“Damn it! Those are real bullets they’re shooting. I am hit in the leg.” With these words–the last spoken by 1st Lt. William R. Schick, to the best of my knowledge–our troubles became apparent. We were soon to become the first US airplane crew shot down in World War II.
It all began on the night of December 6, 1941, at Hamilton Field, near San Francisco, Calif. I was a member of the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron, then en route to the Philippines on a permanent change of station. Capt. R. T. Swenson was the pilot of the B-17 on which I was copilot. Aviation Cadet G. C. Beale was the bombardier, and 2d Lt. H. R. Taylor was the navigator. Lieutenant Schick, the squadron flight surgeon, had just joined the organization. He had been taken out of the Flight Surgeon School at Randolph Field, Tex., a few days before he graduated in order to go with us and had been assigned to go as a passenger on our plane.
The crew members were MSgt. L. B. Pouncy, the engineer and a veteran of many years in the Army Air Corps; Sgt. Earl T. Williams, the assistant engineer and a capable mechanic and gunner; Cpl. M. C. Lucas, the radio operator; and Pvt. Bert Lee, a gunner.
All in all, it was as experienced an aircrew as could be found in the newly renamed Army Air Forces. A few members of the crew, including Captain Swenson and Lieutenant Taylor, had already made a flight to Hawaii in the spring of 1941. Lieutenant Taylor had been assigned to Ferrying Command for a few months and had made several trips to England. In those days, it took a pilot at least one year and 400 hours as copilot before he could be checked off as first pilot on a B-17. I had completed my first six months and had about 100 hours logged as copilot.
Thirteen B-17s were involved in the flight to Hawaii. We were scheduled to take off at fifteen-minute intervals starting at 9:00 p.m. Western time. At about 7:00 p.m., we had a briefing by a general from Washington. I haven’t forgotten the last words he spoke to us because, only a few hours later, they took on an added significance. His words were: “Good hunting and good bombing, men.”
Good hunting and good bombing! Little did any of us know just how soon we would be in a position where we wished we could do just that.
One item turned out to be of great significance: While we had all of our guns on the plane, we had no ammunition. We were scheduled to pick up the ammunition in Hawaii and carry it with us to the Philippines.
The Taste of Fear
Our plane, the second one to go, took off on schedule. The trip was tiring but uneventful until the last fifteen minutes. In that short period of a fourteen-hour-plus flight, I saw more action, witnessed more significant events, and felt more strange reactions than in my previous twenty-one years or, for that matter, in all the years since. I have seen much aerial warfare in the intervening years and experienced many of the emotions I felt that day, but never with the same intensity.
No doubt the element of complete surprise made my impressions so vivid and lasting. On later combat missions, I felt fear, but not the same kind. We knew what to expect, and the feeling became somewhat routine. The first few missions were anticipated with an unpleasant feeling in the stomach, but this gradually faded as we gained experience. However, the same feelings, only much stronger, were always present in my forty-nine missions when I came under enemy fighter attack or a bad antiaircraft artillery barrage.
The feeling is fear. Your stomach feels hollow and tight, and your mouth becomes dry. The extent to which it becomes dry appears to be a measure of how scared you are. It is a normal reaction, and, as long as it can be controlled, your work does not suffer. In fact, fear sharpens your reactions and makes possible the split-second decisions that you often need in order to save yourself and your crew.
Fifteen minutes before we finally came to a sudden stop on the East-West runway of Hickam Field, we caught our first glimpse of land. It was Diamond Head, a welcome sight. We all looked forward to spending the rest of the day on the beach at Waikiki. As we approached Oahu, Lieutenant Schick began taking pictures with a small camera he had brought along.
As we passed Diamond Head, I noticed a few bursts of M fire across the landmass, off to our right. I thought some American M unit was practicing. Then I saw a flight of six pursuit ships apparently flying through a bunch of
ack-ack bursts. I recall thinking that somebody on the ground was getting a little careless about where he was shooting.
It was 8:00 a.m. I remember the exact time, because I had to fill out a status report on our engines every hour on the hour.
(At 7:50 a.m., Japanese Imperial Navy Commander Mitsuo Fuchida gave the final signal ordering the attack on Pearl Harbor and the other military installations in the Pacific.)
