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Day of Infamy

When America
Needed Heroes

 

When the morning sun broke across Diamond Head on December 7, 1941, it sparkled across the smooth waters of Pearl Harbor to reveal fully half of the entire United States Navy's Pacific Fleet.  Scattered around Ford Island, and resting peacefully at anchor, were nearly 150 ships of the Navy and Coast Guard, most of which subsequently sustained damage in the ensuing attack.  Eighteen vessels were sunk or severely damaged beneath two waves of Japanese Zeroes and torpedo bombers, including all eight of the fleet's huge battleships, 3 light cruisers, and 3 destroyers.  Of the more than 2,400 Americans killed during the two-hour attack 1,177 were lost aboard the USS Arizona.  It was the most disastrous day in the history of the United States Navy, truly A Day of Infamy.  In one swift stroke the Japanese Imperial Navy and Air Force rendered the American Navy virtually impotent to defend the vast Pacific.

Almost listed as a historical footnote to the Navy's losses at Pearl Harbor is the devastation wreaked upon the United States Army Air Forces.  The image of a burning P-40 fighter on an airfield pales next to the drama of the sinking USS Arizona or the over-turned hull of the USS Utah.  Perceptions aside, the overall result to any American hope of mounting a Pacific defense was the same.  On the same morning that the Japanese destroyed the US Navy's Pacific Fleet, it also decimated the ability of the Army's Air Force to rise to the challenge of the new war.

Five air stations were scattered across the island of Oahu, including the Naval Air Station at Kaneohe Bay and the smaller Marine Air Station at Ewa.  The bulk of the American Army's air presence in the Pacific was located on three airstrips: Wheeler Field near Schofield Barracks in the center of the island, Hickam Field between Honolulu and Pearl Harbor, and the new Bellows Field on the island's southeast coast line.  In all, these five fields were home to some 400 aircraft on the morning of December 7, 1941.  All were priority targets for Japanese Commander Mitsuo Fuchida's first wave of 183 fighter planes and torpedo bombers.

When the first wave approached the north end of the island from their carriers just 200 miles away, they split up to attack in all directions.  One flight peeled off towards the Naval Air Station at Kaneohe Bay, home to the three squadrons of Navy Patrol Wing One.  Each squadron consisted of twelve new, twin-engine, PBY Catalina flying boats.  All but three of them were parked neatly near their hangers, or floating peacefully in the bay.  It was here, at 7:48 a.m, that the first shots were fired on that Day of Infamy.  Within minutes twenty-six PBYs were destroyed where they sat.  Six more were severely damaged.  Only the three planes that were out on an early morning patrol survived the attack.

Six Zeroes from the enemy flight that skirted the west coastline to attack Pearl Harbor peeled off as they passed the Marine Air Station at Ewa to strafe the fields.  Of forty-eight American aircraft based there, thirty-three were destroyed or damaged.  Before the first bombs fell on American ships around Ford Island, Naval and Marine Corps aviation in the Pacific had been reduced by half.

The damage was even worse for the Army Air Forces.

The threat of sabotage was far greater than the threat of attack at Pearl Harbor late in 1941. To minimize this risk the Army Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Walter C. Short had ordered his airplanes to be neatly parked in highly visible rows, away from the hangers.  At 7:51 a.m. Japanese aircraft descended on Wheeler Field and, four minutes later, other enemy aircraft simultaneously launched the assault on Pearl Harbor and nearby Hickam Field.

Only a few American pilots like Lieutenant Philip Rasmussen who flew into combat in his pajamas, or Lieutenant George Welch who shot down four enemy airplanes that day, managed to get their fighters off the ground.  The bulk of the United States Army Air Force was destroyed on the ground.  By the time the second wave of Fuchida's attack force arrived over Oahu, perhaps as many as 20 American airplanes had risen to the defense.  It was a feeble attempt to preserve what remained.  When the sun set over the Hawaiian Islands on December 7, 1941, of nearly 230 Army aircraft assigned to duty in the Pacific, 64 were destroyed and 82 were damaged.  More than 500 airmen were either killed or wounded.

 

If the losses suffered by the Army Air Forces at Pearl Harbor were overshadowed by the devastating losses of the U.S. Navy in the reports that spread across the mainland in the hours that followed,  it is understandable.  Those initial reports sparked shock, horror and rage when special editions of the newspapers hit the streets in the afternoon.  Outrage and anger however, quickly turned into fear and frustration.  Before the normal Monday morning newspapers could hit the streets eighteen hours later, the news became even worse. 

