Seventy years ago today Dec. 5, a young man turned in his sidearm, helped remove the machine guns and ammo from P40s and P36s, and park them on the apron in front of hangers #2 & #3. The planes were parked with military precision a precise distance between wing tips. The propellers were aligned using string. The orders were to prepare for a General’s and Admiral’s inspection the next morning. The young man had been on a presidentially ordered full war time alert for over a month. Until this day the planes were dispersed around the field, some in netted bunkers. They were armed and warmed up periodically. The men had been issued sidearms with ammo and told to load and chamber a shell. No one had been on leave for over a month. The local papers had warned the previous weekend that war was coming very soon. Everything was calm in paradise.
It’s a wonderful Saturday morning in paradise. The young PFC is dressed in Class A uniform in preparation for an inspection. Typical of the military, it is hurry up and wait time. Wait they do but no inspection is held. By late afternoon the rumor is that passes will be available for a night on the town. The young man heads for his first sergeant to receive his pass. Finally a break from the constant work and drilling of the last few weeks. The young soldier doesn’t drink so he plans on taking in a movie. He gets a ride into town and sees a double feature, both forgettable. Double features then came with a cliff hanger serial. Tonight’s serial is “Don Winslow in the Navy, The Attack on Pearl Harbor.” What a hoot! The soldier returns to base sometime around midnight. His quarters are in a tent area between Hanger’s #2 and #3 just across the street from street from the precision aligned planes. In fact, his tent is right next to the street. The tents are 6 man platform white canvas tents with army cots inside. Under his bunk is his rifle and helmet. There are no rounds for his rifle; they are locked in the ammo bunker in Hanger #3.
The outfit is the 72nd Fighter Squadron which is waiting for new planes from the states before shipping out the Philippines. The air base is Wheeler Field, next door to Schofield Barracks and just down the road from the Dole pineapple farm. Wheeler Field is the primary fighter base for the Hawaiian Islands. SSE is Hickam Field, the bomber base, and Pearl Harbor, the Naval base.
It’s a typical calm fall night in paradise.
link for photo’s:
A little background on our young airman. He grew up on a Midwestern prairie farm. As a young boy he farmed with horses, then graduated to tractors and other mechanized machinery. His granddad owned and operated a steam tractor and thrasher. The boy often operated the steam engine with his Uncle Ray who was only six months older and more like a brother than an uncle. The young boy learned to repair engines for his Dad, not only the tractors and other farm engines but also the Model Ts and Model As. He hunted and trapped and was a crack rifle shoot. He preferred using a rifle for rabbit hunting over a shotgun. His grandmother had taught him how to shoot chickens through the eye. One of his hobbies was photography.
In 1939, jobs were still scarce. He apprenticed with a local Swedish blacksmith and was learning that trade. War clouds and news of the war was an everyday event on the radio. While working in the blacksmith shop, he took both of his Dad’s two row John Deere corn planters and combined them into one four row machine. He had an innate sense of engineering that he would demonstrate the rest of his life.
In the fall of 1940, he talked to an Army recruiter and decided to join the Air Corps. Uncle Ray had been in the Navy for three years now and was somewhere in the Pacific on the West Virginia. He asked the recruiter if he could go to Alaska or Hawaii. When asked why, he stated that he wanted to be there on day one. In early November he took the oath and was shipped to Jefferson Barracks, MO. About one week later, the first Roosevelt draftees arrived with a gaggle of reporters. The volunteers were displaced from the barracks and their boot camp facilities so they were shipped to San Francisco and then to Hawaii without boot camp. He celebrated Thanksgiving that year somewhere between Hawaii and San Francisco.
When they arrived at Pearl Harbor, the recruits were loaded on a narrow gauge train called the Pineapple Express. The engine was smaller than granddad’s steam engine. It huffed and puffed its way up the mountains to Wheeler Field. They where marched to an empty block between Hangers #2 and #3 and told to bivouac there. Guards were posted with orders to shoot. Two men on the ship had died of meningitis and they were under quarantine. The spent their first month in Paradise doing nothing. An old master sergeant, an odd duck who wore pilot’s wings, advised the young man to read and memorize the Army Manual which he did. It would prove to be good advice.
