Hell in Paradise: Fighter Command
"It was the first time I had ever seen a plunging dive bomber and it was an awesome sight. Nothing in warfare is more frightening. Hurtling down on us was the dive bomber being followed by another, while six or seven more in echelon awaited their turn. The leader pulled out right over us in a spectacular climbing bank. We could clearly see the rising sun of Japan on his wings and fuselage."
Pvt Wilfred D. Burke, 72d Pursuit Squadron
Wheeler Field, 7 December 1941
The Japanese hit Wheeler in two waves, the first shortly before 0800 and the second about an hour later. Principal targets of the first attack were aircraft and buildings along the hangar line and people in the immediate area. In the second raid, seven enemy planes approached from the south and fired machine guns at aircraft being taxied onto the airdrome. This attack, which lasted less than five minutes, was made by fighters and horizontal bombers expending the remainder of their ammunition after attacking the Kaneohe Naval Air Station. Wheeler had little protection against aerial attack, with no antiaircraft guns, no trenches, and no air raid shelters. The base had only five machine guns, which were mounted on top of the hangars and the big barracks; and the perimeter guard was armed with rifles.1
Colonel Flood, the base commander, was in front of his quarters talking to some people when the attack began. He saw a bomb hit near the Wheeler depot area and at first thought someone out on maneuvers must have accidentally dropped it. Immediately afterward, a group of low-flying airplanes sped by, only 50 to 75 feet off the ground. "You could almost hit them with a rock if you had it," thought Flood. When he saw the insignia of the Japanese rising sun, he knew what had happened and hurried down to the flight line. By then, hangars and aircraft were in flames, and a thick pall of black smoke hung over the area.2
The bombs struck and burned Hangars 1 and 3, in addition to wrecking a PX storehouse and a warehouse filled with cement. One bomb hit the 6th Pursuit Squadron's barracks, entering a window on the second floor, where it exploded and caused considerable property damage and personal injuries. Another landed in an open area and made a crater 15 feet in diameter and 6 feet deep. After expending their bombs, the enemy planes dropped down to a very low altitude and machine-gunned aircraft parked in front of the hangars and also fired incendiary bullets through the
Wrecked planes on Wheeler Field flight line, with Hangar 2 in background and (on the right) tent quarters where many enlisted men were killed.
windows of buildings, attempting to set them afire. The tent area between Hangars 2 and 3 came under heavy attack.3
Around 0700 that Sunday morning, Pvt Wilfred D. Burke, an aircraft armorer assigned to the 72d Pursuit Squadron, reluctantly got out of bed in one of the tents on the hangar line. He had been awakened by his boss, Sgt Forest Wills, and resented being disturbed so early on the only morning he could sleep late, even though he had promised to go to church with Wills. A deeply religious man, "Deacon" Wills had become a good friend and, as Burke put it, "was sincerely concerned with my spiritual welfare, having observed that I was a worthless fellow given to drinking beer."
After eating breakfast in an unusually empty mess hall, Burke still had some spare time before church so he joined a group of
Splintered building filled with bags of cement. (Joe K. Harding)
Badly damaged barracks of the 6th Pursuit Squadron, which suffered heavy casualties. (Joe K. Harding)
men in the open quadrangle in the middle of the tent area "shooting the bull." As they talked, a flight of planes passed by to the west of Wheeler, heading toward Pearl Harbor. "It's the Navy," said someone; but they were surprised to see black puffs of antiaircraft fire fill the sky over Pearl Harbor. Their astonishment soon turned to stark terror when Japanese aircraft almost directly overhead began diving down toward them.4
According to some sources, the first place hit was the gas storage dump on the southwest corner of the base, where all of Wheeler's flammables such as gas, turpentine, and lacquer were kept. Most witnesses, however, reported that the first bomb struck Hangar 1, where the base engineering shops were located. The tremendous blast caused skylights to blow out and clouds of smoke to billow upward, making it appear as though the entire hangar was lifted off its foundation. The sheet metal, electrical, and paint shops in the front half of the hangar were decimated; but the machine and wood shops and the tool room in the back were spared, protected by a concrete block, dividing wall.5
The diving planes released their bombs from one end of the hangar line to the other. No one was in sight at first except weary guards who had maintained an all-night vigil against possible sabotage, but others quickly began arriving on the scene. Sgt Mobley L. Hall, crew chief assigned to the Headquarters Squadron, 18th Pursuit Group (Interceptor), was at his quarters in the new defense housing area at Kemoo Farms when he heard the first explosion. Knowing that something was wrong, he immediately drove to his duty station at the hangar. When he arrived, the bombing was still going on and "everybody was there . . . doing everything as rapidly as possible." Officers and enlisted men alike were
Above, Hangar 1, devastated by the Japanese attack, with block dividing wall visible on left. This saved many of the base engineering shops from destruction.