 The United States was not a super power in 1941; its fledgling Army ranked only 17th in the entire world.  The U.S. Navy had only seven big aircraft carriers, three of them assigned to the Pacific Fleet which lay in burning ruin before noon on December 7.  Fortunately, all three aircraft carriers had been away from Pearl Harbor on the morning of the attack and were spared destruction.  This was the only ray of hope in a day otherwise filled with nothing but bad news--fearsome news that would only continue to mount.  

The aircraft carrier USS Saratoga was in San Diego when the bombs fell over Pearl Harbor.  The USS Lexington and the USS Enterprise were elsewhere in the Pacific, on separate missions from Pearl Harbor to deliver Marine Corps aircraft to the isolated American outposts on Midway and Wake Islands.  Both carriers and their escort ships were well south of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto's  carrier fleet when it turned homeward shortly before noon.  The islands to which the carriers were delivering those aircraft however, were not outside the range of attack.

 

Falling Like Dominoes

When the attack began at Pearl Harbor it was 4 a.m. of December 8 at the isolated American outpost of Guam on the other side of the International Date Line.  Less than five hours later the morning sun had risen on the strategic island that was home to 150 Marines and a few assorted Naval personnel.  With the sunshine came waves of aircraft from the Japanese 18th Naval Air Unit based on Saipan.  The badly outnumbered Americans and their small contingent of local Chamorro from the Guam Militia were nearly helpless.  The island had no artillery, only a few machine guns, and virtually no shelter to escape the torrent of bombs that followed.  Though the defenders held throughout the day, and even through the following day of continued bombardment, there was no doubt that Guam was on the verge of collapse.

 

One hour east of Guam was Wake Island (it is actually three small islands), an isolated American outpost of strategic importance to the American presence in the Pacific.  Prior to December 7 it was the only island in the region  not under Japanese rule and control.  Major James P. S. Devereux commanded 400 Marines to defend the position that consisted of a newly constructed air field and a few bunkers.  

Four days earlier the carrier  Enterprise had sailed in close enough to dispatch twelve F4F Wildcats under the command of Major Paul Putnam in order to fly patrols from the new airfield.  Then the big aircraft carrier had turned for home.  

At 8 a.m. on December 7 the Enterprise was only 200 miles west of her home port and launched Scouting Squadron 6 to land at Ewa Airfield.  These pilots flew unsuspecting into a maelstrom that was Pearl Harbor while the bombardment was still in progress, and engaged enemy aircraft in the final stages of the attack.

It was 6:00 a.m. on December 8 at Wake Island when the first bombs fell over Pearl Harbor, and Major Devereaux received word of the attack with his morning coffee. While he alerted his small shore defenses, Major Putnam and three Marine pilots began immediate patrols over the north side of the atoll.  A rain squall darkened skies to the south.  It was nearing noon when 36 twin-engine Japanese bombers slipped through the storm to surprise Wake's defenders.  The four airborne American pilots returned to meet the enemy in the air, but not before the Japanese destroyed seven of the twelve Wild Cats on the ground and damaged an eighth.  The heavy bombardment further destroyed most of the aviation fuel and spare parts needed for the Marine flying squadron that was now reduced to but four aircraft.

Despite the damage, the 400 intrepid Leatherneck riflemen held on, determined to rebuff the enemy bombardment.  Unknown to them at the time, even as the first bombs rained down on Wake Island, a large Japanese landing force was departing from Kwajalien to finish the job.  They would arrive within three days.

Further west it was daybreak along the China coast.  With dawn the Japanese continued their onslaught including attacks at Peking, against a small Marine guard unit in Chinwangtao near Tientsin, at the port at Singapore, and elsewhere throughout the region.  The time was now 9:00 a.m. in Tokyo, nearly midnight in Washington, D.C., and it was still early afternoon at Pearl Harbor.  The Day of Infamy was yet young, with even more bad news to follow.  Before evening shadows could fall over Oahu to hide what wreckage was not illuminated by the still burning fires from the early morning raid, far to the west additional attacks would continue.  One of them, due its extreme damage to what was left of American military power in the Pacific, would become known as:

 

MacArthur's
"Pearl Harbor"

Word of the Pearl Harbor attack reached the Philippine Islands by commercial radio shortly after 3:00 a.m. (local time) on the morning of December 8.  Due the time zones and the International Date Line, this announcement arrived while the second wave of enemy planes were returning to the aircraft carriers from their deadly mission at Oahu.  Within half-an-hour the American radar station at Iba Field on the west coast of Luzon plotted a formation of airplanes approaching Corregidor at the mouth of Manila Bay from 75, miles off-shore.  Several American P40 fighters were airborne by 4:00 a.m. and flying to intercept.  Blips on the radar screen at Iba showed the two forces engaging, though in fact the American pilots never saw the approaching force.  Flying at an altitude of more than 20,000 feet, the Japanese bombers passed above the lower American fighters in the pre-dawn darkness.