After the quarantine was lifted, the men were given aptitude tests. The young GI had requested photography school but his test results were anomalous. He was asked to retake the tests. The results did not change; he had an exceptionally high aptitude for mechanics. He was told photography school was filled so he was assigned to mechanic’s school at Hickam. He flew through mechanic’s school, finishing number one in his class, setting school records. On his return to Wheeler Field he was assigned to fighter aircraft maintenance. He again requested photography school but his request was denied. Had he flunked it would have been approved. Army life has its peculiarities.
The first year recruits still had limited access to passes so there was not much opportunity to go to town. Our young GI asked for a pass one day to attend a special event in Honolulu. The pass was granted. He left base in a Class A uniform. At the event, there were a few other soldiers there but most of the attendees were in tuxedos. Afterwards, a distinguished middle aged gentleman dressed in a tux approached him and offered a ride back to base. Since a car was much faster than the Pineapple Express, he accepted. On approaching the gate, he asked the driver to just stop and let him out. Instead the driver drove up to the guard shack. The guard snapped to attention, saluted and said, “Welcome back General.” His chauffer was Gen. Davidson, the base commander. This was the first of many contacts he had with the General. This young soldier would soon meet and know many of the top air corps brass in Hawaii including Col. and later Gen. Flood, who he eventually served as flight engineer, Gen. Tinker, KIA Battle of Midway, Capt. and later Maj. Beckwith, commander of the 72nd Sq., Lts. Daine, Taylor, Welch, Rogers, and Grabbeski. The first four Lts. all got wheels up that Sunday morning. Lt. Daine was shot down; he had no guns in his P40. Grabbeski was Polish and later transferred to England to lead the Polish Exile Air Force.
Being ambitious, the young GI learned all he could about aircraft with the goal of earning his wings as a flight mechanic. On the side, he still took pictures, including portraits of other GIs. His photographs were good, in fact as good as the expensive ones downtown by the professionals. They were also a lot cheaper The requests were numerous enough that he asked for permission to set up a photo lab. Permission was granted as well as permission to carry loaded uncased cameras on base. Connections to generals have rewards. In late November, with his imminent transfer to the Philippines, he packed up over one thousand still photos and mailed them home. They never arrived. The mail boat never made it out of the harbor.
In early November, the USS West Virginia came into Pearl. The airman went aboard to see Uncle Ray, who was a cook in the Admiral’s mess. When Ray finished his normal duties, he cooked a couple of steaks, which were consumed at the Admiral’s table. A few days later the pair met again and visited another hometown friend, Bub, at Schofield Barracks. This was the first the trio had been together since their school days. Most people would not find this remarkable that three friends, each in a different branch of the service would meet up on a distant island in the Pacific. But then most people went to schools with graduating classes bigger than 7. A few days later, Uncle Ray shipped out. His hitch in the Navy was over. He would be back home on the farm by the first week in December.
Life was good in paradise.
It was a little after 0700 on a Sunday morning sevnety years ago today when the young soldier woke up. This was late for a farmer turned soldier but then he was out late at the movies the night before. He dressed in his Class A uniform. The plan was to meet a friend, Len, whom he would name his first son after, get some breakfast, and then attend church. That afternoon he planned on meeting another friend to work in the photo lab. His quarters was a 6 man platform tent between Hangers #2 and #3. The same area he bivouacked in his first day in Hawaii. These tents were nicer. His five tent mates were still in their bunks. Most likely they had a livelier time in town than he did. A little before 0800 he stepped out of the tent into the bright dawn light of paradise. He walked to the middle of the street just feet from the fighter aircraft he had help line up Friday for the never held inspection on Saturday.
He heard planes approaching the field and looked up to see who was practicing. The aircraft had a strange silhouette, and then the early dawn light revealed the red insignia on the wings and fuselage. Stunned, he watched for a few seconds as a plane headed straight for him. Then it released something from its belly and pulled up. The object continued on the plane’s previous trajectory straight towards him. The soldier turned and ran for tent for the helmet and rifle under his bunk. As he dove into the tent, he yelled, “Hit the deck boys, it’s the Japs!” The only reply he heard was “Your nuts, you’ve been watching too many movies!” A couple of this tent mates jumped out of bed. There was an explosion outside and the paradise went black.
