[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
mail:
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]
Italiano

[Link to a series of help pages]
Help
[Link to the next level up]
Up
[Link to my homepage]
Home
previous:

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Foreword

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Navy's Air War

by
the Aviation History Unit OP‑519B, DCNO (Air)

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London
1946

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

next:

[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p1  Chapter 1

Pearl Harbor

"I arrived here on October 30, 1940, with the point of view that the international situation was critical, especially in the Pacific, and I was impressed with the need of being ready today rather than tomorrow for any eventuality that might arise. After taking over command of Patrol Wing 2 and looking over the situation, I was surprised to find that here, in the Hawaiian Islands, an important naval advanced outpost, we were operating on a shoestring, and the more I looked the thinner the shoestring appointed to be."

This statement is not the postwar reflection of a naval officer attempting to analyze the factors behind Pearl Harbor, but a quotation from a letter written by Rear Admiral (later Vice Admiral) P. N. L. Bellinger, USN, Commander, Patrol Wing 2, to the Chief of Naval Operations, dated 16 January 1941.

In view of the importance of Hawaii in the scheme of national defense, this letter revealed a shocking situation. Patrol Wing 2 was charged with detecting any possible enemy force that might endeavor to reach this bastion before it could get into a position to attack. The letter showed that Patrol Wing 2 lacked not only modern planes for patrol, but also spare planes, spare engines, spare parts, hangar and beach equipment, bombs, ammunition, stores, adequate base operating facilities, overhaul and repair facilities, as well as qualified personnel to man sufficient base facilities and shops to insure continuous operating readiness. It showed, furthermore, that though PatWing 2's planes and equipment were obsolete, it was not known whether plans had been adopted for modernization, or even were there were such plans, the  p2 normal period between request and delivery to this area being nine months.

The letter went further. It stated that, presumably, "the offices and bureaus concerned are familiar with the situation in the Hawaiian area over which they have particular cognizance; certainly enough correspondence has already been written concerning patrol plane needs to enable bureaus and offices to take necessary steps to provide and anticipate such needs." It closed with specific recommendations for the alleviation of these deficiencies, and listed the requirements in language that could not be misunderstood.

This letter was written almost a year before the raid on Pearl Harbor. The air commanders, both army and navy, aware of the striking power of carrier planes, warned their superiors of the possibility of an enemy attack against the Hawaiian area, and it should not be thought that such warnings were ignored. There were, furthermore, many factors that had to be considered. It took nine months, in the normal course of official peacetime movement, to act on a specific request from this area, and, if Hawaii was an important point in our defense, there were, in addition, other important areas — the Panama Canal, the west coast, the Philippines, to mention only a few. The warning might have been considered somewhat exaggerated, since any commanding officer has a normal desire to build up his own establishment and an equally customary tendency to attach particular significance to it. The Navy at this time was heavily committed in the Atlantic to the all‑important Neutrality Patrol for the protection of vital shipping to Europe. Finally (and a point not to be forgotten), there was a pervading atmosphere in the United States at that time — much talk of war, but little realization that it would actually come.

In due course of time, therefore, a certain amount of action was taken. Patrol Wing 1, normally based at San Diego, was ordered to reinforce PatWing 2 in the naan area. Headquarters were set up at the new naval air station at Kaneohe in April and the squadrons followed during the spring and summer. With the addition of extra planes, it was possible to re‑equip four squadrons with the latest type of patrol plane, even though armor and other special gear had to be installed after the planes arrived in Pearl Harbor. Since training was the order of the day, much time was devoted to practice exercises both by aircraft alone and in co‑operation with surface units, as well as in excursions to Midway, Palmyra, Johnson and other islands in order to gain experience in advanced base operations. Because of extensive training activities, with a  p3 certain number of old planes in overhaul and a number of new ones in the shops for the installation of the latest gear, and because of an insufficient number of trained crews to maintain a continuous reconnaissance around the islands, patrols were reduced to a dawn, anti-submarine search over the fleet operating areas south of Oahu and to escorting vessels universe to provide their own aircraft as they entered or sortied from Pearl Harbor. In addition to the big flying boats of PatWings 1 and 2, there were available the planes of three utility squadrons, some of which were capable of overwater search, such fleet aircraft as might be in Pearl at the time, and the Marine Corps aviation units stationed at Ewa, whose fighter planes, in case of emergency, were to operate under army control as part of the defense force.