My status report took a few minutes. When I again looked up, we were on a long base leg to Hickam Field. This leg took us right down the canal toward Pearl Harbor. Captain Swenson ordered me to lower the landing gear. As I did, I noticed a great deal of black smoke coming up from Pearl Harbor. There was too much ack-ack around, and I began to feel that something was wrong, although I still had no idea what it was.
I asked Captain Swenson about the smoke. He thought the islanders were burning sugarcane as he had seen them do during the last trip he made to the islands. I didn’t feel too confident about that explanation because I couldn’t picture burning sugarcane making such black, oily smoke. In addition, that explanation didn’t account for all the shooting. We had made the flight under radio silence, but we were cleared to contact the tower. They had not answered any of our calls.
We had to continue our approach; our gas supply would soon become a problem. We were now at 600 feet and turned to our final approach. I got my first clear look at Hickam Field.
What I saw shocked me. At least six planes were burning fiercely on the ground. Gone was any doubt in my mind as to what had happened. Unbelievable as it seemed, I knew we were now in a war. As if to dispel any lingering doubts, two Japanese fighters came from our rear and opened fire.
A tremendous stream of tracer bullets poured by our wings and began to ricochet inside the ship. It began to look as though I would probably have the dubious distinction of being aboard the first Army ship shot down.
Without waiting for an order from Captain Swenson, I pushed the throttles full on, gave it full rpm, and flicked the “up” switch on the landing gear. It seemed only logical to get quickly into some nearby clouds and try to escape almost certain destruction, since we had no way of fighting back.
I had no sooner taken these steps than smoke began to pour into the cockpit. The smoke was caused by some of their tracer bullets hitting our pyrotechnics, which were stored amidships. Captain Swenson and I both realized there was now no choice but to try to land. The captain yanked the throttles off, and I popped the landing gear switch to the down position again. The wheels had only come up about halfway, and they came down and locked before we hit the ground.
While all this was happening, Lieutenant Schick, who had been standing between Captain Swenson and me, said in disbelief, “They are shooting at us from the ground.” I had just time to yell at him that the shots came from the back when he screamed that he had been hit in the leg.
Broken in Half
Seconds later, we hit the ground. Because of the smoke inside the cockpit, we couldn’t see outside very well, and the plane bounced hard. It took both of us on the controls to get the wings level after that first bounce. Then the tail came down. Almost immediately, the plane began to buckle and collapse, breaking in the middle where the fire had burned through. When that happened, we stopped very quickly.
Habits die hard. One thing a pilot does on stopping is to pull off each of the mixture controls, shut down the switches on each engine, and hit the “gang” bar, which shuts off everything even if the individual switches have not been turned off. Captain Swenson went through the whole routine even though it would have been quicker to hit the “gang” bar and leave. The copilot’s key job, after stopping, is to set the parking brakes. I did so, even though it was obvious we were not going anywhere. We found out later that the entire rear end of the plane was hanging by a few spars that hadn’t burned through.
The cockpit was now completely black with smoke, and it was imperative to get out fast. I felt my way back to the top escape hatch and could make out the figure of Captain Swenson as he pulled himself up and out. The plane was in a very awkward position. The rear half, for all intents and purposes, was no longer with us, so when I jumped from the leading edge of the wing, normally about six feet off the ground, I dropped about ten feet. I felt no shock or pain when I landed.
Everyone else in the front had gotten out. We were not sure about the ones in the rear. Obeying my first impulse to get away from the ship before it blew up, I ran a few feet forward and came out of the smoke just in time to see a Japanese plane making another pass at us down the runway. I decided it was better to risk blowing up with the plane than to chance getting hit by a Japanese bullet. I ran back to our ship and hopped up on the left tire under the engine nacelle where, I figured, the mass of metal would protect me from the bullets. As soon as I heard the roar of the fighter passing overhead, I dove out of the smoke and looked around.
I spotted Captain Swenson and Lieutenant Taylor but saw none of the others. I guessed that they had already run for the safety of the row of hangars. I later learned, however, that Aviation Cadet Beale had been shot in the leg. Lieutenant Schick, who had been hit once while in the plane, had managed to get out, but a bullet fired from a Japanese plane had struck him in the head. He was picked up by an ambulance and taken to the hospital but died later that day.
Lieutenant Taylor had been hit in the ear by a piece of shrapnel, and so much blood had flowed down the creases of his neck that he looked seriously wounded. Tentatively at first and then more boldly, Captain Swenson and I wiped away at the blood until we finally came to the damaged area. It was a small nick in his earlobe, and he didn’t even know the cause of our concern because he felt no pain.
