Military Heritage Chronicles — Pearl Harbor – an Aerial View

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island shortly after the beginning of the Pearl Harbor attack shows this view towards the east. A torpedo has just hit USS West Virginia on the far side of Ford Island (center). (Official U.S. Navy photograph)

80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor

Dec. 4, 2021 — As we celebrate the 80th anniversary of that “day of infamy” of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, most folks are at least vaguely familiar with the event and even some of the back story. People may know about the surprise attack by the Japanese while they were pretending to be negotiating; the failed or blotched intelligence interpretations; the tragic destruction of naval vessels and loss of life; and the amazing rebuilding and response from the Pacific Fleet.

Hollywood films and even documentaries often cover all of those elements in detail, but also often only pay cursory attention to the event from the air war point of view. 

I myself have always struggled with geography over the years, and even while I visited the USS Arizona Memorial in my one and only trip to Hawaii back in the 1980s, I didn’t comprehend the geographic size of the attack. I thought everything happened right there in the immediate vicinity of Pearl Harbor itself — wrong!

In addition to the naval base itself, there were six different military aviation sites scattered around the Island of Oahu. At that time, all of the USAAF operations in the Pacific were under the umbrella of the Hawaiian Air Force, and for the Navy, air operations were under the jurisdiction of the Pacific Fleet. Four different US Army Air Force bases and two Naval Air Stations were affected; however, only five were actually attacked.

Although the first Japanese attack wave flew in from the North, NAS Ewa, an auxiliary field on the southern tip of Oahu and west of Pearl Harbor, was the first to be attacked. All 48 aircraft based there were destroyed.

Wheeler Army Airfield, a fighter base, was hit next by that initial Japanese aerial formation, followed quickly by Hickam, an Army bomber base, and then Kaneohe, another Naval Air Station where many of the PBY’s, or Catalinas, were stationed. 

One lone Japanese plane attacked Bellows Field where an Army Observation Squadron was based.

Haleiwa Field, an Army auxiliary field located on the north end of the island that contained only a grass strip, was not attacked. It did, however, have some fighter planes located there and is the location often depicted in movies from where USAAF pilots Lt. Welch and Lt. Taylor took off in P-40 fighters and engaged the Japanese.

The second wave attack again only hit the same five aerial locations as well as Pearl Harbor itself, but again missed Haleiwa.

Although the heroic efforts of Welch and Taylor are often portrayed by Hollywood, a total of five Army Air Force pilots did in fact get airborne and were credited with downing nine Japanese airplanes. Other pilots valiantly attempted but were shot down or stopped in the process.

While the Japanese attack damaged a total of 16 ships and totally destroyed three ships in the harbor attack, the aerial assault also damaged a total of 159 Army and Navy planes and destroyed 169 in less than an hour, representing over 50 percent of the Hawaiian Air Forces airpower. 

The Japanese lost only 29 aircraft. Many of the American aircraft were destroyed while just sitting on the ground, some having been parked in rows rather than spaced out. Roughly a third of a flight of B-17 bombers which were arriving simultaneously from the mainland were also destroyed.

Being obviously larger and more complex, the Navy vessels — with exception of USS Arizona and USS Utah — were repaired and back in service within two years. Some of the damaged military aircraft, however, were hastily repaired and back flying in search of the Japanese fleet within hours. 

While most of the pursuit aircraft were destroyed, by scavenging parts from damaged aircraft, others were put back into service. A-20’s from the 58th Bombardment Squadron took off from Hickam by 11:30 a.m. that same morning. By the end of that day, multiple types of both Army and Navy planes had flown a total of 48 sorties in search of the enemy fleet, but failed to locate them.

There is no doubt that the loss from Pearl Harbor was tragic and catastrophic. But it applied across the board, across the Island and across all branches of the military and even local civilians.

For more military heritage, visit the Oregon Coast Military Museum located on Kingwood Street adjacent to the Florence Municipal Airport, open from noon to 4 p.m. Thursday thru Sunday, or by visiting the Museum’s website at www.oregoncoastmilitarymuseum.com.

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