Sometime later, a few minutes, an eternity, who knows, the soldier woke up, probably somewhat confused. The tent was on top of him, he was bleeding from the nose and ears. His teeth were loose. He crawled out from under the tent with his helmet and rifle. Devastation was all about, fires, exploding ordinance, wrecked planes. He no longer had tent mates. The three neighboring tents were also gone. Of the 18 men in those tents, his name would be the only name that did not appear on a casualty report.
He saw one friend laying in the street, at least half of him was there. The friend requested a .45 but he didn’t have one. It was in the ammo bunker with the 30-06 rounds for his useless rifle. He lit the friend a cigarette and walked away. Later he would name his third son for that boy. The first order of business was to get some bullets for the rifle. He trotted over to Hanger #3, found the bunker locked. Locating a crowbar, he went back to the bunker. Several men were now behind him understanding his intent. Then from nowhere, a 2nd Lt approached and ordered a halt to the operation. No orders had been given to open the ammo locker. Someone grabbed the crow bar from the airman’s hands and the Lt. crumbled to the floor. The crowbar was passed back and the job completed.
The NCOs and enlisted men knew their jobs. Get as many planes ready for combat as quickly as possible. It would have been easier on Thursday. Several men grabbed .50 caliber machine guns and started for thr few intact planes still on the flight line. One pair consisted of a large Swede and a much shorter man. There were two P40s parked at the far end of the field that would be intact. The two trotted off down the runway in that direction when another flight of Japanese planes appeared overhead. This was the beginning of the second raid. Shorty mumbled something about needing a tripod. The Swede swung the 50 up to his shoulder. The pair got their plane but the Swede had burned hands and a broken should.
Our young airman now realized that being near the hangers and all those parked planes was not a good idea. So he ran for base housing a few hundred yards up the street. Before he could get there, a Zero came up the street strafing. He and one other GI jumped behind a tree only half big enough for one. A third GI was caught in the middle of the street. He dropped to his knees and started praying. Bullets splattered off the cement on both sides of him, but he was unscratched.
The raid ended shortly but the destruction of Hangers #2 and #3 and nearly all of the carefully lined up fighters in front of them was completed. Heavy black smoke rose up from the flight line, the hangers and the tent area between them. Paradise was turning black.
The rest of the morning was a blur. The first order of business was to get the wounded to the infirmary at Schofield. However, the infirmary was full so they just placed them on the lawn. Fire fighting and salvage operations began immediately. All was chaos. As dusk approached, they had 4 operational fighters.
Word circulated among the men that Lt. Daine was one of the first to get airborne from Haleiwa Air Field in his unarmed P36. He took off crosswise of the runway and climbed straight for the leader in the Japanese bomber formation. He rolled over and came down on one of the enemy craft with his land gear and rode it into the sea. Then repeated the maneuver. He had no radio, his fate after that was unknown, presumed shot down and lost at sea.
Lts. Welch, Taylor and Rogers had been partying Saturday night and into the wee hours of the morning. They raced to Haleiwa still dressed in tuxedos. All three got airborne. Rumors reached Wheeler that Welch and Taylor had made ace. Lt. Rogers had disengaged from the enemy and returned to base. Rogers was not liked by the men at Wheeler because he often would sneak up to them on guard duty and disarm them using intimidation and bluff. Of course, the enlisted men were then reprimanded for failing to do their duty. Lt. Rogers tried this one night before the war on our young airman. It did not work and he ended up with his hands in the air for one hour waiting for the Corporal of the Guard. The young airman was treated as a hero by his colleagues. Rogers and the young soldier would cross paths numerous times over the next three years but Rogers always came out second best.
As dusk approached, work stopped on the planes, black out conditions were being enforced. The men were given guard duty around the airfield. No one slept. Our young soldier was called aside by Col. Thorpe for special duty probably from advice by Gen. Davidson. He was requested to pick three trustworthy GIs and to follow him to the Officer’s Housing area. They arrived at Col. Thorpe’s house and the soldiers were introduced to eight very pregnant officer’s wives including Mrs. Thorpe. All non-combatants had been evacuated to the mountains, but there were no medical facilities for these women so they remained behind. They were to guard the women with their lives.
Then Col. Thorpe pulled the young airman aside. He removed 8 rounds from his pocket and handed them to the airman giving him explicit instructions that they were to remain in his shirt pocket and to be used only as a last resort. The young soldier was stunned. He questioned the orders. They were confirmed and emphatic. There was only chaos in paradise. Hell this was no longer paradise.
