Caught With Our Planes Down

Dec. 1, 1956
The day began in Honolulu as a typically beautiful, peaceful Sunday morning. A moderate trade wind—northeast to southwest—blew over the island, carrying clouds moving gently from 2,000 to 3,000 feet, occasionally higher, over a sleeping and unsuspecting city. It was 6:00 a.m. and dawn on that December 7, fifteen years ago. At that exact hour, about 200 miles north of Oahu, orders for take-off were being given to crew members of 360 aircraft of the Japanese First Air Fleet.

An early riser, even on Sunday, I had shaved and put on civilian slacks in the large, new 600-man consolidated barracks at Wheeler Field, the Hawaiian Air Force’s fighter base, twelve miles inland from Pearl Harbor. I was a corporal in the Army Air Corps, assigned to the 14th Pursuit Wing’s public relations office.

It was the first Sunday after payday and Honolulu would be crowded with fun-seeking GIs and gobs. But all thoughts of fun-making were forgotten when the first wave of enemy aircraft—190 fighters and bombers with the Rising Sun on their wings—reared over the island.

Two young fighter pilots, Lts. George Welch and Kenneth Taylor, had been playing poker all night following a dance at the Wheeler Officers’ Club. Temporarily assigned to Haleiwa Field, an emergency landing base eight miles away on the north shore, they yawned sleepily as the game broke up.

It was almost eight o’clock in the morning, and they were undecided about hitting the sack or driving to Haleiwa for a swim. It was a decision they never had to make for just then some twenty-five planes, in follow-the-leader fashion, dived on the Wheeler hangar line, strafing seventy-five new P-40B aircraft. It was a simple assignment—the Curtiss Kittyhawks were wing-tip to wing-tip.

Startled and stunned at the sight and sound of so many planes early Sunday, when training activities were at a standstill, Welch and Taylor dashed outside. One of the planes, less than 200 feet off the ground, roared at them. With machine-gun bullets blasting around them, and realizing what the orange-red circles on the wings stood for, they darted back into the club.

M/Sgt. Fred Brown, one of the married non-coms at Wheeler, lived with his wife in a brick duplex two short streets from the hangar line.

At 7:30 a.m. Sergeant Brown flicked on the radio to listen to a KGMB disc jockey. He was back in bed when the first bomb crashed.

Rushing to the window, the sergeant saw flames shooting up from the gas storage dump on the southwest corner of the field. The radio was blaring a popular song of the day, “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.”

A formation of thirteen B-17s, led by Maj. Truman H. Landon, neared the first leg of a long flight from San Francisco to Manila.

On December 1, Gen. H. H. “Hap” Arnold had written to Lt. Gen. Walter G. Short, Hawaiian Department commander: “We must get every B-17 available to the Philippines as soon as possible.”

Arnold’s plan was to reinforce the vulnerable island chain so close to Japan. The Army Air Corps Chief of Staff had personally inspected preparations at Hamilton Field for the 2,392-mile flight of the 38th and 88th Reconnaissance Squadrons to Oahu on the initial lap to Mindanao.

Skimming through an overcast forty miles from the coast of Oahu, Major Landon brought his Flying Fortress into the clear—and smack into the middle of nine dive bombers.

Landon thought they were friendly until they started to make passes at him. “Hell, they’re Japs!” screamed the bombardier.

I had just reached for my aloha shirt when the planes dived at Wheeler. All hell broke loose within the next moment.

As I stared at the window, a Japanese plane with a fixed undercarriage flew by! Looking at the goggled head of the pilot, I thought dazedly that here was a creature from another world. Machine-gun bullets slashing through shattered windows brought me back to reality.

The slugs whined and smashed into wall and foot lockers, ricocheted off concrete pillars and tore into bunks upon which now wide-awake airmen were scrambling.

All was bedlam and bombs and bullets after that. So shocking and sudden was the Japanese attack that it was difficult to think straight. I ran out of the barracks and up the main street to Wheeler’s back gate, miraculously escaping the bullets strafing everyone in view. Military families piled out of dependents’ quarters in stunned surprise and stumbled into machine-gun fire.

Black, billowing smoke rose from the hangar line. Men of the 78th Pursuit Squadron had been domiciled into a tent area there, across from the post exchange. As the Japanese pilots swept low over the hangar line, they raked the tents with deadly gunfire. Tents and tenants were slashed, and those airmen who were hit never knew what had happened.

The attacks on Wheeler and the other airfields—Hickam and Bellows—were carefully planned and exceptionally well executed.

Twenty-five enemy aircraft bombed Wheeler in the initial pass. They approached the fighter base from the east, circled counter-clockwise, and then came in from the north for the attack. The planes descended from 3,000 feet and roared over the hangar area in V formations.

After this pass, leaving death and destruction in their wake, the Japanese broke formation and seemed to disregard each other in the strafing attacks that followed. The pilots maneuvered recklessly, maintaining little air discipline as they narrowly averted mid-air collisions. They dived to as low as fifty feet, concentrating on the tent area and vicinity of the consolidated barracks.

Almost an hour later, seven aircraft flying at 500 feet came in from the south and machine-gunned men moving our planes onto the airdrome. Many of us saw the faces of the pilots, since during these final passes they came down to dangerously low altitudes of thirty feet as they fired their .50-caliber, 7.7-, and 20-mm machine guns at us.

As they scrambled into the officers’ club, Welch reached for a phone and frantically called Haleiwa. After what seemed ages, Haleiwa replied and reported planes had been seen coming in but had presumed they were Navy.

“They’re Japs!” Welch screamed. “They’re pasting the hen out of Wheeler. Load two p-40s—mine and Taylor’s.”

