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The Few Who Got Up

At 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, six aircraft carriers and 360 aircraft of the Japanese 1st Air Fleet led by Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo launched air strikes on U.S. installations in the Territory of Hawaii. The main target was the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Taylor telephoned the grass airstrip at Haleiwa, 10 miles from Honolulu, where the 47th Pursuit Squadron had been sent for target practice.

2nd Lieutenants George Welch and Kenneth Taylor – both new fighter pilots – were at Wheeler Field when the attack started. They ran outdoors and saw smoke rising over Pearl Harbor. Taylor telephoned the grass airstrip at Haleiwa, 10 miles from Honolulu, where the 47th Pursuit Squadron had been sent for target practice. He told ground crews to fuel and arm two P-40B Tomahawks.

Pearl Harbor Attack

Honolulu Star-Bulletin following the attack on Pearl Harbor. U.S. Air Force photo

The two pilots were strafed while they drove at high speed to Haleiwa. They took off in two P-40Bs only partly loaded with machine gun rounds.

Attacking a formation of Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” torpedo and level bombers, Welch and Taylor each shot one down. Moments later, Welch’s P-40B was hit with rounds from a Japanese tail gunner. Still, he and Taylor shot down another Kate apiece.

Welch and Taylor landed at Wheeler to refuel, re-arm, and take off again. Welch ultimately flew three sorties and was credited with shooting down four Japanese aircraft, including a Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter.

When he first awoke, Taylor could find only his tuxedo trousers from an officers’ club dinner the previous night. He took off wearing them. But 2nd Lt. Philip M. Rasmussen, also at Wheeler Field, outdid Taylor for sartorial elegance. Rasmussen was wearing purple pajamas when he awoke to hear the attack beginning.

Amid noise and chaos, Rasmussen managed to get airborne in an obsolete P-36, which essentially had the same airframe as a P-40 but used a less powerful radial engine. “We climbed to 9,000 feet and spotted Japanese ‘Val’ dive bombers,” Rasmussen said in a 2002 interview. “We dived to attack them.”

Rasmussen, 1st Lt. Lewis M. Sanders, and two other P-36 pilots tore into a Japanese formation. Sanders got behind one of the raiders and shot it down. 2nd Lt. Gordon H. Sterling, Jr. also shot down a Japanese aircraft, but then was shot down over water and drowned after getting out of his aircraft. Just before witnessing Sterling’s death, Rasmussen charged his guns only to have the machine guns start firing on their own.

While the pajama-clad pilot struggled to stop his guns from firing, a Japanese aircraft passed directly in front of him, flew into his bursts of gunfire, and exploded.

Shaking off two Zeros on his tail, Rasmussen got his guns under control, raked another Japanese aircraft with gunfire, then felt himself taking hits from a Japanese fighter.

“There was a lot of noise. He shot my canopy off,” Rasmussen said. Rasmussen lost control of the P-36 as it tumbled into clouds, its hydraulic lines severed, the tail wheel shot off. Rasmussen did not know it yet, but two cannon shells had buried themselves in a radio behind his pilot’s seat. The bulky radio had saved his life. He landed his badly damaged aircraft without the use of brakes, rudder, or tail wheel.

2nd Lt. Philip M. Rasmussen

The Curtiss P-36A Hawk in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force features a mannequin of a pajama-clad 2nd Lt. Philip M. Rasmussen. U.S. Air Force photo

Rasmussen was one of 14 Air Corps pilots who attempted to engage the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. The Pearl Harbor attack killed 2,403 people, most of them American servicemen, and wounded 1,104. Four of the pilots lost their lives but were credited with shooting down 10 of the 29 Japanese warplanes lost to all causes that day.

The Pearl Harbor attack killed 2,403 people, most of them American servicemen, and wounded 1,104. Four of the pilots lost their lives but were credited with shooting down 10 of the 29 Japanese warplanes lost to all causes that day.

The National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, features a mannequin of a pajama-clad Rasmussen scrambling into a P-36 cockpit. The display covers Rasmussen’s achievements at Pearl Harbor and is dubbed “The Pajama Pilot.”

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-28">

    Great inspirational story!

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-29">

    Great history piece. It is amazing how far technology has increased to today’s standards.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-30">
    Melissa Kouwenhoven

    The few, the proud, the awake…

    Seriously, I love inspirational stories like this one that show the dedication, and honor displayed by the men and women who defend our country.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-31">
    Gale Wursthorn

    As a veteran it gives me a great sense of pride in our service men and women..from the past, the present and those who will step up to fight for freedom in the future.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-32">
    Clyde Sanchez

    @Gale – I too am a veteran and the amount of honor and pride I have for my country and those who serve is almost impossible to explain.