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

By J. Michael Wenger, Robert J. Cressman, and John F. Di Virgilio, Naval Institute Press (2022)

Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D.

This is the fourth volume in the Pearl Harbor Tactical Series published by the Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD. The previous three volumes are No One Avoided Danger: NAS Kaneohe Bay and the Japanese Attack of 7 December 1941 (2015); This is No Drill: The History of NAS Pearl Harbor and the Japanese Attacks of 7 December 1941 (2018); and They’re Killing My Boys: The History of Hickam Field and the Attacks of 7 December 1941 (2019) previously reviewed by me in 2020:

The first three volumes in the series documented the attacks on the Naval Air Stations at Kane’ohe Bay and Pearl Harbor, and the Army Air Corps field at Hickam. These publications focused on descriptions of actions in the air and on the ground at the deepest practical tactical level, from both the U.S. and Japanese perspectives. The narratives provide histories of each airfield and descriptions of the fields, hangars and buildings, the numbers and types of aircraft present at the time of attack and the resulting damage after the 7 December 1941 attack. This fourth volume is longer and even more detailed than each of its predecessors, and is comprised of 12 chapters (xxi + 337 pages), accompanied by 319 illustrations – primarily black-and-white images – 29 lists or tables, 655 scholarly endnotes, a bibliography with 643 entries, and a detailed 22-page index. A Pitiful, Unholy Mess is a detailed combat narrative focusing on the Japanese attacks on O‘ahu’s Wheeler, Bellows, and Haleiwa Fields. Since these bases
comprised O’ahu’s fighter defenses, the Japanese determined that it was essential to neutralize these bases – in particular Wheeler Field – in order to prevent U.S. aircraft from interfering with attacks on the Pacific Fleet anchored in the harbor on a peaceful Sunday morning. Although the loss of life at the three fields was less than that sustained by the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, the attacks caused devastation and chaos that proved disastrous and helped to bring the United States into World War II.

The illustrations include photos from the NHHC [Naval History and Heritage Command] and line drawings and maps especially prepared for this volume. The bibliography (pp. 301-314) is divided into 53 categories, 50 of which are primary sources with 502 citations, and 141 secondary sources, which include books, articles, and Internet resources. The archival sources include U.S. Army Air Force Individual Flight Records at NARA [National Archives and Records Administration], St. Louis, that provided operational details of the pilots’ flights, as well of their military careers. The authors were among the first to research these microfilmed records within months after NARA, St. Louis accessioned them. Other major resources included an array of American documents, reminiscences, interviews, and photographic images. In addition, the authors sought Japanese accounts and photography from the attacks, many of these appearing in print for the first time. For example, information from the reports of the Japanese air groups and the aircraft carrier Shōkaku has never before been used. The authors researched the backgrounds and personalities of key Japanese participants and translated and incorporated Japanese aircrew rosters from the attacks. The authors acknowledge the assistance of Japanese historians and researchers in the United States and Japan. Therefore, the narratives of both sides provide a meticulous understanding of the events at Wheeler, Bellows and Haleiwa Fields that has been impossible to present heretofore. These unique materials were unavailable for the earlier volumes in the Pearl Harbor Tactical Series.

The initial chapter documents the development of Wheeler Field located south of Schofield Barracks on O’ahu by men of the U.S. Army beginning in February 1922. The first permanent buildings (hangars for aircraft were also used as barracks, shops, and headquarters) were completed by July 1923 with an NCO club, BOQ officers’ club, machine shop, and fire station soon to follow. In a region of heavy rainfall, the buildings had flat roofs…. The original buildings were demolished 1932-1936 with new construction begun 1939-1941. The first Control Tower was constructed in early 1940 and an underground fueling system with six 50,000 gallon tanks, mess hall, headquarters building, barracks, and aircraft revetments also completed before 7 December 1941; a map illustrates the finished base. The “primitive backwater” had been converted into a desired “ideal spot” to be stationed.

