Seventy-five years ago, a young boy and his father stood on their porch, gazing out onto what should have been another Sunday morning in paradise. The man touched his son’s shoulder with one hand and pointed to the southeast with the other.
“I want you to remember this,” the man said and then ran inside the house.
Not even a mile away, a huge explosion sent boiling black clouds of smoke into the sky. The air, normally thick with the sweet smell of plumeria blossoms, suddenly reeked of acrid cordite and structure fires.
From the west, planes with large red circles on their wings flew low over the boy’s home, objects falling from their bellies as they climbed skyward, igniting fireballs, destroying buildings and tearing flesh, the flesh of men who dressed each morning in the same uniform worn by his father.
It was just before 8 o’clock, Dec. 7, 1941; the day the boy and a nation would remember simply as “Pearl Harbor.”
However, the Japanese attack, launched from aircraft carriers that had sailed undetected across 3,800 miles of Pacific Ocean, commenced miles away from Pearl Harbor at the U.S. Army Air Forces base at Wheeler Field in the central valley of the island of Oahu, Hawaii.
For the United States, World War II had begun at 5-year-old Brien Haigley’s doorstep.
His father, Thomas Brien Haigley Sr., a captain and doctor in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, had left his son on the porch of their home, near Generals Loop at neighboring Schofield Barracks, to report to the base hospital. From there he was sent to the mess hall at Wheeler Field. The building, which stands little changed today, was directly across the street from where a Japanese bomb had torn through the roof of Hanger 3, igniting stacks of ammunition stored there.
When he pushed through the mess hall’s heavy metal doors, Capt. Haigley saw the first of many scenes that would haunt him for the remainder of his life.
“My father never talked about it … my Mom told me that when he was summoned to the hospital they asked him to go over to the mess hall at Wheeler Air Corps … there he saw seven men dead at their tables before they had even had a bite to eat. That was his introduction to the war,” said Haigley, now 79 and living in Cockeysville, Maryland.
Further south, adjacent to Pearl Harbor, Hickam Field’s A-20, B-18 and B-17 bombers were parked wingtip to wingtip to make them easier for the few security personnel on duty to guard against possible sabotage. After weeks of alerts and drills, most of the base had been given leave for the weekend. More than 50 Japanese “Val” dive-bombers and “Zero” fighters began their attack runs moments after the first bombs landed at Wheeler, igniting a chain reaction of exploding planes.
Stationed there was a son of Polish immigrants, who had joined the Army to escape a life of dust-filled lungs in the coal mines surrounding Lambert, Pennsylvania. For then-Master Sgt. Andrew Kowalski, duty at Hickam Field, Hawaii, was like a dream.
“For a young man who had never been away from home, it was fantastic … what stayed with me was those big beautiful barracks,” said Kowalski, a retired colonel, now 102 and living in Waikiki, Honolulu with his son. “Joining the Army wasn’t running away from home. It was running to a better life.”
Just before 8 a.m., Kowalski, the wing commander’s assistant, was awakened from his slumber after an all-night poker game, by the sound of explosions.
On arrival at wing headquarters, he was designated as the casualty control officer, charged with maintaining the Army department’s entire list of casualties, including those at Wheeler Field, Bellows Field, Schofield Barracks and Fort Shafter.
“It was a fancy name for counting the dead,” Col. Kowalski said in a 2012 interview with Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Public Affairs. “The bodies were laid out everywhere. It was a sad day seeing people trying to identify who was still alive; very traumatic.”
Some of the Hickam Field dead had been asleep in the wings of Kowalski’s “big, beautiful” barracks building, which is now Headquarters, Pacific Air Forces and many more were killed in the consolidated dining facility, at the center of those wings, when a bomb tore through the roof and detonated.
“Brothers Lee and Charles Clendening were both in the same squadron and slept side by side on the third floor of I-wing,” said Jessie Higa, a volunteer historian for the 15th Wing at Hickam. “They were in the kitchen adjacent to the mess hall making sandwiches when the bomb hit killing everyone except Charles.”