They raced to Haleiwa in Taylor’s car, bombs and bullets making it risky going. But Taylor held the wheel grimly and made the eight miles in less than ten minutes, tires shrieking as he jammed on the brakes near the waiting P-40s.

When I interviewed him in the Pentagon recently where he is now a full colonel, Taylor said, “I flew against the Japs in a pair of tux trousers . . . never got a chance to change ’em.”

Welch knocked down four enemy aircraft, while Taylor blasted two from the skies along with two probables. “Those two probables were confirmed,” he told me, “and my score was an official four, also.”

Welch and Taylor roared into Wheeler for more ammunition. Their P-40s were being loaded when some fifteen Japanese bombers flying low were spotted. The crewmen ducked for cover, leaving two bewildered lieutenants sitting in their cockpits like clay pigeons.

They made snap decisions. Welch gunned his plane and took off, and Taylor followed. It was like tackling an obstacle course as they wheeled over dollies and smashed into boxes of ammunition. As they roared into the air, ammunition on the wings scattered in every direction—but they made it.

I asked Taylor if he had seen Landon’s flight of B-17s. “Hell, yes!” he said. “Matter of fact, we were prepared to fire away when we suddenly realized they were our own bombers.”

“One of the Japs got the gas storage dump,” Fred Brown wrote to me, in reply to my request for his personal observations and experiences at Wheeler on December 7. Now civilian living in Chicago, he received a commission after the war started.

The storage dump was next to Air Corps supply, where Brown was a sergeant. All inflammables were stored there—gas, turpentine, dope, lacquer, and the like. When he looked out of his bedroom window, the flames were tearing high.

Rushing his wife and mother-in-law across the road to the cover of a metal-roofed garage in a clump of trees, he high-tailed it to Air Corps supply where he was chief clerk. Before he could arrive there, the Wheeler intelligence officer recruited him.

Base intelligence had built up a large file on known undesirables in the neighboring towns of Wahiawa, Haleiwa, Aiea, and Pearl City. Brown helped round up “several characters” suspected of acts of sabotage, and placed them in the stockade at the adjacent Army post, Schofield Barracks.

One of those caught red-handed was a Japanese by the name of Haesbe. He ran “Haesbe Town,” just outside of the upper part of Schofield. It consisted of a number of shops, including several beer gardens, novelty and barber shops.

A one-time commander in the Japanese Navy, Haesbe had been sitting next to the largest US military installation, Schofield, for seventeen years. And he operated a short wave set during the attack!

“Best I’ve ever seen,” Brown recalled.

Little known is the fact that the Japanese planes contained American parts. Brown examined several of the enemy aircraft shot down during the island blitz and noted Delco-Remy generators with “Made in USA” stamped on them, as it was on a good many of the other instruments. Name plates in English were superimposed with Japanese symbols.

“Those two-seater jobs came in crawling, pulling out almost in slow-motion from their shallow dives,” Brown wrote. “They came so close that you could see the expressions on the faces of the gunners riding backwards in the rear seats of those open jobs. I felt I could have hit them with rocks.

“Our only defense,” Brown said, “were tin helmets, circa 1918.”

As a supply sergeant, he had helped store ammunition into a hangar just one week before the attack. That particular hangar had been vacant for months.

“The stored ammo was to have accompanied a squadron to the Philippines,” he related. “That hangar was the first hit. The Japs’ info was pretty current!”

Brown admitted, like so many of us, that it was exceedingly fortunate the Japanese did not move in with some 30,000 troops. Had they known how little prepared we were, they could have taken the Hawaiian Islands with little resistance during that crucial day.

Landon pulled back on his wheel and climbed out of range, easily out-distancing the much slower Japanese planes.

When I interviewed him in the Pentagon not long ago, he wore three stars and was Inspector General of the US Air Force. Anxious for a major command in the field, he asked AF Chief of Staff Gen. Nathan Twining for the Caribbean Air Command, where he now is stationed.

However, he voluntarily took a bust to major general, since the Caribbean command calls for only two stars.

What was his reaction when the Japanese planes suddenly appeared and made passes at him?

“Stupidity,” he told me frankly. “Sheer stupidity.”

The general was being unkind to himself. His deft maneuver in climbing quickly out of range proved that. A minor miscalculation in navigation had General Landon’s flight coming in from the north instead of the east. It was from the latter direction that the hostile aircraft were first spotted on an oscilloscope.

Two Signal Corps privates, Joe Lockard and George Elliott, operated a mobile air warning set on an otherwise untenanted hill called Opana, near Haleiwa. They had tracked the Japanese planes in from 130 miles, only to lose them as they neared the coast.

Their excited alert failed to disturb the Air Corps officer on duty in the information center. This officer thought the blips belonged to the flight of General Landon’s Flying Forts.

This tragic error gave the Japanese the supreme military advantage—surprise. Had the targets been interpreted correctly, some of those killed might have been saved and the damage to our planes, ships, and installations reduced. But the Japanese had called the play.

On the following day, December 8, the United States and Great Britain declared war on the Japanese and on December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on the US and Congress declared war on those countries.

We paid a staggering price for our victory almost four years later. Besides the billions of dollars we spent waging the war, almost 400,000 of our men lost their lives and, including those wounded, our total casualties were more than one million.

Lt. Col. Franklin Hibel is editor of The Air Reservist in Washington, D. C. He was horn in Boston, Mass., on August 20, 1910, and was raised in New York City. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in November 1940, and in one year—1942—Colonel Bibel was, successively, a corporal, sergeant, staff sergeant, second lieutenant, and first lieutenant. During World War II he was public relations officer of the Seventh Fighter Command and later officer in charge of the Armed Forces Press Service. He is the author of two books on military humor, I’ll Clue You and Take It From Me.