The year 2016 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United States’ entry into the Second World War. Most Americans accept that the December 7, 1941, attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor propelled the nation to war, and rightfully so: More than 2,400 Americans died and another 1,200 were wounded from that Japanese onslaught, while more than 300 planes and eighteen ships were either destroyed, sunk, or damaged.
Yet this incident was only one component of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “date which will live in infamy” speech delivered the following day. Alongside Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt referenced nearly simultaneous Japanese attacks across the Pacific stretching from Hong Kong to Guam to Wake Island that often attract little attention. Also overlooked are Japanese attacks on the Philippine Islands, where the 19th Bombardment Group – predecessor to today’s 19th Airlift Wing – sustained devastating losses only ten hours after the raid on Pearl Harbor. It is worth recalling the harrowing trials of the 19th Bombardment Group (BG) that culminated in the United States’ formal declaration of war against Japan.
Yet there was never any indication when that might occur, nor much assurance that their new confines would provide adequate protection. Not long after arriving in the Philippines, Ted Fisch of the 28th Bomb Squadron forecasted a rather grim future in a letter to his new wife: “God alone knows when this deal with Japan is going to blow wide open and when it does, this is going to be a very nasty place.”
Part of that concern centered on Clark Field’s limited space. Its restrictive landscape barely accommodated 35 B-17s from the 19th BG, which in turn prohibited the Group from successfully operating its reconnaissance missions and bombing exercises. Therefore, when reports of Japanese activity in the skies increased in the weeks prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant Colonel Eugene Eubank, commander of the 19th BG, ordered two of the Group’s bombardment squadrons – the 14th and the 93rd, with their combined 144 uniformed Airmen and 16 B-17s – south to Mindanao at Del Monte Field for temporary duty, while the Group’s 28th and 30th Bombardment Squadrons remained at Clark Field. Though this transfer would ultimately save many lives since the Japanese military had not yet discovered the Del Monte airfield. The two squadrons reached their new surroundings early December 6th.
When news of the attack on Pearl Harbor filtered throughout the Philippines, pilots at Clark Field were immediately placed on standby until further orders, before most had even sat down for breakfast. (It was December 8th in the Philippines when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, but still December 7th in the U.S.)
Amidst the confusion and excitement generated from these reports, there was no doubt that the men of the 19th BG expected to soon be in the fight. “If they have hit Hawaii,” Major Dave Gibbs, commander of the 30th Bomb Squadron, informed his unit, “they can’t miss hitting us. I can’t tell you when it will come, but it will come.”
To avoid being caught in an air raid, all planes able to takeoff from Clark Field were immediately ordered airborne. After circling the region for more than an hour with no sightings of Japanese forces, the Clark Field control tower radioed the “all clear” for aircraft to return. Upon landing, with U.S. troops now permitted to retaliate in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 19th BG received instructions to strike Japanese airfields on the southern region of Formosa (modern-day Taiwan). Turnaround time for the mission was short, with planes expected to be off the ground in less than three hours’ time.
The interlude between each strafing run allowed men on the field brief moments to retaliate. The 200th Coast Artillery and the 192nd Tank Battalion contributed anti-aircraft fire from grounded emplacements, while a few others managed to reach machine guns from inside planes not yet torched. In the skies, one crew from the 93rd arrived from Del Monte for repairs on its plane, unaware of the attack until nearing Clark Field. The men exchanged fire with the enemy in the air before Sergeant Arthur Norgaard, radio operator, lined .50-caliber machine gun bullets in one Japanese plane that sent it diving toward land. When one of their own bombardiers was injured in the skirmish, the outnumbered crew decided to head back to Del Monte and seek medical care. These successful counterattack attempts notwithstanding, the enemy endured considerably far fewer casualties compared to the amount of destruction it wreaked on the American base.
The assault lasted nearly an hour, and the enemy had left Clark Field in tatters. “Everything everywhere seemed on fire or dead,” reflected Stitt, the 30th Bomb Squadron bombardier. The thick smoke emanating from burning planes and buildings turned the daylight sky dark; the “sun became like the moon,” one survivor recalled. Twelve of the nineteen B-17s at Clark Field were destroyed. Only two that survived the attack needed routine maintenance in order to takeoff again; the rest required extensive repairs. The 24th Pursuit Group, also headquartered at Clark Field, lost several of its P-40 interceptors that never left the ground. Some aircraft were no longer recognizable. First Lieutenant Frank Kurtz, 30th Bomb Squadron pilot, could only distinguish “Old 99” by its unharmed silver tail. Everything else of his ship was “melted and bent and ruined and her back sagging and broken.” As he walked closer, he identified half of his eight-man crew lying on the ground, including his co-pilot, all dead.
Thirty-one men from the 19th Bombardment Group – twenty-one ground personnel and ten flight crewmen – died from the events that day. To borrow from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, these American servicemen “gave the last full measure of devotion” to a nation still not officially at war. Some survivors sustained severed limbs or scars from bomb fragmentation that served as a constant reminder of the horrific ordeal.
In September 1945, not quite four years after the barrage on Clark Field, the 19th BG was present for Japan’s formal surrender. It had earned numerous honors during the conflict, though at an alarming cost, none more so than on what many deem the blackest day in American military history.
The U.S. and its allies ultimately triumphed in war, but it is worth recognizing all service members – from all parts of the globe – who withstood or perished from the coordinated Japanese attacks on the 7th and 8th of December, 1941.