His brother Lee is among the 14 of 189 killed at Hickam Field whose remains lay in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, but are, as yet, unidentified.
Acting commander of the newly opened base hospital, Capt. Frank H. Lane, arrived from his home, four blocks away, according to Higa.
Soon the hospital lawn was strewn with the dead, dying and injured. Ambulances, cars and trucks arrived all morning from the barracks, the flightline and hangers, where a bomb killed half the men awaiting the arrival of B-17s from the mainland, and those bombed and strafed while trying to man machine guns and fight back.
There he desperately tried to coordinate the efforts of six nurses, some Filipino orderlies and a few doctors to assess and treat the fallen. Some of the ambulatory patients already occupying 25 of the 40 hospital rooms rose from their beds to help tend to the wounded. Dentists on duty were forced to become surgeons.
A Japanese bomb landed 60 feet from the building on the lawn adjacent to the triage area for the wounded. In one of the day’s small mercies, the bomb did not explode.
Next door to Lane’s house, a 5-year-old girl, the neighborhood tag-a-long that often went off on adventures with Capt. Lane’s sons, Mike and Ed, awoke to the sounds of explosions.
“I remember that morning very vividly. I woke up and heard bombing noises and I ran into my father’s room,” said Shirley Waldron Neid, now 81 and living on Oahu. “My dad looked up at me, they had been out partying and probably just gotten home, and he said ‘Go back to bed, I need to get some sleep.’”
Her father was Capt. Russell L. “Gatty” Waldron, commander of the 31st Bombardment Squadron at Hickam. He and his wife had been at the Hickam Officers’ Club until the wee hours along with most of his pilots, but when his daughter ran back into his bedroom for a second time, he jumped into the fight.
“I looked out my bedroom window on the alley side of the house and I could see the plane with the big zero (red circle) coming down the alley and I could see the pilots face,” Neid said. “I ran back to my father’s room and told him what I saw and he came into my bedroom and looked up the alley and saw another plane coming down.”
Waldron immediately hopped in his car and headed for the flightline to check on his men and aircraft. Once there he organized the dispersal of the planes that survived the first wave.
He returned home momentarily to tell his family that he had made provisions for them to meet other officers’ families next door at the home of Capt. Lane and be taken to safety in the hills above Honolulu.
Then Waldron was gone again.
Back at the airfield, he and a co-pilot climbed into one of the remaining airworthy A-20s on the shattered flightline and took off to try and find the Japanese fleet that had launched the attack.
With no intelligence as to the fleet’s location and no bombs with which to attack them, Waldron eventually turned back for Hickam, encountering friendly fire from Schofield Barracks, who thought he was another Japanese attacker.
He was not the only U.S. Army aviator trying to fight back.
At Bellows Field, in Waimanalo on the eastern coast of Oahu, members of Wheeler’s 44th Pursuit Squadron, who were stationed there for gunnery training, braved strafing Zeros to arm their P-40 Warhawks and get airborne.
Second Lt. Hans Christiansen was killed getting into his airplane and 2nd Lt. George Whiteman was shot down and killed at the end of the runway while trying to take off. A third, 1st Lt. Samuel Bishop, got airborne but was quickly attacked and crashed into the ocean. The wounded pilot managed to swim back to shore and was later awarded a Silver Star for his actions.
Throughout the two attack waves and during the lull in between, crews managed to fuel and arm surviving P-36 and P-40 aircraft at Wheeler and an auxiliary airstrip at Haleiwa on the north shore.
Second Lts. George Welch and Kenneth Taylor arrived by car at Haleiwa, where their squadron was stationed for gunnery practice, during the first wave. The grass airstrip had been spared attack by the Japanese and the two climbed into the air in their P-40s at about 8:30 a.m. They were directed south to the skies over the Marine base at Ewa and came upon Japanese aircraft preparing to attack.
They shot down two planes each before they were forced to land at a shattered Wheeler Field to rearm. There, as ground crew struggled to pull surviving aircraft away from the fires, six pilots climbed into any P-36 that could still fly and took off to engage the Japanese.
