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By Jack McKillop
THE B-17 FLIGHT
On the morning of 7 December 1941, twelve Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses were approaching Hawaii after a 14-hour flight from California. This post describes that flight.
During the Fall of 1941, the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) attempted to enhance its aerial defence of the Far East by dispatching the B-17 equipped 19th Bombardment Group (Heavy) to the Philippine Islands in September. At that time, a bombardment group consisted of three bombardment squadrons with a reconnaissance squadron attached; the reconnaissance squadron normally reported to the parent unit of the group, i.e., the wing or bomber command.
When the 19th left for the Philippines, one bombardment squadron and its reconnaissance squadron remained in the U.S.; both were to rejoin the group at a later date. Subsequently, the high command decided to send a second bombardment group to the Far East so in late November 1941, the ground echelon of the 7th Bombardment Group (Heavy) left Fort Douglas, Salt Lake City, Utah, for the Philippines. The air echelons of all units transferred to Muroc Army Air Base, Muroc, California, to prepare their aircraft for the flight to Luzon. The actual flight would depart from Hamilton Field, San Rafael, California.
On 6 December 1941, eight aircraft of the of the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron (Heavy) and eight aircraft of the 88th Reconnaissance Squadron
(Heavy) were prepared for takeoff. took off from Hamilton Field on the first leg of their flight to the Philippines. As the flight prepared to leave, two aircraft from the 38th experienced engine trouble and aborted the mission. A little after 1700 hours local (1130 hours in the Territory of Hawaii), six aircraft of the 38th took off followed by seven from the 88th however, once airborne, another aircraft from the 88th had problems and returned to Hamilton Field. In all, four B-17Cs and eight B-17Es, spaced about ten minutes apart, made the flight to Hawaii. These twelve aircraft were:
A. 38th RECONNAISSANCE SQUADRON (HEAVY)
1. B-17C, USAAF 40-2049, piloted by First Lieutenant Robert H. Richards 2. B-17C, USAAF 40-2054, piloted by First Lieutenant Earl J. Cooper 3. B-17C, USAAF 40-2063, piloted by First Lieutenant Earl J. Cooper 4. B-17C, USAAF 40-2074, piloted by Captain Raymond T. Swenson 5. B-17E, USAAF 41-2408, piloted by First Lieutenant Karl T. Barthelmess 6. B-17E, USAAF 41-2413 piloted by Major Truman H. Landon
B. 88th RECONNAISSANCE SQUADRON (HEAVY)
1. B-17E, USAAF 41-2416, piloted by First Lieutenant Frank P. Bostrom 2. B-17E, USAAF 41-2429, piloted by Captain Richard H. Carmichael 3. B-17E, USAAF 41-2430, piloted by First Lieutenant Harold N. Chaffin 4. B-17E, USAAF 41-2432, piloted by First Lieutenant Robert E. Thacker 5. B-17E, USAAF 41-2433, piloted by First Lieutenant Harry N. Brandon 6. B-17E, USAAF 41-2434, piloted by First Lieutenant David G. Rawls
In order to save fuel, the B-17s had a skeleton crew consisting of pilot, copilot, navigator, engineer and radioman. They carried their bomb sights and machine guns but no ammunition; the 2,400 mile (3,840 km) flight required all the gasoline the aircraft could carry. To increase balance, the armor plate normally in the rear of the aircraft was moved forward.
The long flight over the water was uneventful, and no one experienced any major difficulties. The Navy had positioned ships across the Pacific for the aircraft to use as directional indicators, and as they neared Hawaii, radio station KGMB was playing Hawaiian music for them to use in locating the island. Captain Richard H. Carmichael from the 88th contacted the Hickam Field tower at 0745 hours local but was still too far away, and the transmission was too garbled for anyone to understand.