The 7,000 Philippine Islands are located 5,000 miles from Hawaii but only 1,800 miles from Tokyo.  Under American control since the Spanish-American War, in 1941 the Philippines comprised the westernmost American outpost and stood as the last natural barrier between Japan and the rich resources of East and Southeast Asia.  

Formosa, less then 600 miles to the north, had been under Japanese rule since 1895.  By 1941 nearly all other surrounding islands were under Japanese rule and control and in November the Japanese 11th Air Fleet moved 300 aircraft to Formosa.  They immediately began intensive training for night bombing missions.  The intent was clear; the Japanese were preparing to launch bombing raids on the Philippine Islands. 

Most of the 17 million people scattered through the Philippines lived on one of the 11 largest islands, including the big island of Luzon.  Luzon was home to both the capitol city of Manila and the headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur.  In 1941 MacArthur's ground defenses numbered fewer than 25,000 trained soldiers, more than half of which were Philippine regulars or scouts.  An irregular force of 100,000 reserve militia was in training, but on December 8, 1941, most were ill-equipped and unprepared for combat.

American naval presence in the south Pacific was small, consisting primarily of the heavy cruiser USS Houston, fewer than a dozen light cruisers, and two dozen submarines.  The real defense of the region had been delegated to the Far East American Air Force, based primarily on Luzon and on the southern island of Mindanao.  Though airfields were scattered across Luzon, most of MacArthur's FEAAF was based around Manila.  This force consisted of nearly 100 P-40 and P-35 fighters, with squadrons consisting of a eighteen fighters each at Iba, Clark, and Nichols Fields.  Also based at Clark Field were nineteen of the FEAAF's thirty-five new Boeing B-17 bombers.  The remaining sixteen were based 500 miles south, at Del Monte on the Island of Mindanao .   

The largest 4-engine bombing squadron in the world, these B-17s were capable of delivering destruction to Japanese positions not only on the surrounding islands, but as far away as heavily fortified Formosa.  Realizing that these bombers posed America's only viable means of retaliation, Japanese war planners had intended to strike Luzon nearly simultaneously with the attack at Pearl Harbor.  The attack against the FEAAF had been planned for 2:00 a.m. local time.  That plan was delayed nearly 12 hours by a heavy fog that shut down flights out of Formosa.

At 9:30 a.m. American radar picked up enemy aircraft heading south over Lingayen Gulf, apparently destined for Manila.  Fighters from Clark and Nichols Fields were dispatched to repel the invaders, and eighteen operational B-17s were scrambled at Clark Field so as not to leave them unprotected on the ground.  Instead of continuing towards Manila however, the enemy airplanes turned inland to bomb ground forces at Baguio and Tarlac, as well as the small airfield at Cabantuan.  American fighters failed to make contact and shortly before noon both these and the airborne B-17s were running low on fuel and returning to their respective fields.  

An American war plan code named Rainbow Five called for the B-17 pilots to refuel, arm with 100 and 300-pound bombs, and launch an immediate retaliatory strike against Japanese airfields on Formosa.  What the pilots or ground crews did not realize as they bent to the task of loading bombs and fuel on the grounded and now vulnerable Flying Fortresses was that at that very moment, a flight of 84 Zeroes was inbound.  They were escorts for more than 100 Japanese bombers that had left Formosa (Tainan) as quickly as the fog lifted.

The radar station at Iba Field picked up the incoming enemy aircraft and flashed a warning to both Del Monte and Clark Fields.  On the island of Mindanao fighters were scrambled to head north and defend Clark Field.  There, but another twist of bad luck, the warning had gone unnoticed.  The radio-operator was away from his headset...at lunch.  