Below, A severely damaged P-36 sits in the rubble of Hangar 1 at Wheeler.
battling fires, tending the wounded and dying, dragging equipment and supplies from burning hangars, and pushing or towing undamaged aircraft toward dispersal bunkers. General Davidson was in the midst of his troops, pushing airplanes around. Capt James O. Beckwith, 72d Pursuit Squadron Commander, concentrated his efforts on relieving the suffering of his men, whose tent complex had been strafed and burned. All of his new P-40 aircraft were ablaze and could not be saved. Sergeant Hall's squadron had three planes assigned--two AT-6s and an OA-9. One AT-6, in the hangar following installation of a new engine, was destroyed by fire when the hangar took a direct hit; but the two other aircraft, parked on the ramp in the open, escaped damage. Wheeler personnel who rushed to move aircraft out of burning hangars included SSgt Charles A. Fay of the 72d Pursuit Squadron, who managed to run into a blazing hangar and pull out a plane even though he was wounded. Pvt Donald D. Plant of the 46th Pursuit Squadron (Fighter) was killed while assisting in the removal of injured. The men on the line experienced great difficulty in separating aircraft that were afire from those that were not because many of the otherwise undamaged fighters had flat tires due to all the strafing and flying debris in the air. The biggest problem of all, however, was trying to get the aircraft guns loaded; because the hangar where much of the ammunition had been stored was on fire, and the ammunition was exploding like firecrackers.6
Burke and his friends, as well as many other Wheeler personnel, fled from the strafing attack in the flight line area, scattering in all directions. Burke headed for the married NCOs' quarters a block away, thinking the attackers were unlikely to waste their ammunition on family homes. As he ran across the street corner nearest his tent, a bomb struck the pavement behind him and killed several fleeing men. When he reached the first row of family housing, he placed his back against the wall of a house and looked back toward the hangars. He was on higher ground and could clearly see the extent of the carnage and devastation. By then, the dive bombers had dropped all their bombs, regrouped, and were methodically strafing planes of the 14th Pursuit Wing which were lined up by squadron, wingtip to wingtip, in precise rows on the ramp. The thick pall of oily black smoke from burning planes and hangars stretched over the flight line and was hanging almost as low as the tent tops. This dense smoke cover served as a screen for the 46th Pursuit Squadron's P-36 aircraft parked in the last row on the west end of the Wheeler flight line, preventing the Japanese from pinpointing them as targets.7
After the firing ceased and the dive bombers had gone away, Burke headed back toward his tent. Reaching the corner where the bomb had exploded, he was horrified to see six or seven torn bodies lying around, one of which had been completely denuded by the bomb blast, its head and one arm missing from the torso. Reaching his tent, Burke went inside to pick up his helmet and found two other men getting theirs. The helmets had only recently been issued and were the old World War I "tin hats." They all had to stop and take the time to lace in the helmet linings, indicating how unprepared they were for an attack. A corporal ordered Burke to assist with casualties in the next tent, which was riddled with holes. The first man he saw was beyond help, crouched down on the floor in a bizarre position of death with
Above, the roar of flames in Hangar 3 was punctuated by firecracker-like explosions from the great quantity of ammunition stored there; and below is another view of blazing fires in the twisted remains of Hangar 3 at Wheeler Field. (Joe K. Harding)
Above, when the flames died down and the smoke cleared, all that remained was the skeleton of Hangar 3; and below, total devastation in Hangar 3. (Joe K. Harding)
