“We Would Have One Helluva Celebration”

This is it, he thought. One last flight. Then liberty. Then back to good ol’ mainland USA.

In the predawn darkness, Jack Leaming moved with a purpose. Climbing around, under, and into the airplane assigned to him, the lean youth untied wing and tail lines; checked hinges, fasteners, and access doors; and assured that all was in proper order. Dozens of other men around him were similarly engaged in their own preparations, and although his eyes had not yet fully adjusted to the blackness topside, he could see enough to know they were there. Overhead, small patches of stars peeked through the partly cloudy skies.

The flight deck speakers crackled to life. “Stand by to man aircraft!”

The warm tropical breeze grew stronger on his face as Leaming felt the warship begin to swing into the wind. His dark, curly hair was pressed tight to his skull by a canvas flying helmet, whose straps whipped about his cheeks as he worked. Leaming was counting the hours to freedom. So far, things were looking good. He had just celebrated his twenty-second birthday the previous day, December 6, 1941. Even better, his four-year enlistment in the United States Navy would expire in two more days. With his boy-next-door clean-shaven good looks, healthy tan, and confident smile, he was sure to break young hearts back in the States.

Leaming, a native of Philadelphia, was one of many young men who had enlisted in the Navy in the late 1930s at a time when jobs were scarce for recent high school graduates. Within weeks of completion of his basic training in 1938, he had been assigned to the newest aircraft carrier in the fleet, USS Enterprise (CV-6).

Enterprise was only the sixth carrier built by the Navy. She had been commissioned on May 12, 1938, with Seaman Leaming being among her plank owners—those who helped bring the new vessel into naval service. The seventh American vessel to bear the name Enterprise, she was destined to become the most famous of that lineage. The big ship with the big name became affectionately known to her crew as “the Big E.” Because the carrier’s hull number was CV-6, her aircraft squadrons included the same number: Bombing Squadron Six (VB-6), Scouting Squadron Six (VS-6), Fighting Squadron Six (VF-6), and Torpedo Squadron Six (VT-6).

Each passing year since the Big E’s commissioning day had brought the prospects of war ever closer. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a former assistant secretary of the Navy, could foresee the inevitable. Japan had displayed aggressive tendencies ever since attacking China in 1895, and her combative nature was spreading rapidly. Five years after Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, the country denounced the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, which limited the size of the Japanese, American, and British navies. World peace had continued to detriorate when Japan allied itself with Germany and Italy, and the Second World War finally commenced in September 1939.

FDR’s administration imposed strict embargoes on Japan in 1940, prohibiting the export of oil, scrap iron, steel, and strategic minerals to the belligerent nation. It was only a matter of time before America would be drawn into the world war with Japan and her allies. When the United States asked Japan in the fall of 1941 to respect the sovereignty of all nations and to withdraw from China and Indo-China, the Japanese government and its powerful military machine were already working on plans to make a surprise attack on the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet at its advance base in Hawaii.

The prospect of America entering another world war prompted refinement in the traditional roles of naval operations as new sailors like Jack Leaming went through their early training in the late 1930s. The powerful guns of the fleet’s battleships had ruled the seas during World War I, but the emergence of the aircraft carriers held great potential. Some of the more visionary leaders of the U.S. Navy were beginning to see that checking the advance of the mighty Japanese military machine might just come from the air, not from the big guns at sea.

At first, each day was exciting for Leaming. Aviation was blossoming, and the use of aircraft in military roles was in its adolescence. Yet Leaming’s initial months on the Enterprise were spent mess cooking, chipping paint, and doing other dirty jobs. Why did I ever join the Navy? he soon wondered as his early days of excitement melted into monotony. To help cure his blues, he made the most of his free time ashore when the carrier operated out of San Diego in the spring of 1939. He saved enough money to buy a 1932 Ford, in which he and his buddies would cruise up and down Broadway in search of dance halls and bars.1

His chance to escape the doldrums of remaining a “deck ape” finally came later that year, when he answered the call to attend radio school in order to become a qualified radioman. During his instruction, he learned how to interpret the coded dots and dashes of Morse code, a special radio language used by ships and aircraft to transmit messages. Soon after attaining the rating of radioman third class, Leaming was assigned to the dive-bomber squadrons on board Enterprise on February 9, 1940, along with companions Tom Merritt, Joe DeLuca, Lee Keaney, William Bergin, and Lee McHugh. In the year that followed, they learned aerial gunnery, as their new position entailed, in addition to their radio duties, riding in the rear cockpit of the Navy’s newest carrier-based dive-bomber as rear seat gunners. Because of the cramped space in the gunner’s backseat, most of Leaming’s comrades were similarly small-framed youths of average height. Leaming himself weighed in at only one hundred and thirty pounds.