“There’s a War On!”
We then ran for the protection of the nearest hangar. Inside the hangar, a sergeant had just opened a door counter in the supply section and was laying out .45- caliber automatics and loaded ammunition clips. We each grabbed a gun and a couple of ammo clips and headed for the back door. The sergeant yelled at us to come back and sign for the guns. One of us hollered back something along the lines of, “Forget it–there’s a war on!”
In back of this hangar was the main barracks. We went inside to ask directions to the hospital, where we wanted to check on the status of our crew. It was about then that Lieutenant Taylor let me know that a good part of my hair had been singed off. That must have happened as I was going through the escape hatch–I had felt a quick flash of fire but no pain.
We headed across the parade ground to the hospital and arrived as one of the first ambulances returned from picking up the wounded. I still hadn’t grasped the amount of damage already done to Hickam Field and was thinking only in terms of our crew. The first case lifted out as we stood by the back door was not one of ours. It was a grievously wounded airman. One of his legs had been blown off at the thigh, and his side was torn apart. While I was not normally overly upset by seeing accidents or even death, this horrible sight, on top of everything else, was a little too much. I had to sit down on the hospital steps for a few minutes before I could get myself moving again.
In this short time, the scene was transformed. A steady stream of ambulances was pulling up to the front door, and wounded men were corning in under their own power or were being helped by friends. The hospital was soon full, and patients had to be set down in rows along the corridors until someone could care for them. We could not find anyone from our crew in this confusion.
There was nothing we could do there, so Captain Swenson, Lieutenant Taylor, and I decided to find the Officers Club in hopes that someone there could suggest something we could do to help. We did not know where it was, but we saw the officer’s housing area in back of the hospital, so we headed there to ask directions.
The first house we saw bore a sign that read, “Major Akers.” We rang the doorbell, and a maid came to the door. We asked her how to get to the Officers Club. She just stood there gaping at us. In retrospect, I can see why. Part of my hair was singed off, Lieutenant Taylor had blood all over his flying coveralls, and some of his blood had splashed on both Captain Swenson and me.
“I’ll Get You a Brandy”
After a few seconds, a lady’s voice came from the back of the house. She asked, “Who is it, Marie?” The maid said, “It’s some men, Mrs. Akers. I think they have been in an accident.” Mrs. Akers then came to the door and after one look said, “Oh, you poor men! Come in, and I’ll get you a brandy.”
It took us several minutes to convince her that there was a war on. She had been outside hanging up clothes and thought she was watching maneuvers. Her two children were still outside playing. She called them in. A few minutes later, the second attack started. None of us, of course, had any experience in a bombing attack, but we decided to get under the dining room table, which was massive.
So there we were–Captain Swenson, Lieutenant Taylor, Mrs. Akers, the maid, two children, and I–all curled up under the table for five or ten minutes until the attack was over.
Finally, we decided it was finished, and we crawled out. I asked Mrs. Akers if I could use her phone and charge a cable to the mainland.
I got the cable operator. “Is it still possible to send a cable to the States?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said. “Why do you ask that? What is going on out at Hickam anyhow?”
I told her I guessed there was a war on and to please send the following cable: “Am Safe, Wire Mother. Love, Roy.”
She assured me that it would be sent. I suspect it was one of the last cables to get out that day. My wife did receive it.
We found out later that morning that the main barracks, in which we had been earlier in the day, had been badly damaged in the second attack and many men there had been killed.
We spent the remainder of the day checking on the other twelve aircraft that had flown with us to Hawaii. One, the crew of which had seen us shot down, flew to the other side of Oahu and landed at a small airport. One landed on a golf course and later flew out. The others landed safely at Hickam Field. One of these had taken enemy fire but was not seriously damaged.
While walking down the edge of the runway and looking in awe at what was left of our plane after the fire had been put out, I spotted our commanding officer, Maj. Truman H. Landon, walking toward us. He looked dejected but, when he saw us, his face lit up with a big smile. He ran to us and shook hands, saying, “Thank God. I thought you might all be dead.”
The next day, I climbed up into the cockpit of our plane. I discovered four bullet holes in the armor plate behind my seat. I was one of the lucky ones on the Day of Infamy.
Ernest L. Reid was a 2d lieutenant in the US Army Air Forces on December 7, 1941, and served throughout the Pacific theater in World War II. He now lives in Florida.