FORT MEADE, Md. — “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,” said Pvt. Wilfred D. Burke, 72d Pursuit Squadron, Wheeler Field, whose experience in the attacks on Pearl Harbor are recorded in 7 December 1941: The Air Force Story” compiled by the Pacific Air Forces Office of History.
“Hurtling down on us was a 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,” Burke said.
Burke’s first-hand account of that fateful day 71 years ago provides a close-up glimpse of how U.S. air forces were affected by the surprise attack of the Japanese during the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 1941. The attack propelled the U.S. into World War II and hindsight confirms that the Empire of Japan executed a bold plan, achieved perfect tactical surprise and found U.S. forces on the island of Oahu easy, unprepared targets.
Burke gives us a personal look at what Airmen experienced on what started out to be a quiet, lazy Sunday morning in paradise.
My boss, Sgt. Forest Wills woke me up around 7 a.m. This was the one morning of the week I could sleep late and I wanted to stay in bed, but I did tell Wills that I would go to church with him.
Wills had become a good friend of mine and was concerned with my spiritual welfare, having observed that I was a worthless fellow given to drinking beer.
We ate breakfast in an unusually empty mess hall then, since we had time before church started, joined a group of men in the middle of the tent area to shoot the bull for a while.
We watched a flight of planes pass to the west of Wheeler heading towards Pearl Harbor. Someone said that it was the Navy, but then we were surprised as black puffs of anti-aircraft fire filled the sky.
Our surprise turned into terror when a Japanese aircraft from overhead began diving directly towards us. 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.
Officers and enlisted alike were battling fires, tending to the wounded and dying, dragging equipment and supplies from burning hangers and pushing or towing undamaged aircraft toward dispersal bunkers. Even Gen. Davidson was in the midst of his Airmen pushing planes around.
We fled from the strafing attack on the flight line area, scattering in all directions. I fled toward a housing area thinking it was a safer place when a bomb struck the pavement behind me and killed several fleeing Airmen.
When I found a place to rest against a building wall, I looked back on the carnage and devastation. The dive bombers had dropped all their bombs and had regrouped and were methodically strafing planes lined-up by squadron, wingtip to wingtip, in precise rows. The thick black smoke from the exploding planes served as a screen for a row of P-36 planes on the west end of Wheeler’s flight line.
After the firing ceased I went back to my tent, horrified to find dead bodies lying around. I picked-up my helmet as did others and we all had to stop and lace together the helmet linings of the old-fashioned World War I tin hats. That’s how unprepared we were.
I was helping casualties when I heard the alarm that the Japanese were attacking again. I ran to the housing area again and got a clear view of the enemy planes firing their machine guns at aircraft on the ramp. I couldn’t help from being impressed with their skill. 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.
The attack that crippled the U.S. Pacific Naval Fleet also left approximately 700 U.S Airmen killed or wounded and 66 percent of U.S. air forces assets in Hawaii decimated. The Japanese lost only 29 pilots from more than 350 planes launched from aircraft carriers north of Hawaii.
The Japanese knew their attack on the Pacific Fleet would be imperiled if they didn’t cripple the air forces. Historical records describe the U.S. response as mostly uncoordinated and stunned by the surprise.
What Airmen saw on the ground didn’t match what the newspapers said 71 years ago, either.
“All the publicity is ‘Remember Pearl Harbor.’ They should take a look at Hickam Field or what was Hickam Field,” said Army Air Force Maj. Charles P. Eckhert, Dec. 10, 1941. “They dropped about 100 bombs on Hickam, practically all hits. The papers say they are poor bombardiers! They were perfect on nearly all their releases.”
But the accounts of aircraft destroyed and numbers of Airmen killed tell only a small part of the Pearl Harbor story. It’s the individual heroism of countless and sometimes forgotten Airmen that paint the true picture of the attack and “7 December 1941 – The Air Force Story” reveals these lessor known accounts.
The Air Force story explains as the flight lines were engulfed in flames that the order to disperse the planes inspired scores of men to rush around the Hickam flight line heedless of the rain of bullets and goes on to detail how a general’s aide was trying to taxi one of the B-18s when strafers put an engine out of commission.
It was no easy job to taxi such a heavy plane with only one engine, but the aide raced the one engine until it pulled its side of the plane forward, then slammed that brake on hard, which forced the other wing up. By waddling along this way, all the time under enemy fire, he finally brought the plane across the landing mat to comparative safety. While fire department personnel fought flames at the tail end of some of the planes, daring crew members jumped upon the wings, disconnected the engines, and pulled their 800- or 900-pound weight to the edge of the apron. Their quick thinking and action saved the expensive engines.
Hickam and Wheeler Air Force Base, and Bellows Air Force Station were priority targets for the Japanese bombers and U.S. assumptions, attitudes and maintenance routines of the day made it difficult, if not impossible, to react to the pounding they delivered.
“We’re going to be all right even though we took a beating,” Gen. Howard C. Davidson, 14th Pursuit Wing commander said to Airmen at Bellows Air Field following the attack .
Davidson was visiting airfields to calm the nerves of Airmen, many of whom were in shock following the attack. Three pilots accompanied him to answer questions about how they were able to get off the ground to attempt a courageous counterattack and the telling of their stories seemed to calm them.
The three pilots were Lts. Kenneth M. Taylor, George S. Welch and Philip Rasmussen. Welch and Taylor would later receive Distinguished Service Crosses; Welch a Silver Star. All owed much to ground crews who managed to prepare their aircraft while fire, bombs and strafing saturated the air fields. Other pilots were killed trying to take off, but the Japanese onslaught denied most U.S. forces the opportunity to wage any sort of counter attack.
Other acts of courage that day were rarely, if ever, made public.
Airmen at Hickam Airfield during the attack recall an orderly room clerk described as a mild-mannered private first class who climbed into a B-18 and mounted a .30-caliber machine gun in the nose. It was unstable, because the mount was made for an aerial gun; but he braced it against his shoulder and kept up a steady stream of fire. An enemy plane flew low, strafed the B-18 with incendiary bullets, and set it on fire. There was no way for him to escape and spectators nearby said he did not even seem to try but kept on firing. Long after the leaping flames had enveloped the nose of the plane, they heard his screams and saw the tracer bullets from his machine gun mounting skyward.
In a few hellacious hours, a formidable foe demonstrated in a most personal way what happens in combat when you’re not ready and taught the U.S. an important lesson about how vital air dominance is to the fight.
In Stephan L. McFarland’s book “A Concise History of the U.S. Air Force” he begins with the affirmation that, except in a few instances since World War II, no American soldier or sailor has been attacked by enemy air power and that, conversely, no enemy soldier or sailor has acted in combat without being attacked or at least threatened by American air power.
Today the nation recognizes the annual call to ‘Remember Pearl Harbor’ and with respect to all the civilian and military personnel lost or who endured that day it’s possible to reflect on the lessons learned by and the heroic acts of Airmen that are an enduring part of the Air Force story.