Hickam Feild, Hawaii -- Imagine you're an Airman stationed in Hawaii, sleeping in on a Sunday morning with a balmy December breeze that caresses your body with a whisper of wind. Suddenly, the loud retort of an explosion in the distance upsets the fragile tranquility. Then come many more explosions. Then you hear the air sirens and realize that you're about to be thrust into the Second World War.
You jump into your staff car and dash for the flightline at Hickam Field as you see columns of smoke rise from Pearl Harbor, and enemy aircraft circling those columns like birds of prey. You know that your unit, the 11th Bomb Group, needs to get into the air fast and stave off the attack.
This wasn't newsreel footage or Hollywood special effects for the Airmen assigned to the 11th Bomb Group - the 11th Wing's ancestral organization - on December 7, 1941. The first wave of Japanese aircraft that attacked U.S. military installations in Hawaii was a powerful aerial armada of 49 high-altitude bombers, 51 dive-bombers, 40 torpedo planes and 43 fighter aircraft; an air force comparable in number to several wings in today's USAF inventory.
At Hickam Field, it fell to the 11th Bomb Group to support the air defense against the Japanese onslaught and the Airmen that day salvaged what they could from their devastated air fleet.
The memories remain fresh to Airmen who survived that attack and carry them past today, the marks of living testaments to what could possibly be described as the Air Force's finest hour.
Each Airman carries a story of their service to their country, but when those stories combine, one sees the context of a legacy of service. This is the story of that fateful day and how a spirit of service and a legacy of dedication endures and inspires the 11th Wing still today.
AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NOT A DRILL
With the first wave of the Japanese air assault beginning at 7:55 a.m. Honolulu Time, the majority of 11th Bomb Group personnel were in their barracks and awoken by the sound of explosions at the hangar, the blast so powerful the barracks shook with echoes.
With the wail of air sirens that followed, the Airmen reported to Hangar 11, the operations building and the motor pool. Navy telegraph operators had sent out a message to every ship and airfield, "AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NOT A DRILL," but the swiftness of the Japanese air assault was total. Even the Japanese were surprised by the effectiveness of their own attack.
The Japanese Air Commander, Mitsuo Fuchida, ordered his telegraph operator to tap out "to, to, to:" the Japanese word for attack. The responding telegraph operator tapped out "to ra, to ra, to ra:" attack, surprise achieved.
"The first indication of trouble was the distant rumbling of explosions that seemed to be coming from the direction of the Hawaiian Air Depot and Fort Kamehameha," said then-Private Seymour Blutt, who had been assigned to 11 BG Headquarters and was in the mess hall that morning on Kitchen Patrol. "When I glanced out the large window of the hall, I saw the planes. They had large red circles on their wings and they were bombing and strafing. I instinctively yelled, 'Take cover!'"
Like all Airmen assigned to Hickam Field that day, Blutt headed for the flight line to get the 11th Bomb Group's squadrons into the air. But whether speeding to the flight line by car or on foot, the enemy fighter aircraft targeted the Airmen on the ground as the enemy bombers targeted the gasoline storage tanks, sending shrapnel over the distance of several football fields.
Many Airmen never made it to their duty stations, but those that could continued to press on in their scramble to the Hickam Field flight line. On the ground, Hickam Field's Army Air Corps fleet was vulnerable and the enemy showed no signs of mercy.
Frustrating the efforts of the Airmen, the airplanes on the flightline could not be moved, let alone accessed immediately for air defense; the keys to the locks that sealed the aircraft had been kept in the armament section, which had been destroyed during the first wave. Capt. LaVerne G. Saunders, 23rd Bomb Squadron commander (then under 11th Bomb Group), ordered the men to shoot the locks off the bombers and taxi them into a dispersed position.
The bombs were loaded by hand with the goal being to get the aircraft up in the air to take the fight back to the Japanese fleet and forestall any attempt to establish a beachhead.
At this same time, 12 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers were flying into Oahu from Hamilton Field, Calif., and found themselves in a dogfight. These bombers were unarmed - to save weight and increase fuel efficiency as they crossed the Pacific. Incredibly, most of the aircraft landed intact with one landing on the golf course.