A few minutes later the B-17s from the 38th sighted the Hawaiian Islands and spotted a flight of fighter aircraft coming out to meet them. Thinking they were Americans, the pilots were glad to have escorts for the remaining miles into the field. Suddenly, what they had thought to be friendly aircraft began firing at them, and each bomber took whatever evasive action it could. The Japanese attacked at least five aircraft, destroying two. First Lieutenant Robert H. Richards tried to land his B-17C (40-2049) at Hickam Field, but the Japanese harassed him so badly that he aborted the landing and headed east out to sea. He then turned the aircraft and attempted a downwind landing at Bellows Field, but came in too fast and ran off the end of the runway into a ditch. Japanese fighters, Mitsubishi A6M2, Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighters Model 21 (later assigned Allied Code Name
"Zeke") repeatedly strafed the aircraft after it was on the ground. Initially maintenance personnel thought they could repair the aircraft, but they eventually used it to supply replacement parts for other aircraft, and it never flew again. Captain Raymond T. Swenson managed to land his B-17C (40-2074) at Hickam Field, but a strafing "Zeke" hit the flare storage box in the middle of the aircraft, igniting the flares and the tail of the Flying Fortress was blazing when it touched down at Hickam Field. When the plane skidded to a stop on its nose, the tail assembly fell off causing the aircraft to burn in two. The crew all reached safety except for the flight surgeon, First Lieutenant William R. Schick, mortally wounded by a passing "Zeke" while he was riding in the observer's seat.
Maintenance crews pushed the separated back portion of the aircraft away from the taxi area and eventually salvaged all four engines from the front half. Major Landon (B-17E, 41-2413) wanted to fly to the island of Hilo but was talked into trying for Hickam. As he approached the field, the control tower advised him that he had three Japanese fighters on his tail. Landon made it along with First Lieutenant Karl T. Barthelmess (B-17E, 41-2408) who thought this was the most realistic drill he had ever seen. The two remaining aircraft landed at Hickam Field, having experienced various attacks which caused minor damage. Maintenance personnel worked around the clock to have all four repaired within 24 hours.
The 88th arrived shortly after the 38th and met a similar fate. Captain Carmichael (B-17E, 41-2429) and later First Lieutenant Harold N. Chaffin (B-17E, 41-2430) passed up Hickam Field, flew over Wheeler Field and landed their B-17s on the 1200 foot (366 meter) auxiliary strip at Haliewa on the northwest coast of Oahu; this strip had been designed for fighter and observation aircraft.
First Lieutenant Frank P. Bostrom (B-17E, 41-2416) attempted to land at Hickam Field but he gave up when U.S. Navy gunners fired at him. He retreated to a cloud and during his second attempt to land at Hickam, Japanese fighters attacked and knocked out two engines so he headed over to Barbers Point and eventually flew to the northern part of the island where he was again attacked by the Japanese and forced to land at the Kahuku Golf Course. Major General Frederick L. Martin, Commanding General Hawaiian Air Force, had planned to build an emergency air strip in that area, but it had not been completed when Bostrom landed there. Two more aircraft from the 88th eventually landed at Hickam Field, timing their landings between Japanese attacks. The sixth aircraft's route was a bit more confusing.
The maintenance records for Hickam Field on that day show three aircraft from the 88th in commission at Hickam Field. Still, several eyewitnesses, including Brigadier General Howard C. Davidson, Commanding General 14th Pursuit Wing, and Second Lieutenant Henry Wells Lawrence, claimed a B-17E landed at Wheeler Field. They described how the aircraft came in cross-wind over the highway and landed along the width of the grass field at Wheeler, stopping just short of the hangars. General Davidson stated that when he asked the pilot why he landed at Wheeler Field, the pilot replied that by then all he was looking for was a flat piece of land to set the aircraft down. Lieutenant Lawrence described the aircraft perfectly and added that when he came down from his mission later that morning, he did not remember seeing it again. In fact no one remembers seeing the aircraft after it landed. At the same time this B-17 was landing, a Douglas B-18 Bolo that had flown from the island of Molakai landed at Wheeler. It is possible that the personnel at Wheeler mistook the B-18 for the B-17. Even Captain Brooke E. Allen, a B-17 pilot at Hickam Field, admitted that when he first saw the B-17s arriving, he thought they were Japanese. The Hawaiian Air Force had kept the flight from California a secret, and the B-17E model was new to the islands so most people had never seen one before. If a B-17 pilot could become confused during the attack and misidentify an aircraft, so could fighter pilots under attack. A second more plausible explanation is that the B -17 did land at Wheeler Field but sometime during the morning took off and flew to Hickam Field. This would explain the eyewitness accounts of its landing, why no one remembers seeing it after the attack, and why the maintenance records written at 1300 hours recorded three B-17Es at Hickam Field.
