbling reaction at command levels, 14 fighter pilots, acting on their own, got their P-40s and P-36s into the air and shot down 10 of the Japanese aircraft.

What happened in the Philippines nine hours after Pearl Harbor defies belief. Japanese attackers once again caught the US Army Air Forces flat-footed on the ground. Despite clear and timely warning, about 100 aircraft were destroyed at Clark Field and other bases on Luzon. Casualties were 77 killed and 148 wounded. The first day of the war for the United States reflected no credit on those in command in Hawaii or in the Philippines.

Washington had expected an aggressive move by Tokyo somewhere in the Pacific. The Japanese empire was in its 10th year of conquest and the only obstacle to its further expansion was the presence of the United States.

Up to 1940, the US Fleet was based at San Pedro, Calif. In May 1940, after exercises at sea, the fleet remained at Pearl Harbor—on orders of President Roosevelt and over the objections of the fleet commander—rather than returning to California. This was intended to have a deterrent effect on Japan.

In 1941, the United States reinforced the Philippines, still a US possession, with airpower. By December 1941, the Far East Air Force in the Philippines had the largest concentration of Army aircraft outside the continental United States. Hawaii was reinforced as well. The best US airplanes available, including B-17 bombers and P-40 fighters, were sent to the Pacific.

Japanese forces were preparing to strike southward to seize Malaya, the Philippines, and the oil-rich Netherlands East Indies. In October 1941, after studying the issue for most of the year, the Japanese Navy committed to an attack on Pearl Harbor. US air bases in the Philippines were also targeted. The objective was to keep US forces off the Japanese flank in the Pacific for six months or so, until the first critical phase of the “Southern Operation” was completed.

No Great Secret

The United States had broken the Japanese diplomatic code and had been intercepting and reading the message traffic since the summer of 1940. The diplomatic correspondence did not have much detail on military or naval matters, but anticipation of war did not depend on secret information. Everybody knew that war was coming. The question was not if, only when and where. The Philippines was regarded as the most likely point of attack, but Hawaii was seen as a possible target as well. “Japanese May Strike Over Weekend,” said the Honolulu Advertiser headline, Nov. 30, 1941. “Pacific Zero Hour Near,” the Dec. 5 headline said.

Official messages and warnings flowed from Washington to the Pacific. There was ambiguity in them because Washington did not know exactly what was going to happen. There was also allowance for local discretion. On Nov. 27, “war warning” messages were sent to Army and Navy commanders in Hawaii, the Philippines, the Canal Zone, and on the West Coast.

In one such message, Gen. George C. Marshall, the Chief of Staff of the Army, warned Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, commander of the Army Hawaiian Department, “Hostile action possible at any moment. If hostilities cannot—repeat, cannot—be avoided, the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act.” Marshall said that “prior to hostile Japanese action, you are directed to undertake such reconnaissance and other measures as you deem necessary.”

The Navy Department message to Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, informed its recipient “this dispatch is to be considered a war warning” and told Kimmel to “execute an appropriate defensive deployment.”

Both Kimmel and Short were fairly new to their commands, having arrived within a few days of each other in February 1941. From his headquarters at Ft. Shafter, Short commanded all Army ground and air forces in Hawaii. He was an infantry officer to the depths of his soul and he could not or would not adjust his perspective beyond that.

Short’s air component was the Hawaiian Air Force, commanded by Maj. Gen. Frederick L. Martin. Its operational units were the 18th Bombardment Wing at Hickam Field, adjacent to Pearl Harbor, the 14th Pursuit Wing at Wheeler Field, next to Schofield Barracks, and the 86th Observation Squadron at Bellows Field, on the southeast coast of the island. There was also a small training field at Haleiwa on the northern shore.

The Army commanders were hand-picked—Short by Marshall, Martin by Lt. Gen. H.H. “Hap” Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Forces. That Marshall, who understood and appreciated airpower, chose Short for this assignment is inexplicable. Arnold’s selection of Martin is also difficult to understand. Pacific Air Forces historians Leatrice R. Arakaki and John R. Kuborn have said, with careful understatement, that the Short-Martin team was “not the best combination of commanders.”

Confused Priorities

Martin was under orders from Arnold to establish better relations with the Navy and with Army ground forces. “Unfortunately, in his role as peacemaker, General Martin had a tendency to place cooperation between the Army and the Navy and cooperation within the Army over Hawaiian Air Force needs,” said Arakaki and Kuborn. Martin’s effectiveness was further complicated by chronic health problems.

