Dec. 6, 1941, at 0900: Thirteen B-17s take off at 15-minute intervals for a 15-hour flight to Pearl Harbor. The crossing was long and boring.
The young copilot on one B-17, 2nd Lt. Ernest “Roy” Reid, recalled, “We were low on fuel and unarmed as we made our base leg approach to Hickam Field. It was 0800 when I noticed thick smoke billowing from Pearl Harbor and asked our skipper, Captain Swenson, what was going on. He replied, ‘Don’t worry about it. That’s probably locals burning sugar cane.’ But I kept thinking, ‘When the heck did folks start growing sugar cane on water?’”
Seven minutes earlier, Japanese flight leader Mitsuo Fuchida screamed into his radio, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” to inform the entire Japanese Navy that complete surprise had been achieved over Pearl Harbor.
Five minutes earlier a bomb exploded near the cruiser Helena and two torpedoes cut paths through the water and slammed into the cruiser Raleigh and the target ship Utah.
Two minutes earlier, Lt. Commander Logan Ramsey had sent out the historic panicked message, “AIR RAID, PEARL HARBOR. THIS IS NOT A DRILL!”
While B-17 copilot Reid continued debating the feasibility of sugar cane growing on water, a series of torpedoes struck the USS Oklahoma. She was moored outboard of the USS Maryland.
Fred Johnson, a fresh-faced Navy ensign aboard the Maryland, recalled, “We saw thousands of raindrops hitting the water, then quickly realized the raindrops were 7.7-mm machine gun and 20mm cannon fire from strafing Jap planes.”
In her death throes, Oklahoma started to capsize. Johnson said, “We were tied up to the Oklahoma, so we had to cut the lines or be pulled over with her.”
The sickening carnage continued. Johnson vividly recalled, “The oil on top of the water started burning. The good swimmers dove under the water and made it to safety, but the bad swimmers….well, we watched those boys surface in the oil and ignite like matchsticks.”
At Schofield Barracks, squadron personnel and payroll clerk Bob Kerr stood stunned on a small barracks porch.
“The Japs were strafing the field and barracks area. Our squadron cook and another soldier were on the ground in front of me, both dead. I knew our squadron roster would later be helpful, so I ran back inside to open the safe. Our first sergeant saw me and demanded an explanation. I told him the roster would be valuable and he replied, ‘Good idea,’ but those were his last words. He was killed instantly by strafing bullets.”
As Oklahoma rolled over, as oil ignited hapless seamen, as Bob Kerr’s first sergeant fell mortally wounded, the dedicated champion Japanese Navy bombardier Kanai took fatal aim at the USS Arizona. His aim was true: The bomb hit beside the No. 2 turret and detonated in the forward magazine. The resulting explosion lifted the Arizona out of the water before the great battleship sank in the shallows of Pearl Harbor, where she remains to this very day, along with the 1,177 entombed members of her crew.
Reid’s B-17 was flying at less than 600 feet and on its final approach to Hickam Field when he saw at least six American planes burning furiously on the airfield.
He recalled, “I knew then we were at war.” As if to prove the point, two Japanese fighters closed in from the rear and opened fire.
Reid said, “Smoke began to pour into the cockpit because our pyrotechnics had been ignited by the Japanese bullets. We knew our only choice was to try to land.”
With their bomber burning and the pilots blinded by the smoke, the B-17 bounced hard on the runway, the tail came down, and the fuselage buckled and collapsed. The heavy Flying Fortress bomber broke into two pieces. Reid’s B-17 is remembered as the first American plane to be shot down in Word War II.
Reid survived the crash and later commanded his own B-17 in the Pacific, completing 50 combat missions. Clerk Bob Kerr saved lives on the ‘Day of Infamy’ by transporting injured men to the base hospital in an Army truck he couldn’t get out of first gear. He later qualified as a B-25 aerial gunner and radio operator, flying in combat over 32 dissimilar islands.
Ensign Fred Johnson later received additional training at the U.S. Naval Academy and joined the crew of the newly commissioned USS Hornet CV-12 (replacing the USS Hornet CV-8 lost during the battle of Santa Cruz). Johnson was in combat aboard the Hornet for 16 months and participated in the battles for Tinian, Saipan, Guam, Rota, Leyte Gulf, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Chi Chi Jima, and many more. The USS Hornet CV-12 came under air attack 59 times. She was never hit.
Japanese crack bombardier Kanai was reportedly killed in action over Midway Island. Mitsuo Fuchida survived the war to become a Christian evangelist.
He traveled over America and Europe articulating his story and finally settled permanently in the United States.
Thousands of stories have been voiced concerning the “Day of Infamy” and thousands of books have told even more versions, but most of the names and stories and suffering will never be penned.
Pearl Harbor was a tactical victory for the Japanese, but strategically a dismal failure. Battleships were a dying breed of fighting ship; the big aircraft carriers were to become the new dominant force on the high seas, and not one of our three Pacific carriers was in port on Dec. 7, 1941. Those three surviving American aircraft carriers would later turn the tide in the Pacific War.
The Japanese pilots concentrated on the big ships. In doing so, the fuel oil storage facilities were left intact with 4.5 million gallons to feed our ships for revenge. Too, the dock repair facilities were left intact, thus leaving American ingenuity intact. These targets were scheduled for destruction in Japan’s third wave of attack. It never came.
Attack fleet commander Nagumo, fearing an American counterattack, chose to cancel the third wave striking force and skedaddled for home.
One of the biggest mistakes the Japanese made was not destroying the smallest American ships in Pearl: our submarines.
They survived and put to sea to destroy more Japanese tonnage during the war than the Americans lost at Pearl Harbor.
And the biggest mistake of all?
Underestimating the American public. We came together as Americans, and the Greatest Generation saved a world from despotism.
When the brilliant Japanese Naval Commander Isoroku Yamamoto was questioned about invading the United States after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he responded, “I have no intention of invading America.
‘‘There would be a gun behind every blade of grass.”
If America’s enemies feared our Second Amendment then, perhaps we should fear losing it.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.