Regardless of where this sixth aircraft initially landed, the 88th was extremely lucky, with five out of six aircraft in commission by the next day. Maintenance personnel repaired Bostrom's aircraft at the Kahuku Golf Course and flew it back to Hickam Field within a week.
Sometime between the solo strafing and the attack by nine enemy planes, a crippled B-17C (40-2049) arrived at Bellows Field on the east coast of Oahu. Its pilot, First Lieutenant Robert H. Richards of the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron, had been the last in line to land at Hickam Field. He never made it there, however, for Japanese "Zekes" riddled his aircraft from nose to tail, shot away the ailerons, and severely wounded three crew members. Trying to lose his attackers, he sped away at full throttle along the southern coast of Oahu, and roared in over Waimanalo Bay toward Bellows' short fighter strip. As he approached, crew chief Earl Sutton was taxiing his P- 40 to a dispersal area and crossed directly in his way, forcing him to pull up and go around again. Sergeant Covelesky recalled that, "No one was aware of the flight of bombers arriving from the states, and to see that approaching monster trailing smoke from its right engines ...was mind boggling. Our asphalt landing strip at Bellows was hardly long enough to accommodate our P-40s, much less a B-17 and when he made an approach from the ocean downwind, we knew we were in for a breathtaking crash landing. Even though his wheels were down, he flared out and touched down halfway on the strip, knowing he wouldn't be able to stop, retracted the wheels and slid off the runway over a. ditch and into a cane field bordering the air strip."
Fire trucks and an ambulance rushed down to the crash area. The B-17 crew immediately tried to salvage the bombsight so it would not fall into enemy hands should the Japanese invade the island. Private Lester A. Ellis of the 86th Observation Squadron was positioned on the runway, armed with a Springfield rifle, and ordered to give a shouted warning whenever the enemy aircraft started their strafing runs. Each time he shouted a warning, everyone ran for cover. After the Japanese planes left, they counted 73 bullet holes in the B-17.
The entire B-17 affair lasted ten minutes. By 0820 hours local, all aircraft were on the ground. Four of the twelve were destroyed.
As of 1845 hours local, 8 December 1941, the status of the twelve aircraft was:
38th RECONNAISSANCE SQUADRON (HEAVY)
Two B-17Cs and the two B-17Es were in commission. Lieutenant Richards' B-17C, 40-2049, was listed as repairable but it was later used for spare parts and not repaired. Captain Swenson's B-17C, 40-2074, was listed as destroyed.
88th RECONNAISSANCE SQUADRON (HEAVY)
All B-17Es except Lieutenant Bostrom's B-17E, 41-2416, were in commission. Bostrom's aircraft was rated as "repairable."
In December 1998, Pete Bostrom, the son of First Lieutenant Frank P. Bostrom, added the following information to this post:
"The B-17s flew patrol missions for several weeks, but several were assigned to the Navy and scouted ahead of a Task Force spearheaded by, IIRC, the Lexington, that moved to the SW Pacific. Christmas Island, Fiji, and other exotic ports of call, eventually winding up in Australia. They did make it to the Philippines, for short periods of time. My father had the honor of flying General MacArthur from Mindanao to Australia after his PT Boat escape from Corregidor. Later he was part of the 'Royce Mission' which returned to the Philippines and operated out of Del Monte field. Other than dropping a few bombs over Nichols Field at Luzon and perhaps lifting the spirits of the beleaguered defenders of Corregidor, it was much too late to be effective."
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