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.

Clark Field

19th BG Clark Field GraphicThree months earlier, in an effort to defend key strategic points in East Asia against purported Japanese aggression, U.S. military leaders designated transfer of the Army Air Corps’ 19th BG from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Clark Field in the Philippines. Once relocation was complete in early November, airmen trained daily and remained in a constant state of readiness should war erupt. 

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 Attack

At 12:35 p.m. local time, with everyone at Clark Field focused on the short-notice assignment, the air-raid siren warned of Japanese aircraft nearby. Unfortunately for those on the ground, the alarm came too late as enemy planes were already overhead. Some spotted the aircraft formations just before the warning, but few could distinguish whether they were enemy planes until bombs began descending from them. Japanese pilots had somehow eluded detection en route to the Philippines and caught Clark Field entirely unprepared. There was little time for most individuals to seek adequate cover. Those more fortunate found protection in nearby ditches, trees, or man-made trenches. Corporal Grant Adami of the Weather Detachment, 28th Bomb Squadron, dove into the closest trench he could find. He landed on a pile of airmen that had reached the narrow fortification sooner, mere seconds before hearing “the blood-curdling scream of falling bombs.” 

Two waves of Japanese bombers shattered hangers, demolished houses, ruined planes, and hollowed out craters across the installation. Following the bombing raids, Japanese fighter pilots made repeated strafing runs across the airfield targeting anything not already razed. They concentrated on the B-17s positioned, to their disbelief, in open formation. From a moderately safe location, Second Lieutenant Austin Stitt watched with dread and astonishment as Japanese fighters flew in “a pattern like knitting, north to south and south to north,” each time unloading machine-gun fire on the helpless base. 

Courtesy of the 19th BG Assoc.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, 30th BS Original Patch 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. 

During the attacks, many risked their lives to move the wounded away from the line of fire. Once the enemy had retreated, troops with minor or no injuries took advantage of the momentarily calm skies and rushed the dead and injured to Fort Stotsenburg hospital. The Clark Field flight surgeon estimated that, at one point, fatigued doctors and nurses provided care to 250 men in the building, a figure that did not include injured Filipino civilians who also worked at the airfield. 

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. 

Declaring WAR

President Roosevelt sought a declaration of war against the Japanese Empire nearly twelve hours after the attack on Clark Field, which the U.S. Congress quickly approved. Yet the 19th BG’s efforts to reform after the attack proved immensely challenging. 

The Group sent its remaining pilots and B-17s on attack missions against Japanese fighters in the following days and weeks, though with minimal success overall. Replacements – men or equipment – were slow to arrive, if they arrived at all, due to ongoing Japanese attacks across East Asia and in parts of the Pacific Ocean.

Clark Field was likewise decimated, no longer a functional site fit to conduct wartime operations. Consequently, nearly two weeks after the assault, the rest of the 19th Group’s bombers withdrew to Australia to regroup. The unit continued operations in the region for another ten months, during which time it suffered further casualties while others were taken prisoner and subjected to the horrors of the infamous Bataan Death March. Beginning in October 1942, what remained of the 19th BG returned stateside for training purposes.

Explanations for how the Japanese military surprised and crippled U.S. forces at Clark Field are many. They range from a failure of communication between military leaders in the region and the War Department, to the weak state of the U.S. armed forces in 1941 (particularly its Air Corps), to an overall underestimation of the enemy’s capabilities. Hardly anyone, then or since, has found much fault with the individuals of the 19th BG. The unit suffered an especially high rate of casualties that day and demonstrated its resolve and prowess in the event’s aftermath.

19th Bombardment GroupIn 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. 

Timeline of events

  1. Around midnight on December 7 (2300 EST, 6 Dec 1941), Japanese forces began invasion of Malaya

  2. Just before 0800 (1300 EST), Japanese began attack on Pearl Harbor 

  3. Less than two hours after attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops initiated bombing campaign on Midway Island

  4. Around 0830 on December 8 (1730 EST, 7 Dec 1941), Japanese soldiers began invasion of Guam 

  5. One hour later, Japanese troops attack Hong Kong 

  6. Thirty minutes later, the Battle of Wake Island commenced

  7. Nearly ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese pilots began attacking U.S. airfields on the Philippine Islands

  8. On December 8, 1941, the U.S. and Great Britain officially declare war on the Japanese Empire 

  9. Two days later, Germany and Italy declare war against the United States