The second chapter recounts the development of Bellows and Haleiwa airfields as “satellites” of Wheeler Field on the south coast of O’ahu near Honolulu among “sugar cane and guava bushes” beginning in March 1917. An area of 1,510 acres was purchased from Crown Lands of Kamehameha III and initially served as the Waimanalo Military Reservation gunnery range prior to the Air Corps developing a rest camp and landing field in 1928 with a tent “city” before the permanent construction of a landing strip in 1933 and buildings in 1936, with “no frills” structures built 1939-1941 [still with flat roofs]. A permanent Control Tower was proposed by Lt. Gen. Walter Short on 5 April 1941. The original area at Haleiwa contained a sugar plantation, railway, a tourist hotel, and private airfield and there was no paved runway until 1941 which accommodated three Pursuit Squadrons (45th , 46th , and 47th ) that rotated from Wheeler Field.

Chapter 3 focuses on the genealogy of Wheeler Field beginning at the end of the biplane era in 1930. All metal fighters arrived from San Diego in March 1938 when Lt. Col. William Lynd assumed command and Wheeler officially separated from Schofield Barracks by August 1939. Twenty P-36As as pursuit aircraft arrived from Michigan and Virginia via California in September 1939 and the Hawaiian Air Force (HAF) was established in November 1940 with Major General Frederick Martin in command of obsolete P-26 and P-36 aircraft. By February 1941 Admiral Kimmel had taken command of the Pacific Fleet and lamented the inexperience among Army pilots, and shortfalls in men and materiel, but arranged for P-36A and P-40B aircraft from as far as Buffalo, NY to assemble in California and ferried by naval carrier to Wheeler. Army P-36s were brought by USS Enterprise to O’ahu in February and March from NAS San Diego having been flown there from Selfridge Field, MI and Hamilton Field, CA. Brigadier General Davidson assumed command at Wheeler in April 1941and revised the pursuit squadron command structure in October 1941 — the authors suggest “musical chairs” in the modifications. Hence, by December 1941, Wheeler and other airfields had old or obsolete planes, untried pursuit pilots, and new Army and Navy commanders in an interservice battle for air assets (pp. 61-62).

Chapter 4: “It Was a Paradise … A Quiet and Peaceful Life.” This chapter describes the airmen who were assigned to Wheeler and Bellows and who represented a “cross section of America’s population.” Individuals who were interviewed described their impressions of barracks and tent cities, the construction of modern quarters, and Hawaii. In addition, famous military and civilian pilots visited the two fields; among them were Australian World War I aviator Sir Charles Kingsford- Smith and the already famous Amelia Earhart Putnam who crashed her Lockheed 10E Electra when a tire failed on takeoff. The annual “Dole Derby” competition of flights from the West Coast to Hawaii with a $25,000 prize was a diversion. Entertainment and morale were also discussed and Schofield Barracks was officially separated from Wheeler on 30 August 1939. Beer gardens, boxing matches, and baseball games were significant diversions and there was widespread gambling, swimming and sunbathing, and “going to town” at Honolulu and Waikiki. Nothing is said about local women as “diversions.”

Chapter 5: “A Rather Carefree Lot Who Had to be Kept in Check” characterizes ranks and specialties and the complexities of the multi-engine ships of the 4th Reconnaissance Squadron compared to the single-engine planes of the 46th Pursuit Squadron. The importance of revetment construction and bunkers and duties of defense squads are also documented. Wheeler aircraft were Curtiss P-36 and P-40s (the latter with inadequate armor and armament) and North American O-47s; Bellows also had O-47s (flown by a pilot with an observer-rear gunner). In September 1941 training emphasis shifted from individual pilot training to tactical training in groups of aircraft, and the pace of training accelerated to overcome lax mentality, weak leadership, and “ignorance of Japan’s intentions and timetables” (p. 106).