Meanwhile, the sons of Nippon proclaimed their love of peace, while preparing for an adventure in war.

It was almost two o'clock in the afternoon in New York and Boston; a gray and dripping day, just about time to get into the movies which would soon be packed to the doors with the Sunday afternoon crowds. Farther west, in Chicago and the Great Valley, it was an hour earlier. Those families that customarily ate a midday dinner on Sundays were just rising from the table — stuffed. As yet the radios still carried their usual programs. Out on the Coast, in Seattle, in San Francisco, in San Diego and Los Angeles, and in all the smaller towns and cities in between, it was going on eleven in the morning. Church bells were ringing, and people were gathering for the morning services. Here, there was a good deal more discussion than there was in the East, of the Japanese delegation then in Washington to discuss peace — New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston had merely noted the President's appeal to the Emperor in the morning headlines, and had forgotten about it. The Coast, always more concerned with the Japanese problem, was inclined to skepticism, but not, as it was to prove in this case, with the skepticism which the situation warranted. At the great naval base at San Diego the big aircraft carrier Saratoga, just arrived from Puget Sound, was warping into her berth, getting over the first lines. Curiously enough a lot of little yellow men in airplanes were pretty sure that at that moment she was somewhere else.

Out in the Hawaiian Islands, in mid‑Pacific, two thousand miles still farther west, it was not quite eight in the morning.

It was a fine morning out there. The sun came up out of the east and hung in the sky above the sea's horizon, not yet climbing above the cloud ceiling. Directly over the Island of Oahu, with its numerous airfields  p4 and defensive facilities, its city of Honolulu, and its great naval base at Pearl Harbor, the rosy clouds hung about the mountains at a base of thirty-five hundred feet. Visibility was excellent, and in the early light a few civilian planes lazily circled the city and the commercial John Rodgers airport, their pilots getting in solo time or taking private instruction. They were still in the air, not yet aware that anything was amiss, when the first sleek, gray-silver planes came in out of the north and dived toward the outlying army and navy field, and toward the ships lying peacefully moored at the naval base. In the residential sections, out at the beach, and even within the confines of the various military and naval reservations, men looked and listened. They saw the lazy planes turn on their sides and dive, heard the scream of their motors, felt the explosions, saw the smoke and flames and counted the splashes, and cursed the Army or Navy, according to their inclinations. This, they allowed, was carrying this war games thing too far. Someone might get hurt.

It was December 7, 1941.

It is not our task, for which we are grateful, to repeat the full story of that black day, the Japanese slipping in close with their force and launching their planes in the grimness of early dawn, the screaming torpedo planes guiding their deadly fish into the allotted prey, the agony, the confusion, the sudden transition, faster than shocked minds could grasp it, from peace to the flaming hell of war. Our job is, rather, to relate the reaction of naval aviation to all this. It should be recorded that on that day our enemy hurled upon us, for the first time in history, a form of attack that was in the end to prove its own nemesis, for the carrier task force, hardened and strengthened by our hands, was to turn against Japan and beat her into submission.

What did naval aviation in the Hawaiian Islands do in the face of this attack? Like our other military forces, it will be shown that, stunned and rendered impotent for the moment by the staggering suddenness and completeness of the blow, it fought back with a heroism that stands out like a bright spot in the dark day.

Kaneohe Bay, the naval air station on the north of the island, was the first to glimpse the shadow of events to come. Patrol Squadron 14 was the ready-duty squadron at Kaneohe that morning, with Patrol Squadron 11 in the stand‑by spot. Three planes of Squadron 14 were in the air that day, having taken off at sunrise on a routine patrol over the fleet operating area, PatRon 12 was the third squadron stationed at Kaneohe.

