HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii -- Airmen of the base honor guard here prepare to place memorial wreaths during the ceremony commemorating the 63rd anniversary of the attack on Hickam Field on Dec. 7, 1941. The Airmen (from left) are Senior Airmen Jodi Asprer, April Bonaparte and Leslie Ocasio-Gonzalez, and Airman 1st Class Jennifer Kincaid. (U.S. Air Force photo by Mysti Bicoy)
by Army SGT Catherine Talento
Air Force Print News
12/6/2006 - HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii (AFPN) -- On Sunday morning Dec. 7, 1941, the largest airborne attack force ever assembled by the Imperial Japanese Navy struck Oahu's military installations and in the attack's aftermath crippled the U.S .military in the Pacific and plunged the United States into World War II.
Six Japanese carriers transported more than 400 torpedo planes, dive-bombers and fighters to a point about 220 miles north of Oahu. Their objective was to cripple the U.S. Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. The attack was not just targeted on the U.S. Navy's fleet.
Pacific Air Forces Senior Historian Dr. Steve Diamond said Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto knew in order to achieve total success, the Japanese fleet had to also achieve air supremacy, "They wanted air superiority early on and in fact the sequence of their attack was based on air superiority," Dr. Diamond explained, "They first hit Wheeler Field which is the home of the Hawaiian Air Forces Fighter Command, that's where all the P-36's and P-40's were stationed."
While the fighters stayed above 15,000 feet, the dive bombers split their formation, beginning their bombing runs at 10,000 feet and releasing their bombs at 500 feet. The fighters, seeing no resistance from the Americans swooped down in a series of low level strafing runs. At the same time a group of dive bombers attacked Hickam Field.
The first targets hit were the Hawaiian Air Depot's engineering building and hanger area. Japanese intelligence told the attackers that the American feared sabotage from the large native Japanese population on the island. Consequentially, the planes were placed wingtip to wingtip to protect from sabotage, providing an ideal target for the attacking Japanese forces.
The attack then widened to other areas, troop quarters were the next target, "The building was called the Big Barracks on Hickam, in fact at the time it was the biggest barracks in the world and home to over 3,000 men," said Dr. Diamond, "It was one of the prime targets as well as the hangers along hanger row and all the aircraft out front."
Admiral Yamamoto's attack plan played out almost to perfection. The Japanese attacked without warning and the results were devastating, even with all of the destruction, heroism abounded.
By the second wave of the attacks gun encampments had been set up. At Hickam, one man even managed to lug a machine gun to the top of a hanger and another climbed into a parked B-18 bomber and manned a .30 caliber machine gun until his aircraft was consumed by incendiary fire and engulfed by flames.
With chaos rampant throughout the island and casualties in the hundreds, the hospital teams treated the mounting casualties. "The first woman to receive the Purple Heart, Lt. Anne Fox, was a nurse at the new Hickam Hospital which had just opened the month before," said Dr. Diamond, "It now found itself the site of a battlefield triage so there were some heroes from that day, even though overall it was a complete disaster for the Hawaiian Air Force."
A few pilots managed to take off, engage the enemy and shoot down ten Japanese aircraft. Two of the pilots Lts. George Welch and Kenneth Taylor later received the Distinguished Service Cross. Lieutenant Welch had four confirmed hits, Lieutenant Taylor had two. The final chapter of the attack took place the next morning at Bellows Field.
Before the aerial assault, the Japanese had launched five two-man midget subs. All were sunk except one which drifted out to Bellows and grounded on the reef. One crewmember drowned and the other, Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki washed ashore and was captured. Bellows Field had the honor of capturing the first prisoner of war and the first war prize. It was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak day.
Dec. 7, 1941, was a disastrous day for the Army Air Corps. Casualties at Army Air Force Installations numbered 690 with 244 killed and a total of 76 aircraft completely destroyed.
Reminders of the attack are still visible at Hickam Air Force Base. The former Big Barracks now houses the headquarters of the Pacific Air Forces; its bullet scarred walls are carefully preserved as a constant reminder that the U.S. military shall never again be caught unprepared.