Though Kimmel was the senior US officer on Oahu, defense of Hawaii was not his job; it was Short’s. However, the shore-based 14th Naval District, subordinate to Kimmel, was responsible for long-range reconnaissance patrol. For the Navy, Pearl Harbor was essentially a forward base from which to operate. The Pacific Fleet was geared to the offensive—that is, meeting and defeating the Imperial Japanese fleet at sea.

Short had been reminded repeatedly by Marshall and others that protecting the Pacific Fleet was his primary and overriding mission, but it didn’t sink in. “In his heart, Short regarded the presence of the Pacific Fleet as a protection for his Hawaiian Department rather than vice versa,” said Gordon W. Prange in At Dawn We Slept. He was focused on the threat of sabotage and on protecting the airplanes rather than using them to defend the fleet.

Even though Short had on hand two infantry divisions to fulfill ground force requirements, he ordered Hawaiian Air Force enlisted men to undergo basic infantry training and pull guard duty. At the time, the Air Force had an acute shortage of trained technicians. Martin sent a single letter of protest but then fell into line with Short’s program. In December 1941, on the eve of the Japanese attack, Short and Martin were pulling crew members off bombers at Hickam Field to guard warehouses in Honolulu.

The assignment of modern aircraft to the Hawaiian Air Force did not begin until early 1941, but by late 1941 it was proceeding apace. Curtiss P-40s were rapidly replacing older fighters, although the pursuit wing still had a few open-cockpit P-26 Peashooters.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Hawaiian Air Force strength was 754 officers and 6,706 enlisted men, with a total of 234 aircraft on hand. For various reasons, including a shortage of spare parts, only 146 of these aircraft were in commission.

Twelve B-17s were assigned. In July, Martin had requested 180 of them, but that was more than the total number of B-17s the Army Air Forces had worldwide at the time and obviously was impossible. Martin regarded 180 as the number he needed to maintain a patrol out to 600 miles around Oahu, keeping a reserve for the strike mission. He had 33 two-engine B-18 bombers but considered them obsolete and unsuited for any operational use, including reconnaissance.

The Navy patrol wings had 81 PBY Catalina flying boats in the Hawaiian area, but 12 of them were on detached duty at Midway. The rest of them were based on Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor and at Kaneohe Naval Air Station on the eastern coast of Oahu. The number available was not deemed sufficient to maintain a long-range patrol. Between 170 and 200 PBYs were needed to conduct a daily search around Oahu.

In March 1941, Martin and Rear Adm. Patrick N.L. Bellinger, who commanded the Navy patrol wings, submitted a prescient report. “It appears that the most likely and dangerous form of attack on Oahu would be an air attack,” they said. “It is believed that at present such an attack would most likely be launched from one or more carriers which would probably approach inside of 300 miles.”

No Surprise

The threat of an air attack on Pearl Harbor was not a new or unfamiliar idea. Billy Mitchell had predicted it in 1924, and from 1928 on, surprise air attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Panama Canal were standard scenarios in the annual fleet exercises.

Among the mistakes made by senior commanders in Hawaii, two stand out. They did not maintain long-range reconnaissance, which could have discovered the approach of Japanese aircraft carriers, and they did not provide for the defense of Hawaii against air attack.

Kimmel later testified that the number of available PBYs could have covered, at best, a third of the 360-degree circumference of Oahu. Anyway, he regarded the primary mission of patrol squadrons as scouting ahead of the fleet for submarines. Furthermore, the PBYs would deteriorate from the wear and tear of constant patrols and the Navy wanted to preserve them to support sea operations when the war began.

Kimmel’s attention was on the south and west. The nearest Japanese-controlled territory was a chain of islands in Micronesia that lay between Hawaii and the Philippines. Both US fleet carriers, Enterprise and Lexington, were supporting the reinforcement of US outposts on Wake Island and Midway. Each carrier conducted reconnaissance out to 600 miles. Aircraft from Wake and Midway flew patrols as well. Thus, the area to the southwest of Hawaii was well covered.

If there were not enough airplanes to patrol all approaches to Oahu, it was also true that air attack was not equally probable from every direction. Japan was not likely to strike from the east, the California side of the island.

The Martin-Bellinger report and other analyses said the greatest vulnerability for air attack was from the north and northwest. Reconnaissance in that direction was weak, and Japan knew it. A Japanese naval intelligence briefing in November said, “United States air patrols are very good in the area south and southwest of Oahu, but generally inadequate to the north of the island.”

Even though long-range aerial reconnaissance was a Navy responsibility, the Hawaiian Air Force provided short-range coverage, 20 miles out, and was charged with assisting the Navy at greater distances, upon request. The Navy didn’t ask and the Air Force didn’t offer.

