Here's What You Need to Know: Almost no one knows the story of 18 Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers.
Many people have heard of the six American Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters that actually got off the ground and contested the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Some know about the 11 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers winging toward Pearl Harbor from California unarmed and out of gas. A few are aware of the six obsolete Curtiss P-36 Hawk that were able to take off. However, almost no one knows the story of 18 Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers from the aircraft carrier Enterprise that arrived over Pearl Harbor simultaneously with the Japanese. These were the planes of Scouting Squadron Six.
Three U.S. aircraft carriers were operating in the Pacific that day. The Saratoga (CV3) was being overhauled in San Diego. The Lexington (CV2) had just left Pearl Harbor to deliver 18 Vought SB2U Vindicator dive bombers to Midway. The Enterprise (CV6) was just returning from a similar delivery of 12 Grumman F4F Wildcats to Wake Island. She was due back at Pearl on December 6. Fortunately, a storm loomed, so Halsey reduced speed and the ship did not actually reach port until the 8th.
Halsey knew war was imminent. Drills had been conducted regularly over the past few months, the most recent on November 27. When Halsey was given his orders to reinforce Wake, he had deliberately asked, “How far do you want me to go?”
Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, replied, “Use your own common sense.”
That was all Halsey needed to hear. In his famous “Battle Order Number One,” the first item read, “The Enterprise is now operating under war conditions.” When his operations officer challenged this order, Halsey replied, “I’ll take [responsibility]. If anything gets in the way, we’ll shoot first and argue afterwards.” He intended to bomb anything on the sea and shoot down anything in the sky.
It was ironic. Unlike the rest of the Navy on December 7, the Enterprise fliers saw the enemy first. Their guns were loaded. Their crews were trained. But still, like everyone else, they did not quite expect an attack at home. They were looking for submarines. When they arrived, they thought the smoke was from burning sugar cane fields. They thought the shell fire was just a drill. They thought the stacks of green aircraft belonged to the Army. Only when they saw the antiaircraft blossoms over Pearl did they realize the truth.
Both the Japanese and American forces had launched aircraft at first light. At 0615 on December 7, the Japanese carriers sent their first attack wave aloft 250 miles north-northwest of Oahu. At exactly the same moment, the Enterprise launched what was thought to be a routine patrol directly in front of the ship’s advance. As usual, the patrol would search a hemisphere of 180 degrees directly ahead of the task force. The flight consisted of nine pairs of SBD-2 Dauntless dive-bombers, mostly from Scout Squadron Six, but including a few planes from Bomb Squadron Six. Each pair of aircraft would conduct a zigzag search in an arc 150 miles long and approximately 10 degrees wide. Instead of returning to the ship, they would then continue on to land at Ford Island, thus getting a jump on shore leave.
At 0645, the destroyer USS Ward fired on and sank a Japanese midget submarine operating within the defensive perimeter of Pearl Harbor. Seventeen minutes later, the Army radar station at Opana Point picked up the first wave of Japanese attackers. Thirteen minutes later, the second Japanese wave was launched. At 0748, Kaneohe Airfield was strafed and bombed. At 0752, Lt. Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida, tactical commander of the first wave, sent the message, “Tora, Tora, Tora,” meaning that surprise had been achieved. At the same time Scouting Six planes began to arrive over Oahu.
To maintain radio silence, Halsey had not informed Pearl Harbor his location or of his reconnaissance patrol. When news of the attack reached him, his first thought was, “My God, they’re shooting at my own boys!”
One of the first two-plane sections to arrive was aircraft 6-S-16, piloted by Frank A. Patriarca with a gunner named DeLuca, and 6-S-15, piloted by Ensign W.M. Willis with gunner Fred J. Ducolon. They almost made it to Ford Island. The two had passed Barbers Point, rounded Ewa Field, and were actually lining up on their landing approach when the attack began. They noticed the antiaircraft fire, but it was not until a Japanese Aichi “Val” dive-bomber winged over and flashed the rising sun insignia that Patriarca knew something was very wrong. At the same instant, tracers began whizzing past his plane.