The arrival of these bombers bought the 11th Bomb Group time to get some of their own bombers out of the way.
The second wave of the assault - 78 dive bombers, 54 high-altitude bombers and 35 additional fighter aircraft - expanded the area of attack beyond the flightlines with bombs drooping on the barracks. Many Airmen never made it to their duty stations. Hangar 11 was also bombed.
Protect the American Airplanes
Many Airmen realized the surprise attack required a swift response and created numerous gun emplacements to defend the flightlines and the aircrews that were moving and loading the bombers.
Many of the emplacements offered little defense from the Japanese fighter aircraft that strafed any movement on the flightlines, but the defense of that flightline involved courageous acts that can still strike awe today. With the second wave assaulting the U.S. military forces in Hawaii, the Japanese had 414 aircraft in the air.
The 11th Bomb Group's air strength of 50 aircraft had been reduced to 13 combat-ready aircraft with 18 destroyed and 19 more too damaged to fly. Every U.S. bomber aircraft that could fly was a hard-won victory for the Airmen.
Tech Sgt. Arthur Townsend and 2nd Lt. John E. Roesch made a mad dash across the runway in the face of heavy bombing and machine-gun strafing to set up a machine gun to defend the flightline.
They mustered such an ardent defense that the machine gun threatened to buckle from the heat of firing an endless stream of bullets against what seemed an overwhelming number of attackers. Townsend shot a hole in his helmet to make a funnel out of it so that he could scoop up water from the ground nearby and pour it into the water jacket for the machine gun.
Both Townsend and Roesch received the Silver Star for their heroism. Private Charles Young set up a .50 caliber machine gun in the ball park and directed effective fire against the enemy from an indefensible location. He also received the Silver Star for his gallantry.
While the second wave of enemy aircraft engaged, a chain of command was established to defend the airspace over Hawaii by directing a counter-attack and coordinating the ground defense.
Then-Private Samuel Bradlyn, an aviation cadet assigned to the 11th Bomb Group's Headquarters Squadron, was tasked with supporting the new command structure. The intensity of the surprise attack became even greater as worries persisted that saboteurs had infiltrated the ranks to weaken the U.S. response.
"We were told to get into a recon car that was going to Aliamanu Crater, where we were to help set up the Forward Echelon of the Hawaiian Air Force," said Bradlyn. "We set up our cryptographic section and the Signal Corps set up the telephone and radio networks. We were having problems with the telephone lines, so Col. [Clayton] Hoppaugh had his people check them. It was determined that someone was sabotaging them."
It is unclear to this day if a fifth column existed to facilitate the Japanese attack, the chaos of the day leading many to take no chances. What wasn't known at the time was that the Japanese attack fleet included six aircraft carriers: the Ziukaku, Shokaku, Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu. Each could support a complement of between 72 and 84 aircraft. Prior to the attack, the total air strength of the U.S. armed forces in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, was only 433 aircraft (223 Army Air Corps, 79 Marine Corps and 131 Navy). Of those assets, 188 were destroyed and 155 were damaged in the attacks.
The Japanese had sufficient air forces prior to the attack to muster a third wave of assaults on the U.S. forces in Hawaii, but the third wave never came. Despite facing less than the third of the pre-attack U.S. air strength that were ready for combat and despite overwhelming numbers and the element of surprise, only 29 Japanese aircraft were able to return to the carriers. The U.S. Armed Forces - working together - had held the line and fought off the enemy, but at a terrible cost.
The Japanese air assault had lasted two hours and 20 minutes and more than 2,400 Americans were killed, and another 1,200 wounded. Eighteen U.S. ships were sunk or damaged. More than 300 U.S. aircraft were damaged or destroyed. Of the 350 Airmen assigned to the 11th Bomb Group, 245 were casualties of the attack. Of the 433 U.S. aircraft at Hawaii that day, 343 were damaged or destroyed.
"Toward evening, I wandered over by the point to see the burning ships," said Blutt. "Between the Basic Officers' Quarters and the water, some fellows had set up a .30 caliber water-cooled machine gun in a shell hole. I joined them and spent the night there. I do vividly remember watching the Arizona and other ships burning through the night."