A No. 1 Alert

The Nov. 27 war warning message to Short directed him to undertake reconnaissance and other measures as required. The best airplane for the job, the B-17, was in short supply. Martin had more than 30 B-18s but he did not want to use them. In subsequent inquiries, he insisted that the B-18’s operating radius was only 300 miles—which it was, with a full bomb load. According to John Lambert and Norman Polmar in Defenseless: Command Failure at Pearl Harbor, the B-18 without bombs was capable of flying for six and a half hours with an operating radius of more than 500 miles.

Short instituted three kinds of alerts for the Hawaiian Department. No. 1 was defense against sabotage. No. 2 included all measures contained in No. 1 plus defense against air, surface, and submarine attack. No. 3 was defense against an “all-out attack.”

When Short got the war warning message, he put Alert No. 1 into effect. Martin supported Short’s decision. In Alert No. 1, ammunition was taken out of airplanes and was boxed and stored to protect it from saboteurs. At Wheeler Field, maintenance personnel not only removed the machine gun ammunition from the fighters but also removed the bullets from the belts for more efficient storage.

Hawaiian Air Force enlisted personnel were put on guard duty at airfields and elsewhere. Aircraft were situated centrally and parked as close together as possible for easier guarding. On orders from Martin’s headquarters, the fighters at Wheeler were taken out of the U-shaped earthen bunkers that had been built for their protection.

The Hawaiian Department had an air warning system consisting of six mobile radar units, an air warning center at Ft. Shafter, and the 14th Pursuit Wing at Wheeler Field. Unfortunately, there was little interest in it and there was almost no cooperation from the Navy, Short’s headquarters, or the bomb wing at Hickam.

Radar had been instrumental in the defeat of the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain the year before, but the senior officers in Hawaii understood little about it. The Army Signal Corps, which installed the radars and the warning center, was slow to turn these assets over to the eventual operator, the Hawaiian Air Force.

On Short’s orders, the radar sites and the information center were active only from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. On the morning of Dec. 7, five radar sites were in operation. Four of the radar sites and the Ft. Shafter control center shut down at 7 a.m. on the dot. The radar operator at Opana on the northern tip of the island wanted to get in a little more practice, and at 7:02 spotted the first wave of Japanese aircraft, 136 miles out.

Opana called the information to the air warning center, but everyone had gone except for a private and a lone first lieutenant pursuit pilot who was there for orientation. The inexperienced officer thought the radar return was from a flight of B-17s, due in from California, and disregarded the warning. It did not matter as much as it might have. The pursuit wing at Wheeler had the weekend off.

Six Japanese carriers had arrived, undetected, at a point 220 miles north of Oahu. There were too many aircraft, 350, to launch and assemble at one time, so the strike force was divided into two waves. The first wave formed up and headed south at 6:20 a.m. It comprised three kinds of aircraft, in varying numbers:

  • 143 Nakajima B5N Kate three-place bombers. Some were configured as torpedo bombers, others as horizontal bombers.
  • 129 Aichi D3A Val two-place dive bombers.
  • 88 Mitsubishi A6M Zero single-place fighters.

A third of the attacking force was designated to provide air cover for the strike flights.

As the first wave crossed the north shore of Oahu, the formation split. The Kate bombers swung wide to their right to strike Pearl Harbor from the west and south. The dive bombers and the fighters headed straight down the island. Some of them peeled off toward Wheeler and some of them continued south. The airplanes that hit Pearl Harbor and Ford Island at 7:55 a.m. did not directly attack the air bases. Other elements of the first wave were assigned to do that.

Wheeler was first airfield to be hit, at about 8 a.m., with Hickam struck shortly thereafter.

Japan had expected resistance, but, encountering none, released the Zeros from their air cover role. They dropped down and added their guns to the strafing attack.

At 8:10 a.m. Short changed the alert from No. 1 (sabotage) to No. 3 (all-out attack). That sent troops to their battle stations to repel any enemy force that attempted to land on the beaches.

In the middle of the first wave attack, 12 B-17s arrived from California on the first leg of their deployment to Clark Field in the Philippines. They carried no ammunition for their guns, having lightened the load as much as possible for the long trip. They ran a gauntlet of fighters on their way in, but all of them made it to the ground. One of them landed on a golf course, one was destroyed by Zeros on the runway at Hickam, and another one was heavily damaged and later junked for spare parts.

