Hawaiian Air Force: Before the Attack
"I think we can meet with confidence all threats of enemy encroachment, even that of bombardment from the air."
Lt Gen Walter C. Short, USA, during a radio speech given on May 20, 1941, to the people of the territory of Hawaii.
On 7 December 1941, the Japanese caught the Hawaiian Air Force completely by surprise. Although diplomatic relations with Japan were at a standstill, and many people felt war was just around the corner, Hawaii maintained a business-as-usual attitude. Conversely, the Japanese understood the importance of the American Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor and devised a plan to destroy it. To reach the fleet they would need to destroy the Hawaiian Air Force. To destroy this force they would need surprise and luck. Japan would achieve the surprise, and fate would give them the luck they required. The Hawaiian Department had the forces, leadership, and equipment to stop the attack or at least make it very expensive. But fate, in a series of decisions, events, and personalities, would step in to prevent them from ever being used. The Japanese use of air power on 7 December 1941 resulted in a decisive, if short-lived, one-sided victory--indeed from their perspective as decisive as any air battle that would be fought over the next four years.
To understand what happened to the Hawaiian Air Force on that fateful morning, we must try to understand the leadership that brought it to that day. At the time of the attack, the Hawaiian Department, under Lt Gen Walter C. Short, commanded all Army personnel in Hawaii. Maj Gen Frederick L. Martin reported to General Short, both as commander of the Hawaiian Air Force, activated on 1 November 1940 at Fort Shafter, and as the Hawaiian Department Air Officer. In addition, General Martin had direct access on aviation matters to Maj Gen H. H. "Hap" Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces. The Hawaiian Air Force consisted of the 18th Bombardment Wing and the Hawaiian Air Depot at Hickam Field, the 14th Pursuit Wing at Wheeler Field, and a gunnery training facility at Bellows Field. In addition, several smaller installations were scattered throughout the island chain.* For the Navy, Adm Husband E. Kimmel was Commander in Chief, and Rear Adm P. N. L. Bellinger was Commander, Naval Base Defense Air Force.
General Martin, through the Hawaiian Air Force, was in command of Army Air Forces personnel and functions associated with aviation, while General Short
commanded nonaviation personnel and functions through the Hawaiian Department. Thus, although Martin controlled the airfields, he lacked control over the antiaircraft units assigned to defend them. General Martin would control the island's Air Defense Center after it became operational, but General Short controlled the radar units that supplied the center with information.
As the Hawaiian Department Commander, General Short was responsible for ensuring that General Martin and the Hawaiian Air Force had the capability to accomplish their primary job, defending the Hawaiian Islands and the Navy's Pacific Fleet facilities from air attack. Training was the key to this task, and General Short was well suited for the role. Training assignments made up most of his career. At the time of the attack, he was 61 and had worked his way up through the officer ranks by solid, dependable work. During World War I, he helped organize the First Corps automatic weapons school in France in 1917, and after the war he served as the assistant chief of staff in charge of the Third Army's training program in Germany. He attended both the School of the Line and the Army War College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and later spent two years as a staff officer there. In addition to several other command assignments he worked four years in Washington DC, at the Bureau of Insular Affairs. General Short was an infantryman through and through.1
With a philosophy that reflected his experience, General Short demanded training in the basic infantry duties and skills for Hawaiian Air Force personnel not involved in flying. To accomplish this, the Hawaiian Department published a standing
Senior military officials at Hawaiian Department Headquarters, circa 1941. Front row (left to right): Lt Gen Walter C. Short, Commanding General, Hawaiian Department; a visiting Capt Louis Mountbatten, RN; and Adm Husband E. Kimmel, Commander in Chief, US Pacific Fleet. Top row: Maj Gen Frederick L. Martin, Commanding General, Hawaiian Air Force; and RAdm Patrick N. L. Bellinger, Commander, Naval Base Defense Air Force.