The next day, Blutt was told that all of his friends from the mess hall had been killed in the attack.
The New Normal
"I was knee deep in debris from the demolished hangar," said Private Thomas E. Bradshaw, who had been assigned to the 431st Bombardment Squadron under the 11th Bomb Group and was one of the survivors of the bombing of Hangar 11. "There were men lying all around who I had been assisting and figured they were dead. I received multiple shrapnel wounds in my face, neck, and hands and was afraid I would bleed to death if I didn't get medical help soon."
Bradshaw described the hospital as at capacity with wounded lying side by side in the hallways. The overflow were moved to Tripler General Hospital and placed in temporary buildings that had been set up outside the main hospital. With extensive injuries, Bradshaw was eventually released for duty back at Hickam Field.
By that time, a new state of awareness had set in for the Hawaiian Islands. The day after the attack, Hawaii had a military governor and martial law had been declared for the islands. Military dependents and tourists had been promptly evacuated to the mainland. That meant that the families of the Airmen assigned to 11th Bomb Group and all other military units on the island would be separated for the duration of the war, although a few brave housewives found ways to serve alongside their husbands.
"She was a spunky girl," said Private Leo Nugent of his fiancée, Marian. "Right away, she got a job at the Hawaiian Air Depot so she could be considered 'essential to the war effort' and avoid evacuation. I had gotten a 30-day furlough in anticipation of our wedding and the attack came on the 13th day. We could not get off the same day to have a wedding, so it was naturally postponed for a while."
The "new normal" for the Airmen of the 11th Bomb Group was more than just an increased state of alertness.
The idea that Japan had awoken a sleeping giant with their surprise attack could not have been disputed; if history was to use the 11 BG as a yardstick for the U.S. response, one would see how the U.S. Army Air Corps - in fact the nation as a whole - repurposed itself beyond the theory of war books. No American was left unshaken by the attack and the sheer numbers of U.S. citizens who volunteered for military duty is of public record.
The response of the 11 BG is less well-known. The Airmen salvaged what they could from the damaged and destroyed aircraft. Many of the survivors like Nugent and Blutt persevered with their training and eventually became pilots themselves, contributing their most determined, heart-felt efforts to a four-year campaign that would see the 11th Bomb Group push back from Hickam Field and drive the enemy back to their own shores.
Captain Saunders' leadership that day in protecting the fleet saw him rise to the position of 11th Bomb Group commander six months later. With Airmen like these in the ranks and hundreds more, the 11th Bomb Group claimed victories in numerous air battles covering 16 million square miles of the Earth's surface.
Legacies and Legends
On the morning of Dec. 7, 2011, a small number of veterans gathered at Pearl Harbor, all sharing a story of surviving a day when they bore witness to history.
Their numbers dwindle every year, many passing away peacefully in their sleep or in the company of their loved ones - a joy denied to many on that day 70 years ago. Their tours of duty fulfilled and with satisfying careers both in and out of uniform now behind them, the veterans' return to Hawaii was a solemn event.
Some brought their families with them, inspiring a legacy of service that is passed down through families. Others stand alone, fighting back the emotion of the friends they lost that day and over the years that followed. All stand together with the acknowledgement that they are all survivors, bound by a steely resolution, forged in the fires of war.
History is written by the survivors. It is through their eyes that today's 11th Wing understands what the generations of Airmen who came before had sacrificed in the spirit of duty to their countrymen.
The heroes who gathered in Hawaii stand as examples of what the modern Airman can accomplish, testaments to the great adversity that can be overcome by those who wear a military uniform, regardless of service.
Far removed from the island paradise is Joint Base Andrews and the thousands of Airmen and civilian counterparts who carry on that tradition of outstanding service as members of the 11th Wing - inheritors of the 11th Bomb Group legacy.
Memories of what the 11th Bomb Group endured that day and how they turned a moment of tragedy into a legacy of victory inspire all who have ever worn the emblem of the Grey Geese.
The past has given us many insights and these Airmen may have given the 11th Wing the greatest insight twice over: a legacy of service is never forgotten and nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force.