The sun was up and shinning through the Ford Island barracks windows the morning of December 7th, 1941. I was sitting on the edge of my bunk in my skivvies just ready to go brush my teeth and was looking forward to another peaceful Sunday in Hawaii. The time was 07:55. Somewhere in the building against the morning quiet, I heard breaking window glass, coupled with the staccato of what sounded like machine gun bullets hitting the roof. My instantaneous reaction - "Couldn't be. Must be something else". Following abruptly was the sound of a machine gun and an aircraft pulling out of a dive just over our barracks. It seemed to me to be a mighty odd time for an air raid drill. About that time someone yelled out "This is no drill". What I had heard was the first of the Japanese bombing and strafing runs on the battleships moored alongside Ford Island, just a few blocks east of our barracks.

It took me about 10 seconds to get into my dungarees. Our aircraft were all on the ramp in the hangar area, some five blocks from our barracks. That was my battle station and I should be there. A number of us started out for the planes but were stopped by Marines sentries who somehow had already manned their posts. We were herded back into the mess hall to seek what cover we could until the attack wave had passed. No one was aware of what was going on just a half mile east of us on battleship row. It became apparent soon enough with all the Japanese dive bombers and torpedo aircraft making their pull ups to the west right over our barracks and hangars, following their runs on the battleships. There wasn't much firing directly at our barracks. It was very clear that they were after the battleships. The noise was awesome. No one could guess the carnage that was taking place on those battle wagons.

After the first wave of the attack had retreated, we were permitted to make our way to the hangars. Our scout planes were intact except for some damage to the wings, but the machine guns mounted in the rear cockpits, were OK. We were able to get a supply of ammunition established and move the planes to a position where we could fire from the rear cockpits over an arc to the eastward just in case of a next possible attack. Several bombs had struck the concrete apron and had blown pieces of concrete through the fabric wings of our planes which made them unflyable. A number of the PBY type patrol planes had been hit and were burning. One of the hangars was burning furiously. If any of our aircraft had been flyable at that moment, it would have been impossible to launch them due to the debris and wreckage on the ramp. No one believed what was going on.

There was about a forty minute lull after the first attack, although the noise of intermittent explosions continued. Reports of the severe losses on battleship row began coming in. Just across the channel, we could see the burning remains of the destroyer Shaw in the dry dock, after her powder magazines blew up. There were reports of our lined up P41s at Wheeler and Hickham Fields being destroyed by strafing and bombing runs. There were reports of two man subs being seen in the harbor firing torpedoes. In those few minutes between attack waves one could hear almost any degree of speculation, a great deal of which proved to be true.

The second wave came in from the southeast like the first, out of the sun. The prime targets were still the ships. As far as we could discern, we had no combat air cover up. In continuing to hammer the battleships, the Zeros and Val dive bombers, as before, made their pull ups right over our hangars and strafed whatever they could find. We had a chance this time to shoot back, although our guns were only 30 caliber machine guns. We fired a lot of ammunition. There were no shortage of targets. It seemed that we were the only ones manning guns, but anyone on that ramp that had access to a gun was using it. There were at least three planes that we saw go down just beyond us during that second wave. Action continued with more damage to the ramps, hangars, aircraft, and vessels in the harbor until about 10:00, at which time the Japanese airmen departed toward the northwest as quickly as they had arrived earlier that Sunday morning.

Our aviation group had survived with only a few superficial wounds. Our aircraft could be repaired in a short time. Our ship, the USS San Francisco along with the USS New Orleans, had been moored in the dock area just across from battleship row, undergoing the installation of some additional three inch guns. Somehow the Japanese aviators had missed her. The big battleships took a terrible beating, with the loss of ships and loss of life unbelievable. The Arizona and the Oklahoma were sunk at their moorings. Six other battleships were damaged and would be out of commission a long time. The personnel losses that morning amounted to over 2000 men. Some sailors were trapped in the hull of the sunken Oklahoma. They could be heard tapping on the ship's bilges after she had capsized. The loss of combat aircraft around the island's Army and Navy bases was as severe as the loss of the battleships. There wasn't much fighting strength left in the Nation's first line of defense.