The second wave of Japanese attackers took off from the carriers at 7:15 a.m. On Oahu, there was a 20-minute lull between the end of attacks by the first wave (8:35 a.m.) and the beginning of attacks by the second wave (8:55 a.m.). There were no torpedo bombers in the second wave. They were too slow and defenseless to risk, now that the Americans were alert and shooting back.

This time, Japanese attackers came around the eastern side of the island. Part of the force hit Kaneohe Naval Air Station and Bellows Field, then attacked Wheeler again. The other aircraft swept around Diamond Head and struck Hickam and Pearl Harbor from the southeast.

When the second wave of attacks ended about 9:55, the airfields had been hit hard. At Wheeler, about half of the P-40s were destroyed on the ground, but smoke drifting from a burning hangar obscured the P-36s, and only a few of them were destroyed. Ironically, the bombers scored a direct hit on Hangar 3, where the machine gun ammunition downloaded from the fighters was stored.

The bombing at Hickam was particularly accurate. Twenty-seven bombs hit the main barracks, the largest one anywhere in the Army Air Forces. Several thousand airmen were quartered there. Many of them were still inside and were killed.

The first American pursuit pilots to get into the air were 2nd Lt. George S. Welch and 2nd Lt. Kenneth M. Taylor. They were leaving the Wheeler Officers Club after an all-night poker game when the attack began. Their P-40 fighters were at Haleiwa Field, where their squadron had deployed for gunnery practice. They jumped into Taylor’s car and raced to Haleiwa, weaving through strafing fire along the way.

Fourteen Airborne

Their P-40s were armed and ready, and they took off about 8:30 a.m. Over the southern part of the island, they encountered Japanese aircraft flying in a line. Taylor and Welch each shot down two. They landed at Wheeler to refuel and rearm, but enemy aircraft approached about 9:15 a.m., before servicing was complete. They took off again and Welch shot down a Zero that was on Taylor’s tail. Shortly thereafter, he shot down yet another one, his fourth for the day.

In all, 14 pursuit pilots from Wheeler, Bellows, and Haleiwa got into the air. They shot down 10 Japanese aircraft, confirmed, with another four probable. Five of the shootdowns were by the older P-36 fighters, two of them by 2nd Lt. Harry W. Brown, flying a P-36 from Haleiwa.

Fifteen Navy men were awarded Medals of Honor for their actions Dec. 7, but there were none for the Army. Welch and Taylor were nominated, but the recommendations were downgraded to Distinguished Service Crosses. According to a story that has persisted for years, the proposals were knocked down by the intermediate chain of command because Welch and Taylor took off without orders. Welch went on to notch 16 aerial victories, becoming one of the leading aces of World War II.

Later in the day, Hawaiian Air Force aircraft flew 48 sorties searching for enemy carriers. The search included several B-18s, the aircraft previously scorned as unsuited for such reconnaissance. Air Force and Navy searchers wasted much of their effort because they did not know about the Opana radar sighting, which could have told them the direction from whence the attack had come.

On the morning of Dec. 8, troops from Bellows Field seized the only POW of the raid. Around 7 a.m., observation aircraft spotted a Japanese Navy midget submarine, stranded on a coral reef off the end of the runway. One crew member had been drowned, but the other one washed ashore and was captured.

There had been a sustained buildup of US forces in the Philippine islands over the previous 18 months. Gen. Douglas MacArthur had been recalled to active duty and made commander of US Army Forces in the Far East. His air arm, the Far East Air Force, or FEAF, was commanded by Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton. In December 1941, FEAF had 8,000 men and more than 300 aircraft, most of them concentrated on the main island of Luzon. Among the aircraft were 35 B-17 bombers. As war loomed closer, MacArthur and Brereton sent half of the B-17s to a safer location on the southern island of Mindanao.

With the US fleet at Pearl Harbor neutralized, Japan was ready for the southern strategy’s next step: attacking the FEAF bases on Luzon in preparation for the invasion of the Philippines. Japanese Army and Navy aircraft from Formosa were to conduct the attack, but they were delayed by bad weather.

The Philippines are on the other side of the international date line. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor at 7:55 a.m. Dec. 7, it was 2:25 a.m. Dec. 8 in the Philippines. The news reached Manila 35 minutes after the attack began at Pearl Harbor. FEAF fighters were already on alert, having scrambled to chase radar blips—which were Japanese scout aircraft checking the weather—over the South China Sea around midnight. The FEAF bombers went on alert as well and were standing by for orders.

At 5 a.m., Brereton tried to see MacArthur to get approval to attack Formosa as soon as possible after daylight, but he was denied access by Brig. Gen. Richard K. Sutherland, MacArthur’s heavy-handed chief of staff.