Minutes later more than 100 Zeroes and Mitsubishis peeled off to attack Iba Field, where the eighteen P-40s of the 3rd Pursuit Squadron were refueling on the ground.  In moments, sixteen of them were destroyed where they sat.  Other enemy planes continued towards Clark Field only 40 miles further inland.

At Clark Field one B-17 was still airborne and circling the airfield amid a flurry of activity below.  On the ground pilots and crew joked and laughed while they bent to their tasks.  Over commercial radio they could hear a commentator announcing that Clark Field was under attack.  To the contrary, the pilots knew, they were preparing to launch an attack of their own.  Three B-17s outfitted with cameras for a reconnaissance flight over Formosa were taxiing into position, while the remaining bombers were being loaded for "Payback".   

When the skies were suddenly filled with aircraft, someone looked up and gleefully announced, "Here comes the Navy!" Another puzzled soldier glanced upward and asked, "Why are they dropping tinfoil?"  Then the air raid sirens sounded, and MacArthur's Little Pearl Harbor was under way. 

The three B-17s that had been preparing for takeoff exploded where they sat, followed by explosion after explosion.  Enemy aircraft swooped down in two waves, bombing and strafing everything they could see.  Men died, buildings burst into flames, and mighty B-17s exploded all around.  Only four P-40 fighters managed to take off and enter the fray.  The one-hour assault left little to be salvaged from Army Air Force in the Far East.  The only Flying Fortress to survive was the one that had been in the air; all eighteen others were destroyed on the ground.  Also destroyed were a dozen P-35 and twenty P-40 fighters.  American air power in the South Pacific had been reduced to half.

01_fdrspeech_page2.gif (210534 bytes)Back in Hawaii it was shortly after dinner time, December 7, 1941.  Fires still burned in the harbor, exploding munitions still rocked the airfields, and efforts were still under way to find survivors.  In Washington, D.C. it wasn't yet midnight.  

President Roosevelt had already penned the first draft of the speech he planned to deliver the following morning to the United States Congress.  As reports continued to reach the Capitol of each new attack, with sorrow and disgust he was forced to revise his account to Congress.

Midway

The Japanese plan of attack at Pearl Harbor had called for three waves of invading aircraft.  The damage inflicted by the first two waves far exceeded any victory Admiral Yamamoto or  Commander Fuchida could have hoped for, but the absence of all three American aircraft carriers had provided the one disappointment.  Due their absence, the third assault was cancelled and upon the return of the pilots from the second wave, the Imperial Fleet made haste to return home.  Japan lay 4,000 miles west, far beyond the reach of any American retaliatory strike, but the unknown whereabouts of the American carrier task forces posed potential dangers for the returning fleet.

One of those absent American carriers was the USS Lexington. At that moment she was en route to the small islands of Midway to deliver a Marine air squadron. It was a mission similar to the one just completed at Wake Island by the USS Enterprise.  Escorting the Lexington were three heavy cruisers (Chicago, Portland, and Astoria) and four light cruisers (Mahan, Drayton, Lamson, and Flusser).  When news of the attack on Oahu reached the Lexington the big carrier was 425 miles southeast of Midway, and hoping to reach the 400-mile range limit from which it could launch the 18 planes of Marine Scouting Bombing Squadron 231 for the last leg of their trek to their new base.  Instead, the Lexington upon learning of the attack, launched scout planes to seek out the Japanese fleet and turned south to join the Enterprise.

Meanwhile far to the north, Admiral Yamamoto was returning home unmolested.  When darkness settled on that Day of Infamy, he was within striking range of Midway and dispatched some of his ships to launch one final attack.  It was after 9 p.m. on the night of December 7 that his destroyers were close enough to the isolated outpost at the far west end of the Hawaiian archipelago, to allow the defending Marines to rake their decks with machineguns.  The Japanese commenced a half-hour naval bombardment, killing four Marines and wounding nineteen.

On Midway's Sand Island a large Japanese shell struck and penetrated the air vent of the main communications center.  Commanded by twenty-six year old Marine First Lieutenant George Cannon, the resulting explosion in the confined concrete bunker was deadly.  Nearly deaf and bleeding from numerous wounds, Lieutenant Cannon refused to be evacuated and remained throughout continued shelling to organize the evacuation of other wounded.  When the Japanese guns ceased fire and the big ships returned to join their fleet for the trek home, Lieutenant Cannon finally allowed his broken body to be evacuated to the aid station.  

It was too late, his blood loss had been too extreme to spare his life.  He became the first Marine of World War II to earn the Medal of Honor.   Back at Pearl Harbor the clock struck midnight...

