Author John B. Lundstrom chronicled in detail U.S. naval aviation's thrust across the Pacific to the home islands of Japan. It had a beginning and its name was Pearl Harbor. Just days prior to the Japanese attack, Task Force 8, commanded by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey on board the USS Enterprise (CV-6), had steamed out of Oahu on a mission to deliver Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF)-211 to Wake Island. Mission accomplished, the task force headed for home. At dawn on Sunday morning, 7 December 1941, Halsey's warships were 215 miles west of Pearl Harbor. In the following extract from The First Team, just published in paperback by the Naval Institute Press, Lundstrom catches up with the task force late on that tragic day.
Halsey received what finally appeared to be the word. One of VB-6's SBDs reported sighting a Japanese carrier and cruiser only 60 miles south of Oahu, then added he was being attacked by fighters. Indicative of the confusion of that day, the SBD pilot actually had spotted only friendly forces and misidentified them. The enemy fighters turned out to be Army A-20 light bombers. Halsey, however, had no choice but to commit his remaining strike force on the basis of the report. That location worked out to about 100 miles southeast of Task Force 8. The air strike comprised the eighteen TBDs of Torpedo Six, six VB-6 SBD "smokers" (Dauntlesses fitted with smoke generators to shield the approach of the torpedo planes to their drop points), and six F4F fighter escorts.
In charge of the strike was VT-6's skipper, Lieut. Eugene E. Lindsey, and he apparently had orders to fly to Pearl Harbor after making his attack. The launch of the thirty planes lasted from 1642 to 1659, and they departed shortly thereafter.
Reaching the target area about an hour later, Lindsey's troops diligently searched the vicinity of the reported contact, but found nothing. Darkness intervened, and Lindsey decided to return to the ship. In the growing murk, Hebel's F4Fs happened to separate from the rest of the group. He skillfully used his Zed Baker radio homing receiver to take the escort directly back to the task force. Somewhat surprised to discover some of the strike planes overhead, Halsey at about 1950 directed Hebel to fly north to Oahu and land there. The fighters dutifully headed off into the night, bound for a blacked-out and apprehensive destination. About 15 minutes after the F4Fs departed, Lindsey's TBDs and SBDs reached the Enterprise. Halsey relented and allowed them to land, probably because the TBDs, still laden with their 2,000-lb. aerial torpedoes, began to run low on fuel. . . .
Fritz Hebel at the head of VF-6's escort fighters spotted ahead of him in the blackness an island dotted with fires. Thinking it was Kauai with its burning cane-fields, he turned east and ended up over Molokai before he realized his error. The fires actually blazed on Oahu as reminders of the savage enemy attack. Checking with his pilots to make certain they had sufficient fuel, Hebel led the six Grummans across the channel west to Makapuu Point on Oahu. From there they followed the coastline south and west over Diamond Head and Waikiki toward the Pearl Harbor Channel entrance south of the harbor proper. Around 2110, Hebel noticed runway lights illuminating the Army's Hickam Field just east of the harbor channel. The lights along Hickam's northeast-southwest runway appeared a welcome invitation to land. The naval air station on Ford Island also had its runway lights on, hut the thick smoke from the fires around the harbor momentarily obscured them from the VF-6 pilots. Hebel took the flight north past Hickam. The six F4Fs had descended to about 500 feet and turned on their red and green running lights. They started around the Army field, but during the circuit north Hebel noticed the floodlights at Ford Island farther north. NAS Pearl Harbor was open for business after all.
The authorities at Pearl knew of the approach of the Enterprise aircraft. Halsey had radioed the naval air station to expect them after dark. Rear Admiral Patrick L. N. Bellinger, commander of Patrol Wing Two, worried that ship and shore batteries might fire on the friendlies. At his direction duty officers several times circulated warnings to all ships and batteries that American aircraft were en route and would land. Bellinger was not the only one concerned about the planes. Young, the Enterprise group commander, had stationed himself in the Ford Island control tower along with the duty controller. He tried numerous times with the tower's low power transmitter to contact the Enterprise flight leader or the ship, but without success. When he started up the harbor entrance channel toward Hickam, Hebel radioed the Ford Island tower for instructions. The duty controller at Young's direction swiftly responded with orders to break formation over Ford Island at 1,000 feet with navigation lights on, then land. Young did not want the aircraft to circle needlessly and invite trouble.