Island of Oahu, Territory of Hawaii--7 December 1941
operating procedure in July 1941 that set up a six-to-eight week schedule in basic infantry training. When Gen George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff, questioned training Army Air Forces personnel as infantrymen, General Short countered that an enemy would not attack the Hawaiian Islands until after it had destroyed American air power and with the aircraft destroyed, large numbers of Hawaiian Air Force personnel would be available for infantry duty. Furthermore, General Short felt that the Hawaiian Air Force was overstaffed and more than half, or 3,885 out of 7,229 personnel, could be used as infantry after the invasion started.* He stated that the training was necessary to give these people something to do during exercises. General Short did not believe in using the regular infantry to protect Hawaiian Air Force personnel who had nothing to do but sit around.2
After setting up a program to ensure all personnel would be trained to defend the island against a possible invasion, General Short began an intensive effort to protect the facilities against possible sabotage from the large Japanese population living on Oahu. To this end he created three alert levels aimed at providing the most appropriate defense response based on the forms of attack he believed the island would receive. Significantly, the first level, Alert One--and the one the department would be in on 7 December--was sabotage alert. During Alert One, ammunition not needed for immediate training would be boxed and stored in central locations difficult for an enemy to reach and destroy. Thus, when the attack began, most antiaircraft ammunition was boxed and stored far away from the actual gun locations. At Wheeler Field, maintenance personnel not only removed the machine gun ammunition from the aircraft, they removed it from the belts so it could be boxed and stored in one location. Coincidentally, the Japanese hit this central location (a hangar) during the attack and destroyed most of the ammunition stored there. Aircraft, during Alert One, would be centrally located as close together as possible for ease in guarding them. Hawaiian Air Force personnel would be used to guard not only aircraft and storage facilities on flying fields, but also warehouses and critical facilities throughout the island.
After being notified about an impending air attack against Hawaii, the Hawaiian Department would go to Alert Two. At this level, measures used in Alert One would remain in effect; in addition, personnel would activate the Air Warning Center, arm fighter aircraft and place them on alert, launch long-range reconnaissance, and arm and deploy antiaircraft units. From this intermediate level, the entire Hawaiian Department would go to Alert Three when invasion seemed imminent. At level three, the command functions would move to underground facilities and available personnel would deploy to prepared beach defenses. General Short immediately decreed Alert Three after the 7 December attack began.3
Maj Gen Frederick L. Martin, Commander of the Hawaiian Air Force, and leader of the air arm of the Hawaiian Department, arrived in Hawaii on 2 November 1940. He was an experienced pilot with over 2,000 hours flying time. His training included the Air Tactical School at
* This was the Hawaiian Air Force strength as of 14 October 1941; by 7 December 1941 personnel had increased to 7,460.
Langley Field, Virginia, Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the Army War College. He had held several command positions including, as a brigadier general, command of the 3d Bombardment Wing at Barksdale Field, Louisiana. The Hawaiian Air Force received an experienced and well-qualified commander.
General Martin's first problem upon arrival concerned the strained relationship between the Navy and the Army in Hawaii. What had started as friendly rivalry had developed into an almost hostile environment. Aircraft from both branches buzzed and practiced low-level simulated strafing runs on each other's facilities. Only in the most essential matters did the Army and Navy cooperate, and then very reluctantly. General Short and Admiral Kimmel did have some close contact. They played golf together every other weekend, and they directed their staff members to work more closely with their counterparts. But real cooperation did not exist. General Arnold gave General Martin direct orders before leaving Washington for Hawaii to resolve this problem and increase interservice cooperation. To his credit, by 7 December, relationships between the two services had started to improve. 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. As a result, when General Short started his infantry training program, instead of insisting that Hawaiian Air Force personnel could not do both jobs, General Martin sent one protest letter and then chose to support Short and promote harmony. Again, when Short became obsessed with possible sabotage and demanded parking the aircraft close together, Martin agreed that the sabotage danger was real and went along with him, even arguing against his own commanders who wanted to disperse the aircraft.4
A second problem confronting Martin was poor health. The general had a severe, chronic ulcer condition, which required surgery and would hospitalize him immediately after the attack. The need to comply with General Arnold's directive to be a peacekeeper added to his poor health. Due to the ulcer, General Martin did not drink and kept his attendance at official functions to a minimum, which tended to give the average airman an impression that the commander was a bit strait-laced and did not appreciate his men.5
So in the end, the Hawaiian Air Force had one general who was infantry oriented and obsessed with the possibility of sabotage and another in poor health and trying to keep everyone working together. Events were to prove this was not the best combination of commanders.