Leaming’s first “hop” (Navy jargon for a flight) with his Scouting Squadron Six had been with Ensign Cleo Dobson. Experiencing his initial flights in Curtiss SBC-3 biplanes, Leaming found dive-bombing to be most impressive. “Hurtling earthward, straight down from fifteen thousand feet,” he recalled, “was an awesome experience.”2

Not all of Leaming’s early hops were as awe-inspiring. On June 27, 1940, he and his pilot, Ensign Ben Troemel, narrowly survived their first catapult launch from Enterprise. As their plane left the deck, two large, balloon-shaped flotation bags—designed to keep the aircraft afloat for a short while in the event of a water landing—broke loose from the underside of the upper wing. Troemel struggled to keep their aircraft aloft with the unexpected drag. In the rear cockpit, Leaming inserted an auxiliary control stick that enabled him to assist his pilot in flying the plane. After sweating it out for twenty minutes, the pair managed to land their damaged warbird and avoid crashing into the ocean.

On another training flight off Oahu in January 1941, Leaming was embarrassed by a gunnery practice foul-up. As his pilot, Ensign Norm West, flew past a tow plane—another bomber rigged with a target sleeve—Leaming struggled to fire his gun when ordered. Realizing he had put the gun on “safe,” he slid the safety sleeve over. He knew that Lieutenant Earl Gallaher, the VS-6 flight officer, was a stickler for doing everything right the first time, so Leaming feared asking Ensign West to make a second pass.

Instead, he aimed his machine gun in the general direction of the sleeve and pressed the trigger in desperation. Leaming lost control of his weapon in the process and three bullets ripped through their SBC’s rear stabilizer.3

Ashamed and scared, he called over the intercom: “Mr. West, I think I shot three holes in the stabilizer.”

“Think, goddammit, don’tcha know?” the pilot shouted back.

Leaming confirmed his mistake, and West radioed for immediate permission to land at the Ford Island Naval Air Station in Pearl Harbor. Back on the ground, Ensign West just looked at their damaged tail and walked away, shaking his head in disgust. Leaming felt as though he were at the bottom of the ocean. The Scouting Six executive officer, Lieutenant Ralph Dempsey Smith, chewed him out thoroughly, informing him that a new stabilizer would tax the squadron budget to the tune of three thousand dollars.4

Leaming was forced to write a letter to Smith, detailing how he had made such an error. Even worse was the endless ribbing he took from fellow radiomen Joe DeLuca and Tom Merritt. Fortunately for Leaming, it was only a matter of weeks before Merritt too managed to shoot up his own plane’s tail, and he would not be the last.

Months of training hardened the young radiomen-gunners into seasoned veterans. As spring passed into the fall of 1941, Scouting Six traded in their aged biplanes for the Navy’s newest dive-bomber models. Even with faster and better planes, Leaming was ever mindful of the reason he and his comrades drew the extra hazard pay afforded to aviators. During a dive-bombing practice attack on Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant Smith and his gunner were killed when their automatic pilot feature locked in—something that was never desired in a terminal-velocity plunge.

The chidings the enlisted gunners showered upon one another for mindless screwups helped alleviate the stress of their demanding duties. Mistakes led to learning, and learning led to confidence. As 1941 drew to a close, the pilots and gunners of both Scouting Six and their sister squadron Bombing Six had refined their skills. They were precision teams, proud of their abilities, and ready for action.

• • •

“Pilots, man your planes!”

The predawn announcement blaring from the Enterprise loudspeakers sparked a stir of action. Leaming, checking over his dive-bomber, watched the plane handlers take their positions on the flight deck. They would help direct the movement of the aircraft from their parking areas to the engine run-up and takeoff areas. Liberty, he thought, is just hours away.

