OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- For American service members at Pearl Harbor, the humming of engines in the early morning of December 7, 1941 was something they’d heard many times before as the Hawaiian Air Force conducted routine flying operations, but in one horrifying instant, their reality became clear.
The attack—famously described by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a "date which will live in infamy"—launched America into World War II, a conflict that claimed the lives of more than 400,000 U.S. Soldiers, Sailors and Marines.
While the Navy suffered the majority of the losses, it’s also important to remember the sacrifices of the Army Air Forces on that December day.
“As we reflect on the sacrifices of those we lost 77 years ago, we honor their legacy with our continued service and commitment,” said Lt. Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach, Seventh Air Force commander.
The Hawaiian Air Force, which later became the 7 AF, suffered grave losses and fought bravely throughout the battle.
“All the publicity is ‘Remember Pearl Harbor’ they should take a look at Hickam Field or what was Hickam Field,” said Army Air Force Maj. Charles Erkhert, in a Dec. 10, 1941 address. “Twenty-seven bombs hit the main barracks. They dropped about 100 bombs on Hickam, practically all hits.”
Wheeler Field was the first HAF installation struck, and upon seeing that they’d caught U.S. forces by surprise, the Japanese continued south to Pearl Harbor and Ford Island.
Before anyone could react to the explosions coming from Pearl, bombers, and fighters swarmed Hickam and the Marine Corps base at Ewa.
“The papers say they are poor bombardiers! They were perfect on nearly all their releases,” said Erkhart.
In less than two hours, the Japanese delivered the most terrible destruction the newly created HAF had ever sustained, destroying more than 50 percent of the unit’s aircraft, buildings, and support facilities while leaving more than 600 causalities on the three main airfields.
“I am often asked what ship I was on. When I reply that I wasn’t on a ship but was stationed at Hickam Field, I am usually asked, ‘Where is Hickam Field,’” said former Master Sgt. Thomas Pillion, 400th Signal Company. “The Japanese certainly knew!”
Still, the unprovoked attack wouldn’t go unanswered. At approximately 8:30 a.m., 14 pilots belonging to the HAF, successfully took-off in P-40s and P-36s from Haleiwa Auxiliary Field and then Wheeler.
Since military installations suffered immense damage, pilots flew missions to engage the enemy without any coordinated command and control.
“It’s tough to imagine the decisions those brave aviators had to make quickly that horrible morning,” said Wilsbach. “Their ability to assess, react, get airborne and fight back is a testimony to their readiness and character.”
By the end of the attack, 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed; 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 others were wounded.
The Japanese conceded the loss of 29 aircraft from various causes during the attack. The HAF claimed 10 confirmed Japanese kills with another four probable kills in addition to severely damaging two aircraft.
Although this was a minute victory, the brave Airmen that faced such peril head-on, helped launch America’s willpower and unification which ultimately led to a victory over the Japanese Empire.
The HAF was originally established on Oct. 19, 1940. Since then, the unit has been re-designated, discontinued, inactivated, and activated several times before it was finally re-designated as the 7 AF, Air Forces Korea on Jan. 18, 2008 at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. It is currently the oldest numbered air force in the USAF.
The 7 AF is an integral part of deterring aggression from North Korea serving under the joint U.S. Forces Korea, as the U.S. Air Force component to the U.S. and ROK Combined Forces Command's Air Component Command.
“Today, in the Republic of Korea, the amazing Airmen in the Seventh Air Force continue the proud legacy of the Hawaiian Air Force. Like our predecessors, we stand ready to deter, defend against and defeat our enemies,” said Wilsbach.
(Archive interviews taken from 7 December 1941: The Air Force Story)