At 0350 that morning, some time before dawn, the coastal minesweeper  p5 Condor was conducting sweeping operations approximately 1¾ miles southwest of the Pearl Harbor entrance buoys when she picked up a submarine contact — the white feather wake of a periscope where no periscope ought to be. She reported this contact immediately to the duty destroyer Ward, on patrol off the Pearl Harbor entrance, and the Ward immediately took up search. It was not until 0630, however, that the contact was regained. At that hour, the minesweeper, Antares, approaching Pearl Harbor from Canton and Palmyra with a 500‑ton steel barge in tow, slowed and turned slowly eastward, awaiting the tug that was scheduled to come out to meet her and pick up her tow. It was as she swung, that the Antares' lookout sighted what appeared to be a small submarine "with upper conning tower awash and periscope partly raised," 1500 yards off her starboard quarter, apparently tracking her in the direction of Pearl Harbor.

The Ward was in sight and Antares notified the destroyer, by visual signals, of what she had seen. The Ward moved in to the attack.

At approximately the same moment, patrol plane 14‑P‑1, leaving Kaneohe for its patrol, hove in sight and took up its hand in the game about to be played. The plane dropped two smoke pots to mark the position of the sub, while the Ward opened fire with guns and depth charges. Simultaneously 14‑P‑1 dropped one of her depth charges on the suspicious submarine. Both Ward and 14‑P‑1 claimed to have sunk the craft, and there seems little doubt that one or the other, or both, succeeded. Ward reported the attack to the Commandant, 14th Naval District, his immediate superior; 14‑P‑1 reported to the duty officer at Kaneohe Bay. In both cases steps were immediately taken to identify the submarine. There can be little question (whether it was 14‑P‑1's bomb that sank it or not), that this was the first attack delivered by U. S. naval aircraft upon a Japanese submarine. The crew of 14‑P‑1 were unaware of it as they proceeded on their patrol, but they had fired the first shots of our naval air war against Japan.

The commanding officer of the air station at Kaneohe was at breakfast at a quarter to eight. From the window of the dining room he could look over the hills to the bay and to the field with its landing strip and hangars. Four Catalina flying boats, PBY's in Navy parlance, were anchored in the bay, and there were several planes in front of the hangars, including the CO's scouting plane, a Kingfisher (OS2U‑1), which was being prepared for his use. While he was eating, the CO's attention was caught by the persistent hum of a large flight of planes and his suspicion was aroused by the fact that the first ones to come in sight circled  p6 to the right rather than to the left as was the rule in the area. Just when he became convinced that these were enemy planes, we don't know, but, as he sped down the hill in his car, he glanced at his watch. It was 0748 and approximately two minutes later the first Jap attack on U. S. soil began.

Service crews were being ferried out to the four big seaplanes anchored in the bay, as the Japanese planes roared in. It was only when the swooping planes began to wink with orange eyes along the leading edges of their wings, and little hissing geysers spouted in straight lines across the ruffled surface of the bay that the men realized that they were under attack. Then, in the next moment — it was as swift as that — the planes swept on toward the control tower with guns still spitting, leaving behind them four burning planes up the bay and four riddled boats about which splashed startled, angry, frightened men. Some of the men, quite a number of them in fact, did not splash. They simply lay still in the water which softly swirled crimson streamers of their blood about them. They were the first American casualties of the war in the Pacific.

This was only the beginning of the Jap attack. The first wave of raiders, evidently all fighters, swept on to the end of the bay, then turned and came back, concentrating their fire this time upon the planes drawn up on the landing mat. In this attack they were met by the fire of a single machine gun rushed from the armory by Aviation Chief Ordnanceman John Finn, who set his weapon up on a covered tin garbage can, directly in the line of attack, and manned it throughout in spite of wounds.a Nor was he left alone to fight. Others followed his example as soon as they were able to get arms and ammunition. The official report of the action submitted by the Commander, Patrol Wing 1, then based at Kaneohe, reads:

"The conduct of all personnel throughout the entire attack was magnificent, in fact, too much so. Had they not, with no protection, deliberately set themselves up with machine guns right in line with the drop of the attacking and strafing planes and near the object of their attack, we would have lost less men. It was, however, due to this reckless resistance that two enemy planes were destroyed and six more were sent away with heavy gas leaks. . . ."

The report, of course, refers to all the attacks which took place on that day at that station.

