FORT MEADE, Md. (12/7/2012 - AFNS) -- "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.
"7 December 1941: The Air Force Story" image represents the ‘day of infamy' from an Air Force perspective. U.S. Air Force graphic
by Luke Borland, December 2012
"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.
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 by 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Force story explains asthe flight lines were engulfed in
flames thatthe 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 ageneral'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 racedthe one engine until it pulled its side of the
plane forward, then slammed that brake on hard, which forced
the other wing up. By waddlingalongthis 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.
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 .
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
couragethat day were rarely, if ever,made public.
Airmen at Hickam Airfield during the attackrecall an
orderly room clerk described as a mild-mannered private
first classwho 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
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
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.
By USAF Tom Budzyna
Air Force News Service
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