Eighteen warplanes were lined up in readiness for launch on the eight-hundred-foot-long teak flight deck. Beneath the nearly two acres of wood plank surface area were underplates of steel to help support the massive weight of so many men and machines. From the center of the starboard side of the deck, the hatch on the aircraft carrier’s island superstructure burst open. The island operated like an airport’s control tower, housing not only Enterprise’s navigation bridge but also the primary flight control station. Each pilot raced for his respective single-engine, propeller-driven plane, ducking under wings and sidestepping tails of others as they made for their mounts.

“Morning, sir,” Leaming greeted his pilot. Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Hart Dale Hilton handed Leaming his chart board as he climbed up onto their plane’s wing and into the cockpit to check his instruments. Radiomen new to their squadrons flew with a variety of pilots during their training period, but by December 1941, Jack Leaming was the regular radioman/gunner for Dale Hilton of Scouting Six. Hilton, seven years older than his enlisted partner, was as congenial and jovial as always as he ran through his flight check. A 1936 graduate of the University of Southern California, Hilton had gone through flight training at Pensacola, Florida. His first three years of flying had been in torpedo bombers with Torpedo Squadron Five (VT-5), but his transition into Enterprise’s scout bomber squadron had been smooth. He and Leaming had developed a mutual admiration for each other’s abilities. “As my gunner and radioman, he was a great teammate,” recalled Hilton. “No pilot could have had a better one.”5

Vice Admiral William F. Halsey

U.S. Navy

The peacetime training and routines of carrier operation had taken a new twist for Jack Leaming and his fellow Enterprise Air Group aviators one week earlier, on November 28, 1941, as their carrier prepared to depart Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands on a special mission. Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, the senior naval aviator in the Pacific Fleet, was on board Enterprise to direct the delivery of a Marine fighter squadron to U.S.-held Wake Island, some twenty-three hundred miles west of Oahu. Halsey was respected by the Enterprise air group. He was the only vice admiral in the Navy who was a certified naval aviator, even if he had earned his gold wings at age fifty-two. Now, nearly seven years later, he roamed the bridge of the carrier that served as the flagship for his task force. Halsey was later nicknamed “Bull” by the press, both for his fearless and often blunt persona and his bulldoglike facial features, but to his aviators, Admiral Halsey was gregarious and approachable. They felt that he truly cared about their safety and well-being.

Halsey had been less than pleased earlier, in the spring of 1941, when his flagship had been tagged to assist with a new Warner Bros. film. The high-budget movie Dive Bomber was filmed at San Diego and Los Angeles with carrier footage captured on board Enterprise. The stars were Errol Flynn—a glamorous leading man known for his roles in such films as The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood—and Fred MacMurray, one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood. Cameramen spent a week filming flight operations on the Big E.6

On the day shooting wrapped, a cranky Halsey yelled down to the film crews and the Hollywood actors to “get the hell off my ship!” In spite of the admiral’s annoyance at the interruptions caused by the moviemakers, the Technicolor drama about Navy dive-bomber pilots would be inspirational to many fledgling aviators. Among those who watched Dive Bomber in late 1941 was one Ensign Eldor Rodenburg. Fresh from earning his Navy pilot wings at Opa-locka NAS (Naval Air Station) in Miami on October 20, 1941, Rodenburg took his future wife to see the movie. Little could he expect that in a matter of months he would be just like Flynn—flying Navy dive-bombers and doing it from none other than the Enterprise itself.

There was no Hollywood glamour and glitz when the Big E departed Hawaii on November 28 on her special mission to Wake Island. That day, eighty-one aircraft from five squadrons took off from Oahu to fly out to Enterprise as she stood out to sea. Landing on board the 825-foot carrier were sixteen Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters of her own Fighting Six, plus another dozen F4Fs of Marine VMF-211. Also landing without incident were the eighteen Douglas TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bombers of Enterprise’s Torpedo Six. The other thirty-seven aircraft to land on the wooden flight deck were Douglas SBD-2 and SBD-3 Dauntless dive-bombers, the most modern carrier bombers assigned to the U.S. Pacific Fleet.7

