A DAY OF INFAMY
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.