The Day of Infamy had finally ended!

     Six hours after the attack at Midway, 

President Roosevelt addressed the Nation.     

(From Start to Finish--Fewer than 24 Hours had elapsed.)

The First 24 Hours

Manila Tokyo Guam Wake Midway Hawaii California DC
Pearl Harbor Attacked 2:00 AM 3:00 AM 4:00 AM 6:00 AM 7:00 AM 8:00 AM 10:00 AM 1:00 PM
Guam Attacked 7:00 AM 8:00 AM 9:00 AM 11:00 AM 12:00 PM 1:00 PM 3:00 PM 6:00 PM
Wake Island Attacked 8:00 AM 9:00 AM 10:00 AM Noon 1:00 PM 2:00 PM 4:00 PM 7:00 PM
Japanese attack at Peking, Hong Kong, Singapore and throughout the region.        
Clark Field Bombed 12:00 PM 1:00 PM 2:00 PM 4:00 PM 5:00 PM 6:00 PM 8:00 PM 11:00 PM
Midway Attacked 4:30 PM 5:30 PM 6:30 PM 8:30 PM 9:30 PM 10:30 PM 12:30 AM 3:30 AM
F.D.R. Infamy Speech 1:30 AM 2:30 AM 3:30 AM 5:30 AM 6:30 AM 7:30 AM 9:30 AM 12:30 PM
 

December 9

December 7

December 8

 

 Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

Yesterday, the Japanese government also launched an attack against Malaya.
Last night, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. 
Last night, Japanese forces attacked Guam.
Last night, Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.
Last night, the Japanese attacked Wake Island.
This morning, the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

 

 

 

The morning sun was rising in Hawaii when President Roosevelt delivered his now-famous December 8 speech to the nation at 12:30 p.m. (Washington, D.C. time).  By 4:30 p.m. when the United States Senate approved that declaration of war against Japan, dawn was breaking over the Philippines.  There, as elsewhere, the news continued to become worse.  With the morning sun the Japanese launched attacks against Nichols Field and there were reports of enemy troops landing at Vigan.  The bombardment continued against American forces at Guam and Wake Islands.  So invincible seemed the Japanese onslaught there were even fears back home of potential attacks on the shores of America's West Coast.

In the absence of any good news, Americans were forced to find comfort in the stories of heroism and valor that streamed in from the Pacific:  

Sixteen men earned Medals of Honor on that Day of Infamy.  Eleven of them were dead.  In those dark hours there was no shortage of tales of heroic action.  The people of a ravaged nation needed more however,...they needed a ray of hope...they needed some good news to reassure them that somehow they would survive and prevail.

Sadly, the news only became WORSE!

On the morning of December 10 more than 6,000 Japanese Rikusentai (marines) landed on the island of Guam.  The 150 American Marines and 600 Navy defenders were quickly forced to surrender.  It was the first American soil to fall into the hands of the Japanese.

On that same morning an enemy convoy was spotted advancing on the Philippines.  Five of the remaining B-17s of the Far East Air Force conducted the first bombing raid of World War II, attacking the convoy unmolested and scoring a few hits.  It wasn't enough however, to dent the invincible armada.  

Six B-17s attempted bombing missions on Formosa, including one piloted by Captain Collin Kelly, Jr.  Captain Kelly's mission was a solo strike without fighter escorts, since there were only twenty-two P-40 fighters remaining in combat condition.

Flying solo en route to Formosa, Kelly noted a large enemy landing party proceeding towards Aparri on the north coast of Luzon.  He requested permission to drop his three 600-pound bombs on the enemy formation and was told to stand by.  After a second request went unanswered, on his own initiative, he led his crew in three passes to attack what appeared to be a battleship.  His ordnance expended, he was returning to Clark Field when enemy fighters destroyed his Flying Fortress.  With one rear gunner dead and the cockpit awash in flame, Kelly ordered his crew to bail out while he remained at the controls.  When the five men had jumped they turned back to see their bomber explode.  Captain Kelly still at the controls.

Colin Kelly's heroism became one more of those badly needed stories of valor, the legend of a pilot who had struck the first real blow against the Japanese by sinking the big battleship Haruna.  At home the story was embellished, as legends often are, especially when there is a desperate need for heroes.  In time the tale had Captain Kelly diving his doomed B-17 into the warship before he died and earning the Medal of Honor.  Such inspiration was needed by a battered nation but it was just legend.  