part of his head knocked away. A seriously wounded soldier lay on his bunk with his abdomen ripped open by a bomb fragment, exposing his intestines. He was conscious and stared at them but said nothing. They carried him on a stretcher to the dispensary, where several other wounded men had already been brought in and were lying on the floor awaiting medical attention. They were all silent and uncomplaining.8
Returning to the flight line, Burke was just in time to hear a shouted alarm that the Japanese were attacking again. He dashed toward the NCO housing area once more and got a clear view of the enemy planes firing their machine guns at aircraft on the ramp. He could not help but be impressed with the skill and daring of these adversaries, who were so badly underestimated by the Americans. "They had been portrayed as little near-sighted men wearing glasses, [and] this arrogance led to this debacle. The enemy . . . was not to be considered lightly," he thought. When the last of the Japanese planes had flown off, Private Burke went back to the flight line and saw the first sign of military organization. An armed sentry had been posted, giving orders to returning personnel: "Colonel says everyone on the flight line!" They could hear the constant pop of exploding ammunition, which continued for two or three days. This came from Hangar 3, which along with the base engineering hangar had suffered the most damage. It held a tremendous amount of ammunition, including several million rounds of .50-caliber ammo that had been taken out of the planes on the ramp and stored in the hangar as another antisabotage measure.9
The immediate task at hand was to salvage whatever planes were still flyable or repairable. The operational planes were
Many enlisted members of the 72d Pursuit Squadron were killed or seriously injured in these tent quarters along Wheeler's hangar line.
Hangar row at Wheeler Field, with Hangar 3 on the right and the burnt remains of tents which were hit hard by the attacking Japanese.
taxied to the east end of the field, where mechanics and armorers began to work frantically, checking them out in preparation for flight. There were many more pilots than available aircraft, so a simple system evolved in which the pilots ran for the planes when a call came through to scramble them. The first one arriving got the cockpit. One pilot accused another of not running very fast, and a fist fight ensued. Burke saw the humor of the situation and took comfort in knowing that he was not the only one with "cold feet." In the middle of the chaos, personnel on the line saw a large bomber flying in very low and landing crossways on Wheeler's grassy, rectangular airfield. The plane seemed doomed to crash into the hangars, even if it got through the obstacle course of burning aircraft, but it managed to spin around and pull up short. Crew members hastily scrambled out of what turned out to be a B-17 Flying Fortress. Nervous Wheeler personnel had greeted this huge plane with rifle fire, but, according to Burke, "Fortunately, our people were notoriously poor marksmen and I don't think any of the crew was hit by the hostile welcome."10
First Lieutenant Teuvo ("Gus") Ahola of the 19th Pursuit Squadron was present when General Davidson went over to welcome the tall, slender lieutenant who had piloted the B-17 from Hamilton Field, California, and managed to bring it safely down in the midst of the Japanese attack. Earlier, when the attack began, Ahola was in his on-base BOQ located on Lilienthal Road. Upon hearing machine-gun fire and a loud explosion, he peered out through the Venetian blinds and saw a cloud of smoke over the western end of the field, then spotted a Japanese Zero overhead. He immediately headed out toward the flight line in his 1939 Ford convertible but ran over a Coke bottle and got a flat tire, so he sped
Above, resourceful crews remove parts from a demolished P-40 for use on repairable aircraft.
Right, aircraft wreckage on the Wheeler flight line, in front of a fire-blackened Hangar 3 and a virtually undamaged Hangar 4 (with radio tower on roof). In the foreground is a demolished amphibian plane. (Joe K. Harding)
Below, looking through a heap of wrecked planes at Wheeler Field for salvageable parts.