Welch and Taylor joined in, with Welch scoring his third victory by sending a Zero on Taylor’s tail down in flames. Wounded, Taylor was forced to land, but Welch returned to Ewa where he claimed his fourth victory of the day.
Wheeler, Hickam and Bellows were not the main targets of the Japanese carrier strike force, yet their suppression was essential in gaining control of the skies over Oahu to allow for the prosecution of their primary mission: the destruction of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor.
Fifteen-year-old Frederick Austin Crow Jr.’s father was a Navy man who received orders for Pearl Harbor in 1936. They had lived in rather austere housing in Honolulu for five years until his father was able to secure one of the brand new houses built between the main gates of Pearl Harbor and the adjacent U.S. Army Air Forces bomber base at Hickam Field.
The Crow family moved in to their new home Dec. 6, 1941.
“It was a castle compared to what we were living in. You could still smell the new paint … but, I only got to sleep there one night,” said Crow during an interview for the Library of Congress.
“About 8 o’clock on Sunday morning we were at the breakfast table and we started hearing some booms off in the distance. … We ran outside and saw planes go down and my dad said ‘This is no drill,’” said Crow.
“About that time we could see Japanese fighters and bombers coming right down our street because our street was on a direct line to battleship row … when they crossed over the water they dropped a big long torpedo… we could see the explosions on battleship row. My dad had a 1936 Chevrolet that took a few hits on a strafing run that ruined the car. … That was it. That was day one in the new house.”
His father boarded a military truck to report to his duty station on the minelayer USS Ogala, having to jump out twice to hide in ditches and sewer pipes when planes of the second wave strafed them. He arrived at the docks to find his ship rolled on its side, sunk by a Japanese bomb that had exploded between it and the USS Helena.
That evening Crow stuck his father’s .38-caliber revolver in his belt and left with his mother to stay with a family friend in St. Louis Heights near Waikiki Beach. When, amid the chaos following the attack, rumors of Japanese paratroopers landing on Oahu were broadcast on the radio, he patrolled the neighborhood with the gun drawn looking to protect the house full of wives and small children.
Crow returned to Pearl Harbor on the following day and was hired by the Navy as a messenger, allowing him to move about the island despite the declaration of martial law. His deliveries gave him a firsthand view of the destruction and carnage as well as the desperate effort to reach men still alive in the capsized battleships.
“The day after Pearl Harbor, with 2,000 bodies stacked up out there in the hot sun in wooden coffins; it got to be a pretty gruesome place. So many heroes were born that day that you would never be able to tell all their stories,” said Crow.
He would later be evacuated to the mainland with his mother on a naval convoy. He earned $200 during the trip by selling shrapnel, collected in a bucket during his messenger rounds, to civilians and sailors on board. He did not see his father again until he was transferred stateside in 1942.
When he came of age in 1943, he enlisted.
The resistance mounted by the U.S. Army Air Forces’ pilots coupled with the unknown location of the U.S. aircraft carriers, which were not anchored at Pearl Harbor during the attack as the Japanese expected, led Admiral Chūichi Nagumo, the commander in chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s First Air Fleet, to err on the side of caution.
With the decks of his carriers packed with the recovered planes of the first wave; refueled, rearmed and ready to launch a third attack, Nagumo opted not to risk his fleet being caught in the open ocean by American aircraft. He turned his task force around for the long sail back to the Japanese home islands.
The targets that were spared from a third wave were oil storage tanks, dry docks, machine shops and repair facilities around Pearl Harbor. It was a decision that Nagumo would soon regret.
Six months later, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown limped into Drydock Number One at Pearl Harbor with horrific damage suffered at the Battle of the Coral Sea. While docked at the facilities spared by the cancelling of the third wave on Dec. 7, repairs, estimated to take 90 days, were completed in three.
The Yorktown then put to sea alongside USS Hornet and USS Enterprise; arriving at Midway Island in time for their aircraft to ambush Nagumo’s fleet and sink four of the six carriers that had launched the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu were lost along with many of Japan’s most experienced naval combat pilots.
