Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"Air Raid, Pearl Harbor...This is no Drill!"


President Franklin D. Roosevelt would call the attack on Pearl Harbor,
"a day that shall live in infamy."


IT WAS JUST BEFORE EIGHT IN THE MORNING; but bright sunlight sparkled across the surface of Pearl Harbor. Slowly, Sunday, December 7, 1941, the United States Pacific Fleet came to life. Leslie Short was up addressing Christmas cards. Aboard battleship USS Maryland, Felder Crawford lay in his bunk reading the funny papers. Joe Whitt, a crew member on the cruiser San Francisco, was sitting down for his first guitar lesson, having paid a shipmate $5 for lessons. The band on Nevada was gathering to play the National Anthem and raise the flag. YG-17, a ship that sailors jokingly labeled a “honey barge,” was moving across the harbor, preparing to pick up garbage and siphon waste from the great warships moored along “Battleship Row.” 

Here and there, soldiers awoke with splitting heads, reminder of one too many drinks the previous evening. At her nearby home in Honolulu, Geneva Willey laid abed with husband Jim, a young Army officer. Neither felt like getting up on a lazy Sunday morning. Jerry Morton, 13, and brother Don, 11, were already up and dangling fishing lines in the harbor. Mary Ann Ramsey, 16, finished curling her hair and headed out the door for church. A pair of Army pilots was “up” early, too. Or to put it plainly, George Welch and Kenneth Taylor had never been to bed at all. After an all-night poker game they were discussing whether to go for a swim or hit the sack.

Coming in fast from the north, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida of the Japanese Imperial Navy was wide awake. At that moment, had any American looked, Fuchida’s wave of 183 planes, a mix of bombers, fighters and torpedo planes, would have been clearly visible as tiny specks on the horizon.  

*

EVEN NOW, WITH ENEMY PLANES STREAKING THEIR WAY, it was not too late for defenders to awake. Bad luck, mistakes, and poor communication all morning would allow the Japanese to achieve complete surprise.  

In fact, long before dawn, five Japanese midget submarines had tried to sneak into Pearl Harbor. Once inside they had orders to lie low and join the attack only after the first wave of aircraft arrived overhead. At 3:57 a.m., an American mine sweeper spotted a mysterious craft prowling near the harbor mouth. The destroyer Ward came looking, found nothing, and failed to pass on warning to higher command. A report did come in from a patrol plane claiming to have attacked and sunk an unidentified sub. This time there was much calling back and forth and discussion about what it meant.  

Sadly, no one took the report seriously. 

At 6:40 a.m. Ward was on the move again. Spotting what looked like a conning tower poking from the water, gun crews opened fire. Their second shot drilled the enemy sub and she disappeared from view. At 6:53 Ward reported this strange encounter. The message began working its way up the U. S. chain of command. Just after seven the destroyer picked up another sub, moved in, and dropped depth charges. Lookouts spotted a large oil bubble rising to the surface. Once again Ward radioed report. By 7:40 a.m. U. S. commander Admiral Husband E. Kimmel had been alerted. 

“I’ll be right down,” he told worried officers, and began dressing for the drive to headquarters.

Meanwhile, American forces had a second wake-up call. Again they ignored it. Two young radar operators, George Elliott, Jr. and Joseph Lockard, sounded an alert. Radar was new in 1941 and the two had risen early to practice with their sets. At 7:02 they began tracking something they described as “completely out of the ordinary.” A large blip, approaching from the north, seemed to indicate fifty planes or more headed their way.
  
Concerned, they telephoned their commander at Fort Shafter. The officer on duty told them not to worry. A flight of U. S. bombers was scheduled in from California that morning. Still unsure what it meant, Elliot and Lockard followed the blip till 7:39 a.m. when it vanished behind nearby mountains.

By 7:53 it no longer mattered.  

*

COMING IN FAST AT THAT MOMENT, Commander Fuchida scanned the harbor for signs the Americans were ready. The blue sky was clear and he could see battleships of the U. S. Pacific Fleet riding quietly at anchor. He felt a moment of stinging disappointment. None of the U. S. aircraft carriers, main target of the Japanese, were in port that morning. Fuchida shook off his disappointment. Then he radioed back to waiting commanders with the Japanese fleet the signal: “Tora! Tora! Tora!” This was the phrase which would indicate that total surprise had been achieved.

Even now, those who did see planes coming assumed it was a drill. Frank Handler, standing on the deck of destroyer Helm, watched aircraft roar past. An enemy pilot glanced his way and waved. Handler waved back. Other defenders noticed red “meatball” symbols on wings and fuselages but the truth dawned slowly. On Ford Island, Commander Logan Ramsey saw a dive bomber coming fast. Thinking it must be a U. S. pilot showboating, he told another officer to get the fool’s number. Seconds later bombs exploded close by. 