Captain Kelly certainly sank an enemy warship with his bombs but it was not the battleship Haruna.  His B-17 was not lost in the bombardment but exploded on the return flight, wreckage landing only 5 miles from Clark Field.  Kelly did not receive the Medal of Honor, though he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his valiant efforts.  The fallacy of the legend aside, Captain Collin Kelly's heroism can not be diminished by the true facts of that day.  Alone, he led his bomber in a courageous attack on a superior enemy force, then stayed at the controls of his damaged airplane on its flight home to sacrifice his life while his crew jumped to safety.

It is true that every legend is rooted in fact, even if the facts don't rise to the level of the legend.  On December eleventh the tables were turned.  On that day the facts became more than legend could ever dream, and the myth of Japanese invincibility crumbled for the first time.

Wake Island

The Japanese returned to Wake Island on the morning of December 9, confident the battered Marine forces there were near destruction.  Only four Marine fighters remained of Major Paul Putnam's Fighting Squadron 211 to meet them but they were enough, flaming one enemy bomber.  Marine anti-aircraft gunners dropped a second before the enemy retreated.  

With a landing party of Japanese marines steaming in from Kwajalien, the Jap bombers returned again on the morning of December 10.  Marine Captain Henry Elrod, of Putnam's 4-plane air force, found himself vastly outnumbered and in a vicious dogfight over the island.  Determined to prevail he pressed onward, shooting down two bombers of the 26-plane attack force.  Meanwhile, the ships of the Rikusentai landing force moved ever nearer, arriving at last off the shoreline near midnight.

The enemy ships waited until dawn to approach further, unleashing their big guns on the small island that had already been nearly bombed into desolation.  Major Devereux ordered his Marines to hold their fire.  The enemy mistook the lack of resistance as the sign of a quick and easy victory.  Enticed to move in closer, the warships and transports were great targets when at last Devereux unleashed his costal guns.  The light cruiser Yubari took three big hits before it retreated with black smoke trailing.  Three more enemy vessels took similar damage.  In addition the destroyer Hayate was sunk by Wake's 5-inch guns.  Almost before it had begun, the amphibious assault was aborted.  

It would be the only time of the entire war that a landing party from either side was successfully repelled.  The amazing feat of determination and resistance was accomplished by a small but valiant group of Americans, 400 Marines and their 4-plane air force.

Even as the enemy ships withdrew the four Marine pilots pressed their own assault.  Captain Elrod dropped a load of bombs directly on the deck of the destroyer Kisaragi, sending it to the bottom of the ocean with 500 enemy soldiers.  His fellow pilots damaged two  additional enemy ships, forcing the Japanese forces into a full retreat.  Such victory aside, the battle damage to Wake Island was heavy and by nightfall Major Putnam commanded what was now only a two-plane air force.

The fate of Wake Island was sealed however.  Isolated and vastly outnumbered, the 400 Marines could not survive on guts and determination alone.  For two more weeks they provided America with the first GOOD news in the dark days that followed the attack at Pearl Harbor.  When commanders at Hawaii radioed Wake Island to inquire what the Leathernecks might need they defiantly responded:  "Send us more Japs!"

 

The First Ace 

On the morning of December 13 Lieutenant Boyd Buzz Wagner of the 17th Pursuit Squadron based in the Philippines took off in his fighter.  It was to be a solo mission to recon enemy movements near Aparri at the north end of Luzon.  Fire streaked up at him from two destroyers accompanying an enemy landing force, and as Lieutenant Wagner dove he found five Zeros on his tail.  His P-40 out-maneuvered the enemy planes, which soon broke off and headed towards their new field at Aparri.  Wagner followed, shooting down two of them and then strafing the enemy airfield in two runs of deadly destruction that left at least ten enemy planes burning on the ground.  On his second pass, the remaining Zeros came in from behind.  When the intrepid airman turned towards Clark Field, two of them followed.

Wagner continued his flight home, the two enemy aircraft tailing him and jockeying in for the kill.  As they zoomed in to open fire, Wagner throttled back and the Zeros overshot, leaving their quarry dangerously behind them.  In minutes both were falling in flames.  Buzz Wagner had put in a pretty good day, shooting down four enemy planes and destroying nearly a dozen more on the ground.

