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The destroyer USS Shaw explodes after her forward magazine was hit.
    On December 7, 1941, at 7:55 a.m. on a beautiful Sunday morning, the United States Navy experienced the worst disaster in its entire history. It was a surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy and the US Navy was caught completely off guard. There were 96 ships at Pearl Harbor, but the primary targets were the battleships moored on Battleship Row on Ford Island. In a matter of minutes, Japanese bombers sank or damaged eight battleships, three light cruisers, three destroyers and 188 airplanes. By comparison, Japan casualties were light, with only 29 airplanes and five midget submarines lost, with 65 men killed or wounded. It was a devastating attack that caused 3,566 US casualties that included 2,403 deaths. 1,177 men alone died on the USS Arizona, after its forward magazine exploded, and the remains of those killed are entombed on the Arizona, until this very day.1

    Only about twenty US airplanes were able to get off the ground that included Curtiss P-40s, P-36 Hawks and five obsolete Seversky P-35s. Most of them were shot down, but their bravery and initiative accounted for six victories in the one-sided aerial battle.

    The Japanese task force consisted of all six of its first-line aircraft carriers, including the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku with over 420 airplanes embarked on these ships. The task force also included two battleships, two cruisers, nine destroyers, and a dozen other surface ships. Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo commanded the operation.

    Most of the US Pacific Fleet was in training and were anchored in Pearl Harbor. War had been expected by US military leaders, but the general opinion was that the Japanese would open hostilities against either Thailand, or Dutch and British possessions in Asia, thousands of miles away.


The USS Arizona burning after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

    Of the six Japanese planes shot down, four were claimed by two young Army Air Corps lieutenants, George Welch and Ken Taylor of the 15th Pursuit Group. They were ten miles south when the attack began. Both pilots headed back to their base at Wheeler Field, the center for fighter operations in Hawaii, where sixty-two new Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks were parked wing tip to wing tip. They were arranged this way to make easier to guard them against sabotage, but this made them easy targets for Japanese airplanes. As they arrived at the airport, dive bombers appeared out of nowhere and swooped down and ripped through the airplanes and surrounding buildings.

    With the planes destroyed at Wheeler, they called Haleiwa Field to get two P-40s ready. Haleiwa Field was used as an emergency airport and had only an unpaved landing strip. Eight Curtiss P-40 Warhawks and two Curtiss P-36 Mohawks were temporarily assigned there with the 47th Fighter Squadron. As they headed towards Haleiwa Field, Zeroes strafed Welch and Taylor three times, but they suffered no injuries. When the two fliers arrived minutes later, two P-40s were waiting for them, armed and ready to go. They took off without waiting for orders.


Aircraft destroyed at Hickman Field.

    As they climbed for altitude, they ran into twelve Japanese Aichi D3A "Val" dive bombers over the Marine air base at Ewa and attacked immediately and on their first pass, each shot down a bomber. As Taylor zoomed up 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.

    When a second wave of Japanese fighters showed up, Welch and Taylor hauled their P-40s into the air again. They headed directly into the enemy planes, with guns blazing. 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, despite being hit once more. Taylor had to land, but George Welch shot down still another bomber near Ewa, before he returned.2

    Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who was in charge of all Japanese naval operations, had planned the Pearl Harbor strike brilliantly. Aircraft carriers were thought to be defensive weapons, but this was the first time the carrier would be used for an offensive air strike.3 In a few hours, all of the Navy and Marine aircraft at Ewa air base were destroyed on the ground. Two-thirds of the US Pacific Fleet was either sunk or damaged.


A Boeing B-17 destroyed as Hickman Field.

    There were two raids by the Japanese and the first attack of 183 airplanes split off into two groups. One group headed for Hickman Field and the second headed for Battleship Row on Ford Island, and broke off at 8:45 a.m. Thirty minutes later a second wave of 167 airplanes arrived, and encountered heavy antiaircraft fire, inflicting only minor damage, but nearly 90 per cent of the damage was done on the first raid. Hickman Field was devastated and twenty USAAC Boeing B-17s, twelve Douglas A-20 Havocs and 32 Douglas B-18s were destroyed.

    Flying overhead, Commander Fuchida surveyed the operation and saw that several important targets were left untouched. The shipyard was undamaged, vital oil-storage facilities were intact and there were a number of American ships still afloat. The Japanese hoped to catch US carriers in the harbor, but fortunately the USS Saratoga, USS Lexington and USS Enterprise were out to sea during the attack. When Commander Fuchida returned to his aircraft carrier, a third wave was preparing to launch. However, not knowing where the American carriers were, Admiral Nagumo decided to end the attack and return home. He knew the American carriers would be looking for him.

    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.

    Admiral Yamamoto knew the value of the carrier better than most naval commanders. As early as 1915 he said, "The most important ship of the future will be a ship to carry airplanes." The Battle for Midway would prove him right.


Endnotes:

1. Steven M. Gillon. Pearl Harbor. New York: Basic Books, 2011. 49.
2. Robert D. Loomis. Great American Fighter Pilots of WWII. New York: Random House, 1961.
3. Thomas Parrish ed. The Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978. 487.

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©Larry Dwyer. The Aviation History Online Museum. All rights reserved.
Created November 5, 1997. Revised May 11, 2014.