by Lt.Col. George A. Larson (USAF ret), Rapid City, SD, for Military magazine, December 2009
I was walking through my local grocery store and a senior citizen came up to me, noticing I had a Pearl Harbor shirt on. He introduced himself and told me that he was at Wheeler Field on 7 December 1941. This is Stan’s story…
“I was at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941”
I was born at Worcester, Massachusetts, on 15 July 1917. I attended high school there, graduated in 1935 and joined the military in 1940. I have an interesting story of how I joined the Army. I went down to the U.S. Post Office in Worcester with Fred Levine, a buddy of mine, to enlist in the Navy. He and I were high school buddies and wanted to join the military together. We knew a war was coming and we figured we might as well enlist, and thought there should be some advantage in enlisting so we walked into the Naval Recruiting Office. The recruiter went over the enlistment and what he could offer us, which sounded pretty good. I asked him how long we would be enlisting for and he said “Six years.”
I looked at Levin and said it was time to go outside and talk over this six-year term. While we were in the hall of the post office, we saw an Army recruiting poster on the wall. We both thought the Army pilot program sounded interesting. We enlisted in the Army for three years with an offer of three different assignments outside the United States: the Philippines, the Panama Canal Zone or Hawaii. We took Hawaii and later, when the war broke out with the Empire of Japan, we considered ourselves lucky, especially concerning the death march on Bataan after the Japanese starved out U.S. Army and Filipino troops.
After completing all the enlistment paperwork we were given train tickets to Fort Solkum, New York. My first job in the Army was a dockhand in the ferry running between Fort Solkum to the mainland. After four months, we left New York on a Navy transport, USS Washington, a German luxury passenger liner in her prior life. We went through the Panama Canal on our way to the Hawaiian Islands. The officers on the transport had staterooms, while we were assigned sleeping quarters in the hold, with rows of three high wood bunks. It was hot in the cargo hold, there was no air conditioning at that time, so we slept up on the deck where there was a breeze; it made the trip more livable.
My buddy, Frank Levin, was on the transport with me but when he walked down the gangplank in Honolulu he stumbled and fell hard onto the dock, severely injuring himself. He was taken to Fort Shaftner’s hospital and then the Army sent him back to the States and gave Levin an honorable discharge with disability. That ended Levin’s six months of Army Service.
The 86th Observation Squadron was attached to a fighter squadron stationed at Wheeler Field, but we moved to Bellows Field on the other side of the island from Pearl Harbor. I was assigned to the Photo Section, as I was the only guy who flew. At Bellows we had a small photo lab in a trailer and I flew photo missions over the entire island. I was at aerial photographer’s school on Wheeler Field when the Japanese attacked.
I want to start somewhat earlier prior to the Japanese attack to provide a look at what was going on in Hawaii. The entire island had been on alert for one week. The planes had been moved out of Wheeler Field and dispersed to alternate emergency airfields around the island. We had six of our squadron’s aircraft dispersed to Haleiwa Field and all planes flew back into Wheeler Field on Saturday morning, 6 December, after the alert was cancelled. They were parked in rows to prevent sabotage and not at the edges of the airfield.
I had Saturday and Sunday off, as was usual for the weekend. We were still at peace. I was going to visit my buddies at Bellows Field, then hitch a ride across the island into Honolulu for Saturday night. I intended to go with my squadron commander, Jim Stuart. He was one of the finest men I knew and became a General by the end of WWII. He flew from Bellows Field to Wheeler Field and back on weekends or when he had duty because his family lived in Wheeler Field’s officer quarters. I was going to fly with him from Wheeler Field to Bellows Field. While I was waiting for him, I saw two fuel trucks slowly going down the line of parked P-40s, refueling each one.
In a warning message sent to U.S. Army Major General Walter Short, Commander, U.S. Army Hawaiian Department from the War Department on 27 November 1941: “…undertake such reconnaissance and other measures you deem necessary.” The alert was cancelled with troops and aircraft returned to their bases.
I said to the fuel truck drivers, wouldn’t these parked aircraft make a hell of a target if the Japanese attacked? There had been all kinds of rumors. That morning, U.S. Army trucks were headed back to Schofield Barracks, bumper-to-bumper, returning from defensive positions around the island after being taken down from alert. On Saturday everything was returning back to pre-alert status and we were basically on holiday. When the squadron commander did not fly in from Bellows Field, I hitched a ride to downtown Honolulu. I had lunch and that night went to a USO dance.
On Sunday morning the U.S. Navy Harbor Report indicated there were 94 ships at Pearl Harbor: eight battleships, the target battleship Utah, nine cruisers, 31 destroyers, five submarines, 24 mine ships and 27 auxiliaries. The aircraft carriers were away from Pearl Harbor, delivering aircraft to Midway and Wake Islands. On Sunday morning I was bombed out of my bed. I was on the top bunk on the third floor when I heard and felt a tremendous explosion. Later, we found out the bomb impacted across the street in the housing area in an open area. The Japanese pilot released the bomb to hit the barracks but it barely cleared the top floor before striking the ground and detonating.
The first bomb dropped scored a direct hit on Wheeler’s Mess Hall, killing over 300 soldiers. On Sunday mornings, most of us slept in rather than going to breakfast, which was served at 0700. It was not a mandatory formation on the weekends, so that is why I was still in bed when the explosions woke me up. The first thing we did was run down to the ground floor, a mere 50 to 60 yards from the fully fueled P-40s parked on the concrete apron. We ran into the armament’s shack, and told the Sergeant to hand out the guns. He would not open the locked gate without a signature from an officer so we went ahead and tore down the wire and grabbed the guns.