At 5:30 a.m., MacArthur was handed a cablegram from Marshall, ordering him to carry out the Rainbow Five war plan, one tasking of which was to conduct “air raids against Japanese forces and installations.”

Around 6 a.m., a Japanese carrier launched a premature but minor attack on the US Asiatic Fleet airfield at Davao on Mindanao.

At 7:30 a.m., Brereton tried again to reach MacArthur and was again blocked by Sutherland, who said, incredibly, that MacArthur did not want to strike the first blow.

At 8 a.m., Hap Arnold called to tell Brereton not to get caught on the ground. Brereton ordered the B-17s and B-18s at Clark airborne as a precautionary measure as well as to patrol for enemy aircraft.

At 10 a.m., Brereton called Sutherland and was told again to take no offensive action.

Minutes later, that instruction was superseded by MacArthur himself, who called Brereton at 10:14 with approval to bomb Formosa. It was too late. The weather had cleared and Japanese aircraft were on the way. The FEAF bombers were recalled to prepare for the bombing mission, and the fighters also landed to refuel. (MacArthur later sought to lay off blame to Brereton. In a 1946 statement to the press, MacArthur said, “General Brereton never recommended an attack on Formosa to me, and I know nothing of such a recommendation having been made.”)

Strange Interlude

At 11:20 a.m., the radar at Iba Field on the west coast of Luzon picked up approaching aircraft 129 miles out. The alert was flashed to FEAF headquarters and on to the pursuit group commander at Clark, who got the message but took no effective action. At noon, virtually every US airplane on Luzon was on the ground.

At 12:35 p.m., Japanese bombers and fighters struck at Clark and Iba, where the bombers and fighters were parked in the open, unprotected. In less than an hour, about 100 of the 181 US aircraft on Luzon were destroyed, including 12 of the B-17s. Some of the FEAF fighters managed to take off and shot down eight Japanese aircraft, but US airpower was devastated.

The strange interlude with MacArthur and Sutherland has never been adequately explained. The same is true of the failure of the commanders at Clark to react to the radar warning. “I have never been able to get the real story of what happened in the Philippines,” Arnold said in his memoirs in 1949.

On Dec. 17, the Army and the Navy relieved Short, Martin, and Kimmel of their commands. For his part, Kimmel was placed on inactive duty and reduced to a grade of rear admiral. He retired in 1942 and died in 1968. Short was likewise reduced to his previous grade of major general. He retired in 1942 and died in 1949. Martin was reassigned to a training command in St. Louis. He retired in 1944 and died in 1954.

Marshall, perhaps recognizing his earlier mistake in his choice of personnel, replaced Short with an Air Corps officer, Lt. Gen. Delos C. Emmons.

The events of Dec. 8, 1941 in the Philippines are little remembered today, but Pearl Harbor remains a contentious issue. An extensive body of work by so-called revisionist historians contributes to the turmoil. The most extreme of the revisionists argue that President Roosevelt induced the Japanese attack in order to justify US entry into the war and saw to it that critical warning information was withheld from Kimmel and Short. The revisionist theories are built on speculation and surmise, but they have gathered a considerable following.

Between 1941 and 1946, there were eight official investigations of the Pearl Harbor disaster, including inquiries by the Army, the Navy, and a joint Congressional committee. There has never been an official investigation of what happened in the Philippines.

“It was very strange that Kimmel and Short were investigated and then kicked out, but General MacArthur, with his pre-attack information, also got clobbered by the Japanese and yet remained free from investigation and ultimate dismissal,” said Capt. James H. Shoemaker, who had been commander of the Ford Island Naval Air Station.

In 1995, the Department of Defense conducted yet another major review of Pearl Harbor and again concluded that Kimmel and Short should be held accountable. A “Sense of the Congress” resolution in 1999 absolved Kimmel and Short, but it was nonbinding. Afterward, the Department of Defense, holding that no further action was required, took none and stuck to its previous decision.

The USS Arizona Memorial is not the only remembrance of the attack to be found in Hawaii today. The former “Big Barracks” at Hickam Field, now Hickam Air Force Base, is the headquarters of Pacific Air Forces. The bullet holes and scars from 1941 have been left as they were. The flag that flew over Hickam during the attack, now tattered, is encased and on display.

Wheeler Air Force Base and the flight line area at Hickam have been declared national historic landmarks, and carefully tended memorials honor those who died during the attacks.

John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributing editor. His most recent article, “The Air Force on the Eve of World War II,” appeared in the October issue.