Sketch of Pearl Harbor

As more information found it's way around later in the day, we learned that the Japanese two man subs had played their part. One was spotted and sunk outside the harbor entrance just before the attack. One was trapped under a supply ship just across from the Ford Island ramp. Another two man sub fired torpedoes at one of the battleships and was captured. The Japanese espionage had researched carefully as to ship location. They found the ships exactly where they expected them. The one thing that saved our fighting capacity was the fact that our four big aircraft carriers with their complement of aircraft, were not in the harbor, but somewhere at sea. If our battleship fleet had been at sea, they would have responded immediately to an attack. I have often speculated as to what would have been the difference if the battle wagon fleet had not been in the harbor that week end.

Admiral Kimmel, the same admiral to whom I was assigned on the east coast, was now CINCPAC Commander in Chief of Pacific Fleet. He was removed from his command following the Pearl Harbor attack. Further, President Roosevelt, just a couple of days earlier, had warned of the breakdown in negotiation with the Japanese and that we were at a point of high risk of being attack.

The Japanese had managed to move to a point about 200 miles to the northwest of Oahu without detection. We had PBY patrol planes out each morning and evening but none spotted the Japanese Fleet. Radar was a very new thing at the time of Pearl Harbor, most ships of the fleet did not have it. There were some installations on the carriers. There was an Army early warning radar installation on the northwest corner of Oahu that was in operation and did pick up the incoming attack force. When the sighting was reported about 7:00 that morning, the officers to whom it was relayed, dismissed it as a flight of geese. The whole island could have been waiting for them, but complacency put the officers in command off guard.

Meanwhile back at the Ford Island ramp, we were busy assessing the repairs that had to be made. Rifles and ammunition had been issued to all hands. None of the sailors were armed when this all started. There were a few exceptions. The flying crews, including myself, carried Colt .45 automatics. It didn't take me long to find that .45 that morning. When we reflected on the fact that no one had been issued weapons, we realized how vulnerable we had been, had there been a follow up invasion.

The remainder of the day disappeared in a thousand tasks. A call went out about 17:00 hours for volunteers with spray gun experience to help dope up replacement wings for the PBYs. Having some experience, I volunteered because by that time, we had our aircraft repaired and ready to go. I recall spraying aircraft dope until about 1:00 the next morning.

The flight crews slept in the hangar that night, wearing flight gear, just in case the Japs came back. I didn't sleep much that night. I continued to imagine or dream of hearing distant bomb bursts and gun fire. Everyone was a little scared and nervous. It turned out that it was just a big hangar window rattling in the breeze. So ended the first day of WW II. A search flight was scheduled for 04:00 the next morning in SOC-2 No. 0423, Lt. Thomas, pilot and P. McKinley, crewman.

On the morning of the 8th of December, 3:30 came early. It was black outside. No lights anywhere, the blackout was effective. After a quick gulp of some improvised black coffee, our senior aviator Thomas and I worked our way into the cockpit and proceeded with the launch. The takeoff was made in the harbor, to the northeast, right alongside what was left of the battleships. It was still pitch black. Remembering the carnage and destruction that had taken place just yesterday, I could mentally picture all the debris still afloat in the harbor, but we somehow miraculously got off OK.

Our assigned search area was to cover a triangular leg to the north east of Oahu, some 200 miles out from the island. Our planes had a cruising range of about four and a half hours so that amounted to about two hours out and two hours back with about 30 minutes reserve. The objective was to report any suspicious objects, ships, submarines or aircraft.

We had no sooner cleared the takeoff area and started a long turn south of Diamond Head to pick up a northeasterly course when all hell broke loose over the island. Someone on the island apparently had heard the takeoff of our plane and the other patrol planes, and thinking it was the enemy returning, started firing. Within seconds the sky, although still as black as coal, was filled with every kind of gunfire and tracers that one could imagine. Every military man on the island was very nervous. We could have been in the middle of it all. The Identification of friend or foe continued to be a major problem during the early part of the war. It was reported that we shot down quite a few of our own aircraft those first two days.