Immediately, Patriarca opened throttle, diving back toward the coast. He had decided to try and make it all the way back to the Enterprise when he realized he was alone. After searching for 6-S-15, his fuel was low, so he landed at Burns Field on Kauai. Willis and Ducolon were never found, although Mitsubishi Zero fighters led by Lieutenant Masaji Suganami from the carrier Soryu would later claim three SBDs.
After Sending His Final Message, “Do not fire. We are American Aircraft” No Trace of Gonzalez was Ever Found
At about the same time, S-B-3 and S-B-12 approached Pearl Harbor. Ensign Manuel Gonzalez and gunner Leonard J. Kozelek were in S-B-3, and S-B-12 was piloted by Ensign Frank T. Weber with a gunner by the name of Keany. Their segment of the search had finished 20 miles north of Kauai, whereupon they turned and headed toward Oahu and Pearl Harbor. No one knows exactly what happened to Gonzalez that day, but when the two planes were about 25 miles off Oahu, Weber noticed a group of 40 to 50 planes he thought belonged to the Army circling at about 3,500 feet. Although he had been flying just 500 feet above and behind S-B-3, when Weber looked back Gonzalez was gone.
Gonzalez’s last message, which several other aircraft heard, was something like, “Do not fire. We are American aircraft,” or words to that effect. Moments later, Gonzales was calling to his gunner to break out the rubber raft. Nothing else was heard from them, and no trace was ever found.
It seems incredible that an aircraft could have shot down Gonzalez and missed Weber, but such may well have been the case, since Weber innocently began a search of the area and performed four or five slow “S” turns looking for his comrade. It was just Weber’s bad luck that he had told his radioman to change frequencies and get some homing practice on the approach into Pearl, thus missing Gonzalez’s last message.
Still unaware of the attack and unable to spot S-B-3, Weber continued on toward Pearl until he noticed an aircraft about 2,000 feet directly ahead of him. Thinking it was Gonzalez at last, he increased speed and attempted to form up on him when the unknown plane suddenly turned 180 degrees and approached. Weber performed a slow, wide turn to help close on the approaching aircraft. Only when it was close off his starboard bow and finally made a flipper turn was Weber able to see the red circles that identified it as Japanese. He immediately increased speed and dove to an altitude of 25 feet.
The Japanese pilot did not follow, and Weber flew on to Barbers Point where he formed up on 6-S-10, piloted by Lieutenant W.E. Gallaher, and began circling a few miles off the coast as other Enterprise planes were arriving.
Weber described the Japanese plane as resembling a German Junkers Ju-87 Stuka type dive-bomber. Such a description would seem to describe the Japanese Val dive-bombers operating over Pearl Harbor. A Japanese report confirms that Vals from the aircraft carrier Shokaku were returning to sea after bombing Hickam Field and were 20 miles off Keana Point when they shot down an SBD.
At about 0820, 6-S-14, piloted by E.T. Deacon with gunner Audrey G. Coslett, and 6-S-9 flown by W.E. Roberts with gunner D.H. Jones, arrived off Kaena Point. There they noticed about 30 aircraft in a long column at an altitude of 100 feet and only 400 feet away. Roberts saw their green camouflage and assumed they were U.S. Army aircraft. One plane came so close that the Japanese pilot even waggled his wings as he flew by. “The significance of the red circles on the wings did not occur to me until later,” said Roberts.
The column of planes did not attack, and neither did the Dauntlesses. At the same time, the Dauntless pilots noticed the large amount of smoke and geysers of water produced by coastal antiaircraft guns. Dauntlesses 6-S-14 and 6-B-9 kept flying toward Ford Island until they heard the “Don’t shoot” call of Ensign Gonzalez. Then they charged their guns and climbed to 1,000 feet, observing about 20 Japanese fighters over Pearl Harbor. Worse, coming straight toward them were 25 dive-bombers that had just completed their dives. Both Deacon and Roberts dove to the water and headed for Hickam Field, flying directly over Fort Weaver.