The Attack on Pearl Harbor
George Welch, Ken Taylor, Fritz Hebel
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At exactly 7:55 a.m., on December 7, 1941, on a beautiful Sunday morning, the United States was suddenly plunged into the greatest conflict in the history of the world. We were not only unprepared for war, but our armed forces in the Pacific were caught completely by surprise.

That same Sunday morning two young Army Air Corps lieutenants were just leaving an all-night party at Wheeler Field, Hawaii. They were George Welch and Ken Taylor of the 15th Pursuit Group. As they stood outside an army barracks watching the tropical dawn grow brighter, neither had any idea of the momentous event, which was about to change their lives. Welch was saying that instead of going to sleep, he wanted to drive back to their own base at nearby Haleiwa Field for a nice Sunday morning swim.

At that moment, just ten miles south of Lieutenants Welch and Taylor, carrier-based dive bombers, torpedo planes and fighters of the Imperial Japanese Navy were beginning their carefully planned sneak attack on the great American naval base at Pearl Harbor, as well as its surrounding airfields. Most of our powerful Pacific Fleet was in training, and there were ninety-six United States warships anchored in and about this Pacific stronghold. War had been expected by our military leaders, but the general opinion was that the Japanese would open hostilities against the Dutch or British possessions in Asia thousands of miles farther west.

As Welch and Taylor walked to their car to head back to their own base, they saw sixty-two new Curtiss P-40 "Tomahawks" parked wing tip to wing tip, so they could be guarded, "against sabotage."

Suddenly the Japanese swooped down on Wheeler Field, which was a center for fighter operations in Hawaii. Dive bombers seemed to appear out of nowhere. Violent explosions upended the parked planes, and buildings began to burn.

Welch ran for a telephone and called Haleiwa as bullets sprayed around him.

"Get two P-40s ready!" he yelled. "It's not a gag, the Japs are here."

The drive up to Haleiwa was a wild one. Japanese Zeros strafed Welch and Taylor three times. When the two fliers careened onto their field nine minutes later, their fighter planes were already armed and the propellers were turning over. Without waiting for orders they took off.

USS Arizona burning after the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, December 7,1941.

As they climbed for altitude they ran into twelve Japanese Val dive bombers over the Marine air base at Ewa. Welch and Taylor began their attack immediately. On their first pass, machine guns blazing, each shot down a bomber. As Taylor zoomed up and over in his Tomahawk he saw an enemy bomber heading out to sea. He gave his P-40 full throttle and roared after it. Again his aim was good and the Val broke up before his eyes. In the meantime, Welch's plane had been hit and he dived into a protective cloud bank. The damage didn't seem too serious, so he flew out again--only to find himself on the tail of another Val . With only one gun now working, he nevertheless managed to send the bomber flaming into the sea.

Both pilots now vectored toward burning Wheeler Field for more ammunition and gas. Unfortunately, the extra cartridge belts for the P-40s were in a hangar which was on fire. Two mechanics ran bravely into the dangerous inferno, and returned with the ammunition.

The Japanese were just beginning a second strafing of the field as Welch and Taylor hauled their P-40s into the air again. They headed directly into the enemy planes, all guns firing. This time Ken Taylor was hit in the arm, and then a Val closed in behind him. Welch kicked his rudder and the Tomahawk whipped around and blasted the Val, though his own plane had been hit once more. Taylor had to land, but George Welch shot down still another bomber near Ewa, before he returned.

Perhaps twenty American fighter planes managed to get into the air that morning--including five obsolete Republic P-35s. Most of them were shot down, but their bravery and initiative accounted for six victories in the one-sided aerial battle.

The United States possessed no airplane which could outfight the Japanese Zero on its own terms. The Zero was faster--except in a dive. It could out-turn the American fighter planes and it could out-climb them. It was the most important weapon Japan had, until the Kamikaze planes were introduced near the end of the war.

At First our pilots did not know the weaknesses of the Zero that it had no armor, that it had no self-sealing gasoline tanks, and that its explosive 20-mm. cannons did not have the range or accuracy of the smaller but powerful .50-caliber machine guns mounted in the US latest fighters. Also, US pilots had not yet perfected the principle of the wingman, who was trained to stick close to his leader during combat, and protect him from any attack from the rear.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who was in charge of all Japanese naval operations, had planned the Pearl Harbor strike brilliantly. In a few hours all of the Navy and Marine aircraft at Ewa air base were destroyed on the ground. Two-thirds of the Pacific Fleet was either sunk or seriously crippled. Luckily, two US aircraft carriers in the South Pacific, the Lexington and the Enterprise, were away from Pearl Harbor, during the attack.

The Japanese particularly wanted to catch our carriers in the harbor. Admiral Yamamoto knew the value of the carrier better than most naval commanders. As early as 1915 he had stated that, "The most important ship of the future will be a ship to carry airplanes." (After the war it was learned that most of the messages sent from Pearl Harbor by a Japanese spy, had to do with the whereabouts of US carriers.)

The Enterprise didn't escape entirely, however. She was on her way back to Pearl Harbor after delivering Major Paul Putnam's squadron of Marine Grumman F4F "Wildcats" to Wake Island. Heavy seas had kept the "Big E" from arriving on time--which would have meant her destruction. But many of her scouts and bombers, which flew in ahead of the ship were caught in the initial Japanese attack, and five were lost.

Even more tragic was the fate suffered by Navy Lieutenant Fritz Hebel. He was leading his Wildcat fighters from the Enterprise toward Ford Island in Pearl Harbor later that day after completing a search mission. It was 7:30 p.m. and getting dark. The men on the ground were still jittery from the morning attacks. As Hebel's fighters came in for a landing the whole sky suddenly filled with tracer bullets. Practically every ship in the harbor thought the Wildcats were Japanese planes returning for another raid. Lieutenant Hebel and three other Navy pilots were killed by US guns.

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