The search on the way out was a duplicate of the many patrols that we had made before. The difference now was that it was for real. A Japanese Zero could drop in from nowhere. Even a surfaced submarine could take a pot shot at you. Needless to say, we were alert. Nothing was sighted until we reached the far end of our leg, and then only an innocent looking steamer headed for Honolulu in the recognized sea lane from San Francisco. After the pilot and I had identified her, he put a message together to report her position to the Ford Island base. As he handed it back to me, I saw that it was in plain English. We carried code books and were well trained to encode such messages. I questioned the plain text, but was ordered to send it as was. I did just that, using the Morse code with the plain language text.

We completed our search mission without further contacts, approached Oahu very cautiously, and eased in over the harbor and landed in a debris filled waterway. We didn't find out until two weeks later, when we were with a task force near Wake Island, that the same steamer whose position we had reported, had been torpedoed the afternoon of the 8th and the ship's 22 crewmen had floated over 1500 miles in an open life boat. One of the ships in our task force had picked up the survivors after two weeks in that lifeboat. I have always wondered if the enemy submarine was just sitting there copying our transmission.

Food was doled out rather sparingly for the first few days of the war. On the day of the attack on Pearl, we were given one ham sandwich apiece. As the days wore on, we were served two meals a day. drinking water had to be distilled because the water lines on the island were suspected of sabotage.

Effort the next few days was spent in patrol hops and in preparation to move back aboard ship. Our other pilots and crewmen were flying some of the patrols which helped. On the 9th of December, a scouting plane from one of the other cruisers was reported down and lost. It was into the plane for another search. This time we found them the next morning.

There was the matter of getting all the aviation radio spares one could muster around Pearl, aboard ship. We became good scroungers. On the 11th, another submarine was sighted off Barber's Point. Four scout planes loaded with 325 pound depth charges made quick work of that situation. On the 13th the ferry to Ford Island was held up for two hours while another two man Japanese sub was being hunted. The sub was finally located hiding underneath the supply ship Solace just across from Ford Island. The Navy sent divers down and attached a line to it. There were a couple of embarrassed Japs when that sub was hauled to the surface.

We worked like beavers all week end to get our four planes and flight gear aboard. By Monday, the ship had been placed back in commission, refueled, and provisioned ready to go. Tuesday morning early we were underway with sealed orders. Out of Pearl, we joined up with two other heavy cruisers, nine destroyers, and two supply vessels, forming a task force. Once at sea, the Captain announced that we were on our way to Wake Island to reinforce the island with troops and supplies, and that another force about our size was making their way to attack the Marshall Islands to the south at the same time. There was no flying the first day.

On the second morning out, the bugle call for general quarters sounded about one half hour before sunrise. As a matter of security in case of attack, this procedure was practiced routinely every morning and evening when at sea. All guns were manned. The crew would be alerted to General quarters and other of the ship's procedures by discreet bugle calls sounded over the PA system. Flight call, for example, was sounded before every aircraft launch or recovery operations. General quarters meant every man to his battle stations, ready for action. My battle station was the rear cockpit of the lead plane in full flight gear ready to go. The call for general quarters was always followed by an announcement of the condition to be set up. For example "condition x-ray" meant that all water tight hatches throughout the ship were to be "battened down". If you were in a below decks compartment, you were shut in solid. This was battle conditions. I never had to contend with such claustrophobia since my battle station was in the rear cockpit of the aircraft on the catapult. Normally we would be launched on search patrol before sunrise anyway.

The next couple of days were spent on routine patrols. Nothing much exciting, except one of the destroyers reported a sounding on an enemy submarine and dropped depth charges. We never knew the results for sure. By Saturday, December 11th, we had crossed the international date line into Sunday, the 12th. Early the next day, the Japanese invasion force took Wake Island literally from under our nose. We changed course abruptly, back toward Midway.