off on foot the rest of the way. Reaching his P-40, which was in the first row of fighters on the eastern end of the ramp, he climbed aboard and yanked off the collar device which locked the controls. The engine of his aircraft was intact, so he started it up and taxied out of the line of aircraft, intending to get it away from the flight line area. Just then he saw a Japanese plane coming straight toward him. With no ammo in his guns, he thought, "I'll ram the SOB!" and tried to get his P-40 off the ground, but there was no lift since the fabric covering the control surfaces had been burned off. All he could do was get out of the middle of the field, taxiing at high speed to the far side, where he got the plane into a revetment.11
Before the attack began, Pvt Henry C. Woodrum was at the mess hall, pleased to see only four people in line ahead of him. The mess hall was as empty as the 500-man consolidated barracks had been when he woke up early that morning and saw only a few bunks occupied. Obviously, most of the GIs hadn't returned from Honolulu where they headed as soon as the island-wide alert ended at noon the day before. As Woodrum reached for a food tray, the deep roar of a diving plane filled the air, blotting out all other sounds until it was absorbed by a loud explosion which shook the windows and echoed through the high-ceilinged room. A newcomer behind him, thinking it was a crash, commented, "Boy, that lieutenant sure hit hard!" Turning to look out the window, Woodrum saw a mustard-colored airplane making a climbing turn, revealing a huge red disk on the underside of its wings. "That's no crash," he shouted. "It's the Japs!" Others crowded around the window for a look, then tried to rush outside at the same time, jamming the main entrance. Woodrum took a shortcut by vaulting over a steam table and running through the rear of the kitchen, as a cook screamed obscenities at him. He dashed out the doorway onto a loading dock, paused to look upward, and saw a low-wing monoplane that seemed to be diving directly toward him. He froze as a bomb detached itself from the fuselage and arched downward, exploding nearby. The shock wave hurled him from the doorway, back into the building, across a hall, and through the open door of a walk-in storage area. Wet, smelly vegetables spilled on top of him from crates on the shelves. He made his way through the clutter back to the doorway, jumped off the dock, and ran toward the 14th Pursuit Wing headquarters.12
As Woodrum dashed up a steep slope leading to a construction site, where foundation trenches had been dug and lumber stacked ready for use, machine-gun slugs raked the dirt in front of him, so he scrambled behind a high stack of two-by-fours for protection. When the strafing stopped, he raised his head to look around and could smell the odor of burning oil. Across the way, almost every building along the flight line seemed to be on fire, and the Japanese pilots continued to strafe hangars, aircraft, and fleeing personnel. The new P-40s were being blown to bits, their burning parts scattering along the ramp in all directions, setting other planes on fire. One P-40 fell apart in two pieces, its prop pointing almost straight up. A P-36 exploded, hurling flaming debris upon a nearby tent, setting it ablaze. A man ran from the tent, climbed into an old Plymouth, and drove only a short distance before being hit by a strafing aircraft. The car burst into flames, then exploded, but the driver jumped out in time, his clothes smoking, and ran into a building unharmed.13
Above, all that remained of the lineup of P-40s on the Wheeler flight line. (Joe K. Harding)
Below, wrecked P-40Bs sit in front of an equally wrecked Hangar 3 at Wheeler Field.
Not as fortunate was PFC Robert R. Shattuck, a switchboard operator assigned to the 15th Pursuit Group's communications section. He and his buddies were eating breakfast when the attack began. They hurriedly left the mess hall and ran down to the tents where they lived, but the first sergeant was there and told them to get out of the area since it was under heavy attack. Some stayed back to help fight fires, and the rest reported to the communications tent. Shattuck, accompanied by Private Nelson, was heading toward his duty station through the tent area when he was hit by shrapnel. One of his legs was torn off, and he died a short time later.14
Back at the construction site, two men joined Woodrum behind the lumber pile, sharing his shelter. One was a young, crew-cut lad, about 20 years old, who crawled to the end of the pile with his upper body extending beyond it. Although cautioned to get back before he got hit, he refused, saying, "I can see 'em coming from out here." He began to laugh, treating the situation as a joke, but suddenly gasped and rolled halfway over, his body rigid, then quivering, before he flopped back on his belly and died. The rear gunners on the Japanese dive bombers had spotted Woodrum and others hiding among the piles of lumber, so they began to take potshots at them. The men decided to take their chances and make a dash for the barracks, which was only 100 feet or so away. One man reached the crest of the embankment but was mowed down by a line of slugs that stitched their way through the moist dirt, sending him tumbling into a motionless heap at the bottom of the slope. Woodrum and the others, however, managed to make it to safety.15
Wheeler personnel inspect what remained of a building site following the 7 December 1941 attack. The new barracks stands on an embankment in background.
