Five of the U. S. Army pilots who got into the air and engaged the Japanese aircraft are pictured in front of a P-36A Hawk fighter shortly after the attack. From left to right are 2nd Lieutenant Harry W. Brown, 2nd Lieutenant Philip M. Rasmussen, 2nd Lieutenant Kenneth M. Taylor, 2nd Lieutenant George S. Welch, and 1st Lieutenant Lewis M. Sanders. (National Archives)
Once the shock of seeing Japanese planes over the harbor wore off, sailors, Marines, and airmen began fighting back. Through the bomb and torpedo explosions ready ammunition lockers were open, sometimes forcefully, and gunners began to fire back at the attackers. At first it was small arms: 45-caliber pistols and various rifles. Then crews began firing back with 50-caliber heavy machine guns, then larger-caliber anti-aircraft cannon. Minesweeper Avocet (AVP-4) was one of the first to open fire. She was moored at the Naval Air Station dock, Berth F-1A, and her 3-inch gun crew shot down a Kate that had just put a torpedo into the side of the battleship California. This airplane crashed near the base hospital, one of its wings coming to rest near a building. Avocet’s gunners accounted for a couple of additional aircraft shot down during the attack.
Crews on board destroyer Bagley (DD-386) immediately went into action, breaking open the ready ammunition locker for 50-caliber machine gun belts. The gunners were able to fire on the first three Japanese torpedo bombers during the first wave, and took aim at the attacking Vals in the second. Bagley was one of the first American ships to sortie from the harbor in pursuit of the enemy.
Cruisers Honolulu (CL-48) and St. Louis (CL-49) began opening up with 30-caliber and 50-caliber machine guns and 5-inch/25-caliber guns. Soon nearly every ship in the harbor was taking aim at the Japanese. Typical of the ammunition expended were the numbers from Honolulu: 2,800 rounds of 30-caliber, 4,500 rounds of 50-caliber, and 250 rounds of 5-inch/25-caliber were fired during the attack.
Shortly after the second attack wave arrived over the harbor, seaplane tender Curtiss (AV-4) took a bomb hit from a Val that exploded on the main deck, killing twenty-one sailors and wounding fifty-eight men. Curtiss’s gunners opened fire on the dive-bombing Vals and scored a direct hit as it pulled up from an attack. The Val’s pilot was killed and his plane careened into Curtiss, hitting the forward, starboard-side crane. The plane’s fuel tank exploded and its wreckage dropped to the boat deck where it burned causing severe damage to the ship’s pipes, steam lines, and wiring.
Prior to the December 7 attack, a number of planes and pilots from Wheeler Field were flying gunnery practice missions from Haleiwa Field, twenty miles away on Oahu’s north shore. The planes and ground crews remained at the field while the pilots had gone back to Wheeler Field for the weekend. On Saturday night, many of the flyers had made the rounds of the Officers’ Clubs at Hickam and Wheeler and had enjoyed themselves late into the morning.
To protect against sabotage, the majority of the aircraft at Wheeler Field were parked on the ramp, wingtip to wingtip, each row only twenty feet from the next. This enabled a small number of armed guards to patrol the perimeter of the parked aircraft to prevent sabotage. On the morning of December 7, almost eighty Curtiss P-36s and P-40s were on the ramp, vulnerable to attack from the air.
At 8:02 a.m., Wheeler Field and the adjacent Schofield Barracks were attacked by twenty-five Val dive-bombers. The Vals dropped bombs on the hangars and returned to strafe aircraft on the ramp as well as the Schofield Barracks area. As the Japanese dive-bombers were working over the airfield, 2nd Lt. George S. Welch and 2nd Lt. Kenneth M. Taylor phoned Haleiwa Field and had their planes armed and engines warmed-up, ready for take off. The two hopped into a car and raced north to Haleiwa Field. Taking off around 8:30 a.m., the pair were instructed to head south toward Ewa Field and the Pearl Harbor area, where they spotted the enemy. Both fliers engaged about a dozen Japanese planes in the skies over Barbers Point with Welch downing two confirmed and one probable and Taylor two.
Out of fuel and ammunition, the pair returned to Wheeler during a lull in the fighting to rearm. Welch was the first back into the air, and as Taylor lifted off, he immediately pursued a Japanese plane passing directly in front of him. While Taylor was firing on the plane ahead of him, a Japanese Zero latched onto his tail and Welch joined the fray, firing at Taylor’s pursuer. By the end of the morning, Taylor was credited with two confirmed aerial victories and Welch with four. Taylor and Welch were recognized with the Distinguished Service Cross for their actions that morning.
Between attack waves, two Curtiss P-36s from the 47th Pursuit Squadron and one each from the 45th and 46th Pursuit Squadrons launched from Wheeler Field. Led by 1st Lt. Lewis M. Sanders, the other pilots were 2nd Lt. Othneil Norris, 2nd Lt. John M. Thacker, and 2nd Lt. Philip M. Rasmussen. When Norris got out of his plane and went into the hangar to swap parachutes, 2nd Lt. Gordon H. Sterling Jr. jumped into Norris’s P-36. Sterling taxied out and joined the other three P-36s in the flight and joined up on Thacker. Because of Sterling’s lack of combat procedures and gunnery training, Sterling was instructed to fly as Sanders’s wingman and Thacker and Rasmussen formed the second element. The four P-36s were airborne by 8:50 a.m.
