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U.S. aircraft and fighters were sitting ducks

  • NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

    Above, SB2U Vindicators were lined up at the outer edge of Ewa Marine Corps Air Station in 1942, parked wingtip to wingtip for security against sabotage. In the distance are the slopes of the Waianae mountains. Below, planes were lined up at Hickam Field in an undated photo.

At about 7:46 a.m. Dec. 7, 1941 — several minutes before they hit Pearl Harbor — Japanese fighters were poised to attack Naval Air Station Kaneohe and its 33 PBY Catalina reconnaissance flying boats.

Other Japanese planes were preparing to take aim at Wheeler Field’s P-40 fighters and other aircraft. Hickam and Bellows fields, Marine Corps Air Station Ewa and the Ford Island Naval Air Station were similarly in Japan’s sights.

The goal was to prevent Oahu’s fighters and bombers from challenging the 350 fighters, bombers and torpedo planes and the aircraft carriers they launched from to the north.

What the attackers would find, to their amazement, were unarmed and unprepared American planes parked wingtip to wingtip, making them ripe targets for bullets and bombs. The aircraft had been parked that way to facilitate security against sabotage.

Wheeler had 45 older P-36 fighters and 99 P-40s, as well as other aircraft. Hickam Field, headquarters of the Hawaiian Air Force, had about 60 airplanes on the ground, including A-20, B-18 and B-17 bombers. The aircraft were a key part of the defensive buildup of Hawaii as a bulwark against increasing Japanese aggression.

During the week preceding Dec. 7, Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, who had oversight of all Army personnel in Hawaii, including the Hawaiian Air Force, ordered a full-scale readiness exercise. Aircraft were armed and tucked into protective revetments.

But sabotage from the large Japanese population on Oahu — and not a surprise air attack launched from aircraft carriers — was Short’s chief preoccupation. The Army had primary responsibility for protecting Pearl Harbor.

Hawaii’s Japanese population then totaled about 170,000, with about 37,500 foreign born, according to “The Verdict of History,” by Gordon W. Prange, Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon.

Under a three-step “alert” system adopted by Short, Alert No. 1 was “a defense against sabotage, espionage and subversive activities without any threat from the outside,” the authors wrote. No. 2 included sabotage and defense against air, submarine and surface attack. A No. 3 alert was for all-out attack.

On Nov. 27, 1941, the U.S. War Department warned Short that “negotiations with Japan appear to be terminated” and that Japanese hostile action was “possible at any moment.” But where?

Based on sketchy information from the Navy, Short believed that Japanese navy ships were in home port or proceeding south, and he ordered Alert No. 1. It was still widely believed Japan would not attack Hawaii.

Short later told the Army Board, “I will say frankly that I did not want to go into Alert No. 2. … My judgment at the time was that while hostilities might take place, the hostilities, in our case, would be in all probability sabotage, or possibly (Japanese) uprisings.”

The Army believed the Navy knew the location of the Japanese fleet, and if it was coming near Hawaii, the Hawaiian Air Force would be duly informed so it could prepare.

On Dec. 7 Hickam had no anti-aircraft guns, and its few machine guns were sighted for ground, not air, defense. Wheeler had 125 earthen revetments, but fighter aircraft were grouped in the open without ammunition to make them easier to guard.

“The guard — everything — our whole idea there was, we thought it was going to be sabotage, and we expected the natives to uprise and come in,” Col. William Farthing, the Fifth Bomb Group commander, later testified.

Short drilled for war with Japan, including on May 12, 1941, with simulated bomber attacks on “enemy” carriers several hundred miles at sea.

Despite Short’s fixation on sabotage, not a single case of such anticipated Japanese interference occurred while he commanded the Hawaiian Department, according to Prange, Goldstein and Dillon.

Based on a Nov. 27 “war warning” from Washington D.C., Short ordered Army anti-aircraft guns throughout Pearl Harbor and at surrounding installations to deploy, but nothing came of the warning, so the guns were demobilized the day before the attack.

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  • Regarding the picture at the top of the article. You’d think the Marines would have learned that parking the aircraft wing tip to wing tip was a bad idea after December 7, unless the already outdated Vindicators were bait.

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