Even if every American pilot on Luzon had possessed the skill and courage of Buzz Wagner, it wouldn't have been enough.  By now only the Army Air Force had only twenty-two P-40s to defend against nearly 500 Japanese aircraft.  On December 16 Lieutenant Wagner was dispatched to Vigan where the Japanese had established an airfield to support their troops which were landing across the north end of the island.  Wagner selected Lieutenant Russell Church as his wingman and the two pilots surprised the Japanese at dawn.  

Wagner came in first, dropping six 30-pound bombs across a neat line of 25 enemy airplanes on the strip below.  The enemy responded by quickly filling the sky with deadly anti-aircraft fire, making any further such attacks sheer suicide.  Glancing off towards his wingman, Wagner saw Church's P-40 take a hit on the nose and then the entire airplane erupted in flames.  He shouted into his radio, ordered Church to turn back and bail out.  Wagner later remembered what happened next:

"He dipped the nose of his blazing ship (and) went down like a hellbent fireball...then flattened out right over the target.  I watched while every bomb he carried fell squarely among the grounded planes...The ship still held its course, still flaming, and then it suddenly rocked wildly and plunged sideways to earth...enemy planes were destroyed by his bombs and that meant we were able to go just that much longer in the Philippines.

"I know that Church knew he was facing certain death when he decided to remain with his mission.  What Russell Church did at Vigan that day (was) the most courageous thing I have ever seen in this Pacific war."

The sight of Russell Church's P-40 going down over Vigan caused something to snap inside the heart and mind of Buzz Wagner.  Despite the hail of fire, he dove on the airstrip again, strafing everything in sight.  Nine enemy planes exploded on the ground and seven more were damaged.  As Wagner made his final pass, one enemy pilot managed to get airborne and swing in behind him.  Again Wagner let the enemy pursue, pausing until the last moment before gunfire erupted to throttle back and let the Zero zip past.  Rolling over, Wagner came in and claimed his fifth aerial victory to become the first American Air Force Ace of World War II.

Both Wagner and Church were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for the mission over Vigan, Church posthumously.  Days later Wagner was injured when enemy fire shattered the windscreen of his P-40, and was sent to Australia.  He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, becoming the youngest man of such rank in the Army.  Less than a year later he was lost at home, the victim of a routine flight from Elgin Field in Florida to Maxwell Field in Alabama.

 

The day after Buzz Wagner became an ace the first major withdrawal of American Army Air Force assets commenced.  The few critical and remaining B-17s were flown out to safer quarters at Batchelor Field in Australia.  In the days that followed additional assets departed as Japanese troops continued to land on Luzon.  The news from the war front, despite the tales of American determination and valor, continued to be all bad.

 

On Wake Island only two aircraft remained to defend against increased aerial attacks.  The enemy, angered by the defeat of their December 11 landing effort, threw everything they had against the beleaguered Marines.  On December 22 a force of thirty-three dive bombers and a dozen fighters attacked Wake.  Major Putnam's two remaining fighters rose to the challenge, shooting down two enemy.  One American pilot never returned; the other managed to crash-land back at Wake.  With no combat aircraft remaining every man on the island became a rifleman.  All fought with a vengeance when more than 1,000 enemy soldiers landed the following day.  Among these defenders was Captain Henry Elrod whose valor in the air and on the ground would earn him the first Medal of Honor awarded to any aviator, in any branch of service, in World War II.  His citation notes:

"Engaging vastly superior forces of enemy bombers and warships on 9 and 12 December, Capt. Elrod shot down 2 of a flight of 22 hostile planes and, executing repeated bombing and strafing runs at extremely low altitude and close range, succeeded in inflicting deadly damage upon a large Japanese vessel, thereby sinking the first major warship to be destroyed by small caliber bombs delivered from a fighter-type aircraft. When his plane was disabled by hostile fire and no other ships were operative, Capt. Elrod assumed command of 1 flank of the line set up in defiance of the enemy landing and, conducting a brilliant defense, enabled his men to hold their positions and repulse intense hostile fusillades to provide covering fire for unarmed ammunition carriers. Capturing an automatic weapon during 1 enemy rush in force, he gave his own firearm to 1 of his men and fought on vigorously against the Japanese. Responsible in a large measure for the strength of his sector's gallant resistance, on 23 December, Capt. Elrod led his men with bold aggressiveness until he fell, mortally wounded. His superb skill as a pilot, daring leadership and unswerving devotion to duty distinguished him among the defenders of Wake Island, and his valiant conduct reflects the highest credit upon himself and the U.S. Naval Service. 
"He gallantly gave his life for his country."