By 7 December 1941, the air arm of the Hawaiian Department had been built up to a total strength of 754 officers and 6,706 enlisted men. Personnel were concentrated on the island of Oahu and assigned to bomber units at Hickam Field, pursuit (fighter) units at Wheeler, the 86th Observation Squadron at Bellows, or to one of the air base groups, maintenance companies, service detachments, and other support units comprising the remainder of the Hawaiian Air Force. In addition to the three major flying installations on Oahu, there was a small training field at Haleiwa on the north shore of the island and emergency or auxiliary fields on other
Hawaiian Air Force Organizational Chart
7 December 1941
islands of the Hawaiian group, including Kauai, Lanai, Hawaii, Maui, and Molokai.6
Personnel of the Hawaiian Air Force came from varied backgrounds. Many were Depression-era youngsters who had never ventured beyond their hometowns or states. Those fortunate enough to go on to college after graduation from high school often joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program to ease their financial situation, then fulfilled their military commitment as commissioned officers. Some were selected for flight training and won their wings as army aviators. Thousands of other young men, however, faced unemployment or worked at jobs paying meager wages and had no funds to finance college educations. Enticed by posters, radio announcements, word-of-mouth, and newspaper advertisements extolling the advantages of Army life ("experience, advancement, travel, and a lifetime pension"), they dropped in at recruiting stations in great numbers to enlist. Some of those who volunteered for duty in Hawaii were not quite sure where it was located. John M. Neuhauser, of Flanagan, Illinois, for example, learned from his friend, Ned Oliver, that the US Army Air Forces recruiter was signing up men to be sent to Hawaii for training as aircraft mechanics. "Where's Hawaii?" he asked. "It's an island in the Pacific Ocean, I think," Ned said.7
Officers and enlisted personnel, as well as family members, sailed to Hawaii on US Army transports like the Republic, Grant, St. Mihiel, Leonard Wood, Chateau Thierry, Hunter Liggett, and Etolin. Those who embarked from San Francisco spent about a week on the high seas. Russell J. Tener recalled "six days of hectic ocean travel, consisting of seasickness, boredom, card playing and some KP (kitchen police)." Others like John W. Wilson, who had enlisted in Philadelphia, spent 21 days on the Army transport that carried them from New York via the Panama Canal. When the ships rounded Diamond Head and docked at Honolulu harbor near the Aloha Tower, the new arrivals received a typical Hawaiian welcome. The Royal Hawaiian Band serenaded them as they walked down the gangplank, pretty Hawaiian girls greeted them with fragrant flower leis, and dozens of native boys jumped into the water and dove for coins tossed by the soldiers. The newest members of the Hawaiian Air Force then proceeded to one of the three major airfields on the island.8
Both Generals Short and Martin bombarded Washington with requests for newer and more aircraft. The Air Force's inability to provide the long-range reconnaissance necessary to protect the Hawaiian Islands from a sneak attack especially worried General Martin. In early 1941, he and his Navy counterpart, Rear Admiral Bellinger, wrote the now famous Martin-Bellinger report, which not only
"Hawaiian Paradise" recruiting cartoon. (Edward J. White)
Above, B-18s in formation over Oahu, 6 April 1940. (W. Bruce Harlow).
Below, B-18 at Hickam Field with winged death's head insignia of the 5th Bombardment Group on its nose.
B-17 aircraft flying over the main gate at Hickam Field, circa 1941
detailed how a possible attack could occur, but also outlined what steps would be necessary to prevent its success. The report stated that the primary defense against a sneak attack would be long-range reconnaissance. To be effective, reconnaissance would have to be conducted in a 360-degree arc around the island and extend out at least a thousand miles. Both officers realized that with the equipment available this could not be carried out for long, so they did not recommend its implementation until war was imminent.9
The Hawaiian Air Force had 33 B-18 and 12 B-17D aircraft assigned, but the B-18s were old and their range was so short they would be of little value for patrol duty. As a result the Navy (which had over 60 long-range PBY Flying Boats) accepted the responsibility for long-range reconnaissance in the Hawaii area, with the Hawaiian Air Force providing short-range (20 miles out) coverage. On paper this sounded like a workable arrangement. Unfortunately Admiral Kimmel had decided that he needed the flying boats to provide long-range coverage in the areas where he planned to operate the fleet during war.* If used to patrol the Hawaiian area, he reasoned, they would deteriorate and not be available when the actual war began. In addition, there were insufficient replacement crews to keep all the aircraft manned. Admiral Kimmel then took a calculated risk, based on the belief that the nearest Japanese possessions capable of supporting a full-scale attack on Hawaii were located south
* For a complete description of how Admiral Kimmel planned to use the Pacific Fleet during the war see: Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Vol III, The Rising Sun in the Pacific 1931-April 1942, (Little, Brown and Company: Boston, 1965), pp. 48-56.
