The Forgotten Battle for the Skies over Pearl Harbor

October 7, 2017 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Pearl HarborJapanWorld War IIDog FightU.S. Air ForceU.S. Navy

The Forgotten Battle for the Skies over Pearl Harbor

Despite the element of surprise in favor of the Japanese, American airmen rose to defend Pearl Harbor.

On a serene Sunday morning the residents of Oahu enjoyed the dawning of another gorgeous day in paradise. Unknown to them, three converging formations of military aircraft navigated toward their lush island, homing in on the soothing Hawaiian music playing on Honolulu radio stations KGMB and KGU.

The night before, Lt. Col. Clay Hoppaugh, signal officer for the Hawaiian Air Force, had contacted Welby Edwards, manager of KGMB, and asked that the station remain on all night so a flight of Army Air Corps Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers flying from California could home in on the station’s signal. Actually, it was a less than well-kept secret that whenever the station played music all night, aircraft flew in from the mainland the next morning.

Being nondirectional, however, that same music also drifted into the radio receivers in the operations rooms of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s six Japanese aircraft carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku, and Zuikaku, located roughly 300 miles north of Oahu. Nagumo’s task force monitored the station throughout the night for any hint of a military alert on Oahu, and at approximately 7 am on Sunday Lt. Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida, leading his formation toward Oahu, also tuned in KGMB to guide his 183 aircraft to their destination.  While Fuchida homed in on KGMB’s signal, 18 U.S. Navy Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers took off from the aircraft carrier Enterprise 200 miles west of Oahu and tuned in radio station KGU to get some homing practice of their own. Shortly after 8 am, the three converging formations, each tracking inbound on the same innocent radio beams, collided in brutal and deadly aerial combat that would plunge the United States into World War II. The date was December 7, 1941.

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The story of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor is, of course, much broader and more nuanced than just the events surrounding the devastating strike against the United States Navy’s Pacific Fleet. In the over 70 years since the attack, there has been no shortage of books and articles detailing events on the “Day of Infamy,” yet most accounts focus almost exclusively on what happened to the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor.

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Incongruously, scant attention has been paid to the drama of swirling air-to-air combat over Oahu on December 7. For the most part, the aerial battles and dogfights are relegated to footnotes or to a few obscure paragraphs scattered among dozens of sources. Yet the clashes in the air are as compelling, electrifying, and powerful as any actions at Pearl Harbor. Although new sources, American and Japanese, have clarified and in some cases altered the facts about a few iconic episodes, the handful of airmen who fought, and in some cases died, that Sunday morning were truly American heroes who willingly flew to the sound of battle and carried the fight to a determined enemy. Their fight adds a vital missing dimension to the long-established Pearl Harbor story.

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“Tora! Tora! Tora!”

The aerial saga began at approximately 6:15 am on December 7, as Commander Minoru Genda, principal planner of the Pearl Harbor attack, watched anxiously aboard the carrier Akagi as his close friend and Eta Jima Naval Academy classmate Mitsuo Fuchida led the first wave of aircraft into the gray dawn. Both men were seasoned carrier pilots and combat veterans from China. Genda had also served a tour in London in 1940 as assistant naval attaché. He had been extremely impressed by the British carrier-based torpedo plane attack that sank or damaged several ships of the Italian Navy’s Mediterranean fleet at the harbor of Taranto, so he felt confident that Fuchida would accomplish a similar feat at Pearl Harbor.

Confidence also permeated the thoughts of the strike commander. As he flew south in his Nakajima B5N2 Kate bomber, a flamboyant Fuchida wore red underwear and a red shirt, reasoning that blood would not show if he were wounded and therefore would not demoralize the other fliers. So it was in that frame of mind as he approached Oahu’s North Shore that Fuchida observed a tranquil, peaceful panorama before him; his first wave had achieved complete surprise. He gave the attack order at 7:40 am, unleashing 43 Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighters, 49 high-level Kate bombers, 51 Aichi D3A1 Val dive bombers, and 40 Kate torpedo bombers into battle.  Then, at 7:53 he sent his infamous message confirming total strategic and tactical surprise: “Tora! Tora! Tora!”

