Hamilton Field near San Francisco: 9 p.m. Unarmed and unescorted, with fuel tanks filled to the max, 13 B-17 Flying Fortresses take off at 15- minute intervals.
The heavy bombers would fly all night across the vast Pacific Ocean. Fifteen hours later and low on fuel, a B-17 began its base leg approach straight down the canal toward the airfield. A 21-year-old co-pilot glanced at his watch: 8 a.m. The date: Dec 7, 1941.
Ten minutes earlier, at 7:50 a.m., Imperial Japanese Commander Mitsuo Fuchida had slid back the canopy on a Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” torpedo bomber and fired a green flare to signal the attack on America’s Pacific Fleet moored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Second Lt. Ernest “Roy” Reid, the young co-pilot of the B-17, noticed thick, black, oily smoke billowing above the harbor.
He recalled, “I asked the pilot what the heck was going on. He told me, ‘It’s the local natives burning sugar cane.’ I kept thinking, ‘When did they start growing sugar cane on water?’”
Now at 600 feet and turning for a final approach, Reid was shocked by what he saw on Hickam Field.
“There were at least six planes burning fiercely on the ground. I knew we were at war.” To confirm his conclusion, two Japanese fighters jumped the B-17 and raked it with machine gun fire.
Reid said, “Tracer bullets poured by our wings and filled the inside with lead. We went full-throttle with the thought of heading for cloud cover, but the ship started filling with smoke. We realized we had no choice but to land.”
The enemy tracers had ignited the pyrotechnics amid ships. The pilot yanked the throttles off and Reid popped the landing gear.
He said, “We hit the ground hard and bounced because we couldn’t see much due to the smoke. Then the tail came down. The bomber buckled and broke apart in the middle where the fire had burned through.”
The crew scrambled out of the damaged bomber and ran for safety. Their flight surgeon, 1st Lt. William Schick, was aboard Reid’s B-17 and had received a leg wound. Lt. Schick was still able to run, but a Japanese Zero piloted by PO1c Takashi Hirano strafed the airfield and mortally wounded the young surgeon. Notwithstanding, Hirano’s Zero was too low and failed to pull up. With its belly tank crushed and blade tips on the propeller bent, the Zero spiraled out of control. Hirano died in the resulting crash.
With singed hair and minimal wounds, the crew did what they could on that “Day of Infamy,” then hunkered down to survive the second attack wave by the Japanese.
Reid sent what was possibly the last wireless cable out of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. To his wife, it read: “Am safe, Wire Mother, Love Roy.”
Roy Reid continued the war in the Pacific as the commander of his own B-17. He completed 50 combat missions. As co-pilot of the B-17 that broke apart on Hickam Field during the attack on Pearl Harbor, Reid is credited with being a crewmember of the first American airplane shot down in World War II.