 

  

On December 7, 1941, the carefully crafted war plans of the Japanese armed forces crushed the might of American Naval and Army air power in the Pacific.  In the two weeks that followed, despite a valiant resistance exhibited at places like Wake Island, Guam, China and the Philippine Islands, nothing could stop the swift-moving Nippon war machine.  Though ground forces on Luzon continued to hold on in hopes that reinforcements would arrive, by Christmas virtually all of the Pacific was under enemy control and the Japanese Islands themselves were beyond the range of any hope for retaliation.

In that last full week of the year President Roosevelt held a meeting in his White House office.  Attending was Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, ; General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, chief of staff of the Army Air Forces; Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations; Secretary of War Henry Stimson; Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Admiral Harold Stark, and the President's personal advisor Harry Hopkins.

In that top-secret meeting the President announced that he wanted to strike back at the Japanese as quickly as possible.  He indicated that such a strike needed to be more than a military victory; it needed to be a moral victory that would bolster the hopes of the American people.  The President went so far as to identify such a mission as a bombing raid on the Japanese homeland itself.

It was an impossible request, a dream of "Payback" by a military force that had been reduced to half of its pre-Pearl Harbor strength. It called for a mission against a target half-a-world a way, and insulated by a buffer of enemy-held territory that extended thousands of miles in all directions.

In the weeks that followed that meeting, America's highest ranking generals and admirals seldom met without discussing the President's call for retaliatory strikes.   In the islands of Japan there was no fear of such a strike, for there was no way it could be accomplished.  America had been brought to her knees, humbled, humiliated, and rendered impotent.  

Therein lay the first major error of Japan's well-laid plan for world dominion...they underestimated the will and determination of the American people in time of crisis.  Instead, they should have headed the words spoken by their own commander following his successful attack on Pearl Harbor:

"I fear that we have awakened a sleeping giant
and filled him with a terrible resolve
"

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto
December 7th, 1941

 

PAYBACK!

Jimmy Doolittle's Tokyo Raid

Sources:

Cerasini, Marc, Heroes - U.S. Marine Corps Medal of Honor Winners, Berkley Books, New York, NY, 2002
Doolittle, General James and Carroll V. Glines, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen, PA, 1991
Frisbee, John L., "AAF's First Ace", Air Force Magazine, September 1996, Vol. 79, No. 9
Frisbee, John L., "Valor at Vigan", Air Force Magazine, September 1984, Vol. 67, No. 9
Manchester, William, American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, Dell Publishing, 1983 
Thomas, Lowell, These Men Shall Never Die, The John C. Winston Company, 1943
Van Der Vat, Dan, Pearl Harbor, The Day of Infamy-An Illustrated History, Madison Press, Toronto, Ontario, 2001

 


Part II - World War 2

Wings of Valor
Home Page

Introduction

Day of Infamy
When America needed Heroes
Pay Back
The Tokyo Raid
Harl Pease
Too Young to Fly MacArthur
Kenneth Walker 
Reprimand or Medal
Hamilton and Craw
The Banker & The Soldier
Airmen on the Ground 
Jack Mathis
Bombardier Brothers
Snuffy Smith
You don't have to be a saint
To Become a hero.
Sarnoski & Zeamer
1 Plane - 9 Heroes
TWO Medals of Honor
John C. Red  Morgan
Medically Unqualified
Morally Determined 
The Ploesti Raid 
When Heroes Filled the Sky 
Ralph Cheli 
Leadership by Example
Sacrifice by Design
Neel Ernest Kearby
The First Top Gun
Raymond Wilkins
The Last Survivor
Forrest Vosler 
Blind Determination 
James H. Howard
 
"I seen my duty and I done it!" 
Lawley, Truemper, 
& Mathies 
Coming Home the Hard Way
Ed Michael
Until the Last Man Comes Home
Leon Vance
Burden of Command
David Kingsley 
The Ultimate Sacrifice
Donald Pucket  Darrell Lindsey  Richard Bong 
Horace Carswell  Robert Femoyer  Gott & Metzger 
Frederick Castle  Thomas McGuire  William Shomo 
Henry Red Erwin
The Courage to LIVE
Raymond Knight   
A Very Special Thanks to Author/Historian Barrett Tillman for his special assistance and creative support in the development of this series.

Part I
World War One
Coming in November 2006

Part III
US Air Force

 

 

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