In the first attack no bombs were dropped. It was obviously the intent of the attackers to prevent the planes based there from getting into the air, where they might constitute a threat to the success of the main effort. This, of course, was the strike at the naval base at Pearl Harbor  p7 itself. On the enemy's return, one plane that was singled out for special attention was the wing commander's OS2U‑1 on the landing mat. At that time a chief petty officer was turning over the prop by hand, and the craft was evidently thought to be a fighter preparing to take off. It was thoroughly riddled, as were several of the other planes on the mat.

Following this first strike, the attackers sped away over the hill in the direction of the marine base at Ewa, and there was a brief lull, during which efforts were made to prepare for further action. This came within a very few moments, when a second wave of fighter craft (estimated six to nine), attacked. This time the planes on the ramp were the objective, but the raiders did not confine themselves to these. Hangars, quarters, cars, in fact anything that moved or chanced to catch the eye of the Jap pilots, was strafed. This attack was followed, some time later, by two waves of bombers, which dropped bombs on the hangars and then swept on. A third and final strafing attack by fighters took place at about ten o'clock, apparently by planes returning to their carriers.

Countermeasures taken were heroic but pitiful. In the main they consisted in getting anything that would shoot into position to repel attack, and then shooting. During the intervals between attacks, every effort was made to clear the vital area of burning wreckage, and to salvage all that had not yet been destroyed. But it was a vain hope to dream of saving much. A survey, following the attacks, showed that all planes actually at base were either destroyed or so damaged as to be useless for the time being. The three planes of the dawn patrol, not yet returned to base, were not destroyed, and were immediately diverted to a search for the Japanese Fleet. One hangar was destroyed. Seventeen men were killed and eleven seriously injured. During the attack, cars were driven upon the small landing field adjacent to the station in order to prevent any attempted landing by the enemy. No such landing, however, was attempted.

Kaneohe was the first object of attack probably because it was the first reached by the raiders from their ships. The attacks that followed upon the other fields and upon the naval base itself appear to have been delivered simultaneously, or within split seconds of one another. Several of the first wave of raiders that struck at Kaneohe, as we have noted, seem to have gone over the hill and beyond to fall next upon Ewa, the Marine air base at the other side of Pearl Harbor.

Ewa (pronounced "Evva") was a comparatively new station. Most of its personnel were still living in tents, and the swimming pool, just begun, was as yet no more than a hole in the ground. It proved mighty  p8 useful to quite a number of officers and men that day, for a purpose for which it had not been intended. It formed a convenient revetment in which to take cover while shooting back at the vicious, persistent Jap attackers.

On this morning of December 7, 1941, the officer of the day was sitting in the officers' mess. In five minutes he would be relieved. It was 0755, and he became suddenly aware of the steady roar of a large formation of planes approaching. He describes what happened then:

"Upon stepping outside I saw eighteen torpedo planes at about a thousand feet altitude flying down the beach from Barber's Point toward Pearl Harbor. From the northwest an enemy formation of approximately twenty‑one planes was just coming over the hills from the direction of Nanakuli, also at an altitude of about a thousand feet. The first formation of planes continued on down the beach apparently to deliver an attack upon Pearl Harbor. The second formation (single-seater fighters) passed just to the north of Ewa, wheeled right and attacked this camp from a string formation."

Various accounts of this attack testify to the bewilderment of many who witnessed its opening phases. Some have stated that they thought the attacking planes were army aircraft putting on a particularly realistic simulated attack. Only when they saw the little spurts of dust kicked up by Jap bullets did they realize something of what was taking place. A few die‑hards have confessed that even then they thought: "Oh‑oh! Live ammunition! Someone is going to catch hell for this!"

The officer of the day at Ewa apparently recognized the planes as Japanese, either from their unfamiliar shape or from their markings, and instantly realized what was happening, for he says: "This attack caught me on the way to the guardhouse in an effort to have the camp called to arms."

