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Attack on U.S. Airfields at Pearl Harbor

 

Damage to the Pearl Harbor Airfields

US Navy and Air Force Photos

The primary airfield targets for the Japanese during the attack on Pearl Harbor, were Hickam Field, Wheeler Field, and Ford Island. Kanoehe Naval Air Station, Bellows Field, and Ewa Marine Corps Station were all secondary targets.


Most of the Japanese aircraft hit their primary targets first and with remaining bombs and ammunition, proceeded to the secondary targets. All six airfields were hit by both waves of Japanese attacking aircraft, although in the case of Bellows, only a single aircraft in the first wave attacked the Bellows airstrip.1


The U.S. airfields were targeted by both high level bombers and dive bombers, whereas the battleships were targeted in the first wave by the torpedo planes and high level bombers. In the second wave, airfields were targeted with dive bombers and high level bombers. Fighters targeted parked aircraft and targets of opportunity.


Major Airfields Attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor

Army Air Force Navy and Marines
Hickam Field – Bomber Command Ewa Marine Corps Air Station
Wheeler Field – Fighter Command Ford Naval Air Station
Bellows Field – Observation squadron & gunnery practice - Fighter Command. Kaneohe Naval Air Station


Ewa Airfield

The US Marines are a sub-division of the US Navy and at this time had multiple tasks assigned to them. They provided security on board capital ships, and they were the land element of the Navy, so they had their own infantry section. Being tasked with providing air support from the land bases for the Navy, they had an air base on Hawaii called MCAS Ewa.


The wide spread assumption was still that the Philippines would be attacked first. So much of Ewa's aircraft had recently been removed using the aircraft carriers and their squadrons had been ferried out to both Midway and Wake Islands, as these locations were closer to the Philippines. That is why the aircraft carriers were gone at time of the Japanese attack on December 7th. But the remaining aircraft were lined up on the airstrip under general orders to protect from sabotage.


The initial Japanese attack essentially destroyed the U.S. aircraft either by direct attacks (machine gunning and dropping bombs) or by subsequent fires. Because the planes were lined up so close together, once the planes started burning the fires spread from plane to plane, so most of their aircraft were quickly destroyed.


*Aircraft losses at Pearl Harbor

U.S. Navy 90 lost, 33 damaged.

U.S. Army

77 lost, 128 damaged.

Japanese

9 fighters, 15 dive bombers, 5 torpedo bombers.
* These figures are approximate. The various sources differ as to the precise numbers but all show very heavy U.S. losses.

At Ewa, the Marines were probably in a better position to defend themselves than many of the other bases, because the anti-aircraft unit was under the same base commander as the rest of the air station.2 This fact aided in a more coordinated and efficient effort in the issuing of weapons and ammunition during the Japanese attack, as well as setting up the anti-aircraft guns.


U.S. Army Fighters - Hickam


Between the these two types, there were about seventy aircraft that potentially were capable of offering fighter resistance to an attack, if they had the machine guns and ammunition installed and were fueled up. However, on Sunday, December 7, the work week was over and the machine guns had been removed for weekend maintenance and all of the ammunition had been carted away and stored in central areas to protect against sabotage. Normal refueling happened on Monday morning and since the attack occurred on a Sunday, most of the aircraft fuel tanks were fairly low. So there was a fair amount that needed to be done to get these aircraft into combat.


Japanese Bombers and Fighters Attacking Hickam, Wheeler, & Ford Island

The Japanese bombers attacking Hickam, Wheeler, and Ford Island, concentrated primarily on the aircraft hangers and the major barracks area right in the vicinity of the hangers. The Japanese fighters concentrated on the U.S. aircraft, which were generally pretty close to the hangers. U.S. aircraft was being strafed, primarily by Japanese Zeros, which were armed with both armor piercing and incendiary bullets. The incendiary bullets contained a Phosphorus element which would cause fires to start.