It was a loss from which the Japanese would never recover and a victory that put the U.S. on the offensive.
A rebuilt American navy would arise from the ashes of Pearl Harbor, gain control of the seas and begin putting U.S. Marines and Soldiers ashore in an island-hopping campaign across the Pacific.
Fierce fighting finally secured airfields on Guadalcanal in 1943 from which USAAF pilots of the 347th Fighter Group flying P-38s exacted revenge on the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
After U.S. Navy cryptographers intercepted a message containing a detailed itinerary for an upcoming tour of Japanese installations in the Solomon Islands, long-range P-38s launched from Kukum Field on Guadalcanal, flew 50 feet above the waves to avoid radar, intercepted Yamamoto’s plane over Bougainville and sent it crashing into the jungle.
The Saipan campaign included securing the island of Tinian in the Marianas chain in 1944. From the six 7,900-foot runways built there by 15,000 Navy Seabees, the U.S. Army Air Forces would launch B-29s on devastating bombing raids on Japan itself, including deploying the world’s first atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Those attacks would lead to Japan’s unconditional surrender in August of 1945, the end of WWII and, undoubtedly, spare the lives of many U.S. servicemen during a planned invasion of the Japanese home islands.
The flag that flew in front of the Hickam barracks where so many were killed that day in 1941, would be raised in a ceremony, after Japan’s surrender, at Fifth Air Force Headquarters at Irumagawa Air Base, one of the initial entry facilities in Japan for U.S. occupation forces. It eventually returned home to Hickam and is now the centerpiece of the “Hall of Heroes” at PACAF Headquarters in the old battle-scarred barracks building.
Kowalski, now 102 years old and living on Oahu, would go on to OCS and retire from the U.S. Army as a colonel.
Crow would join the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1943 and then the Air Force in 1951. He would retire as a colonel after a storied career that included flying F-86s in a squadron commanded by Chuck Yeager, flying F-4 Phantoms with the 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron in Vietnam and surviving six years as a POW in the Hỏa Lò Prison otherwise known as the Hanoi Hilton. Now 101, the display case at his home in Annapolis, Maryland, contains two Silver Stars, two Distinguished Flying Crosses and a Legion of Merit as testimony to his service.
Nied, whose mother died soon after the attack on Hickam, would be taken in by the Lane family and cared for until she rejoined her father, when he was posted to the Pentagon. She would later marry an Air Force Airman and move back to Oahu, where she lives today. She has shared the story of that December day with her 12-year-old granddaughter’s classmates to keep alive the memory of her father, who retired from the Air Force as a major general. She calls the Lane’s surviving son, Ed, every Dec. 7.
Haigley was evacuated with his mother to the mainland around Easter of 1942. He went on to join the U.S. Army and later became a successful businessman. His father, who had urged him to remember that moment on the porch on Dec. 7, could never put aside the horrific memories of the mess hall at Wheeler or the field hospitals of Northern Europe after D-Day. His father died at 41, suffering from what was then termed “battle fatigue.” Haigley, then 12 and in military school, saluted as taps was played at his father’s funeral.
The battle cry born on the day they all witnessed, “Remember Pearl Harbor”, remains relevant today, not as a call for retribution against a country that is now a steadfast ally, but as a warning. The shrapnel scars, bullet holes and bomb damage are preserved on the buildings and hangers of Hickam and Wheeler Fields to serve as a reminder that every tomorrow could be another Dec. 7.
“We have new systems today and we have never really fought a war with them … whether you talk about our command and control communications systems, our cyber networks, our space systems and so forth; are we really prepared to use them in a real conflict against a sophisticated enemy, today?” said PACAF historian Charles Nicholls, sitting in the battle-scarred headquarters building that was once the Hickam barracks.
“That’s one of the parallels we try to tell people as we give the historical tours and the staff rides around the island; in your job, are you ready tonight? Could we be attacked tonight or tomorrow morning? Welcome to sixth December, 1941,.” said Nicholls.