The pattern set at Kaneohe was repeated at Ewa. There was the same initial shock of surprise followed by the same surge of fury. There was the same almost split-second destruction of planes on the ground, leaving in its wake the same sense of futility. There was after that the same reckless heroism and determination to fight back with whatever weapons might come to hand. There were much the same results which it would be fruitless to chronicle here in detail. Within twenty minutes every plane at Ewa was immobilized. After that the attackers returned again and again, making innumerable runs in three distinct attacks, strafing personnel and buildings, tents, cars in the parking area and on the roads, even an ambulance and a fire truck on the airstrip, the one picking  p9 up wounded, the other endeavoring to get into position to fight the fires which had been started among the planes. At the outset, gunners attempted to bring the free guns in the parked planes to bear upon the diving enemy, and from these positions they fought until the planes in which they stood were fired. After that they took such guns as could be removed from the planes and fought back from the ground. Despite the heavy strafing here, however, casualties were comparatively light. When the attacks were over, formations of four to six enemy planes, working in two echelons, remained over the airfield apparently for the purpose of protecting the enemy's rendezvous at the assembly point after the return from the main attack, and also, evidently, to hold down any chance aircraft that might have survived the attack and attempt to get into the air.

While Ewa was being attacked, similar strikes were taking place at the army fields, Hickam, Wheeler and Bellows, and the results were devastating. Likewise at the same time the main naval air base at Ford Island, NAS Pearl Harbor, was brought under attack.

On Saturday, 6 December 1941, there had been a captain's inspection at NAS Pearl, and in consequence, with the exception of four planes of Patrol Squadron 24 which were out engaging in inter-type tactics with friendly submarines in an area considerably removed from the station, all planes were drawn up in neat rows on the field. They consisted of the big PBY's of PatRons 22, 23, and 24 as well as the SOC's, OS2U's and SBD's belonging to the station and the miscellaneous aircraft of utility squadrons 1 and 2. At 0755 — the exact time was well marked, for the signal for morning colors, hoisted each morning at that exact moment, had just broken out — the first of the attacking planes hurtled down out of the sky upon the unsuspecting station. Unlike the attacks at Kaneohe and Ewa this strike was carried out by dive bombers which both bombed and strafed. The first bomb is believed to have struck the PatRon 22 parking area, Ramp #4, and the explosion and subsequent fire destroyed six PBY‑3 planes, damaged another beyond repair, and put the remaining five out of commission for a period of from one to ten days. Thus, at the very first blow, an entire squadron was reduced to impotence. As the first bombs fell upon the island, the Commander, Patrol Wing 2, at 0758, broadcast the warning: AIR RAID. PEARL HARBOR. THIS IS NO DRILL!

This was the first official word of the attack to be broadcast, and it was picked up by planes approaching the island, and by ships at sea. A  p10 few moments later a similar message was broadcast by Commander-in‑Chief, Pacific Fleet.

There appears to have been only a single attack directed at the naval air station on Ford Island. After that the raiders turned their attention to the ships moored in the harbor, or tied up to the docks alongside the island. Battleship row, as it was called, was close aboard. There lay the Maryland, the Oklahoma, the West Virginia, the Tennessee, the Arizona, and the Nevada. The California lay in a cove on the southeast side of the island. The Neosho, a navy oiler, was moored to the island dock, having just completed delivery of a cargo of aviation gasoline to the station's tank farm. Over on the other side, between Ford Island and Pearl City lay the target ship Utah (apparently mistaken by the enemy for an aircraft carrier, which we have already seen was safe in San Diego only then running her mooring lines ashore). In addition to the Utah, the cruiser Raleigh and the seaplane tender Curtiss lay upon the northwest side of the island.

Thus, although no further attacks were directed solely at the air station, its location between the two groups of ships, prime targets for the rest of the attacks, left it in a position that was scarcely enviable. The first attack effectively put most of the planes out of action. Thereafter, the damage that was suffered by the station was caused in part by bombs intended for the fleet but which missed their mark, partly by the hail of falling flak thrown up by the ships in the harbor, and partly by fragments thrown by the offshore explosions on board the Arizona, California and other vessels. Strafing was also carried out by planes crossing the island after attacking the ships.