The six F4Fs cruised at 500 feet with running lights prominent during the short hop over to Ford Island. They offered every appearance of executing a routine night landing. Automatically Hebel banked to the right to circle Ford Island counterclockwise and execute the usual left carrier break for landing. From the benefit of hindsight, this was a "perfectly normal" mistake, as Halsey later testified. The turn swept the six F4Fs opposite the Ford Island control tower and over Drydock Channel and Battleship Row, scenes of some of the worst destruction of the raid. On board the battered ships, distraught gunners fully believed that the enemy had returned. Several warships challenged the neatly lighted intruders for proper recognition signals, and when the countersigns did not appear immediately, gunnery officers gave orders to shoot. First the battleship Pennsylvania cut loose with her machine guns at the low-flying aircraft. That ignited a chain reaction all over the harbor. Captain James M. Shoemaker, in charge of NAS Pearl Harbor, later remarked: "Somebody let fly, and I never saw so many bullets in the air-all tracer bullets at night." He thought Hebel's fighters had become the target of "every gun in the Pearl Harbor area, near as I could tell." Even sailors with Springfield rifles took aim at the hapless aircraft, venting some of the rage they felt after the devastation of the day. Hearing the gunfire, both Admiral Kimmel and Rear Admiral Claude C. Bloch, commanding the 14th Naval District, issued immediate cease-fire orders. It was already too late for three men.
Table 1. Fighting Six’s Contribution
Lieut. (jg) Francis Frederick Hebel, USN
Ens. Herbert H. Menges, A-V(N)
Ens. James G. Daniels III, USN
Lieut. (jg) Eric Alien, USN
Ens. Gayle L. Hermann, USN
Ens. David R. Flynn, A-V(N)
*F4F-3 on loan from Fighting Three.
Without warning the VF-6 pilots became the focus of intense antiaircraft fire. Hebel in shock radioed, "My God, what's happened!" Bullets ripped into the Grumman flown by his wingman, Ens. Herbert H. Menges, and either killed or incapacitated him. Out of control, the stricken F4F stalled down and dived past Ford Island toward Pearl City, a peninsula across the channel. At the shallow angle it plowed into the veranda of "Palm Lodge," a house situated next to the water, and burst into flames. The building burned to the ground, but no one other than the pilot was harmed. Herb Menges was the first U.S. naval fighter pilot to die in the Pacific War. He joined the Navy in July 1939 for flight training and earned his wings and promotion to ensign on 1 August 1940. That November he was posted to Fighting Six, where a year of seasoning had made him into a steady and skilled fighter pilot.
Likewise hit almost instantly was the last F4F in the formation, lieut. (jg) Eric Alien's 6-F-12. It exploded in flames. Alien had no time to gain altitude, but bailed out immediately while still very low seconds after he left it, the burning Grumman plunged into the water off Ford Island. As for Alien, his parachute had barely snaked open before he struck the water with a shattering impact. The fall inflicted severe internal injuries, but even worse, he had been struck in the left chest by a rifle-caliber bullet that ultimately collapsed a lung. Incredibly and with an indomitable spirit, Allen was able to make his way in great pain through the oil and debris-choked Drydock Channel past the crippled battleship California toward Ford Island. At the Naval Academy (he graduated in 1938), he had been a strong swimmer. Bluejackets from the minesweeper Vireo pulled him out of the water and rushed him to the naval dispensary. Only when they tried to clean the fuel oil from him did they realize he had been struck by a bullet. By that time it was too late. Eric Allen died at 0200 the next morning. He had qualified in early 1941 as a naval aviator and joined Fighting Six that spring. The cruise for him had begun with an ill omen: his Grumman was one of the two that would not start on 28 November.
Having lost two of their number to antiaircraft fire, the four remaining F4Fs scattered, each pilot running for his life. A five-inch antiaircraft shell smashed through Ens. Gayle L. Hermann's engine without exploding and turned the F4F into a glider. He had to make a dead stick landing on Ford Island immediately before stalling out. In the teeth of tracers and shell bursts, Hermann touched down on the runway and ended up in a small golf course off its eastern edge. Even with the familiar profile of the stubby Wildcat flickering in their sights, some machine gunners shot up Hermann's F4F-3 as he rolled to a stop. He was unhurt and stoically grabbed his chute for the walk across the airfield to VF-6's hangar, but the borrowed 3-F-15 was a mess, what with a wrecked engine and eighteen "friendly" bullet holes.
