The P-36 at Pearl Harbor
Commemorating the Anniversary, Pearl Harbor, December 7
Written by Henry Simpson, young historian
Most well known among the US Army Air Corps pilots to get airborne at Pearl Harbor are undoubtedly 2nd Lieutenants George Welch and Kenneth Taylor who raced to Haleiwa Fighter Strip in the latter’s Buick, being strafed by Japanese fighters en route, before climbing into their Curtiss P-40B fighters and taking to the skies. Between them they would account for 6 confirmed Japanese aircraft shot down that day and would both receive the Distinguished Service Cross (despite being recommended for the Medal of Honor which they were denied for taking off without orders).
Most of the pilots who got airborne that day did so in the lesser known Curtiss P-36. The P-36 was the forerunner of the P-40 with a nearly identical airframe but equipped with a less powerful radial engine that meant it was considered obsolete against newer fighters such as the Mitsubishi Zero in 1941. Pearl Harbor was to be the types only engagement with US forces.
At Wheeler Field the Japanese attack had already destroyed most of the aircraft and left the field in disarray. First Lieutenant Lewis Sanders of the46th Pursuit Squadron picked 3 other pilots who had made it to the field and detailed them to join him for a 4 ship attack. Aircraft were hastily positioned to revetments to be armed and at around 08.50 Sanders was airborne followed by 2nd Lieutenants Philip Rasmussen and John Thacker. Rasmussen had been awoken by the attack on Wheeler Field and he was wearing only his purple pajamas when he lept into a surviving P-36 to join the fight, in fact Sanders was the only pilot to get airborne in full uniform. Joined by 2nd Lt. Gordon Sterling the 4 P-36 flew towards Bellows Field where they encountered aircraft of the second Japanese wave. Soon embroiled in a fight Sanders shot down one Japanese aircraft before witnessing Sterling ,in pursuit of another, pick up a Zero on his tail as they dived towards the water. Rasmussen witnessed Sterling shoot down his quarry before he himself was downed by the Zero behind him, that aircraft in turn was set aflame by Sanders. Rasmussen however had his own problems, after charging his guns they began to fire uncommanded but at that moment a Japanese aircraft crossed his sights and exploded under the P-36’s stream of fire. He himself was then set on by Zeros, two raking his aircraft taking off the canopy as well as destroying the tail wheel and rudder controls with a third then trying to ram him. After briefly losing control he was able to land his damaged aircraft back at Wheeler. Thacker meanwhile was forced to return after his guns jammed.
Meanwhile at Haleiwa 2nd Lts Harry Brown and Robert Rogers also got airborne in P-36’s, Brown downing two Japanese aircraft and Rogers damaging another. At the same time Lts Malcolm Moore and Othneil Norris were airborne in P-36’s from Wheeler with Moore damaging one Japanese aircraft. Tragically the last American aircraft to be lost that day was a P-36 flown by Lt John Dains who headed out for his third sortie alongside George Welch after 2 previous sorties in a P-40.He sadly fell victim to friendly anti-aircraft fire from Schofield Barracks.
The obsolete P-36 was far less manoeuvrable than its Japanese fighter counterparts but on that morning, for the loss of a single aircraft to enemy fire, its sole engagement as a part of the US forces gave it a score of 5-1 against the Imperial Japanese Navy. In total 10-14 aircraft are believed to have been shot down by American fighters on December 7th for the loss of 4 aircraft. Two of these were P-40’s that were attacked when taking off from Bellows Field with Lt George Whiteman shot down and killed as he took off, while Samuel W. Bishop was similarly shot down but survived ditching in the sea. Lt Hans Christenson meanwhile was killed by a strafing Zero in the same attack as he climbed into his aircraft.
Accounts of the day’s events often remain confused and conflicting partly because in the heat of the attack pilots scrambled to take off from multiple fields and then joined up in flight. But 80 years later we should remember the few who got up to fight and the role of the unsung P-36 that day in 1941.
The P-36 also served during the with the French as the Hawk 75 variant, many of these aircraft ultimately ending up with the British to be utilised against the Japanese in India and Burma.
Two P-36 survive, one of which is at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton in the colors of Philip Rasmussen’s aircraft in a display commemorating the few who got airborne on December 7th. The only airworthy example meanwhile is based at Duxford Aerodrome in England. It was restored to airworthy condition at Chino in 2015 before being shipped to Duxford to join The Fighter Collection alongside the only airworthy Hawk 75, the aircraft being displayed, albeit comparatively rarely, on the airshow circuit. The sole surviving P40B that was present at Pearl Harbor during the attack is now kept in airworthy condition at the American Heritage Museum in Massachusetts also having formerly been a part of the Fighter Collection fleet at Duxford.
Photos by Henry Simpson