Military Life in December 1941

When the events of the early days of the U.S. entering World War II are recounted, the most often heard story is that of thousands of Americans who volunteered to fight. What about those men who were already in the military? How did their lives change? Through the diary entries of men from the Fifth Air Force, we can give you some insight into what they experienced before and after Pearl Harbor was attacked.

From Lewis “Tad” Ford of the 33rd Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group

…when December 7th came, I got my first day off in a month., why it was a real boon. Days off were assigned by crew and Disbro had his own plans, so I slept late, floated into town, and went to a show to see Sgt. York in mid-afternoon. I was surprised about halfway through the picture to see my name come up on a caption underneath the movie, saying “Lieutenant Ford, report to the box office.” A driver was waiting for me with a staff car to give me a ride back to Langley field: Pearl Harbor had happened.”
We were first told to move all of our personal goods back to the field into the VOQ. Then we were told, no, don’t. Pack everything you don’t want to take with you and send it home. Then, back in the Squadron we spent three or four hours loading the bomb bays with all sorts of maintenance gear. Then we went to our quarters to get as much sleep as we could.
I lived with four other guys. At about 3:30 I took the first telephone call telling Lancaster to report out to the squadron at 4:15. Five minutes later I got one regarding Robbie, and then another for Hitchcock, and finally my own. So, we all ended up at the squadron at 4:15. At 5:am, 12/8 we were wheels up on the way west as a group, 60 airplanes in all.
The only important thing that happened between there and Muroc Dry Lake [Edwards Air Force Base in California] was that Mark Lewis got killed at El Paso, leaving us with Millard Haskins as the group commander.

Built next to a dry lake, Muroc Air Base was initially an extension of March Field in 1941, mainly used for submarine patrols off the southwestern US coast. The 22nd Bomb Group briefly flew patrols from Muroc before the unit departed the United States. (Robin Highham Collection)

Excerpt of a letter from from Gerald C. Cook of the 2nd Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group

“Practice makes perfect.” This seemed to be the goal of the 22nd. We made many practice runs in order to be ready for any eventuality which might occur because of war in Europe. Then on 12/7 Pearl Harbor took place. As soon as the news reached the US, the 22nd BG officers alerted all of its personnel to return to base as soon as possible. We started the mad rush to get every plane ready for a flight to the west coast within 24 hours. This was a tremendous feat for so much to be done in so short a time! We reached the set goal, and within 24 hours the entire 22nd BG took off en mass and headed west.
It was while we were flying over the state of Mississippi that I so vividly remember hearing President Roosevelt address the Congress (as well as the American people) and give his Declaraion of War speech). Because of the limitations of the B-26 we could not fly all the way from the “East to West Coast. We made our first top near Tucson, AZ. That night there was an unusual rainstorm. Some of our planes got stuck in the mud and we had to wait a few days until we could get all the planes airborne again.

From the diary of Lt. Roland Birnn of the 27th and later 3rd Bomb Groups
12 December, 1941 Clark Field, Philippines

Very quiet morning. Low clouds and light rain. No fun living in the open. Talley and I went to enlisted man’s barracks 1/3 mile away for a shower. Now deserted—been bombed several times. Hear air raid warning—ignored it because it was too cloudy for a raid. Heard a second warning as I finished dressing. Went outside and saw nine bombers in a “V” formation. Ran for cover—ran like we had never ran before. Finally had to drop to the ground when the bombers got too close. We hugged the ground. Bombs dropped in train, straddled us. Just lucky. Ground sure shook—so did I.
Got up and moved farther away. Then nine more bombers came over. Clark is right on the edge of a mountain range. The bombers whipped around the mountains, just under the clouds, and were on us before we could do anything. We hit the ground again.
Rather nerve racking to lie in the open and wait for bombs to hit. They get closer and closer. The ground started to shake and the explosions hurt our ears. When attack had passed, we saw nine others off to the side. Walked back to HQ through tank area. Noticed that the bombs hit this area. One bomb hit a gun emplacement—killed everyone. Saw other wounded men being carried away. Bomb hit a B-17 on the field. They seem to know when we have anything on the field. Back in HQ area found a bomb had hit 50 feet away from my bunk. I am moving out. They know this is HQ. Japs strafed when they came over. AA got a couple of ships. We had no pursuit up.
Ordinance setting off duds now. They give no warning—just the explosion. When one goes off nearby, everyone hits the dirt. Gets a little nerve wracking. Japs now have an air base in the norther part of Luzon. Our bunch is getting administrative jobs since all the planes are burned. We’re doing the jobs the pursuit outfit was doing here. They moved into the hills. Shrapnel sure is mean looking—jagged edges are sharp as a knife. Hope I get to finish this diary. [Lt. Birnn was killed on a test flight in 1942.]

Pearl Harbor II: Attack on Clark Field

A few days prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, commander of the U.S. air forces in the Philippines, was closely watching the deterioration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Japan. A 500 mile gap that stood between the 35 B-17s under his command at Clark Field and Japanese air forces at Formosa, which was well within flying range of Japanese fighters. Concerned, Brereton requested permission to move the B-17s 500 miles south to the airfield on Del Monte, which was still under construction. On December 4th, permission was granted to move eight planes each from the 14th and 93rd Bomb Squadrons of the 19th Bomb Group.

Four days later (since they were on the other side of the International Date Line), word of the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor quickly spread around Clark Field and the men stationed there knew that it was only a matter of time before their base was attacked. Three times, Brereton requested permission to attack Formosa, which, owing to the chaos in Hawaii, was denied. Still, at 0830 15 B-17s took off to patrol the area. Brereton received a call from MacArthur himself a couple of hours later, granting him permission for the strike.

As crews prepared for the attack, a radar station on the west coast of Luzon at Iba Airfield picked up incoming Japanese aircraft before communications were cut off as the airfield was attacked. They would arrive over Clark Field within an hour. When the raid on Clark Field began, only the P-40s had been able to take off and they had been diverted from protecting Clark Field. Just like the scene at Pearl Harbor, B-17s were lined up on the runway, easy targets for the 53 “Betty” bombers above. The Japanese had expected a fierce fight from the Americans instead of a repeat of what happened hours earlier in Hawaii. Men could only watch helplessly from foxholes as their planes were bombed and strafed. In the end, most of the B-17s and about a third of the P-40s were destroyed.

In the days following the Clark Field attack, most of the 19th Bomb Group air and ground crews were moved to Del Monte. The few that stayed behind tried to repair some of the B-17s that had been damaged and to stage missions. Between combat and reconnaissance missions and being on the receiving end of several Japanese strikes, the number of operational B-17s dwindled. Allied forces had to withdraw to Java by the end of December 1941 and on February 26, 1942, all forces were ordered to withdraw from Java to Australia. By this point, the 19th Bomb Group’s replacement, the 43rd Bomb Group, was sailing toward Australia on the Queen Mary.

A Veteran Recalls the Bombing of Pearl Harbor

With the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Sunday, we thought it would be a good time to let a veteran talk about his experience. There is an abundance of these kind of videos on YouTube, but this one grabbed our interest. Not only does Jim Hardwick talk about his time at Pearl Harbor, he also outlines some of his other experiences in the military during World War II.

This video was made by Erik Johnston. If you’re interested in watching more videos by him, he has posted several interviews with other veterans on his YouTube channel.

Pearl Harbor Day

The words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt found on this website.

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our secretary of state a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday the Japanese government also launched as attack against Malaya.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.

Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Wake Island.

And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As commander in chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us. . .”


The USS Arizona on December 7, 1941.


The USS Arizona Memorial.

Photos from this site.