P-40 formation over Oahu, August 1941 (Gene Taylor)
of the islands, and began using a minimum number of flying boats for anti-submarine patrol in that direction. So, the morning of the attack, which came from the north, the flying boats were patrolling the opposite area. The belief that an attack could only come from the south was so strong that after the attack began, the first Air Force reconnaissance aircraft to get airborne also patrolled the southern area trying to locate the enemy carriers.
A proviso in the Martin-Bellinger report called for the Navy to go to the Air Force for assistance if the Navy was unable to provide the reconnaissance coverage necessary. The Navy never exercised this option, since it believed that an attack on Hawaii could not occur without some warning. Besides, with only 12 aircraft, Martin could lend only limited assistance.10
The fighter aircraft status on Oahu was somewhat better than the bomber picture. The command had 87 P-40B and 12 P-40C aircraft, with 55 in commission on 7 December. In addition, there were 39 P-36A aircraft with 20 in commission. Although Washington considered the P-36 outmoded compared to European aircraft, and even the P-40 was not considered the most modern plane, they were the best the United States had at the time. Washington had received information about the Japanese fighter, A6M2 Zero, and its superb flying qualities from Gen Claire Chennault, Commander of the Flying Tigers volunteer force in China, but senior military officials discounted this information and never sent it to the field. New fighter pilots had been arriving on the island in increasing numbers, and General Arnold had promised Martin additional aircraft as they became available. The consensus in Washington held that the fighter force defending Oahu, if somewhat small, was at least adequate for use against anything the Japanese might have. The major limiting factor for the fighters stationed in Hawaii was their short combat range, and they needed a strong ground control system to maximize their combat efficiency.11
The Air Defense System
The key to the Hawaiian Islands air defense was the air warning system (AWS), consisting of radar units, an air warning center, and the 14th Pursuit Wing at Wheeler. As the heart of the AWS, the air warning center contained an information
P-36 aircraft lined up at Wheeler Field.
center, fighter director, and an aircraft/antiaircraft weapon control system. The information center needed to receive data about incoming aircraft, either from long-range reconnaissance, units stationed on the outer islands, surface ship contact, or radar in order to operate. Aircraft plotters marked the flight paths on a table map where the director, with liaison officers from the bomber and fighter commands, the Navy, and civilian aviation, identified them as either friendly or unknown. If marked unknown, the director ordered fighter interceptors launched, under the aircraft controller's direction, to investigate. This was how the British operated their aircraft warning system, and in theory this was what the Hawaiian Department had in place at Fort Shafter. In actuality the system used in Hawaii bore little resemblance to the British system.12
The whole AWS idea was so new to the Army that no one was sure how to make it work or who should control it. The cooperation needed among various military units and government agencies was far greater than anything anybody realized at the time. Because the mobile radar systems were the first units developed for the AWS, the Army Signal Corps took initial control. After the Signal Corps had set up the system and trained the personnel, control would pass to the Air Force. Contrary to popular belief, the air warning system as used in Hawaii on 7 December 1941 was under the Army Signal Corps, not the Hawaiian Air Force.13
Lt Col Carroll A. Powell, Army Signal Corps, was in charge of the Hawaiian air warning system that morning. To help Powell in setting up the system and to take operational control upon its completion, Brig Gen Howard C. Davidson, 14th Pursuit Wing Commander, selected the 44th Pursuit Squadron Commander, Capt Kenneth P. Bergquist. Although Bergquist was known
as a troubleshooter and had a reputation for getting the job done, the task of making the air warning system work before 7 December would prove to be too much for even his abilities.14
Everyone wanted to get into the act. Even the simplest job took months of coordination and frustration before it could be completed. Oahu abounded with US Government-owned locations suitable for the mobile radar units; but before a site could be used, approval had to be obtained from the National Park Service and the Department of Interior. More than once, General Short had to intervene to get the approval process moving. Cooperation within the Army was no better. Captain Bergquist placed a requisition for headsets to be used by personnel operating the control center, only to have it disapproved by the Quartermaster Corps because the latter thought the Signal Corps was the organization in charge and, therefore, authorized to request items.15
After completing the air warning center construction at Fort Shafter, personnel needed to be trained to operate it. The Signal Corps handled training for the personnel required to operate the radar units and those at the air warning center involved in tracking the reports on incoming aircraft. Captain Bergquist, with Capt Wilfred H. Tetley, Army Signal Corps, and Lt Cmdr William Taylor, USN, managed training of directors, controllers, and those personnel who would be temporarily assigned to the system during exercises and wartime operations. Tetley and Taylor were detached from their respective units and in no way represented the Signal Corps or the Navy during this training phase. In other words, the Signal Corps trained part of the personnel and the Hawaiian Air Force the rest, with no one in command of the complete training.16
During the two main exercises held with the Navy in 1941 and during several smaller exercises conducted by the center
Capt Wilfred H. Tetley (left) of the Army Signal Corps and Capt Kenneth P. Bergquist of the 14th Pursuit Wing,
pictured with members of the radar site survey team, in 1941.