“Never mind,” Commander Ramsey screamed“it’s a Jap.” 

All across the island, defenders were caught unprepared. At one hospital Nurse Monica Conter dove for “cover,” holding a garbage can lid over her head. Ensign John Beardall was seen working an anti-aircraft gun in red pajamas. Others fought back with whatever came to hand. A Marine fired a shotgun. Another dueled enemy planes with a .45 pistol. Thomas Donahue was so angry he hurled wrenches at low-flying enemy aircraft as they whizzed past.  


Dale Augerson and wife. Augerson served on the USS West Virginia and survived the attack.

Clare Hetrick, served on the USS Arizona; he also survived the fight.

Dozens of attacking planes swarmed the skies, flattening aircraft hangers, blasting vehicles and machine-gunning men. At Hickam Air Field a 500-pound bomb tore through the roof of a dining hall. The explosion killed thirty-five men sitting at breakfast. Dozens more were injured, including a cook wounded by a flying mayonnaise jar. Corporal Duane W. Shaw watched a line of parked planes burst into flame and jumped in his fire truck to save them. A Japanese fighter roared low and shot out his back tires, putting an end to his run.  At Bellows Air Field, attackers killed a U. S. pilot as he scrambled into his cockpit. Two other planes were knocked down as soon as they left the ground. Sgt. Wilbur Hunt put a machine gun into action, firing from a handy bomb crater. Another blast tore a corner off the guard house. Prisoners came running to help. A third bomb destroyed an ice cream truck. Soldiers dashed from hiding to pick up free treats.  

Caught completely by surprise, the Americans were unable to put up much of a defense. “It was,” said one Japanese pilot later, “more like a practice run than actual combat.”  

Except in practice no one is killed.

*

“BATTLESHIP ROW” WAS SOON A SCENE OF HORROR. R. L. Hooton was lying in his bunk on West Virginia, looking at pictures of his new baby, when the ship rocked from a bomb hit. Ed Jacoby’s personal battle lasted moments. Then a blast sent a metal locker crashing over on his head, knocking him cold. The captain of the ship was mortally wounded when a shell splinter sliced his abdomen.  

Dorie Miller, a hard-nosed black mess steward, helped carry him to cover. The Navy still treated black sailors poorly in those days and most found themselves trapped in lowly, unskilled jobs. Now Miller had a chance to do something besides clean dishes and cook. Without hesitation he grabbed hold of one of the ship’s anti-aircraft guns and opened fire. A white sailor later said it was only the second time he had seen Miller smile, the first being the day he won the ship’s boxing championship. Despite the crew’s best efforts, however, West Virginia was struck again and again. Wrapped in sheets of burning oil, the mighty battleship sank slowly, settling into the muddy harbor bottom.


Dorie Miller was eventually awarded the Navy Cross for his heroic actions.


Not far away, Oklahoma took an awful beating. Hiejro Abe, a Japanese pilot, let loose his 1,760-pound bomb and saw it tear into the ship. Excitement overwhelmed him and tears came to his eyes. Four torpedoes slammed into the vessel, ripping open her hull. Oklahoma took on water and began to roll over. Below decks a sailor saw two men in the pharmacy hit by a cascade of falling medicine bottles. Slipping and sliding, they fell amid the broken glass. Then they jumped up and ran off. Inside the main gun turrets there were scenes of horror. Huge shells, some weighing more than a ton, broke loose and rolled down the slanting deck, crushing anyone in their path. Other crewmen were more fortunate. A marine managed to walk up the side of the vessel as it rolled over. Then he stepped into a waiting lifeboat, without wetting his feet. Three brothers, Tom, Pat and Terry Armstrong, reached safety without a scratch among them. Three other crewmen, brothers Leroy, Malcolm and Randolph Barber, were not so lucky. 

All three went down with the ship. 

Eight minutes after the first bomb hit, Oklahoma rolled over, her hull sticking out of the water like a giant turtle. Trapped inside, George DeLong and seven others found temporary safety from the water by closing hatches to one room and plugging leaking air vents with mattresses. Still, the sea continued to pour in till it reached their waists. Terrified and unable to understand what had happened, they began pounding out an “S. O. S.” with a wrench. Splashing down a flooded passage, George Murphy entered a room with a strange tile “ceiling.”  Neither he nor any of the sailors gathered there could grasp what had happened. Hundreds were trapped inside a topsy-turvy steel prison.  