An SBD was normally assigned to the Enterprise air group commander, while eighteen each were allocated to Scouting Six and Bombing Six. By midafternoon on November 28, the transfer of airplanes from Hawaii out to the Big E’s flight deck was complete. Radioman Third Class Leaming and pilot Dale Hilton felt no indications or premonitions of any unusual events as they landed their VS-6 Dauntless.8

When the Enterprise aviators assembled in their ready rooms, however, they found that conditions had indeed changed. Mimeographed sheets from Admiral Halsey were distributed to each pilot. Orders from the carrier’s skipper, Captain George Davis Murray, and from Halsey announced that “Enterprise is now operating under war conditions.” The aviators must be ready for “instant action” both day and night and alert for hostile submarines at sea. The orders also included the advice, “Steady nerves and stout hearts are needed now.”9

The many months of flight training endured by the pilots and their gunners would now be put to the test. A true life-or-death encounter with a hostile enemy would allow no room for mistakes.

With four years in the service, Leaming was well-versed in the ways of Navy life. Some of his younger enlisted comrades, however, were still learning the ropes in their respective dive-bomber squadrons. They hailed from big cities like Detroit and Milwaukee, and from map-dot towns such as Plainview, Texas, and Engelhard, North Carolina. Among them was nineteen-year-old Donald Laurence Hoff, who had just earned his rating of radioman third class with Scouting Six.

Hoff, a 1940 Mariposa, California, high school graduate, had started attending Coalinga Junior College in California that fall. He had made an agreement with his single mom that he would work part-time jobs to make payments on his pickup, but jobs proved to be scarce. In a council of war with his mother, Hoff agreed that it was best for him to join the Navy. The husky youth breezed through basic training and radio school with little problem, graduating near the top of his class.10

Hoff’s commanding officer convinced him that aviation offered better financial rewards than what he could make in the ship’s company radio gang. As a third-class radioman, he would be paid ninety dollars a month—a fifty percent increase over the sixty dollars a month he would make as a shipboard third-class petty officer. Hoff decided that he would like to fly in one of the big twin-engine PBY Catalina patrol planes, making scouting missions. Instead, he was assigned to Scouting Squadron Six on the carrier Enterprise. “Nobody ever explained to me that scouting squadrons do dive-bombing the same as bombing squadrons do,” he related.

Hoff was dumbfounded the day he climbed out of a truck with his seabags and stared up at the massive warship moored near the wharf. He had never even seen a Navy ship in his young life. “What is that?” he asked.

A nearby old-timer replied, “That’s the USS Enterprise.”

Hoff boarded the Navy’s newest carrier completely naive. He learned quickly not to ask stupid questions. He found that the old-timers enjoyed peppering greenhorns with sarcastic remarks and lies to confuse them. Don Hoff’s first night on the massive ship was not a pleasant one. His bunk in the floating city of more than two thousand souls was in the enlisted men’s quarters, deep within the Big E’s bowels. Mentally exhausted by the time he reached his lower-deck berthing compartment, he found his lower-level bunk, dropped into it, and drifted off to sleep.11

Hoff was wearing only his shorts when he was startled awake around midnight by warm water splashing on his chest and stomach. As the liquid splattered onto his face, his eyes quickly found the source of the cascade—a thoroughly inebriated aviator who had stumbled back aboard from shore leave. The man was now urinating on Hoff and his bunk. How long am I going to put up with this life? Hoff wondered.

The younger radiomen/gunners like Hoff who had fewer flying hours were generally shuffled between different pilots. RM3c Stuart James Mason from Portland was assigned to Bombing Six’s plane number eighteen, the one most often flown in rotation by the most junior pilots. Mason had been so eager to join the Navy that he first tried to enlist at age fourteen in 1935. When he walked into the local recruiting office, he immediately noticed a big sign that read: MEN, DON’T LIE ABOUT YOUR AGE. When a chief asked him his age, Mason replied, “Fourteen.”12

“Let me see your muscle,” the chief petty officer said.

Mason flexed his scrawny arm. The recruiter said, “Come back when you’re seventeen.”

In September 1938, he was back to pass the recruiting exams and to enlist in the U.S. Navy. Mason’s initial experiences with his new military life were more pleasing than those of Don Hoff. When Mason arrived at his first training center in San Diego, he was served a lunch of Swiss steak, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables, salad, apple pie, coffee, and milk. A child of the Depression years, he immediately decided, I’ve found myself a home.

