The B-17 was to achieve its first taste of combat in American hands at Pearl Harbor. On December 7, the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron with four B-17Cs and two new B-17Es was inbound from Hamilton Field, California to Pearl Harbor on their way to the Philippines to reinforce the American force there. None were armed. They arrived at Pearl Harbor at the height of the attack (radar operators mistakenly thought that the Japanese attack force was this flight arriving from California). Some of the planes managed to land at a short fighter strip at Haleiwa, one set down on a golf course, and the remainder landed at Hickam under the strafing of Japanese planes.
Twelve B-17Ds of the 5th Bombardment Group were parked on the ground at Hickam Field during the attack. Five of these B-17s were destroyed, and eight were damaged.
The copilot Leonard “Smitty” Smith Humiston, the B-17C (serial number 40-2049) commanded by Lieutenant Robert H. Richards, he thought that the fire of the guns was a salute made by the US Navy to celebrate the arrival of the bombers, but then he realized that there was an ongoing battle.
The flying fortress was attacked by Japanese fighter planes but the crew came out unscathed, except one person who suffered abrasions to the hands.
The activities of the Japanese forced the aircraft to cancel the landing at Hickam Field and head to Bellows Field, where he came out from the track and was later strafed.
Although initially was deemed repairable, 40-2049 bomber received more than 200 machine guns and was never reported in flight conditions.
In total, ten of the twelve bombers survived the attack.
Just down the road from the Pearl Harbor gate — a few hundred yards closer to Honolulu — lay the main entrance to Hickam Field, where the Army bombers were based. Normally there was a good deal of practice flying here, including some friendly buzzing of the Navy next door. The carrier planes, in turn, would occasionally stage mock raids on Hickam. But this morning all was quiet. The carriers were at sea, and the bombers were lined up in neat rows beside the main concrete runway.
General Short’s sabotage alert was in full force, and obviously the best way to guard the planes was to group them together, out in the open. So there they all were — or at least all that mattered, for only six of the B-17s could fly … only six of the 12 A-20s… and only 17 of the 33 outmoded B-18s.
Their hangars stood silent and empty along the Pearl Harbor side of the field (there were only boondocks on the Honolulu side); but the control tower, near the left end of the hangar line, hummed with excitement. Captain Gordon Blake, the tall, young base operations officer, had been in his office since seven. Next, his friend, Major Roger Ramey, arrived. Then Colonel Cheney Bertholf, adjutant general of the Hawaiian Air Force. Finally, even the base commandant, Colonel William Farthing, steamed up. Everybody who was in the know wanted to see the B-17s arrive from the mainland. They were new, fabulous planes; to have 12 of them come at once was a big event indeed. Down on the field, Captain Andre d’Alfonso, medical officer of the day, prepared his own special welcome. As soon as they arrived, his job was to spray them with Flit guns.
The B-17s were coming in from the mainland — 12 planes in the 38th and 88th Reconnaissance Squadrons under Major Truman Landon. It was a long flight for those days — 14 hours’ flying time. To save gas, the planes were flying separately instead of in formation. They also were stripped down — no armor or ammunition, their guns in cosmoline.
Even so, some of the B-17s barely made Oahu. On Lieutenant Karl Barthelmes’ plane one of the crew accidentally flicked a switch, which threw the plane north of its course, and by the time they figured out why, the gas needle wobbled at zero. Barthelmes turned hard south, and as he approached Oahu around 8:00 A.M., he was suddenly overtaken by 12 to 15 light planes marked with large red circles. They flew above, under, and alongside the B-17, apparently escorting the big plane in. The bomber’s crew sighed with relief, removed the lifebelts they had put on while the plane was off course. They waved their thanks, but the pilots of the other planes were apparently too preoccupied to respond.
About the same time Major Landon was also flying in from the north. He had let one of his crew practice navigation most of the way, and they were heading west 150 miles north of Oahu when Landon finally took over. As he turned southward and approached the island, a flight of nine planes came straight at him, flying north. For an instant he too thought it was a reception committee. Then a burst of gunfire, a quick glimpse of the red circles told him the truth. He pulled up into the clouds and shook off any pursuit.
Most of the B-17s had no advance notice. Major Richard Carmichael flew in over Diamond Head, pointing out the sights to his West Point classmate Colonel Twaddell, the weather officer. As they passed along Waikiki Beach, they could see the smoke over Pearl, but assumed the Navy was practicing. Other pilots saw the smoke too — Lieutenant Bruce Allen thought there was an unusual amount of cane burning … Lieutenant Robert Ramsey thought it was some sort of big celebration.
They drew closer, and the devastation spread below them. Sergeant Albert Brawley gazed at the blazing rows of planes at Hickam and wondered whether some hot fighter pilot had crashed, setting them all on fire. Lieutenant Charles Bergdoll still thought it was a drill, complete with smoke pots and mock bombing, until he saw the remains of a smashed B-24 burning beside the runway. He knew the Army would never wreck anything so expensive.
Now the planes were asking for landing instructions from the tower. A calm, flat voice gave wind direction, velocity, the runway on which to land, as though it were any other day. Occasionally the voice observed without emotion that the field was under attack by “unidentified enemy planes.”
Lieutenant Allen was the first to land. Then came Captain Raymond Swenson’s plane. As it circled in, a Japanese bullet exploded some magnesium flares in the radio compartment, which set the whole plane on fire. It bounced down heavily … the blazing tail section broke off … and the forward half skidded to a stop. Lieutenant Ernest Reid, the copilot, reacted to habit and set the parking brakes as usual. The crew all reached shelter except Flight Surgeon William Schick. A Zero riddled him as he ran down the runway.
Now it was Major Landon’s turn to come in. The same nasal voice in the tower told him to “land from west to east” and added laconically that there were three Japanese planes on his tail. With this encouraging news he came on in, landing safely at 8:20.
As the planes rolled to a stop, the men jumped out and raced for the boondocks on the Honolulu side of the field. Sergeant Brawley lay in the keawa bushes, listening uneasily as the bullets thudded around him. Lieutenant George Newton picked a swamp, Lieutenant Ramsey a drainage ditch. Lieutenant Allen tried to disappear into grass three inches high. Lieutenant Homer Taylor ran the opposite way, winding up in some officer’s house under a couple of overturned sofas. The officer’s wife and children huddled there too, and every time a Japanese plane roared by, a small boy tried to get out from under the sofa and look outside. He would nearly get to the end of the sofa, then Taylor would grab an ankle and drag him back just in time. This duel continued until the end of the raid.