Climbing for altitude, the four P-36s broke out of the clouds near NAS Kaneohe Bay. They immediately spotted six Zeros and dove to attack. Sanders scored the first kill, then saw Sterling pursuing a Zero with another Japanese fighter on his tail. Joining the trio, Sanders started firing at the trailing Zero and this melee was being observed by Rasmussen who reported seeing Sterling’s Zero crash into the bay, followed by Sterling. The Zero under fire from Sanders escaped, and it later turned out that the fighter that Sterling was shooting at escaped as well. During this tail chase, Rasmussen had charged his guns, which began to fire uncontrollably. As he was attempting to stop the guns from running away, a Zero flew into the path of his bullets and exploded, earning him an aerial victory credit. Rasmussen then had a pair of Zeros on his tail and he dove for cover in some clouds below him, losing the Japanese fighters in the process.
At Bellows Field, three pilots from the 44th Pursuit Squadron tried to take off during the attack, two of whom lost their lives attempting to repel the attackers. Second Lt. Hans C. Christensen was hit by strafing Japanese planes as he was boarding his P-40 and 2nd Lt. George A. Whiteman took off in a P-40B and was shot down as his plane lifted off the runway. First, Lt. Samuel W. Bishop followed Whiteman into the air, but while climbing for altitude he was hit by machine-gun and 20mm cannon fire from a Zero. Wounded and barely able to control his aircraft, Bishop crashed into the sea off Bellows Field. He was able to swim to shore and eventually returned to duty. All three men received the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.
Crossing over the harbor entrance channel en route to strafe Hickam Field, the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter flown by Naval Air Pilot first class Takeshi Hirano was heavily damaged by a combination of ground fire and anti-aircraft fire from the destroyer Helm and the minesweeper Bobolink. To those on the ground, it appeared that Hirano intended on belly landing his Zero on a street inside Fort Kamehameha, which borders the channel entrance to Pearl Harbor. As his crippled fighter sputtered its way over the fort, Hirano’s left wing clipped a palm tree, spinning it down to the ground.
The Zero struck at the base of the Ordnance Machine Shop, Building 52, where soldiers had taken cover. The impact of the Japanese fighter killed Hirano instantly. Four soldiers were killed, and five wounded as a result of flying debris from the plane.
As the attack raged overhead, the army and its men bent on souvenir hunting scoured the aircraft for anything valuable. Inside Hirano’s pocket was a small map showing the rendezvous point where the retiring attackers would meet as they headed back to the carriers. This gave American search planes a general direction of where the carriers were, but not a precise location of where to expect the Japanese fleet. B-17s went in search of the Japanese, but were unable to locate them.
After the battle, the wreckage was taken to a Hickam Field hangar and studied for its intelligence value. And although nothing new was discovered as far as aerodynamics or weaponry was concerned, investigators deemed that most of it looked like copies of U.S.–made components, giving rise to the belief that the Zero was a copy of an American aircraft.
On the eastern side of Oahu, the morning air over Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay was pierced by the rumble of low-flying aircraft around 7:50 a.m. Soon thereafter the attackers were strafing aircraft moored in the bay and those on the seaplane ramp. Sailors and Marines began to fire back with rifles and machine guns. The attack lasted between ten and fifteen minutes before the aircraft retired to the north.
The second attack wave did more damage to the base, this time dropping small bombs in addition to strafing the navy Catalinas. A direct hit on Hangar No. 1 did tremendous damage to the building and completely destroyed four PBYs inside. The majority of Kaneohe Bay’s casualties occurred in the moored aircraft or as crews were trying to launch or move the big flying boats.
Anti-aircraft gunners at Kaneohe Bay were able to score a number of hits as three or four aircraft were seen leaving the area streaming fuel. They were able to confirm one Japanese aircraft as shot down, that belonging to Lt. Fusata Iida, leader of Soryu fighter unit’s attack on the naval air station. Iida, realizing he would not be able to make it back to the carrier had committed himself to crashing his aircraft into a high-value target should something go wrong. Having rejoined his flight, he signaled his intentions, then rolled his aircraft and dove toward the air station firing his guns on the way down. Iida crashed into a hill one mile north of the hangar line. He was buried the next day with full military honors in the same plot as the fifteen men from the air station who perished in the attack.
Another Zero pilot unable to make the return trip to his carrier was Airman First Class Shigenori Nishikaichi from Hiryu. Having been struck by anti-aircraft fire during the raid, Nishikaichi headed for the rendezvous with the Japanese aircraft carriers. He was accompanied by another Hiryu fighter, but ran out of fuel over Niihau and crash-landed. The second aircraft continued to the west and was never seen by the islanders again.
Six days after the Pearl Harbor attack, on Saturday, December 13, six men rowed from Niihau to Waimea, Kauai, to report the crash landing and subsequent capture of Airman Shigenori Nishikaichi. At the time, there was no communication with Niihau and no radio to inform the islanders that America was now at war with Japan. On Kauai, the authorities were notified and twelve soldiers from Company M, 299th Infantry, were sent back to Niihau on board the lighthouse tender Kukui. In addition to the men from Company M, the Kukui carried an additional dozen armed men and two heavy machine guns. The Kukui departed Waimea at 6 p.m. local time and arrived at the southern tip of Niihau at 7:30 a.m. The men dis-embarked, had breakfast, then began the ten-mile march to the Nonopapa village where the Japanese pilot was being held.
The troops arrived at 1:50 p.m. to learn that the Zero fighter had been burned by its pilot, who was dead, and to hear a bizarre story about the past six days since the Japanese fighter crashed on the island, which resulted in the pilot attempting to send a radio message from the Zero’s cockpit, him burning the plane, a native Hawaiian being shot, the pilot being picked up and being bodily thrown into a stone wall resulting in a crushed skull, and a native Japanese worker who had aided the pilot committing suicide. The week’s events became known as “The Niihau Incident.”
In all, twenty-nine Japanese planes and their crews did not return to the carriers. Nine of the aircraft were Zeros, fifteen Val dive-bombers, and five were Kate torpedo-bombers.