Those Who Took to the Skies at Pearl Harbor
Commemorating the Anniversary, Pearl Harbor, December 7
Written by Michael Naya, Jr., young historian
Sunday, December 7, 1941, started out as another beautiful day at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Sailors, Soldiers, and Marines put on their dress uniforms to attend Sunday mass, some kept themselves busy at their station by reading, cleaning, and wondering what they could do with the day of free time. Suddenly a roar was heard in the distance, swarms of Japanese fighters and bombers came out of nowhere. The target of the Japanese was the battleships moored in Battleship Row in the hope of decimating the Pacific fleet.
In the evening of December 6, 1941, at Hamilton Field, San Francisco, California thirteen B-17 bombers took off for Hawaii. They were scheduled to arrive in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii the next day, December 7. As they approached land their first sight was Diamond Head, Hawaii, a welcome one for these airmen who had flown nearly fourteen hours in a span of two days. As the men approached Hickam Field, they were unable to make radio contact with the radio tower below. Confused they looked around and as they passed the thick smoke and saw the ground below. These men were filled with confusion, horror and shock as planes burned below them.
Quickly, these planes were fired upon from the rear. The pilots faced but no choice which was to land as quickly as they could. They turned down and headed for Hickam where they made a crash landing under fire. Initially, several B-17’s were accidentally fired upon by American anti-aircraft gunners. Some such as the B-17E “The Last Straw” suffered no damage while others sustained minor damage. Most of the aircraft suffered damage from the Japanese that attacked several of them during the landing. After crash landing their plane and headed for the hangers where they knew they would be safe. This was the story for several of the crewmen who were shot down on the morning of December 7, 1941. They were the first American pilots to be downed in World War II not counting those who had volunteered for service in foreign militaries and nations.
These B-17’s were all a part of the 38th Reconnaissance Wing of the Army Air Corps. They earned, if there ever is a word such fitting, the notoriety of being the first American plane shot down in World War II. Today it is unknown if any survivors of the B-17’s shot down at Pearl are currently living. Colonel Earl T. Williams, who was among those shot down, passed away on July 9, 2020. Colonel Robert Thacker passed away on November 25, 2020, at the age of 102, his B-17 was among those that landed safely amidst the attack.
An interesting connection to the B-17’s came from Lt. Kermit Tyler (1913 - 2010) who dismissed initial sightings of the Japanese as the B-17 bombers incoming from California. If the quantity of those spotted on radar had been taken seriously then it is possible American units at Pearl could have deflected the Japanese attack sooner.
Today, the final survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor will don their Hawaiian shirts, put on their Pearl Harbor Survivor Association garrison caps, and remember their lost comrades. At the anniversary they will shed a few tears, crack a few jokes, and ultimately create a long-lasting impression on the American public. It is the hope of these survivors that their stories will live on for future generations and one will never forget the Japanese attack of December 7, 1941. These survivors have ingrained the importance of “keeping America alert” and to “Remember Pearl Harbor, as we go on to victory!”
Sailors standing among wrecked airplanes at Ford Island Naval Air Station as they watch the explosion of the USS Shaw in the background, during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy, File)