Stuart Mason’s first seven months on board Enterprise had been strictly grunt work: mess cooking, cleaning compartments, and scrubbing the bilges of the carrier’s forty-foot motor launch. His break came when he was transferred to the ship’s radio gang, where he had to learn Morse code in a hurry. By the first of September, 1941, Mason had joined Bombing Six. After qualifying in gunnery, he became the low man on the totem pole. As such, he rotated flight assignments. The lack of a permanently assigned pilot was little matter to young Mason—it was still a hell of a lot better than chipping paint or scrubbing the motor launch.

The gunners were under the direction of a senior petty officer in each of the Enterprise bomber squadrons. Scouting Six fell under the direction of Radioman First Class Harold Thomas. Some of his teenage radiomen barely needed to shave, so Thomas at age thirty-five was truly a father figure to them. His weathered face would sport an engaging smile of patience when one of his youngsters made a mistake. Thomas would explain the serious nature of the situation and help the newer men work to prevent making the same error again.13

Chief Aviation Radioman James Francis Murray, as the senior gunner for Bombing Six, was a no-nonsense kind of guy. At age thirty-two, Murray found Navy life to be old hat. He had graduated from Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Washington, in June 1927 and enlisted in the Navy at the end of the summer. With more than fourteen years in the Navy, he had more experience than most of the commissioned officer pilots, and was older than most of them as well. He had spent time on two other carriers before joining Enterprise’s Bombing Six, and he was the only gunner whose uniform sported an insignia of the Submarine Service, a dolphin patch. Murray was serving as a radioman and sonar operator on board the submarine Bass (SS-164) when his orders had come to report to flight training.14

Jim Murray expected a lot of his men, but only because he expected the same level of performance out of himself. In the air, he was alert and dependable. On board ship, he was in charge of all the scheduling, evaluations, and various issues that came with directing a large group of young aviators, most of whom were fairly naive to the imminent nature of war.

When Admiral Halsey announced that Enterprise was operating under wartime conditions as she put to sea on November 28, radioman Don Hoff still did not comprehend the seriousness of it. “Being as young and inexperienced as I was,” he said, “I was assuming that they were practicing war games.”15

On board his carrier, Hoff became familiar with the Marine fighter pilots who were hitching a ride to their new air base on Wake Island, some twenty-three hundred miles west of Hawaii. On Thursday, December 4, Enterprise dutifully launched the dozen Marine Wildcats fighters for Wake. Hoff flew in the rear cockpit of one of the Dauntless dive-bombers that escorted the planes. His carrier was already turning back east toward the Hawaiian Islands when he returned. In a matter of days, his new Marine friends would either be killed or taken as prisoners of war when the Japanese invaded Wake Island.

Her delivery mission completed, Enterprise was scheduled to arrive back at Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning, December 7. Hoff was anticipating the liberty he would soon enjoy on Oahu. One of his Scouting Six comrades, Jack Leaming, was excited about more than just the free time ashore. His four-year enlistment in the Navy would end on December 9.

Radioman Jack Leaming (right) with Scouting Six buddy Joe Cupples. Just weeks after this photo was taken in early 1943, Leaming’s plane would be shot down.

U.S. Navy

In his downtime on board ship, Leaming had been learning how to weld under the tutelage of Erwin G. Bailey, an aviation machinist’s mate also attached to Scouting Six. Both men’s enlistments expired at the same time, and they already had plans to hire on at Rohr Aircraft in San Diego upon their return. But first, they hoped to live it up one last time in Hawaii with a squadron mate, RM1c Joe Cupples, who was also leaving the service. “We would have one helluva celebration,” recalled Leaming of their return to Pearl Harbor.16

Harold Thomas and Jim Murray, as the most senior radiomen, always flew with their respective Dauntless squadron skippers. For the morning mission of December 7, Thomas would fly with his VS-6 skipper while Murray remained on board the carrier with his CO, waiting for flight orders as the day played out. Each of the two bombing squadrons had eighteen pairs of pilots and gunners. Thomas and Murray’s enlisted aviation gangs generally included a few spare greenhorns who were learning the ropes, able to fill in for a sick or injured radioman if necessary. Stuart Mason and Don Hoff, both low on the enlisted totem pole, would get their chances at combat in due time. Jack Leaming’s introduction to war would come even sooner.