Christmas day was routine, but a good dinner. Near Midway we dispatched the supply ship Tangiers to the island and continued toward Pearl. It was Saturday, December 27th, just north of Midway Island when one of our destroyers left formation to check a small boat sighting on the horizon. It turned out to be the lifeboat with 22 men aboard from the same ship that we had reported inbound to Honolulu back on the second day of the war. They had spent 19 days in an open lifeboat. Needless to say they were well tanned, thirsty and hungry. By the end of December, we were back in Pearl provisioning and refueling again.

During the month of January 1942, we joined up with Task Force 8, consisting of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise three other cruisers and a screen of nine destroyers. With us were the commercial passenger vessels, the Matsonia and the Monterrey each of which were loaded with detachments of US Marines and supplies to reinforce American Samoa and other South Pacific Islands. Once at sea, we flew "inner patrol" every day ranging out about 200 miles from the task force. The carrier aircraft, which were considerably faster, would cover out to about a 400 mile radius. The daily air search was a way of life for the task force. We were airborne just before sun up, and back by 10:00, out again by 16:00 and back at sunset. It was about the only way to know what kind of surprises lay over the horizon.

On the way to Samoa, we crossed the equator at 168-40-00 west longitude and for wartime conditions conducted a brief but fairly thorough job of converting all the new Pollywogs to Trusty Shell backs. One day we sighted an unidentified plane but weren't fast enough to catch him. Then there were a couple of submarine alerts which put the destroyers into a search action, but with no positive results.

The morning that the convoy reached a point a couple of days out of Samoa, Lt. Thomas and I were catapulted very early, with a plane load of mail for States, into a sky of low overcast and very dirty weather. About 100 miles from the ship we witnessed a real tropical water spout. This thing looked like a tornado at sea. It reached up to about 2000 feet altitude and was made up of a column of whirling water and foam. It gyrated around like some gigantic snake. We kept a few miles away from it and climbed on up through the overcast to 5000 feet on instrument conditions for the remainder of the leg to Samoa.

Navigation at that time was strictly dead reckoning. All we had to go on was the chartboard plot which Lt. Thomas had with him in the front cockpit. As the clock ticked off the miles, I was doing some mental speed-distance calculations of my own and was getting somewhat concerned that we should have landfall anytime. Tutuila is not a big Island, and there was a lot of Pacific beyond it to the southeast. The pilot acknowledged, following a short intercom discussion, that we should be descending.

Just about that time, I felt the aircraft being shaken by severe turbulence. An automatic glance at my compass and altimeter in the rear cockpit, indicated that we were rotating and that we were loosing altitude very fast. The overcast really didn't help. At the 2000 feet level, pilot Thomas was able to stabilize the aircraft and continued on course in broken overcast. There was no indication of pilot error; we had experienced some kind of an unusual weather phenomena.

At this altitude, I could see patches of the ocean surface through the broken scud. Then suddenly, through a hole in the clouds behind our plane, my eye caught the welcome sight of green foliage. A short intercom report to the pilot put us in a descending 180 turn back to the island for an approach to the long, narrow harbor at Pago Pago. Our spinning descent through the overcast must have taken place right over the island. Who says that flying the mail is fun?

After we landed and tied up to a buoy, we were met by a boat crew from the Navy tug anchored there in the harbor. With the mail delivered to the outgoing post office and arrangements made for refueling our plane, we were then free to spend the rest of the morning looking over the quaint old town and the crude hovels and structures that the natives had built for homes. They were indeed minimal but adequate to keep the elements out. It apparently rains a great deal but never gets cold there since they are only 1000 miles south of the equator.