The barracks was a scene of confusion and turmoil. There were men dashing around in the supply room helping themselves to equipment and weapons. Many, whose closest friends were suddenly dead, walked around in a daze, exhibiting a wide range of emotions--profound helplessness, rage, berserk and shouting behavior, or a deathly silence. A first sergeant walked by, his hands clenched into fists, tears streaming down his face, as he muttered an endless string of curses. He soon got hold of himself, however, and headed back inside to take charge and start organizing things. Medics picked up the dead and wounded, including the crew-cut lad next to the lumber pile. Along Santos Dumont Avenue, a line of wounded men began to form in front of the dispensary, their arms in slings or heads and faces wrapped in bloody, temporary bandages. Bodies of the dead lay side by side on the lawn, covered with blankets.16
Woodrum had grabbed a Springfield 03 from the rifle rack in the supply room. He saw a technical sergeant talking with several men and interrupted him to ask for some ammunition. The sergeant looked Woodrum over for a moment and asked, "You ever fire this piece?" When Woodrum nodded and told him he had just come from two years in the infantry, the sarge directed him to "show these guys how it works. I'll get the ammo." So he turned to face five men--aircraft mechanics who had never trained on rifles--and showed them how the bolt operated, where the safety was located, and how to load. They each went through it a few times before the sergeant returned with a case of ammo and said, "Get this thing open!" One of the mechanics punched a hole in the tin lid with a screwdriver, then used pliers to peel it open like a can of sardines. It was full of loose ammunition, none in clips. The men filled their pockets and the magazines of the 03s, and every round was a tracer, the bullet red-tipped. They then followed the sarge outside; and he posted the men along the road, leaving one man at each designated spot and instructing him to not let anybody pass "until you identify them as an officer or GI." When only Woodrum was left, they had reached a point opposite a dead-end street in the officers' housing area where a three-strand barbed-wire gate in the fence provided access to Schofield Barracks. The sergeant finally introduced himself as Henderson and ordered Woodrum to stay with him. "You may have showed those guys how to fire an 03 but I don't want any antsy mechanic around me when it [the attack] starts again," he said.17
A short while later, three Japanese planes flew in from the south and started strafing the street a half-block away. As he and Henderson blasted away at the aircraft,
Bullet-riddled Army staff car at Wheeler Field.
Woodrum saw a group of small children standing along the street and on the sidewalk watching the action. He ran down the street, gathered the kids together, and herded them through the front door of the nearest house. Dashing back, he saw Henderson get off a couple more shots at two additional planes strafing the street. They then witnessed a Japanese fighter and a P-40 in a dogfight; and when the Japanese plane crashed, leaving smoke billowing upward, a cheer rose from hundreds of GIs around the base. Moments later, a second Japanese plane crashed near the front gate across the road in Wahiawa, triggering another big cheer. Next, a big four-engine bomber flew over, about 1,000 feet above the ground, and Wheeler personnel began firing at it. Woodrum yelled at them to stop, because he had seen one like it on the mainland. It was an American B-17.18
Earlier, Sgt George J. Van Gieri was on duty as desk sergeant at the Wheeler Field guardhouse and had just completed posting 80 guards around the base. He was returning to the two-story building that served as a combined guardhouse and fire department when the first bomb struck the field. Van Gieri and others on duty with him tried to call their superiors, but all the phone lines were down. They were concerned that the prisoners incarcerated at the guardhouse for crimes such as burglary and being absent without leave would not be able to escape if the building took a direct hit. Since orders could not be obtained from higher authority, they took it upon themselves to release the prisoners and told them to "come back when it was possible to come back." The freed men immediately joined others in firing back at the Japanese with all weapons available. Van Gieri later received a Purple Heart "for valor and fidelity," as a reward for remaining at his post and continuing to discharge his responsibilities during the severe bombing attack.19
When Harry P. Kilpatrick of the 696th Ordnance Company awoke that morning to the hubbub of "people running, yelling, aircraft everywhere, . it took only seconds to realize this wasn't the Navy giving us one of their Sunday morning buzz jobs." He raced to the weapons shop, only to find it locked; so, he and several others broke off the lock on the door and another lock securing the gun room, then handed out all the guns to whoever came in. "Guess this was the first time in my nearly 11 months in the service that paperwork and signatures were ignored," he said. They set up a .50-caliber water-cooled machine gun just outside the armament shop and fired it at a Japanese plane even before getting water and hooking up the hoses. A few other machine guns were set up elsewhere; but, with the limited ammunition available, they posed little threat to the enemy.20