• • •

Early on December 7, eighteen Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers were spotted for launch on the Enterprise flight deck as the big carrier plowed into the wind to fling them skyward.

“Stand by to start engines!” blared from the loudspeaker.

Strapped into his rear cockpit seat, radioman Jack Leaming was happy that his SBD’s plane captain was handling the inertia starter this morning. The hand crank took all of Leaming’s one hundred and thirty pounds and all his strength “to get the damn thing turning fast enough to start the engine when the pilot engaged it.”17

“Start engines!”

Across the flight deck, the high-pitched whines of inertia starters were followed by coughs and sputters from eighteen Dauntless engines. As the dive-bombers roared to life, their propellers became spinning disks of silver with painted yellow tips to help make them more visible to the flight deck personnel.

At 0618, the launching signal officer waved his flag in a circular motion to cue the first pilot to rev up his engine for takeoff. When the pilot nodded his head to indicate a proper engine run-up, the signal officer pointed the flag toward the bow of the carrier. The pilot released his brakes and the first SBD began accelerating down the flight deck’s teakwood planks. As the Big E approached the Hawaiian Islands fresh from her Wake Island delivery, these eighteen scout bombers and their thirty-six airmen would scour the oceans ahead of their mother ship, looking for trouble.

The first dive-bomber off Enterprise’s flight deck was that of the commander, Enterprise Air Group (CEAG), Lieutenant Commander Howard Leyland Young. Forty-year-old Young was often called by the nickname “Brigham” by his fellow pilots. A graduate of the Naval Academy class of 1923, Young had taken over as the CEAG in April after having served two years in Fighting Six. He had won his wings in 1926, following several years aboard surface ships, and thereafter served in several aviation units, including VF-2 on board the carrier Langley and Bombing Two on board the carrier Saratoga (CV-3). Young was one of a select few who had been a member of the air detachments of both of the U.S. Navy’s two helium-filled flying carriers, Akron (ZRS-4) and Macon (ZRS-5). Young and his fellow airmen were fortunately not on board when Akron was torn apart in a storm off the Atlantic coast in 1933 that killed seventy-three passengers and crewmen. He was not lost with the former airship because she departed on her final flight in 1933 without embarking her air detachment. Young had also been transferred prior to Macon’s loss in 1935. The air group commander was respected by his Enterprise aviators for his flying abilities and a demonstrated desire to take care of his men.18

Brigham Young’s scouting flight was under orders to search out 150 miles from the northeast to the southeast ahead of Enterprise’s course toward Oahu. Each two-plane section was assigned a ten-degree sector along a set of spokes that ranged from 045 degrees true through 125 degrees true. At the completion of their searches, the pilots were to fly into Oahu and land on Ford Island’s Naval Air Station (NAS) Pearl Harbor.

None of Young’s blue-gray Dauntlesses had been loaded with bombs for this flight. The prewar conditions were also evident in the fact that none of the SBDs possessed protective armor plates or self-sealing gasoline tanks to guard against enemy gunfire. Each rear cockpit was generally occupied by an aviation radioman or aviation machinist’s mate who was capable of manning both the SBD’s radio gear and the .30-caliber machine gun. Yet the rear seat in Brigham Young’s Dauntless was occupied this morning by Lieutenant Commander Bromfield Bradford Nichol, a tactical officer of Halsey’s staff. Nichol, thirty-seven, was charged with personally reporting to Admiral Chester Nimitz on the success of the Enterprise’s recent delivery of aircraft to Wake Island.19

The majority of the pilots of Young’s December 7 fly-in scout mission were from Scouting Six. The squadron’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander Hallsted Lubeck Hopping, was flying the search sector adjacent to Brigham Young. From the academy class of 1924, Hopping was a strong, lean, six-foot-one man with natural flying abilities. He was considered brilliant by many of his pilots but also tough to maintain formation on as a wingman.