The first-wave fighters wasted no time. Ironically, the opening aerial combat of the Pearl Harbor attack involved a civilian aircraft. One minute after Fuchida’s “Tora!” message, several Zeros from the carrier Akagi stumbled across a Piper Cub flown by solo student Marcus F. Poston. Unable to resist the temptation, the Zeros opened fire with their two 20mm cannon and two 7.7mm machine guns, ripping the Cub’s engine from its mount. The startled but lucky student pilot leaped unhurt from his plane for his first and only parachute jump. Zero pilots Takeshi Hirano and Shinaji Iwama shared the kill.

Running Into a War

Genda’s brilliant and bold plan, executed to perfection by Fuchida’s first wave, unfolded without a hitch. Between 7:55 and 8:10 a host of Val dive bombers escorted by Zeros laid waste to the two major military air bases on Oahu. Attacking from different quadrants, 25 Vals dropping 550-pound bombs turned Wheeler Field into a raging inferno. The Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters on the tarmac of the 14th Pursuit Wing offered a particularly inviting target. By order of U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, commander of the Hawaiian Department, all aircraft at Wheeler and Hickam Fields were parked wingtip to wingtip in precise rows, ostensibly to facilitate guarding against sabotage.

Rampaging Vals and strafing Zeros found easy pickings. They destroyed 58 fighters on the ground and damaged another 37. At Hickam only 19 of 58 bombers from the 18th Bombardment Wing survived the attack.  Simultaneously, huge columns of black smoke boiled above Pearl Harbor where Type 91 Model 2 Japanese torpedoes had already smashed into the battleships Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, and California.

Into this maelstrom of devastation and confusion stumbled the 12 B-17s of the 38th and 88th Reconnaissance Squadrons, led by Major Truman H. Landon. Contrary to a widespread contemporaneous view, they did not make the 13-hour trip in formation; each of the four B-17Cs and eight B-17Es flew and navigated separately, their flights beginning at Hamilton Field, California, about 25 miles north of San Francisco.

Emphasizing the importance of the mission to the Philippines by way of Honolulu, no less a personage than Chief of the Army Air Forces General Henry “Hap” Arnold was there to see them off. Interrupting a quail hunting trip to address the crews, he warned them, “War is imminent. You may run into a war during your flight.” Armed with that admonition but nothing else, the big bombers began taking off at 10:30 pm. The prevalent feeling was that a war would not erupt until after they reached the Philippines. Therefore, none of the ships carried armor or ammunition; they were stripped down and packed to the brim with every gallon of fuel they could carry for the long hop from California to Hawaii. The B-17 Flying Fortresses did in fact carry their potent arsenal of .50-caliber machine guns, but they were boxed, stowed away, and packed in Cosmoline.

As Major Landon’s B-17E approached Oahu from the north at approximately 8 am, he observed a group of planes flying toward him. His first thought was, “Here comes the Air Force out to greet us.” Seconds later the unidentified aircraft dived on Landon, cannon and machine guns blazing. Over the intercom the crew heard someone say, “Damn it, those are Japs!”

Landing Under Fire

To evade the attackers, Landon skillfully flew into a nearby cloud bank, then took up a heading for land. As Landon maneuvered his bomber on the short final run to the Hickham runway, the tower operator advised, “You have three Japs on your tail!” In spite of the hail of fire coming his way, somehow Major Landon managed to get his bird down in one piece. Following right behind Landon, another B-17E appeared through the heavy smoke and touched down. Not believing his eyes, the pilot, Lieutenant Karl T. Barthelmess, thought it was the most realistic drill he had ever seen.

Captain Raymond T. Swenson and crew were not so lucky. After one aborted approach, the pilot positioned his B-17C for a second attempt at Hickam’s runway. At that point a Zero piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Shigeru Itaya riddled the aircraft at point-blank range, sending several bullets into the radio compartment and igniting a bundle of magnesium flares. The Flying Fortress was engulfed in flames when it touched down, and halfway through the landing roll the incinerated fuselage broke in half just behind the wing root. The crew jumped from the burning wreck and ran across the field for cover. All made it except one. The squadron flight surgeon, Lieutenant William R. Schick, was gunned down by a strafing Zero. He died the following day at Tripler Army Hospital.