MSgt Joe K. Harding, a photographer assigned to the base photo lab at Wheeler Field, lived on the base with his wife Frances and was still in bed reading the Sunday paper when the attack began. He immediately got up, dashed over to the photo lab to grab his Speed Graphic camera, and with SSgt Morley Bishop carrying a huge sack of film, took off across the street to the burning hangars. He shot dozens of pictures until he ran out of film, then switched to a movie camera and took several rolls of movies. When the enemy aircraft returned, he was out in the middle of the field still taking pictures, so he just turned and started shooting them with his movie camera. The rear gunner on the Japanese plane sprayed the ground around them, but Harding managed to escape with
Wheeler Field personnel manning a 30-caliber machine gun set up behind the main barracks. (Charles L. Hendrix)
only a hole in his coveralls. He had hundreds of feet of movie film, including the gunner shooting at him, and dozens of still pictures; however, except for the photos published here, plus a few others, everything else was left at the lab and apparently "disappeared," although Harding stated that he later saw several of them published with US Navy credit lines.21
Chaplain Alvin A. Katt, Wheeler's post chaplain, was lying in bed listening to the mynah birds chattering outside his window, when a series of blasts shook the building. He ran to the window and saw thick smoke billowing up from the hangar line, with flames leaping wildly under the rolling black clouds. Looking up, he saw a plane with the rising sun emblem painted on its wings. It hung low over his quarters, as if suspended on a string, and its machine-gun bullets sounded like corn popping on a hot fire as they shattered the tile on the roofs of houses across the street. The plane flew so low that its wings seemed to almost touch the buildings. As two officers ran from the barracks toward the hangar line, the Japanese plane swooped down, shooting at them, so they ran into the newly constructed chapel. Incendiary bullets cut through the roof, into the pews and the floor; but miraculously, they did not burst into flame. "God, with whom nothing is impossible, had given His Divine protection to those who sought sanctuary in the chapel," Chaplain Katt said to himself.22
In the barracks area and on the hangar line, Chaplain Katt witnessed the devastating results of the exploding bombs. Soldiers leaped out of barracks windows and doors, trying to escape from the rain of bombs and machine-gun bullets. Men eating breakfast in the mess hall were blasted from the building, wounded or dead within a few minutes. A bomb missed the largest
Wheeler Field chapel in 1941. (Douglas Van Valkenburgh)
barracks and set a nearby PX warehouse ablaze. In the tent area, men were strafed and killed. He saw aircraft burning from the incendiary bullets as if they were wax models. All over the field, bullets tore through windows and blasted cement and wooden buildings. Then the enemy planes left as suddenly as they came, leaving raging fires, the dead, and the wounded. As the chaplain headed toward the flight line, where smoke and fire poured from the twisted steel skeletons of the hangars, one of the soldiers told him there was an injured man near the theater. They both ran over to the theater, where Chaplain Katt had been scheduled to hold services and Sunday School that day, and found a soldier on the floor, shot through the leg. They converted a large piece of plywood into a stretcher, placed the wounded man on it, and carried him to the dispensary.23
When Chaplain Katt entered the dispensary, he saw the human wreckage of men whose faces were smeared with blood, their bodies torn by shrapnel and bullets. He quickly moved down the line of cots and stretchers, looking for the dying and badly wounded. Kneeling beside the men, he softly repeated the words of the Lord's Prayer over and over. In their last minutes of earthly life, the stricken men lifted their arms and reached for him, seeking spiritual comfort. After he was certain that he had done all he could for those in the Wheeler Field dispensary, he went to the Schofield Barracks hospital and joined other chaplains in tending the wounded who had been taken there. One young man lying on his bed said grimly, "Those dirty devils, we'll pay 'em back. All I'm waiting for is to get outa here and get at 'em!" Chaplain Katt put his hand on the boy's shoulder, wiped the perspiration from his forehead, and saw there was little likelihood he would ever again be able to fight. Asked to help identify the dead in the morgue, he found men on each side of the room, their personal effects piled up at their feet. "It is amazing," he said later, "how unimportant and useless a man's belongings seem when he is dead." Among the first bodies he examined were two young men from his choir. There was a pilot friend who tried to get to his plane but was cut down by Japanese machine-gun bullets as he ran. Chaplain Katt recalled that he and his friend used to go swimming together, catching the waves as they bodysurfed at the beach.24
Chaplain Alvin A. Katt (second from left), following a memorial service he conducted for a pilot who had spun into the Pacific in a P-40 early in 1941. He and the others then boarded the plane to drop leis in the water where the pilot and his P-40 had disappeared. (Col Alvin A. Katt, USAF, Retired)
A lone Japanese fighter plane machine-gunned this tent area at Bellows Field early Sunday morning, 7 December 1941.