Many of the fliers were eager to see girlfriends or wives ashore. One of the few Bombing Six pilots making the morning search was Ensign Manuel “Manny” Gonzalez. His wife, Jo Dene, resided on Oahu, and Gonzalez had approached fellow pilot Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Edward Lee “Andy” Anderson to effect a swap of assignments for this flight in the hopes of getting some extra time with her. Anderson had no family on the island, so when Gonzalez asked to take his place, he relinquished his spot. Unbeknownst to Gonzalez, his wife and several other VB-6 wives had already sailed for the West Coast on December 5 aboard the passenger steamship Lurline.20

As the search flight broke up into teams of two to cover their respective sectors, some of the enlisted bachelors were anticipating their downtime that was but hours away. Jack Leaming was belted into his rear cockpit, facing aft behind his Browning .30-caliber single machine gun. The Pacific Ocean below was a brilliant blue, dotted with only small whitecaps. After lifting off from the carrier, he heard nothing over the radio during the first hour of his plane’s scouting mission. The only audible distraction was the sweet music of his Dauntless’s Wright Cyclone engine as it hummed along at 150 knots.

Only yards away, flying tight formation as wingman, was another dive-bomber, similarly painted with blue-gray upper surfaces and light gray lower surfaces. Just below the rising slope of the aircraft’s tail was a large blue circle containing a white star with a red center, indicating that it was another U.S. Navy aircraft. Just forward of this painted star and just aft of the rear gunner’s cockpit was the only visible difference in the other dive-bomber that Leaming could barely make out through the bright early morning sun. Painted in black was the plane number, 6-S-5. To those in the know, this indicated that it was plane number five of Scouting Squadron Six. Leaming’s own bomber sported the black call sign 6-S-7.

The morning mission went without incident, and at the ends of their search sectors, each team turned toward Oahu. Brigham Young was flying in company with a twenty-five-year-old VS-6 ensign, Perry Lee Teaff from Oklahoma. Teaff was an able wingman who had earned his bachelor’s degree from State Teacher’s College in Springfield, Missouri, before being appointed as an aviation cadet in 1938. He was considered something of a prankster among his squadron mates, but he was serious about his flying business. Back in California, he had a young wife and newborn daughter to provide for. Teaff and Young passed over several ships as they approached Pearl Harbor, the first being the oil tanker SS Pat Doheny. Around 0740, Young next spotted the submarine Thresher, in company with the destroyer Litchfield.21

By 0800, Dale Hilton’s section had made no contacts in his sector, so he called back to Leaming to obtain a radio bearing on KGU Honolulu. This radio station and another Honolulu station would serve as a homing beacon for incoming aircraft, including a flight of big Army B-17 bombers that was expected to fly into Hickam Field that morning. Hilton headed for Barbers Point in silence with Ensign Edwin John Kroeger, his VB-6 wingman.22

Kroeger, a former baseball and football player known as “Bud” to his fellow pilots, was a graduate of Purdue. He had flown gliders at age nineteen and was appointed a naval aviator in August 1938. Bud Kroeger had been only a standby pilot on December 7, but when VS-6 pilot Ensign Earl Donnell’s 6-S-18 plane was given a “down” signal by the plane director, Kroeger had been quickly slotted to fly wing on Hilton. As the two SBD crews sped in toward the coast of Oahu, they had no premonitions of the chaos that was about to unfurl around them.23

• • •

Approaching Pearl Harbor at the same time as the Enterprise SBDs was a force of 183 Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) warplanes. They had commenced launching around 0600, just as the Big E air crews were warming up on deck.

Watching them take off from the bridge of his flagship was the small, weathered, fifty-five-year-old former aviator who was commander of the Japanese First Air Fleet. As such, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo was also the commandant of the IJN’s First Mobile Striking Force, known in Japanese as the Kido Butai. Nagumo’s imposing force comprised six aircraft carriers, two battleships, three cruisers, nine destroyers, plus accompanying fleet tankers. Submarines offered protection for the fleet, and were prepared to launch miniature subs as part of the coordinated attack plan.