American Samoa was a very native island. There were no store buildings as we would know them, only shacks. The people were best described as brown skinned natives, some very heavy, not so many, thin. Then there were little half dressed kids everywhere. Probably the most shocking site was those natives that were infected with elephantiasis. The feet and legs, sometimes one, sometimes both, of those so infected would be swollen to 6 to 8 inch diameter and would truly resemble the foot of an elephant, even down to the gnarled skin.

Our takeoff back to the ship was to the south toward the open sea and came off uneventful, even though the high temperatures and the smooth surface required a long takeoff run. Upon return to the Task Force, we could not locate the USS San Francisco whereupon the USS Enterprise directed us to recover to the USS North Hampton, which we did. Once aboard the USS North Hampton, we recognized the crew of our aircraft #16. They had returned from their patrol and had also been unable to find the ship. The ship had apparently been diverted on some special task away from the main force, the details of which I never found out. After a short conference, with the pilot of #16 it was decided to refuel and fly back to Samoa. We arrived there about 18:50 and spent a very comfortable night on the tug Swan. I said my prayers that night, not having to drift all night on a lonesome ocean, in a small rubber life raft.

The next morning was all sunshine and clear sky. I couldn't help admiring the beauty of the depths of the harbor from the deck of the tug. The water was so clear that one could follow a tin can all 600 feet to the bottom. Every detail of the bottom was as if it were only 20 feet down. It was indeed one of the most beautiful harbors that we had seen. Who should land at 07:30 that same morning but two other aircraft from our ship. They had flown in to give us a position report on the ship in order that we could return.

It was about 9:00 am when we headed out to our seaplanes with our bag of incoming mail for the ship. Conveniently for us, the planes had been refueled the night before so we were ready to go. With a quick wind up of the starter, we were the first plane to takeoff on our way back to the ship, or so we thought. Just ahead of us on takeoff was a J2F, a single engine Grumman amphibian. It was about the same size as our aircraft but was fitted with a much higher powered engine. The J2F was observed to takeoff over the mountain ridge at the north end of Pago Pago harbor. He cleared the ridge with plenty to spare.

The temperature in the bay must have been at least 95 degrees, there was no wind, and the bay was as calm as a millpond. Lt. Thomas lined up for takeoff following the same course as the J2F. It seemed that our SOC-2 was glued to the surface. About 500 feet from the north end of the harbor we became airborne. Seeing that there was no way we could clear the ridge, Lt. Thomas left his flaps at one third down, and while flying on the ragged edge of a stall, 50 feet up, began to make a slow turn to the port. That did it. The aircraft went into a mushing stall, completed half of the turn and ended up hitting the water just 50 feet from the beach in what seemed to be a 20 degree nose down attitude.

We sat there for a few minutes with a dead engine, restoring our emotions. I finally got out of my chute and stepped out on the wing and then down on the main float to inspect for damage. Much to my amazement, I found no sagging flying wires, no wrinkled skin, in short, no evidence of damage. Had we continued another 100 feet on takeoff, we would have ended up in a coconut plantation, complete with coconuts in the engine. The other three aircraft that had started their takeoff somewhat behind us had seen the fiasco and had aborted their takeoff. We nonchalantly started up and taxied into position for a takeoff to the south toward the open sea. This time it worked and we were on our way. A later detailed inspection aboard ship showed only minor damage to one of the wing pontoons.

Our return to the ship in the clear weather conditions was a breeze. One could sight a ship the size of the USS San Francisco from an altitude of a couple thousand feet at least 50 miles away on a good day. Our other pilots had given us the ship's anticipated position at the time of our rendezvous so it was a straightforward task of dead reckoning to it. Mail call was a big hit that afternoon. And yours truly was glad to be back aboard.

Two days later we were flying patrol just off the harbor at Pago Pago to insure that no submarines were laying in wait for the USS San Francisco as it stood into the harbor there for provisions and refueling. The Lurline was just leaving to join the same Task Force 8 to be escorted back to Pearl. Once more we landed, tied up to the same buoy and sweltered with the rest of the natives in the hot muggy sunshine.

Copyright © 1999 CommPro International
All Rights Reserved