News | Dec. 19, 2023

“A Pitiful, Unholy Mess:” The History of Wheeler, Bellows, and Haleiwia Fields, and the Japanese Attacks of 7 December 1941

By J. Michael Wenger, Robert J. Cressman and John F. Di Virgilio

Review by Cmdr. Peter B. Mersky, USNR (Ret.)

After a lengthy essay on the exploration and settlement of this portion of Oahu in late 1922, the authors begin this fascinating history of the establishment of the U.S. Army air base in Hawaii. Initially, its strategic importance seems to have been overshadowed by its almost paradise-like atmosphere with idyllic settings, beaches and exotic distance from the U.S. mainland. Photos of buildings, airfields and especially the Army aircraft of the period, taken from little-known collections, augment the interest of this fourth book in the exhaustive “Pearl Harbor Tactical Studies Series” of the Japanese attack that thrust America into World War II.

An additional trove of information is the highly detailed number of related activities and placement of maintenance squadrons responsible for aircraft upkeep and performance, subject areas rarely addressed in between-war histories.
The somewhat lengthy dissertation of pre-raid (Dec. 6-7) activities of a few Army members, bars and parties slows the narrative down but does give an impression of how truly unprepared America was for the devastating attack and the war, particularly the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt far away in Washington, D.C.
The mention of then-2nd Lt. Francis S. Gabreski (1919-2002) on page 140 during the attack then assigned to the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 45th Pursuit Squadron flying Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks as well as Curtiss P-36s based at Wheeler Field, certainly adds dimension to the narrative. He later became a ranking American fighter ace in Europe flying Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, and with a tour during the Korean War in mid-1951 flying North American F-86s that added 6.5 more kills over Communist MiG-15 jet fighters, his final total was 34.5 kills in two wars.

Gabreski found a P-36 radial-engine fighter and joined six other P-36s and two P-40s as they took off to intercept the remaining Japanese raiders as they departed the area on the way back to their carriers. However, by the time the mixed group of Army fighters got to altitude, the sky was empty of Japanese aircraft. Although the American pilots continued to fly a limited patrol, being careful to avoid occasional fire from still-nervous ground crews, they eventually began running low on fuel and had to return to their smoking field.
Chapter 8 finally begins the narrative of the attacks on these airfields (Wheeler, Bellows and Haleiwa) with details of where people were at the time. The main raid on the harbor was surprisingly intense and destructive and is well-covered in preceding volumes we have reviewed. The Navy lost many ships, either sunk or heavily damaged. Thousands of military and civilian personnel were killed or wounded. What pilots like 2nd Lts. Ken Taylor and George Welch of the 47th Pursuit Squadron were doing—taking off in P-40s to finally intercept and shoot down several Japanese aircraft, doing what they could to defend American airfields—has been well-covered in various accounts, especially the 1969 movie “Tora, Tora, Tora.” After achieving 16 kills in the war, Welch died on Oct. 12, 1954, in a flight mishap while test-flying North American F-100 Super Sabres.

Taylor also went through the war, getting two officially-credited kills of Val dive bombers over Pearl Harbor, although the exact number was open to question as another two kills he claimed in 1941 were never confirmed. His official number of confirmed kills for the war overall remained at four until post-war research, supplemented by Japanese records, indicated that two additional claims he made over Pearl Harbor were confirmed for a total of four that day, bringing his total during the war to six. He had shot down two more, one each in January 1943 and on Dec. 7, 1943, the one-year anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Officially, however, his status as an ace is apparently not recognized by the American Fighter Aces Association, at least not in their large white album, which describes in brief paragraphs each American ace’s life and career.

Taylor retired from the Air Force in 1967 as a colonel, but entered the Alaska Air National Guard, working as the Assistant Adjutant General, retiring as a brigadier general in 1971. His son, Kenneth M. Taylor, Jr. also retired as a one-star general from the very same position his father had occupied when he retired.
Another Air Force story that is part of the attack is that of 12 B-17 Flying Fortresses flying from the mainland to Hawaii. This new volume in this series describes their crews’ experiences in great detail. The four-engine bombers that were at the time the flag ships of the USAAF’s bomber force were from the 38th and 88th Reconnaissance Squadrons based in California. Their young crews were eager to make the long-range flight to Hawaii. Their arrival over Pearl Harbor, smack in the middle of the attack, is well-shown in “Tora, Tora, Tora,” as their surprise turns into action trying to extract themselves from the swarms of Zeros and Val dive bombers. (Fortunately, when the film was being shot, there were enough flyable B-17s and adequate numbers of former U.S. trainers that could be modified to look like the squadrons of Japanese carrier fighters, dive bombers and torpedo bombers to make the film look as realistic as it did).

The lead-in sequences depicting the establishment of an Army radar site, the enlisted operators of which struggle to call their officer supervisors’ attention to what they saw as the rapidly approaching enemy force add to the drama that everyone who saw the film knew what was coming, probably much like knowing how a mystery ends because they read the book.
The bomber crews had to quickly find adequate substitutes landing grounds, often while being pursued by Zeros. The bombers were unarmed and very low on fuel, which made their situation that much worse. All of this dire situation is detailed in the book, both in text and in post-raid photos.
As with the other three books in this unique series, the individual windows they provide give such an intense look at the damage and personal impressions of the participants on either side go far beyond other accounts have offered in the 82 years since the attack, covering, of course, the Navy’s side where so many ships and their crews were badly damaged or sunk outright, or whose lives were lost. One can be forgiven if he compares the coverage of 9/11 in 2001 and the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, the two most shocking events in modern U.S. history by other major countries or enemies that haunt the American psyche. They thrust America into the monstrous world conflict that we as a people and a government had tried to avoid for many years, and yet ultimately were forced to face and participate in for three-and-a-half very long years.
In what I acknowledge is a deeply personal assessment, I firmly believe these four books are definite candidates for nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. 

Thanks to the following people who helped with photos and information for this column:
Rear Adm. Samuel J. Cox, USN (Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC); Matthew Proietta, History and Archives Division, NHHC; Tyler Aoki, Emily Briggs and Tony Holmes, Osprey Publications; Brett Stolle and William M. MacLaughlin of the National Museum of the United States. Air Force; J. Michael Wenger; and Wojtek Matusiak, Polish Spitfire historian.