Arriving at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese Attack

Experiencing the Attack on Pearl Harbor from the Ground


Earl Williams recounts his experiences as an assistant crew chief assigned to a B-17 [Annotator's Note: Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber] squadron [Annotator's Note: 38th Reconnaissance Squadron, 2nd Air Force]. In November 1941, his squadron was stationed at Albuquerque, New Mexico when they received orders to deploy to the Philippine Islands. In preparation for combat operations, they installed heavy armor plate behind the pilot seats in the aircraft, and lighter armor around the radio compartment. More armor was planned for the gun positions, but due to weight restrictions that was put off until their planned arrival in the Philippines. He comments that they were flying a B-17C, which had no tail guns nor top or ball turrets [Annotator's Note: the ball turret was installed on later models and provided protection beneath the belly of the aircraft]. There was a "bathtub" gun position on the bottom of the aircraft, but it had no guns. The squadron left Albuquerque and flew to Hamilton Field, California, arriving on 6 December 1941. The crew was briefed while he fueled the aircraft for the 14-hour flight to Hawaii. Extra fuel tanks had been installed in the bomb bay for this purpose. The aircraft began taking off at approximately nine that night, led by the squadron commander Major Truman Landon. His aircraft was the second to take off, and they flew what he describes as a "long, noisy" flight to Hawaii. They approached the islands early the next morning, and a flight surgeon [Annotator's Note: USAAF First Lieutenant William R. Schick] who was flying as a passenger and he saw Diamond Head as they flew in from the east. He went back to the radio compartment and was being shown various points of interest by the radio operator [Annotator's Note: USAAF Corporal M.C. Lucas], who had been on a ferry flight previously in May 1941. As he looked outside, he saw three fighter aircraft fly by the right wing in the opposite direction. The radio operator told him it was the U. S. Navy, who often escorted such flights as they arrived. The next thing he recalls is that the plexiglas window on the radio compartment was shattered by gunfire. He looked back to see a fighter plane firing on them. One or more of the bullets struck some signaling flares that were stored in the compartment, igniting them. The entire radio compartment burst into flames. He went forward to warn the pilots, who were fortunately being protected by the armor plate that had been installed. He recalls that by this time they were in the landing pattern at Hickam Field and the pilot [Annotator's Note: USAAF Captain R.T. Swenson] was able to land immediately. As the plane rolled out from landing, it broke apart at the radio compartment. Williams and the flight surgeon exited the aircraft and found the Japanese strafing the field. He remained by the landing gear for cover; the flight surgeon ran towards the flight line where he was struck by ricocheting bullets that would prove to be fatal. Williams had been wounded and so he, the navigator [Annotator's Note: USAAF Second Lieutenant H.R. Taylor], and the copilot [Annotator's Note: USAAF Second Lieutenant Ernest L. Reid] left the aircraft to find the hospital at the field. As they proceeded, they crossed the parade ground where local troops were establishing antiaircraft positions, all while being strafed. They went through an adjacent barracks, where they were directed to the hospital. At the hospital, there were numerous casualties on cots out front since there was no room inside for them. When they went into the hospital, the staff saw that they were aircrew and treated them immediately; he surmises that this was due to a desire to get aircrew back on station to mount some sort of defense.


Surviving the aerial attack on his B-17 [Annotator's Note: Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber], Earl Williams and two other crewman found a nearby hospital and were treated for minor wounds. He remembers heading back to the flight line and seeing Japanese bombers inbound to attack the barracks. He passed through a nearby hangar that had been converted into a gymnasium and the Japanese rounds were going through the roof and ricocheting off of the floor. As he continued back to the flight line, he and his radio operator [Annotator's Note: USAAF Corporal M.C. Lucas] ran across a makeshift armory where they were issued helmets, carbines, and ammunition. Williams recounts two earlier events during this discussion. In the first, he remembers seeing a Japanese plane fly too low on a strafing run. The plane tore off its auxiliary fuel tank and its propeller struck the ground. He saw it climb out and then crash. The second memory he recalls is of ground crew working under fire to tow the aircraft at the field and disperse them. He and the radio operator attempted to determine the fate of the other crew members when they are put into service by a Signal Corps captain. They spent the rest of the day running communication wire between makeshift gun positions before spending the night at the command post that was established on the patio of the base commander's residence. The next day, they returned to the task of finding the remaining crew. They wound up on the island for some period of time as some of the crew were wounded seriously. They eventually re-formed the crew, got another aircraft, and began flying 12-hour missions around the Hawaiian Islands. This continued until 10 February 1942, when they were assigned to a Navy task force and departed for the South Pacific. He revisits several details of the 7 December 1941 attack and discusses the chaos that ensued in the coming days. He was able to see his airplane on the field later, before it had its engines removed and was scrapped. He closes with a description of his foot locker, which had been loaded on a transport ship, being sent home. He didn't see it again until the war's end.

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