The subsequent essay, “’Concern with Preparing Ourselves, and Come What May’: The Last Weeks of Peace” documents differences in attitudes toward the Japanese as potential adversaries by comparing Germany with Japan. Several “occurrences” took place: Brig. Gen. Howard Davidson (7th Fighter Command in Hawaii) was absent on a trip to the United States from 15 October to 3 December 1941 and left no adequate replacement to conduct training operations. CNO Adm. Harold Stark had devised plans to transfer Marine Aircraft Group 21 to Wake and Midway or, alternatively, send Army planes via Navy aircraft carrier. A 27 November conference of Army and Navy staffs with Admiral Kimmel reached an impasse – no formal record of this meeting was kept (pp. 107-109), although Army pilots practiced takeoffs from Navy carriers. The 27 November “War Warning” from Gen. George C. Marshall was sent without mentioning Hawaii itself. The alert was still in effect on 3 December when Davidson returned and there were delays in returning aircraft to revetments from hangar frontage locations when the alert ended (pp. 113-117). We are also informed that the “movement of aircraft requires substantial preparation.”

In Chapter 7 “’The Town was Jumping’: The Last Hours of Peace” the authors provide stories of individual Americans regarding their leaves on Saturday night, 6 December while Japanese airmen were preparing to fly to O’ahu on the morning of 7 December. Actions at NAS Pearl Harbor, Hickam and Wheeler are recounted with the deployments and attacks by dive bombers, high-level bombers, and fighters led by Lieutenant Commander Takakashi, Lieutenant Sakamoto, and Commander Fuchida. The narratives are accompanied by ground plans of the American aircraft locations and detailed maps of the attacks.

“’Dear God What Did We Do to Deserve This?’ The First-Wave Attacks at Wheeler” (pp. 133-165) elaborates the attacks and provides comprehensive details including lists of the attack leaders and groups, as well as the names of pilots and radiomen-rear gunners. The designated targets and results of the attacks are also specified. Opinions on the efficacy of the Japanese attacks by the Japanese themselves and by American are reviewed; the former noting efficiency and cost-effective execution of tactics and damage assessments — the latter are combined in one report making separate evaluations difficult. In the evaluations of United States personnel, they observed that the Japanese “lacked discipline in target selections.”

Chapter 9: “’Disperse All Your Planes and Fly Fully Loaded with Ammunition’: The First-Wave Attacks at Haleiwa and Bellows” (pp. 167-187) provides an overview of officers and pilots preparing their planes and the well-known actions of 2 nd Lieutenants Welsh and Taylor, as well as lesser knowns: Rogers, and Brown and Dains (the latter two were killed). The unexpected landings of two B-17s (one B-17E and one B-17C) at Bellows flying in from California and avoiding Wheeler and Pearl Harbor are also described.

Chapter 10: “’It Was an Awful Looking Situation’: Haleiwa and Wheeler Launch Their Fighters.” Taylor, Welch, and Brown initially flew to Haleiwa in P-40s to receive orders before attacking the Japanese. Many planes from the 18th and 15th Pursuit Groups were destroyed by Sakamoto’s dive bombers which, inadvertently, caused so much smoke that they obscured other potential American targets.

Chapter 11: “’Disperse the Flyable Aircraft and Prepare Them for Launch’: Fighter Action over O’ahu” (pp. 196-233) recounts the Japanese Second Attack Wave. Five actions are detailed: 1) Bellows Field (map p. 197) with the Japanese dive bomber tactics documented as are the exploits of Flying Cadets Myers and Whitman, 1st Lieutenant Bishop, and 2nd Lieutenants Welch, Taylor, and Christiansen (the latter died). 2) Barbers Point and Ewa Field were dive bombed but Taylor and Welch also flew here as well. 3) Ka’a’awa radar station was defended by Dains in a P-40B who shot down a bomber; Taylor and Welch landed here for fuel and/or ammunition. 4) Wheeler Field where Taylor and Welch battled bombers and where members of the 89th Coastal Artillery Regiment from Schofield, using BARs, shot down a Japanese aircraft. 5) Kane’ohe Bay (map p. 218) where Army pilots from the 46th Pursuit Squadron (1st Lieutenant Sanders and 2nd Lieutenants Sanders and Rasmussen) conducted dog fights with the Japanese attackers while a sailor with a Browning Automatic Rifle shot down or damaged an enemy plane.