There was a .50 caliber machine gun inside. I had never fired a gun the entire time I had been in the Army. Some of the aircraft armorers on the P-40s knew something about machine guns. Some of these guys ran down to the flight line’s armament shack to retrieve the .50 caliber machine gun ammunition and bring the belts back to the barracks. We set up the machine gun on its tripod and my job was to feed the ammunition belt into the gun.
The Japanese were flying below the tops of the buildings, strafing and bombing. This went on for about an hour, with a 30-minute pause before the second wave of Japanese aircraft attacked. I could see the Japanese aircrews with their leather helmets, goggles and scarves. The rear gunners on the dive and horizontal bombers fired their .30 caliber machine guns at us on the ground. When we started firing the .50 caliber machine gun, it froze after 15 to 20 rounds. We did not know it was necessary to pump water into the machine gun’s cooling jacket to keep it from overheating. The guys with me were more familiar with the operation of air-cooled .50 caliber machine guns on the P-40s. We learned a quick lesson on the operation of a .50 caliber machine gun.
We lay down in the open area next to the barracks on a concrete pad. They handed me a 1905 Springfield rifle and showed me how to load it with single bullets, there weren’t any .30 caliber bullet clips available. They went down and got some .30 caliber ammunition from the flight line’s armament shack. I loaded the bullets into the rifle and got ready to fire at the attacking Japanese aircraft. As the Japanese planes flew low at a distance of approximately 60 yards, with flaps down to slow its speed, I fired directly at the pilot and squeezed the trigger. My bullet passed to the rear of the aircraft. That was the first time I fired a gun in the Army.
We went down onto the flight line after the end of the first Japanese bombing wave to one of the hangars packed with .30 and .50 caliber ammunition boxes. The hangar was burning and flames spread to the wood ammunition boxes. I noticed a bombshell fragment on the hangar floor and stuck it in my pocket while I began to drag out non-burning ammunition crates. The Japanese second wave was bombing and strafing while we were dragging out the undamaged ammunition crates.
I am not a big guy and the ammunition boxes were heavy. There was an aircraft tug close by, used to pull aircraft around the aircraft parking apron and into and out of the hangars, fitted with a thick curved steel bumper. Japanese .30 caliber cannon shells were piercing the steel bumper and this was not a pleasant sight.
The previous morning, on the bulletin board, there was a picture of a wounded Chinese civilian with skin burns on his arms from a reported Japanese mustard gas attack. I was scared to death of a similar attack and I had a practice gas mask in my locker on the barrack’s third floor. It was not very practical but it might provide a limited amount of protection. I got up and started to run up to the third floor to retrieve my gas mask, but every time I put my foot on the first step, a bomb exploded. Finally, I got the courage to run up the stairs to get my gas mask. If I had been half smart, I would have gone down into the basement of the concrete barracks for protection.
On high alert
That night, after the first few shots on the .50 caliber machine gun taken from the barrack’s armory, I was considered a machine gun expert. We were assigned to go into the housing area with a .50 caliber machine gun and set up a defensive position. We were expecting a Japanese attack sometime during the night and I was put in charge of the machine gun crew; even though I was a Private I had five or six guys working with me. We built a machinegun nest using cement bags because we didn’t have any sand bags available. When it was all set up I was officially in charge of the gun’s operation.
About midnight, the loudest racket you ever heard broke out. One of my guys was firing the machine gun into the air marked by tracers, and he was not the only one firing into the black night sky. I asked him what he was shooting at and he said he didn’t know, but that everyone else was shooting into the night sky. I told the kid to stop firing and after that we heard a random shot now and then. Anything that moved, a cat or dog, was shot at. The entire island was trigger-happy.
The morning after
I had not taken any pictures during the Japanese attack and on Monday morning I thought I had better get back to work at the photo lab. I showed up and started to help the others get things organized. I was told to grab my photographic equipment, and my parachute, and head toward the flight line. I was going up in a B-18 to take photos of the destruction in Pearl Harbor and surrounding military installations.
Master Sergeant Gorges was in charge of the photo lab and he was going along on this aerial photographic mission as my navigator. We flew at an altitude of 200 to 300 feet over Pearl Harbor for a couple of hours, taking pictures to create a mosaic of the damage. We had to guess our flight path on each new run because we did not have any reference points. Below us there were hundreds of small boats in the oil-blackened water. There were fires and smoke everywhere, increasing the difficulty of flying a precise route. The USS Oklahoma had capsized, with its bottom up, and was covered with hundreds of men using air hammers and cutting torches trying to reach the men still trapped inside. We flew low enough to see the faces of the men working on the battleship. I had a close up view of the destruction and damage below. The boats in the water were looking for and pulling dead bodies out of the water.
We landed and I went back to the lab to develop the black and white film into 10-by-14-inch photographs, creating a mosaic of the harbor.
Shortly after this I had the opportunity to apply for pilot training as I intended to do in 1940 when enlisting into the Army. As long as I was going to continue flying, I might as well be the one doing the flying. The flight surgeon checked me out and told me he could pass me, but that my eyes would not pass on the pre-flight physical in the States. I asked him to sign it and he did, and I was given orders for the States.
Prior to boarding a military transport out of Pearl, an officer asked if I had anything of a military nature in my footlocker. Without thinking, I opened it and handed him my copies of the 10-by-14 inch photos of Pearl Harbor. That was the last time I saw them.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor vaulted the United States into WWII, ending America’s neutrality in the war. This war did not end until 2 September 1945 with the signing of the terms of unconditional surrender onboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.