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Despite the lack of combat readiness at the air bases, three of the P-40 Warhawks took off from Bellows Field and were immediately shot down by Japanese fighters. Several P-36s were able to take off from Wheeler field, gain altitude, and attack the Japanese planes. Once the signal had been given by Japanese Commander Fujita that complete surprise had been achieved, the Japanese fighters were no longer expecting airborne American warplanes.


Japanese fighters dispersed and were shooting up aircraft on the ground. At this point, the American fighters who did get airborne had good success shooting down unsuspecting Japanese planes. Examples include officers Welch and Taylor. Flying P-40 Warhawks, George Welch was credited with shooting down four Japanese planes on that day, and Kenneth Taylor was credited with two verified and two possible planes downed.


PBY Catalinas - Ford and Kanoehe



As a result, very few of the PBYs were used for patrol before December 7th. And most of those that did patrol, did so to the south of Oahu in the direction of the nearest Japanese possessions. None of the PBYs were assigned to patrol to the north, the direction from which the Japanese fleet actually came.


The Navy was basically left short handed to do the patrolling. According to the war plan Orange, patrolling, was actually assigned to the Army. But on Oahua, the Army had only tweleve B-17 Flying Fortresses that were capable of flying long range patrolling. The operations officers in both the Navy and Army had written a report earlier in 1941, saying they needed more patrol craft in order to effectively protect Hawaii from enemy attack. And even though promises had been made, these aircraft had not been delivered. PBYs were consistently diverted to England, and B-17s were diverted to the Philippines.Thus, Hawaii was really not physically able to maintain an adequate patrol to protect the Islands from an aircraft carrier attack at this time.


U.S. Bombers at Hickam

The American bombers at Hickam consisted primarily of the obsolete twin engine B-18 that had relatively limited range, limited armor, and limited bomb load capacity. There were only twelve B-17s at Hickam (and all of Hawaii), since nine others had been transferred to the Philippines earlier in the year. The morning of the Japanese attack, there were sixteen B-17s scheduled to land at Hickam Field, flying in from California. These additional B-17s were slated to be refueled, armed, and flown forward to join the B-17s being built up in the Philippines. Twelve of the B-17s flying from California arrived during the attack. They had flown from Hamilton airfield in Marin County, California, to Hawaii on the morning of December 7, and were attacked by the Japanese while in the air and while attempting to land.


Because it was a little over 2,000 miles, from Hamilton airfield to Hawaii, to reduce weight, those bombers were making the trip without machine guns, and arrived over Hickam unarmed. Three of these were damaged by attacking Japanese aircraft and the flares ignited in the radio compartment of one B-17s just as it was landing at Hickam. Once the flares ignited, a Magnesium fire was started which was very difficult to extinguish, and the aircraft was literally burned in half. This aircraft was the first American manned B-17 to be destroyed in World War II. A fourth B-17 made an emergency landing on the golf course as it was being attacked. A fifth B-17 landed at the fighter base on Wheeler with some damage sustained during the landing.


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Unfortunately, there was trouble fitting the machine guns on Friday December 5, and the B-24 was held over for additional work on the following Monday, December 8. So it was present at Hickam during the bombing attack by the Japanese and became the first B-24 in U.S. Army service to be destroyed in World War II.


At Bellows Field, U.S. Army personnel captured the survivor of a Japanese midget submarine, and later, the Army recovered the midget submarine. So the loss of the first B-17 and B-24, was somewhat offset by the capture of the first prisoner of war and midget submarine - all in the same morning.


1 Leatrice R. Arakaki and John R. Kuborn. 7 December 1941 - The Air Force Story. Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii : Pacific Air Forces, Office of History, 1991, p. 66.
2 Robert J. Cressmanm and J. Michael Wenger. Infamous Day - Marines at Pearl Harbor 7 December 1941. Washington, D.C. : History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps. 1992, p.25.
3 The terms pursuit aircraft and fighter aircraft are used interchangeably in this article, however, the older term, pursuit, was in use at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Additional reference: James E. Hazuka. Major, USAF. An Operational Analysis of the Pearl Harbor Attack. Naval War College, Newport, RI.



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