Chapter 12: “’Looks Like We’ve Had it for Now’: The Aftermath” (pp. 234-262). Visual Impressions of the damage wheeler sustained depended very much on the vantage point within the base at Wheeler – aircraft wreckage was substantial but not all hangers were damaged – the glass windows and doors suffered substantial destruction. Operational aircraft were relocated as quickly as possible following the attacks. Bellows had much less damage. The chapter focuses on the post-attack searches and patrols with the 86th Observation Squadron of O-47B planes flying out of Bellows and repairs made to less damaged craft – 14 were repaired by the evening of 7 December and 11 more the next day. Hangar aprons were renovated and wreckage bulldozed as the base prepared for a potential invasion. Food was distributed hat evening and the recovery and removal of bodies is also discussed. The “long night” of 7-8 December saw three separate alerts, the circulation of fake and incorrect news, and the unfortunate loss of life as Navy Grumman F4F-A3 fighters flying in from the USS Enterprise that night were attacked by “friendly fire” with two aviators killed at NAS Pearl Harbor on one at Wheeler. The 73rd Pursuit Squadron lost all of its aircraft at Wheeler and its personnel moved to Haleiwa to relieve the 45th Pursuit Squadron, and aircraft collisions at Bellows damaged several planes. A series of significant issues that arose included a shortage of experienced pilots as well as aircraft replacement – one in three planes were serviceable after the raid — and base refurbishing. Damage to Hangars 1 and 3 and the Machine Shop in Building 23 were detailed. Fortunately, the oil tanks at Pearl Harbor had not been attacked. Dependents were evacuated from base housing to safer locations.

The authors also detail the beaching of a Japanese midget submarine, the capture of Ensign Sakamaki Kazua (Prisoner of War Number One) and his initial imprisonment. The latter part of the chapter deals with the pros and cons of grudges, conspiracies, and retrospectives as well as thoughts about underestimating Japanese capabilities and feelings about Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans in Hawaii and elsewhere. In addition, they reflect on the deaths of airmen Dains and Brown, condolences, and the reluctance of survivors to discuss the day’s events.

This fourth volume in the series is outstanding in terms of detail that describe actions in the air and on the ground at both personal and tactical levels from both American and Japanese perspectives. The compelling narrative employs newly available sources that were not declassified when the first three volumes were published, and were consulted to provide a better in-depth understanding of the conflict as seen at Wheeler, Bellows, and Haleiwa. The images of American and Japanese pilots and the personal accounts of their participation on 7 December 1941, as well as plans of the bases and maps of the attacks newly executed by Di Verglio, add a great deal of context for the general reader as well as for military historians. Collectively the four volumes provide 1,128 pages of narrative coupled with a unique collection of 1,105 images. The authors are to be congratulated for their exhaustive research and clear prose that provides us with the most comprehensive, detailed, and certainly the best illustrated account of the Pearl Harbor air fields, combatants, and the attack yet published. These are essential readings for anyone interested in the attack itself, the Pacific Theater during World War II, and the military strategies, tactics, and outcomes of air power.

Dr. Kolb is a United States Naval Institute Golden Life Member

Military historian J. Michael Wenger has co-written eleven books, and numerous journal articles, newspaper features, and reviews. His main interest is Japanese carrier aviation and doctrine in World War II. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

Naval historian Robert J. Cressman lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. His The Official Chronology of the United States Navy in World War II received a John Lyman Book Award (1999) and his body of work on U.S. naval aviation history was recognized by the Admiral Arthur W. Radford Award (2008). He is currently editor of the on-line Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.

Military historian John Di Virgilio lives in Honolulu, Hawaii. He is the author of two groundbreaking articles related to Pearl Harbor and is recognized for his extensive research on Japanese naval ordnance, and for his illustrated Pearl Harbor battleship damage profiles.

Book Title. By J. Michael Wenger. (naval Institute Press: 2022)

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