Homage to Wheeler Field
Pearl Harbor, with the most casualties on Dec. 7, 1941, gets the lion’s share of the focus in the attack that drew America into World War II.
But the six main airfields on Oahu also were savaged — in some cases before the Pacific Fleet was hit — to prevent Oahu’s own air power from countering Japan’s.
At Wheeler Field, more than 35 men were killed and 53 were wounded in two attack waves. Thomas Petso, now 94, recalled heading over to Wheeler from Schofield Barracks for a football game on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when he was a young infantryman.
“I looked up in the sky and I couldn’t believe what those strange planes were doing coming toward us,” Petso said Monday. “Just scared the hell out of us at that time. We ran for our lives because they opened fire and we knew we were in trouble.”
The 25th Infantry Division held the early commemoration at Wheeler with remarks by Maj. Gen. Christopher Cavoli, the laying of wreaths, a moment of silence and taps.
Cavoli noted the Oahu-wide survivor turnout for the event: Four of those present were at Wheeler and Schofield; 11 of the veterans were on ships attacked at Pearl Harbor; one was at Hickam Field; one was on Ford Island; two were in the coastal artillery; one was at Kaneohe Naval Air Station; and another was at Fort Armstrong.
The 25th Division commander said he wanted to recognize the “greatest generation” veterans — both those who were there on Dec. 7, 1941, and those who served in other theaters during World War II — and asked for a round of applause.
In addition, the veterans received a standing ovation.
Cavoli said Wheeler was one of the first bases to be hit in a synchronized attack on air bases that also included the bombing and machine-gunning of Bellows, Kaneohe, Ewa, Hickam and Ford Island.
“The first wave of aircraft came down low over the North Shore, and came along the base of the Waianae Mountains,” and as they approached Kolekole Pass “they turned and came straight into the airfield from that direction,” Cavoli said.
There were 99 P-40 fighters and more than 50 other aircraft stationed at Wheeler, charged with the defense of the island, he said. A total of 41 P-40s and 13 other aircraft were destroyed, according to Cavoli.
“Fire and dense smoke filled the sky on the tarmac,” Cavoli said. Speaking to the audience near the open hangar entrance with his back to the airfield, Cavoli said, “Behind me, aircraft were bombed and strafed. Hangars 1 and 3 were shattered with bombs and machine-gun fire. Buildings 107 and 108, which were used in 1941 as officer pilot barracks, were hit and set ablaze.”
Schofield Barracks also was strafed.
During the attack, P-40s from the 47th Pursuit Squadron, with some aircraft at Haleiwa Field on the North Shore — remnants of which still lie behind overgrowth — were able to take off and battle the Japanese, Cavoli said.
Lts. Harry Brown, Robert Rogers, John Webster, John Dains, George Welch and Kenneth Taylor got planes in the air. For the next 90 minutes, pilots pursued Japanese fighters over Oahu, shooting down nine planes, Cavoli said.
He added that about 35 minutes later, six other aircraft took off from Wheeler and flew 25 more sorties against the Japanese. At about 8:50 a.m. Wheeler and other Oahu targets were hit again in Japan’s second wave of attacks, he noted.
The Pearl Harbor attack would be the most devastating onslaught ever inflicted on the U.S. Navy, but “America turned around, we geared up for war,” and just six months later the Battle of Midway would turn the tide and result in the sinking of four of the six attacking Japanese aircraft carriers, Cavoli said.
Among the survivors also present at Wheeler were Will Lehner, 95, who was a crew member on the destroyer USS Ward when it fired on a Japanese midget submarine over an hour before the first wave aerial attack; and Donald Long, also 95, who was in a PBY Catalina flying boat in the waters of Kaneohe Bay when the base and his plane were strafed.
At 6:45 a.m. the Ward fired on a suspect submarine outside the harbor. A 4-inch round — the second shot from the Ward — hit the 78-foot Japanese midget sub at the base of the conning tower, likely killing the two-man crew.
“We didn’t know what it was. I’d never seen (a sub) that small. It was on the surface,” Lehner said.
He watched the first shot sail over the submarine, and the second find its mark.
“I saw it when it got hit, and it rolled over and then it came back, and then it started going down,” he said. Lehner was able to see the sunken midget sub firsthand on a 2002 dive to the site with the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory.
Long, meanwhile, said a crew member was stationed with each of the afloat PBYs in Kaneohe Bay at all times, and he had relieved another man that morning. Long said to the best of his knowledge, three PBYs were in the harbor.
“When I first heard the (approaching) aircraft, I looked up and saw them and I assumed it was the Army Air Corps on maneuvers,” he said. His plane soon “got hit, got burned (and) sunk. I had the experience of swimming through burning oil and water.”
Long added, “I’m lucky. The other guys weren’t that day.” Thirty-three PBYs were damaged or destroyed. Eighteen sailors and two civilians were killed on the base and 69 were wounded.
Story by Dan Nakaso adapted from the StarAdvertiser.com.
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