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Pearl Harbor Day: Bombers land 1st punch following devastating attack

  • Published
  • By Col. Joe Jones
  • 307th Bomb Wing vice commander
After the devastating attacks destroyed the bulk of the Pacific Naval Fleet and Army Air Corps, fighter and bomber forces at Pearl Harbor the Far East Air Forces (FEAF) were on high alert.

The bulk of the Army Air Corps stationed on the Luzon, Philippine Islands, consisted of 35 B-17s in the 19th Bomb Group. Sixteen B-17s were assigned to the 14th and 93rd Bomb Squadrons while 19 planes remained at Clark Field, Hawaii, however, only 16 were operational.

According to the 24th Pursuit Group status report from Dec. 7, 1941, there were five Pursuit Squadrons--the 3rd, 17th, 21st, 20th and 34th, each made up of 18 P-40Es--making 90 first-line combat-worthy airplanes that were supposedly ready for combat. Finally, there were 1,200 personnel from the 28th Bombardment Group, whose aircraft never arrived and were there to supplement the 19th Bomb Group commanded by Lt. Col. Eugene Eubank.

By local standards, Dec. 7, 1941, was a routine day for the FEAFs in the Philippine Islands--so much so that the 27th Bomb Group gave a dinner for Lt. Gen. Lewis Hyde Brereton, FEAF commander, at the Manila Hotel. The party continued until about 2 a.m. Dec. 8.

Less than one hour later, radar at Iba Field, Luzon, Philippine Islands, detected a large formation of aircraft. Since all Luzon aircraft were grounded for night operations, except the 3rd PS, the aircraft were identified as inbound Japanese attackers. The 3rd Pursuit Squadron launched instantly with orders to shoot any enemy aircraft within 20 miles of shore. The attacking force turned back and the 3rd PS recovered uneventfully. The 21st and 17th Pursuit Squadrons were placed on alert at 2:30 a.m. for 10 minutes before standing down. Two hours later, 1st Lt. William Dyess, the commanding officer of the 17th PS, received a phone call notifying him of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Eubank was notified by Brereton of the attack at 4 a.m. and ordered to put his B-17s crews on warning for an immediate mission. The B-17s launched for survivability at 8 a.m. and landed at 10:30 a.m. for refueling and parking in the revetments.

Official Japanese records say 108 bombers and 84 Zeros set out for Clark Field and Iba Field at approximately 10 a.m. Dec. 8, 1941. Before the end of this initial attack, Clark and Iba fields lay in ruins and the FEAF was nearly decimated. Two B-17s were pieced together out of the wrecks at Clark; but these aircraft were never tactically useful. The pursuit squadrons performed gallantly but were significantly outnumbered. Two other notes of valor--ground crews rushed to the grounded B-17s to give fight with the available firepower while the 28th Bomb Squadron recovered and aided the wounded.

The bomber crews were anxious to answer the attacks on Iba and Clark fields. The first point of focus was Formosa, however this island was highly defended and the plans for attacking this Japanese stronghold were abandoned. On Dec. 9, 13 heavy bombers moved toward Luzon from Mindanao. There were also reports of a large Japanese convoy approaching the coast at Vigan and Aparri.

On Dec. 10, 1941, with the Formosa mission canceled, all 19th BG working aircraft, which included 15 flyable B-17s and three B-18s, were ordered to attack the Japanese Invasion convoys approaching Luzon from the north.

First Lt. James Connally, of the 93rd Bomb Squadron, was sent on a recon to Formosa, but had to turn back because of engine trouble. The squadron commander, Maj. Cecil Combs, launched the squadron with five B-17s loaded with 21 100-pound demolition bombs. Combs took the flight right up the middle of Luzon and approached the target convoy at 12,000 feet. The pilots and aircrew commanders were Lieutenants Elliot Vandevanter, Waiter Ford, Morris Shedd and Sig Young. They attacked the line of targets in two separate passes. Three hours after taking off on the first United States Air Corp bombing attack of World War II, the flight of five courageous bombers returned to Clark Field screaming for more bombs.

Overall, the 93rd BS participated in numerous historically-significant missions before returning to the continental United States including the evacuation mission to recover Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his staff to Australia.

So well known were the deeds of the 93rd BS in the Pacific, that several books and magazines featured their actions. Both Life magazine and National Geographic did feature stories on the squadron and the Boeing Aircraft Company used the famous silhouette of the Bomber Suzy-Q in their company advertisements in 1943. At the war's end, the 93rd BS was honored for their opening shots of the war by flying the show of force for the surrender of the Japanese in Tokyo Bay in their newly acquired B-29s.

So goes the story of the World War II exploits of the Air Force Reserve Command B-52 Squadron--and thus the pride in our heritage.