He soldiered on. At one point during the night, one of the women became hysterical. The young man tried reason to no avail. Finally he applied a non-PC technique that shocked the pregnant woman into listening. He informed her there was an army of men out there that would die first before any harm came to them. He ended by asking the women to make some sandwiches and coffee for his men as they had not eaten for 24 hours. Hell he was still in his Class A uniform. After the men had eaten, the women called him in for his sandwich. He refused being scared of the events of the day and more scared of the events of the night. They finally persuaded him to eat. To drink a cup of coffee, he had to slide it up a door post he was shaking so badly.
Everybody that night was trigger happy. Sporadic gun fire could be heard around the airfield. One poor Army mule was mistaken for a saboteur.
So ended the first night in paradise lost, seventy years ago today, Dec. 7th at Wheeler Field the Territory of Hawaii.
Dec. 8-12, 1941 Wheeler Field Territory of Hawaii.
People were apprehensive about the possibility of invasion for several days. The mechanics worked all day to repair planes and then stood guard duty at night. Very few slept the first four days after the bombing. Wheeler Field was a mess. Wreckage all over, hangers mostly destroyed. But everybody pitched in. Pilots came through the work areas constantly asking the mechanics when a plane could be test flighted. Finally the men had enough of the constant interruption, and replied that it would go faster if they pitched in. The pilots readily admitted they did not know what to do. So the NCOs found them jobs cleaning parts, running errands, etc. Imagine, a Lt. up to his elbows in grease taking orders from a corporal.
Each day the number of available planes grew. They would scour the wreckage for usable parts. Months later they were still removing bailing wire from some of the planes. By the fourth day they were running out of parts. They were down to a P36 fuselage and set of P40 wings. Both planes were built by Curtiss so they were similar. The farm boy/blacksmith/soldier/mechanic put his engineering talents to work. By the end of the day, they had an ugly duckling P36-40. It flew.
At this point the men started to relax. The felt they had enough fighter planes to ward off another attack. They finally got some much needed rest.
Remember the old master sergeant with the wings on his chest. He too had run afoul of Lt. Rogers and had no love for the man. A couple of weeks after the bombing, the M/Sgt walked up to Lt. Rogers and received his first salute. He was wearing Captain’s bars. The next day he was a Major and the following day a Lt. Col., a reserve commission he held from WWI. Justice can be sweet.
Our young soldier remained in Hawaii for three more years. He helped engineer and rig belly tanks mounted in the bomb racks of P40s in preparation for the Battle of Midway. The additional fuel allowed the planes to fly straight from Hawaii to the battle. He earned his wings as a flight engineer and eventually was chosen as Gen. Flood’s chief engineer on his C47. Flood was the Inspector General of the 7th Air Force. With his photography experience, our airman also became the official photographer for the IG, thus photographing any wrecks and other investigations. He often flew copilot on the C47 since there was a lack of pilots. In June 1944, with the Battle of Saipan raging, they flew the C47 into the island to delivery material and flew wounded out. On takeoff, the far end of the runway was held by Japanese forces. Back in Hawaii, they counted 140 small arms bullet holes in the cockpit of the ship. No one was scratched.
Uncle Ray was back in uniform within days of the attack. He served out the war in the Aleutians and completed his 20 years.
Our young soldier, now 26 and a Staff Sergeant finally got to come home in November of 1944. A year later he was at Sedalia Air Base in Missouri serving as crew chief of five C46s. As he was loading them for a trip to the South Pacific to collect wounded, his discharge orders came through. After five years of military life, he was going back home to farm. All was right with the world again, the Illinois prairie was a calm paradise compared to the tropical chaos of the previous five years.
Follow the link below and inspect the photograph on the right end of row two. Four GIs are removing parts from a wrecked P40. This photograph was probably taken within 4 days of the bombing. The soldier behind the propeller is the young soldier of this story. He was my Dad.
I hope you enjoyed the tale. Every bit is true. My brothers and I are preparing his actual first hand accounts for submittal to a suitable museum dedicated to PH survivors. Unfortunatley be died before was able to write down all of the tales. One very signficant story involved the development of gasoline bombs that originated in the belly tanks rigged for the Battle of Midway. Have any of you former military men ever wondered why or how napalm, supposedly developed by Dow Chemical in fridged Michigan contained naphtha and palm oil?