Defense Media Network

Pearl Harbor: The Army Air Forces Fight Back

Welch and Taylor

As pilots scrambled to find aircraft that were fueled and armed, confusion reigned. The first takeoffs by American pilots occurred at Haleiwa Auxiliary Airfield. 2nd Lts. Kenneth M. Taylor and George Welch made their way by car from Wheeler Field to Haleiwa. Their 47th Fighter Squadron had been deployed there for gunnery practice and the attackers had not yet struck the field, so Taylor and Welch were able to grab a pair of P-40B Tomahawks and take off.

As reported in an official history, ground control directed Taylor and Welch to head for the southern tip of the island where Japanese aircraft from the first wave were strafing the Marine base at Ewa. The pilots spotted a group of Japanese aircraft arrayed in a long line. They dove into the midst of this line and began shooting. Each P-40 pilot was credited with two confirmed aerial victories in those rushed moments, and Taylor fired on a third aircraft but did not see it go down. Having exhausted their ammunition and running low on fuel, Taylor and Welch landed at Wheeler Field to rearm and refuel.

The P-36 was no match for the Zero, or even for the P-40, but it was the assigned aircraft and the only thing readily available.

At Wheeler Field, 2nd Lt. Philip M. Rasmussen was attired in purple pajamas, struggling with fellow pilots to arm and fuel Curtiss P-36 Hawk fighters of the 15th Pursuit Group. With bombs falling around them, four pilots got into the air just as the second wave of Japanese warplanes approached Kaneohe Bay. The P-36 was no match for the Zero, or even for the P-40, but it was the assigned aircraft and the only thing readily available.

“We climbed to 9,000 feet and spotted Val dive bombers,” Rasmussen remembered later. “We dived to attack them.”

Pearl Harbor

P-36s and P-40s (left center) still undamaged at burning Wheeler Field during the early phase of the attack. National Archives photo

Led by 1st Lt. Lewis M. Sanders and Rasmussen among the four pilots, the P-36s engaged the Japanese aircraft. Sanders got on the tail of one and shot it down. Moments later, 2nd Lt. Gordon H. Sterling, Jr., downed a Japanese aircraft but then was downed at sea and lost his life. Just before witnessing Sterling’s death, Rasmussen charged his guns only to have them 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 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 said. “He shot my canopy off.” Rasmussen lost control of the P-36 as it tumbled into clouds, its hydraulic lines severed, the tail wheel shot off. He 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.


Nurses on Duty

The Army had fewer than 1,000 nurses on its rolls on Dec. 7, 1941, and just 82 served in Hawaii at three medical facilities. Tripler Army Hospital was overwhelmed with hundreds of casualties suffering from severe burns and shock. Tripler’s blood-spattered entrance stairs led to hallways where wounded men lay on the floor awaiting surgery. Army and Navy nurses and medics (enlisted men trained as orderlies) worked side by side with civilian nurses and doctors. As a steady stream of seriously wounded servicemen continued to arrive through the early afternoon, appalling shortages of medical supplies became apparent. Army doctrine kept medical supplies under lock and key, and bureaucratic delays prevented the immediate replacement of quickly spent stocks.

Working under tremendous pressure, medical personnel faced shortages of instruments, suture material, and sterile supplies. Doctors and nurses used cleaning rags as facemasks and operated without gloves. Equally difficult circumstances confronted Army nurses at Schofield Hospital.

B-17E Flying Fortress

One of the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron’s B-17Es at Hickam Field. In the background is a B-17C and a column of smoke from the burning Arizona. National Archives photo

But the real chaos prevailed at the Army Air Forces’ medical facility at Hickam Field, known as Hickam Station Hospital. The previous Saturday night, Army nurse Monica Conter had been out on a date with Army 2nd Lt. Barney Benning at a dance at the Pearl Harbor Officers’ Club. “We noticed that there were Navy people all over the place,” Conter said. The fleet was in. She and Benning decided to take a walk, so “we went down to the harbor. It was the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen – all the battleships and the lights with the reflection on the water. We were just overwhelmed.” Benning and Conter would still remember the awesome sight of the battleships at anchor when they celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary in 2001. Conter was one of two nurses on duty when the attack on Hickam began (initially, with the bombing of Faulkner’s B-24) and described reporting for duty with nurse 2nd Lt. Irene Boyd at 7:00 a.m. The pair were the only medical personnel at work at Hickam when the attack began 55 minutes later.“We heard this plane,” she said. “It was losing altitude. We both just stopped suddenly and stared at each other. Then “‘bang!’” A delayed-action 500-pound bomb landed on the front lawn of the hospital, 60 or 70 feet from patients. Because of the acrid stench of explosives in the air, people around the hospital began crying, “Gas! Gas!” adding to the confusion.

The chief nurse at Hickam, 1st Lt. Annie Guyton Fox, arrived and organized her team of eight nurses to work valiantly with wounded as they were brought in. Other nurses, including Conter and Kathleen Coberly, improvised, provided a steadying influence, and tended to more patients than they had ever expected to handle. This was the first time military nurses were on the front lines, rather than in evacuation hospitals at least 10 miles behind the fighting. Later, Fox became the first of many Army nurses to receive the Purple Heart, usually given to those wounded by enemy action. Although unwounded, Fox received her medal for “her fine example of calmness, courage, and leadership, which was of great benefit to the morale of all she came in contact with.”

1st Lt. William R. Schick, a flight surgeon aboard one of the arriving B-17 Flying Fortresses, sat on the stairs to the second floor of the hospital attired in winter uniform (never worn in Hawaii) and bleeding profusely from head and face. Schick repeatedly refused medical care, pointing to casualties on litters on the floor and urging responders to “take care of them.” Despite his resistance, Schick was put aboard an ambulance for Tripler “but died before arriving there.” Today, the Hickam hospital is named for Schick, who was never stationed at the airbase. Without denigrating his sacrifice, some believe the honor should have gone to Fox.

Prev Page 1 2 3 Next Page


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-86975">

    My dad George F Swaney jr was suppose to at Pearl Harbor during the attack.He had a steel plate in his head from being wounded.Unable to determine if this is true or not.I am put togather a family note to pass on.
    Ben Swaney

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-95269">

    Depending on what service he was in, you might search the list of casualties in the appendix of “7 December 1941: The Air Force Story”, or… the records maintained at the National Park Service for the Pearl Harbor sites.

    Regarding the B-24A flown by 1Lt Ted S. Faulkner (later KIA Nov 1944), my uncle was co-pilot on that mission and prepared a 10 page written statement dated 27 March 1962 in response to a request from Dr. Maurer Maurer, chief of Historical Section, Maxwell AFB, AL. The written statement is referenced here:
    or here for the complete index entry. I have a PDF of the actual documents (not just the index) if anyone would like a copy.

    Dr. Maurer incorporated my uncle’s written statement as the senior surviving crew member from that nine man crew and subsequently published an article in Military Affairs, Vol 26, No 2 (Summer 1962), pp 66-75. The title of the article is
    A Delicate Mission: Aerial Reconnaissance of Japanese Islands Before World War Two
    Published by: Society for Military History
    Also available (for a fee, or with a subscription) at:

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-148390">

    need information on pearl harbor for book