USS Oklahoma lies on its side; hundreds of men were trapped inside.


FOR THE JAPANESE, THE ATTACK was indeed “a dream come true.” Lt. Jinichi Goto came in low, released his torpedo, and heard his observer shout, “Atarimashita!” It hit! Juzo Mori zoomed down, fifteen feet above the harbor waters. Black puffs of smoke from American guns filled the sky. His torpedo went streaking for the side of California and exploded in a fountain of water and black smoke. As he pulled up, Mori just missed ramming another attacking plane. A string of American bullets ripped his craft like angry wasps. Yet his luck held.

 He survived.

At almost that same moment bombs slammed into the USS Arizona. One ripped through the battleship’s armored deck, touching off a fire near the ammunition room. Suddenly, a million pounds of explosives blew up like a volcano. Fuchida saw the vessel explode far beneath him. The blast rocked his plane like a toy. A pillar of dark red smoke rose a thousand feet in the air. Other witnesses watched the ship jump fifteen feet out of the water and split in two

Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh and 1,176 members of the crew died almost instantly. 

*

SHOCKED, STUNNED, COMPLETELY ENRAGED, defenders did what they could. One sailor came running from a hanger, firing a Browning automatic rifle at a low flying Zero. The pilot, Lt. Fusata Iida, returned fire and the American ducked a stream of bullets. Witnesses saw the enemy plane climb and come round again, leaking gas as Lt. Iida zoomed in for the kill. Both men fired once more. Then to the astonishment of all who witnessed the duel the crippled plane plowed into the ground and disintegrated.  

John Finn grabbed a machinegun from a parked plane, propped it on a pile of lumber, and blazed away. Shrapnel from an exploding bomb tore into his stomach, chest, arms and foot. Ignoring his wounds, Finn kept firing as long as any attackers were in sight. 

As soon as the first bombs hit, pilots Welch and Taylor forgot their discussion about going for a swim or heading for bed. Jumping into their car they raced to a nearby airstrip. Then they roared into the sky. Soon they found themselves engaged in a high-speed battle. One enemy fighter got on Taylor’s tail. Welch shot him loose. Taylor knocked down a Japanese plane and watched it clip the top off a eucalyptus tree before exploding in a ball of flame. Looking for trouble, they found plenty of targets over Ewa Air Field. It was “a picnic,” and they shot down four more Japanese. Taylor was wounded and forced to land. Welch finished the day by downing a seventh Japanese aircraft on his own.

Even heroic effort could not halt the incredible destruction. A second Japanese wave—this time 168 planes—struck hard at the fleet, adding to the horrible toll. Nevada was hit hard and avoided sinking only by running aground. Battleship Pennsylvania, in dry-dock, was badly damaged. George Walters, a civilian worker, did his best to protect the ship, running a tall repair crane back and forth along a rail to block low-flying aircraft. The destroyer Shaw was hit at 9:30 a.m. A huge orange fireball marked the spot where the vessel had been. Bodies, mattresses, and pieces of ship flew high in the air and came crashing back to earth.  

By 10:00 a.m. the skies had cleared. The last Japanese aircraft vanished to the north. The damage they left was vast. Eighteen ships had been sunk or reduced to mangled junk, including most of the U. S. Navy’s powerful battleships. A total of 188 American planes were destroyed, another 159 damaged. Most had been caught on the ground.

Worst was the human toll. All day and into the night Nurse Dorothy Young watched trucks deliver bloody cargo to her hospital. Again and again, she gave injured soldiers and Marines shots of morphine, marking each man’s forehead with an “M.” Burt Amgwert, a pharmacist’s mate at the Naval Hospital, would never forget the aftermath of the attack. That night, in a facility meant to hold 300, he helped care for nearly a thousand men. Bodies piled up in stacks. Mary Ann Ramsey, the teen who had been headed for church, volunteered to help. The sight of burned and mangled sailors filled her with horror. But she swallowed her fear and held cigarettes to the lips of men too badly injured to hold them themselves. The final count showed 2,403 Americans dead. Another 1,178 were wounded.            

*

AT 3:00 P.m. (EASTERN STANDARD TIME) RADIO STATIONS across the United States broadcast the news. Fans attending pro football games and players on the fields fell silent. Families eating Sunday dinners put down forks and stared at loved ones. Little children at play stopped to wonder what it meant. Tens of millions of adults understood all too well. The U. S. was now part of what would be the bloodiest war in human history.


*

JAPANESE LOSSES ON DECEMBER 7 WERE LIGHT. All five midget submarines were sunk, as well as one large sub. 

Twenty-nine planes were downed and 129 men killed.


A survivor visits Pearl Harbor.

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