Here, as elsewhere on that day, there was resistance from hastily improvised positions. But there was more than resistance. As at Kaneohe there were fires to be fought, and there were also rescue operations to be carried out for the crews of the blasted ships in the harbor. Both of these tasks were done coolly and courageously in the face of tremendous difficulties. Smoke from the blazing hangars and burning ships in the harbor drifted across the island, obscuring vision, and the deadly rain of spent flak and debris was almost continuous. Nevertheless, damage to the station was slight in comparison with that done to the ships. One bomb, apparently aimed at the California, fell short and scored a direct hit on Hangar #6, setting it on fire and killing personnel within. Another bomb fell on Hangar #38, where ammunition was being handed out. Fortunately it was a dud. A third bomb struck the dispensary, and another fell in the roadway outside the assembly and repair hangar,  p11 but it was the ships that took the worst punishment. The torpedo bombers of the first wave bored in relentlessly and unerringly, with a precision which could only indicate exact information as to the location of their targets.

The Japanese must have been disappointed, however, not to discover the carriers Lexington and Enterprise in port. There can be no doubt that they knew them to be based there. But luck and a secret mission had the Lex and Enterprise at sea and the Saratoga had not yet returned from the west coast where she had been sent for overhaul.

At the hour of attack the Lexington was some four hundred miles south and east of Midway, to which island she was bound with the forward echelon of Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 231, reinforcements for that island's garrison. She received word of the raid at 0822, and at 0900 was informed that hostilities had begun and was ordered to search for the raiding force. Throughout the day her squadrons flew methodical searches, but without success. A day or two later one of her fliers electrified the force with the announce that he had sighted a Jap carrier, and an attack force was launched. The "Jap carrier," however, turned out to be only a derelict barge. Shortly thereafter the Lex was ordered to give up the search and return to Pearl.

The Enterprise had a somewhat different story to tell. About a week before the attack, she had been suddenly and secretly ordered to transport the forward echelon of Marine Fighting Squadron 211 to Wake Island. She carried out this task under the cloak of strictest secrecy and under war conditions. The situation was acknowledged to be strained, and any potential enemy ships or planes encountered were to be destroyed. The run to Wake was made without incident, and the marine planes delivered. The task force then turned about and headed for home. On this day one of the Enterprise's fliers on scout duty thought he caught a glimpse through the mist of three small ships — perhaps three destroyers, he said, or possibly two destroyers and a light cruiser. He could not be sure. Search was made briefly. There was no time for more, and then the planes returned to the ship.

When this incident was recalled later, there was some thought that what the pilot had seen was a part of the Japanese raiding force. In the light of sober afterthought, however, this was impossible. For one thing the ships were considerably out of their way for what followed.

The Enterprise continued on her homeward way, accompanied by her covering destroyers. She was due back in Pearl by Saturday, the sixth, but she encountered bad weather, which prevented the refueling of her  p12 destroyers, and this delayed her so that it was impossible for her to arrive before Sunday. Those on board were disgruntled. Many of them had made dates for Saturday night. Others were anxious to be home. By Sunday morning they were two hundred miles west of Oahu, and at 0615, eighteen planes of Scouting Squadron 6 took off for Pearl Harbor — the crews the envy of all their shipmates.

The planes circled and rendezvoused, and then, at 0637, took departure from the task force which made its white-arrow wakes steadily through the dark water below. As far as Oahu the flight was without incident other than the sighting of two or three tankers, which on investigation proved to be American. Apparently strict formation was not observed during the flight. Rather, the planes spread out, in pairs, in a scouting fan to cover a broad lane ahead of the task force to Pearl Harbor. Shortly before reaching Barber's Point, however, the commander of Scoron (Scouting Squadron) 6 was startled to hear a voice in his radio receiver crying: "Do not attack me! This is 6‑Baker‑3, an American plane!" There followed a moment's silence, and then the same voice was heard again, this time telling his gunner to break out the rubber boat as he was landing in the water. After that 6‑Baker‑3 was not heard from again. Back on board the Enterprise they also heard that cry coming blankly out of the air. It was the first warning they received that all was not as it should be. It was also the voice of the first American airman to be shot down in the Pacific war.

Eighteen planes of Scouting 6 approach Pearl Harbor from over Barber's Point that morning. They saw planes swarming and diving over Ewa. There were more planes over Pearl Harbor itself. But the fact that the commercial radio stations in Honolulu were still playing popular music tended to lull any suspicions that might otherwise have arisen immediately. The air group commander himself, in his report, states that he believed the planes circling over Ewa to have been U. S. Army planes, and he gave them a wide berth. As he approach Ford Island, however, he first noticed bursts of antiaircraft fire, and an instant later was attacked by Japanese planes.