Along the beach in Waimanalo, all was serene at Bellows until about dawn when the acting first sergeant ran into the tent area to rouse the sleeping men, yelling that Kaneohe had been "blown to hell." Corporal McKinley thought he was crazy and just turned over in his bed. At 0810, someone called from Hickam Field and asked for a fire truck because they "were in flames." A return call disclosed the fact that they had been attacked, so the Bellows fire chief left for Hickam with the fire truck. Then a lone Japanese fighter plane flew in over the ocean from the east at approximately 0830, firing its machine guns at the tent area, slightly wounding PFC James A. Brown of the medical detachment in his leg. That got everyone's attention! The entire Casual Detachment got up, went over to the armament building, and drew Browning automatic rifles, Springfield rifles, and machine guns. Unable to find belts for the machine guns, they tried aircraft machine gun belts but found they wouldn't work. The only other firepower available was a machine gun on an O-47 belonging to the 86th Observation Squadron and two .30-caliber antiaircraft machine guns which Hawaii National Guard personnel of the 298th Infantry positioned at the end of the runway. Everyone dispersed, jumping into ditches, behind buildings, or whatever shelter they could find.25
Lt Col Leonard D. Weddington, Bellows Field's commander, was at his home about a mile from the post when his driver rushed over to inform him of the raid. The colonel immediately left for Bellows and was there when nine Japanese fighters (three groups of three planes each in V formation) approached from the north about
0900 and attacked for approximately 15 minutes. The raid consisted of gunfire only and started with a diving attack by all nine planes, after which the three-plane formations peeled off and began shooting from various directions. They strafed parked aircraft and also hit a gasoline truck. Pvt Forrest E. Decker of the 428th Signal Maintenance Company, Aviation, was at Bellows visiting friends and witnessed the gas truck's tanker burst into flames immediately. "One man," he said, "whether brave or just stupid, ran to the vehicle, pulled the release lever, got into the cab and drove the tractor away from the tanker." They waited for it to explode, but it never did. It had so many holes in it that it just burned itself out. Bellows' ground defense forces fired back at the Japanese with their Springfield rifles and Browning automatic rifles but inflicted no damage. PFC Raymond F. McBriarty and Pvt William L. Burt of the 86th Observation Squadron grabbed a gun and ammunition from the armament shack, mounted the gun in the rear cockpit of their squadron commander's parked O-47 aircraft and loaded the gun with ammunition. They were proceeding to put ammunition in the fixed guns when the attack started. They "hit the dust" when the first wave of planes struck, then crawled in the cockpit and expended 450 rounds on the attacking Japanese planes that rushed low over the field. They later received the Silver Star for gallantry in action.26
This burnt-out fuel truck was a victim of the Japanese strafing attack at Bellows Field. (William E. Simshauser)
Personnel of the 44th Pursuit Squadron rushed out to disperse, fuel, and arm their twelve P-40 Warhawks, which were lined up on the edge of the runway. Only four of the squadron's officers were at Bellows that morning, and three were pilots. They wanted to get into the air immediately, despite the fact that their aircraft were not completely armed, but Lieutenant Phillips, the armament officer, insisted that all six .50-caliber guns be fully loaded before any aircraft took off. As 2d Lt Hans C. Christiansen started to get into the cockpit of his plane, he was struck in the back by enemy fire and fell at the feet of his mechanic, Cpl Elmer L. Rund, who was standing by the lower right wing. Blood gushed out from a large hole in the life jacket of the fatally wounded pilot. Rund and his crew chief, Joe Ray, then had to quickly duck under the aircraft for protection from the strafing attack by the Japanese planes, which seemed to come at them from all directions.27
In the meantime, 2d Lt George A. Whiteman ran up to a P-40 which was still being loaded with ammunition and told the men to get off the wing because he would fly the plane as was. He started the engine and taxied out onto the runway, leaving so quickly that the armorers did not have time to install the gun cowlings back on the wings. Whiteman began his takeoff run and was immediately spotted by two Zeros,
Riddled by machine-gun fire, this was one of 12 P-40s assigned to Wheeler's 44th Pursuit Squadron but deployed to Bellows Field for gunnery training at the time of the attack.