Fritz Hebel swung northward, seeking a haven at the Army's Wheeler Field. Stirred up by the ruckus over Pearl, Army antiaircraft batteries north of there forced Hebel to sheer off. He gunned his engine to pull away from the shooting, but the Pratt & Whitney, perhaps damaged, sputtered and died. Hebel had to find someplace to set her down quickly. In the blackness he had to settle for a canefield north of Aeia. Skidding along the broken, stubbled ground, the F4F cartwheeled, tore in two, and piled into a small gully. Part of the wreckage burst into flames. Onlookers pulled the unconscious pilot from the shattered cockpit and took him to the Army hospital at Schofield Barracks. Having suffered a severe skull fracture, Hebel died the next day. One of the most experienced pilots in the squadron, Hebel had enlisted in 1936 in the original aviation cadet program. With his wings in 1937 came a two-year tour in battleship floatplanes. Commissioned ensign in 1939 (to rank from 1937), he instructed nascent pilots in flight elimination training at the Grosse Ile (Michigan) Naval Reserve Air Base. In March 1941, he accepted a regular commission, and about that time was a welcomed acquisition of VF-6.
As soon as the sky grew livid with gun flashes and tracers, Ens. James G. Daniels switched off his lights and dived southwestward on past Ford Island toward Barbers Point. Soon he found himself at very low altitude back over the ship channel entrance. Hearing the tower trying to raise the Enterprise flight, he established contact, and was told to set down swiftly. Coming in from the south, he almost clipped the foretop of the beached battleship Nevada opposite Hospital Point, then had to endure gunfire from that ship, batteries around Hickam off to the right, and the West Loch ammunition depot. Nevertheless he landed 6-F-5 at Ford Island before the gunners could concentrate on him. As he taxied up to the flight line, a .50-caliber machine gun nearby opened up on him, but fortunately soon was silenced. Gayle Hermann appeared out of the darkness and jumped up on his wing to congratulate his friend on still being alive! The two reported to Young at the tower. He was busy trying to contact the Enterprise and warn her against sending any more planes to Pearl. Daniels and Hermann spent an uncomfortable night in a shot-up, vacant set of quarters wondering what had happened to the others.
The last VF-6 pilot to leave his aircraft that terrifying night was Ens. David R. Flynn, who celebrated his twenty-seventh birthday that day. The best present he received was his life. Like Daniels, Flynn extinguished his running lights as soon as the shooting started. He dropped into low-level, violent evasive maneuvers, then headed south out to sea for about ten miles. His radio transmitter and receiver not working, Flynn was leery of returning to Oahu without a way of announcing his coming. Equally troublesome, his fuel was about gone. He made landfall at Barbers Point and turned north for the Marine field at Ewa. About four miles short of his destination, his engine suddenly stopped. At 2130, Flynn hit the silk at 1,200 feet and chuted into a canefield. Some soldiers came along and conveyed him to Tripler Army Hospital, where he was treated for an injured back and wrist. He learned from witnesses that his F4F had actually ignited in the air as he abandoned it. The flaming Grumman crashed nearby. Luckily for Dave Flynn, no one mistook him for one of the Japanese paratroopers so widely reported, or, like Eric Alien, he might have been shot in midair.
Fighting Six on the first day of war saw no Japanese, yet sustained grievous losses: three pilots killed and four F4F-3As destroyed (with another badly damaged). For VF-6's whole first tour of war duty (December 1941 -June 1942), December would see the worst casualties. The authorities could only wring their hands and put the blame on faulty communications and overeager gunners, owing to the great confusion at Pearl. This in itself was little consolation for the families and friends of the men who were killed that tragic night. Had Lindsey's whole strike group gone in together to Pearl, the losses would undoubtedly have been much higher.
In addition to The First Team, the Naval Institute Press has published John Lundstrom's The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign in papaerback and will publish his newest work—Black Shoe Admiral: Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal—in April 2006.