Those eighteen planes from the Enterprise were the only U. S. carrier-borne aircraft to engage in action at Pearl Harbor. Taken by surprise and attacked by superior numbers, they were unable to beat off the enemy. There is no doubt, however, that they left their mark upon him. One Japanese plane was definitely shot down, and at least one more was considered probably destroyed. Scouting 6's losses, however, were not light. Six of the eighteen planes that left the Enterprise were shot down or missing when the smoke cleared.

 p13  It is not altogether clear where each of the Enterprise planes landed. Some appear to have come in at Ewa. Others, including the air group commander and the Commander, Scoron 6, managed to land at Ford Island, which in spite of everything remained usable. As soon as possible these planes were refueled and rearmed, loaded with bombs, and sent away to search for the enemy's attack force, but without success. This operation became increasingly risky because of the tendency of the gunners on the ships, their nerves now worn threadbare by the attack, to open fire on anything that flew. This state of tension continued throughout the following night, long after the attack had ended, and more than one American plane was shot down as it came in for a landing.

Before the Enterprise planes could be refueled to take off, Utility Squadrons 1 and 2 at Pearl, and Utility Squadron 3 stationed at the Maui airport, a commercial field only recently taken over by the Navy and now known as NAS Puunene, Maui, were sending out their lightly armed or even completely unarmed planes in search of the enemy. By eleven o'clock, when the enemy had cleared the area, more aircraft were able to get off and planes from the stricken ships in the harbor were transferred to the air station to form an impromptu squadron which commenced operations that same afternoon. In addition to the two carriers, cruisers operating outside the harbor launched their aircraft, and such army planes as were available joined in the search. Although false radio calls, probably disseminated by an enemy ship stationed south of the islands for that purpose, drew many of the searchers off in the wrong direction, two aircraft from the cruiser Northampton made contact with a Jap fighter at 1120 and succeeded, after twenty minutes, in shooting him down. About noon a Catalina of PatRon 14 was damaged but was able to continue its patrol, and a plane of Utility Squadron 1 penetrated apparently to within fifty miles of the attacking fleet before enemy fighters forced it to turn back. PatRon 21 from Midway, two Catalinas of Utility Squadron 2 at Johnson, and the planes from the Enterprise and Lexington had no luck at all in their efforts to track the Japanese carriers. As darkness fell over Hawaii, the naval air force found more than 100 of its 156 aircraft destroyed and quite a few more damaged. Of those left, almost half were noncombatant types, but even they were usable for patrols as the next few days showed, when pilots, whose principal activity had recently been towing target sleeves, took off to guard against the enemy's return with only the lightest of armament, sometimes with only a rifle slung across the knee.

These, in brief, were the actions of naval aviation on December 7, 1941. The unprovoked assault on Pearl Harbor was an initial victory  p14 for the Japanese, and permitted them to go far in their first sweep across the Pacific. On the other hand no other single action of the enemy's could have welded the American people as firmly together in a common will for victory. As far as naval aviation was concerned, no one had to argue any longer concerning the striking power of a carrier force. We now had evidence, costly evidence, that this was a key to the defeat of the Japanese Empire.

The discussion of Pearl Harbor has just begun. Naval aviation was but a part of the story, the whole of which can be brought to light only by an examination of many factors which play no part in this account. On the other hand, a true understanding of naval aviation's role in the tragic beginning and glorious end of this conflict, cannot and should not start with Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. It is proposed, therefore, in the second part of this account to go to some length into the background of naval aviation. This examination may throw some light on the factors that caused us to be caught flatfooted at Pearl Harbor. More important, we believe it will show the significant strides that naval aviation had already made by December, 1941, in building up a force that was to be so instrumental in crushing the enemy.


Thayer's Note:

a For his actions at Pearl Harbor, John Finn was awarded the Medal of Honor, receiving it from Admiral Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, on Sept. 15, 1942 in a ceremony at Pearl Harbor, aboard the carrier Enterprise. The citation and a photograph of the man are given on his page at the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.


[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 7 Feb 17