which swooped down on him. He managed to take off and get approximately 50 feet up in the air before the enemy planes opened fire, then tried to turn inside the two Zeros on his tail, but the P-40 was too slow and unmaneuverable. The Japanese struck the engine, wings, and cockpit of his aircraft, which burst into flames. He attempted a belly landing on the beach, but his plane's left wing hit the sand, and a tremendous ball of fire erupted. SSgt Cosmos Manning carried a large fire extinguisher down to the wreckage, and others followed in a hopeless rescue effort. Black smoke rose in a thick column from the crash site, marking the funeral pyre of Lieutenant Whiteman. SSgt Edward J. Covelesky, a P-40 crew chief, had thrown himself down on top of a sand dune to hide in the vegetation when the strafing attack began. He picked himself up and ran down to the beach area, where he saw that the only trace of the P-40 was a few scattered pieces of metal surrounding an ugly black patch of smoldering sand. Fourteen years later, Sedalia AFB in Missouri was renamed Whiteman AFB in honor of Lieutenant Whiteman.28
The third pilot at Bellows was 1st Lt Samuel W. Bishop, who taxied into position, turned his plane toward the ocean, and began his takeoff roll directly behind Whiteman. He saw Whiteman's plane go down after a burst of gunfire went right into the cockpit. The only emotion he felt was deep rage as he got airborne, holding the trigger down all the while, as Japanese planes swarmed around him. He retracted his landing gear and hugged the water, trying to gain speed, but the Zeros clung tenaciously to him and shot him down in the ocean about half a mile offshore. Despite a bullet wound in his leg, Bishop managed to get out of his plane and, with his Mae West keeping him afloat, swam to shore.29
Sometime between the solo strafing and the attack by nine enemy planes, a crippled B-17C arrived at Bellows. This was one of the twelve Flying Fortresses coming in from Hamilton Field; and its pilot, 1st Lt Robert H. Richards of the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron, had been the last in line to land at Hickam. He never made it there, however, for Japanese Zeros riddled
his aircraft from nose to tail, shot away the ailerons, and severely wounded three crew members. Trying to lose his attackers, he sped away at full throttle along the southern coast of Oahu, and roared in over Waimanalo Bay toward Bellows' short fighter strip. As he approached, crew chief Earl Sutton was taxiing his P-40 to a dispersal area and crossed directly in his way, forcing him to pull up and go around again. Sergeant Covelesky recalled that:
No one was aware of the flight of bombers arriving from the states, and to see that approaching monster trailing smoke from its right engines . . . was mind boggling. Our asphalt landing strip at Bellows was hardly long enough to accommodate our P-40s, much less a B-17; and when he made an approach from the ocean downwind, we knew we were in for a breathtaking crash landing. Even though his wheels were down, he flared out and touched down halfway on the strip, knowing he wouldn't be able to stop, retracted the wheels and slid off the runway over a ditch and into a cane field bordering the air strip.30
Fire trucks and an ambulance rushed down to the crash area. The B-17 crew immediately tried to salvage the bombsight so it would not fall into enemy hands should the Japanese invade the island. Pvt Lester A. Ellis of the 86th Observation Squadron was positioned on the runway, armed with a Springfield rifle, and ordered to give a shouted warning whenever the enemy aircraft started their strafing runs. Each time he shouted a warning, everyone ran for cover. After the Japanese planes left, they counted 73 bullet holes in the B-17.31
B-17C of the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron, which had the misfortune of arriving in the middle of the Japanese attack and made a belly landing on the short fighter airstrip at Bellows Field.
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