(US Army Museum of Hawaii)
itself, either the director knew the direction of the attacking aircraft or personnel from the other branches would report for the exercise as liaisons so the incoming aircraft could be identified. On 12 November 1941, after the center was manned, the Navy launched a simulated strike from a carrier 80 miles out to sea. The radar stations easily picked up the attackers, the center quickly identified them as enemy aircraft, and within six minutes interceptor aircraft were airborne and met the attacking force 30 miles from the island.17
These exercises demonstrated that the Hawaiian air warning system would work if it had operational radar units, a fully staffed information center, and armed and ready-to-fly interceptor aircraft. On 7 December, the AWS met none of these requirements. The following charts show how the system operated during the 12 November exercise and on the morning of 7 December. The solid lines between each block represent the lines of communications that were operational during each period.
The best General Davidson could do was to ensure at least one pilot from the 14th Pursuit Wing was on duty every day in the air warning center to learn firsthand how the whole system operated and to offer assistance to the controller in handling pursuit aircraft. On the morning of 7 December, the system was further degraded when, although five of the six radar systems were operational and the enlisted plotters were on hand from 0400 to 0700 under Signal Corps direction, no director or aircraft controller was on duty. The only officer present was Lt Kermit Tyler, a 14th Pursuit Wing pilot. Lieutenant
The Air Warning System on 12 November 1941 During a Simulated Enemy Attack
Tyler was there to observe how the system worked and assist the controller with the pursuit aircraft after they had launched. In no way was he responsible for, or for that matter expected to know how to activate, the air warning system. The most he could have done was call Bergquist (now a major) and let him know what was going on. It is unlikely that such a call would have helped the Hawaiian air defense that fateful morning, because the third and final part of the air warning system, aircraft ready to launch, was not set up at all.18
The whole purpose of the air warning system was to launch interceptor aircraft against would-be aggressors; yet, no aircraft were ready to launch and attack the enemy that morning. If the Hawaiian Air Force was expected to defend the islands, why were no aircraft on alert? Within the answer to this question is the basic reason the Japanese attack on Oahu was so successful. Few, if anyone, in the Hawaiian Department felt the Japanese would attack Hawaii despite many indications that an attack on Hawaii was possible. Rather, most people considered the Hawaiian Islands a staging area from which the US Navy would sortie against predetermined targets. It was also commonly believed the Imperial Japanese fleet would attack Singapore or Malaysia, or possibly even the Philippines.
Although some Hawaiian Air Force units held exercise and full alerts on Oahu, and others deployed under field conditions, there was an air of make-believe to the deployments. When they were over, people would carefully clean and put away the equipment and ammunition for the next
The Air Warning System on 7 December 1941 During the Actual Enemy Attack
exercise. During the week preceding 7 December, the entire Hawaiian Department, by order of General Short, engaged in a full scale exercise for seven consecutive days. Army units from Schofield Barracks deployed, antiaircraft units drew ammunition and set up stations all over the island, and the Hawaiian Air Force armed aircraft and dispersed them to protective revetments. The warning center was fully operational and launched aircraft against simulated attacking targets.
General Short considered this exercise a great success. After its cancellation on 6 December, personnel returned to the barracks, carefully cleaned and repaired the guns and equipment, removed the ammunition and repacked it in storage containers, and returned the aircraft to their main bases to be reparked close together because Alert One was still in effect. After doing this, each command gave the troops the rest of the day off and told them to report to work Monday. When and if war began, General Short and the other senior commanders in Hawaii felt they would be given plenty of warning to begin long-range reconnaissance, set up communications between the Army and Navy, staff the aircraft warning center, and arm and disperse available aircraft ready for deployment against the enemy. The fleet would sortie, and the Japanese would find a sky full of American aircraft, piloted by well-trained personnel eager to defend the island.19
Table of Contents
Next Chapter (2)