Nagumo was a serious officer who could at times be abrasive. His dress uniform hung heavy with medals, a testament to his impressive career. Not every mission was one he relished, but Admiral Nagumo carried out the assignments from his superiors with his usual passion. The job at hand today was no exception: Although he had not been in support of it, Nagumo was the man in charge of executing the attack on the Hawaiian Islands masterminded by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo

U.S. Navy

As commander in chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet, Yamamoto was determined to have the final say in Pacific war strategy, even if some of his actions made him and his staff unpopular at Tokyo’s Imperial General Headquarters. He had insisted that if Japan’s domination plans were to continue successfully, then the U.S. Navy headquartered at Pearl Harbor must be dealt a crippling blow. During a heated debate with Japan’s military leadership, Yamamoto threatened that he and his staff would resign if they did not get their way. His ploy worked, and he entrusted Nagumo to take care of business. On the same day that the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s main anchorage at Pearl was attacked, other Japanese military forces would strike against the British at Hong Kong and on the Malay Peninsula and American forces at Manila in the Philippine Islands.

During the predawn hours of December 7, Admiral Nagumo visited his strike commander in the operations room of his flagship carrier Akagi. Commander Mitsuo Fuchida had been handpicked months earlier to lead the aerial assault. “I have every confidence in you,” Nagumo assured him before Fuchida’s pilots headed topside for their aircraft. The Kido Butai carriers swung into the wind and commenced launching the first strikers toward Oahu. At 855 feet in length and displacing more than forty-one thousand tons, the flagship carrier Akagi was enormous—slightly longer and nearly twice the displacement of the USS Enterprise.

Steaming near Nagumo’s Akagi, five other IJN flattops—Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Zuikaku, and Shokaku—also began hurling their warplanes into the skies. Commander Fuchida’s first strike group launched about 230 miles north and slightly east of Oahu, even as the Big E’s scouts were launching to the west of the island. Each Japanese aircraft sported a red circle, their Rising Sun national emblem, on their after fuselage and on their wings. The distinct red balls soon became known to American aviators as “meatballs.”

Lieutenant Yoshio Shiga, leading a division of nine Kaga fighter pilots, had been so excited as the fleet approached the Hawaiian Islands the previous night that he finally went to the ship’s doctor for some sleeping pills. The next morning, he dressed in his best uniform and enjoyed a ceremonial breakfast before his fighter lifted off with the first strike wave. Lieutenant Shiga was feeling nostalgic as his target area approached. From his cockpit, the coastline of Oahu was pleasantly familiar. Shiga had visited Honolulu in 1934 on a naval training cruise after his graduation from Japan’s naval academy. One of his targets would be strafing the Marine field at Ewa and engaging any American aircraft that rose to greet his fellow pilots.24

Some of Japan’s finest naval aviators were at the controls of this first wave of attackers. Although the Japanese planes were unfamiliar to the Americans, they would soon give each model a nickname. The Aichi D3A1 Type 99 carrier dive-bomber would shortly be referred to commonly as a “Val.” The Mitsubishi A6M2 Type 00 carrier fighter plane would simply become the “Zero,” and the Nakajima B5N2 Type 97 torpedo bomber would be referred to as a “Kate.” Behind the first wave of Japanese carrier attack planes, a second wave of 167 aircraft was also launched with the intent of finishing off whatever cripples remained from the first assualt.

Commander Fuchida’s strikers were unchallenged during the flights into Pearl Harbor. At 0749, he gave the order to attack to his squadron leaders, who were surveying the ninety-six American ships nestled in the tranquil harbor below. He was so confident that surprise had been achieved that at 0753, he keyed the prepared signal words back to Admiral Nagumo and the other carriers: “Tora, Tora, Tora. The U.S. fleet had been caught sleeping, and the seven prized battleships lazily moored near Ford Island along Battleship Row would pay the price.

Kate torpedo bombers swept in low to release their aerial torpedoes against the battleships and other key warships. Fuchida’s Val dive-bombers split to attack both the plentiful American shipping targets and the Army and Navy airfields. Zero pilots strafed U.S. aircraft caught parked on the runways and were quick to engage unsuspecting planes in the sky. The Sunday-morning silence was replaced by the explosions of bombs and torpedoes as they began ripping open U.S. warships.

At 0758, an alarm finally sounded: “Air raid, Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill!”

Hell had fallen from a clear morning sky onto the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Lieutenant Shiga and his fellow pilots would have a field day against the unsuspecting American aviators.

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