‘Sunday in Hell’ author details two hours on Pearl Harbor that changed history

The following is an excerpt from the book “Sunday in Hell: Pearl Harbor Minute by Minute” by Bill McWilliams. Copyright (c) 2011 by Bill McWilliams. Reprinted with the permission of Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.

On Thursday, 4 December, the U.S. Navy’s guarded, highly classified radio receiving station in Cheltonham, Maryland, intercepted a Japanese overseas “News” broadcast from Station JAP (Tokyo) on 11980 kilocycles. The broadcast began at 8:30 a.m., corresponding to 1:30 a.m. in Hawaii, and 10:30 p.m., 5 December, in Tokyo. The broadcast was probably in Wabun, the Japanese equivalent of Morse Code, and was originally written in syllabic katakana characters, a vastly simpler and phonetic form of written Japanese. It was recorded in Cheltonham on a special typewriter, developed by the Navy, which typed the Roman-letter equivalents of the Japanese characters.

The Winds Message broadcasts, which Japanese embassies all over the world had been alerted to listen to in a 19 November coded message, was forwarded to the Navy Department by TWX (teletype exchange) from the teletype-transmitter in the “Intercept” receiving room at Cheltenham to “WA91,” the page-printer located beside the GY Watch Officer’s desk in the Navy Department Communication Intelligence Unit under the command of Navy Captain Lawrence F. Safford. 

The 4 December message was one of the last key intelligence intercepts the Navy was decoding and translating, in attempts to determine Japanese intentions and plans during their deteriorating diplomatic relations and negotiations with the United States. There was some delay and uncertainty in decoding and translating the message, which, as indicated in the Japanese government’s 19 November message, would be contained in the Tokyo news broadcasts’ weather reports. After considerable discussion of the 4 December intercept, senior Naval Intelligence officers concluded the message meant an imminent break in diplomatic relations with Great Britain, at least, and probably the United States - since the embassies had received instructions to destroy their codes. Code destruction and replacement was a routine procedure at regular, specified intervals throughout the year, but ominously, the most recent order to destroy codes didn’t fit the normal pattern of Japanese behavior in managing their most secret codes.

But unknown to American intelligence another more ominous message had been sent to the combined fleet at 0730 hours on 2 December, Tokyo time, Monday, 1 December in Washington and Hawaii. Sent by Admiral Yamamoto’s chief of Naval General Staff, Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki, it was to become one of the most famous messages in naval history. “Climb Mount Niitaka, 1208.” It signaled that X-Day - the day to execute the Japanese war plan - was 0000 December 8, Japan time. Nagumo’s task force received the information at 2000 hours, and at this hour was about 940 miles almost directly north of Midway, well beyond the arc of U.S. reconnaissance flights.

U.S. Army Air Forces aircraft destroyed by Japanese raiders at Wheeler Air Field Dec. 7. Wikipedia


Saturday evenings on Oahu were normally filled with relaxed revelry, sprinkled with “happy hours” in the local hotel lounges and bars, dinners at restaurants and clubs, dances, floor shows, quiet gatherings with families and friends, and walks on the beaches. On the military installations, in the officers’ clubs, enlisted recreation centers, and other locations on bases and posts, similar activities occur. 

Tracing its origins to the early 1900s, the Navy’s School of Music opened in Washington, D.C. in 1935 and operated in conjunction with the U.S. Navy Band. Students enrolled in the school in this era were interviewed in advance, selected for attendance, graduated in complete ensembles, and transferred aboard ship.

At Pearl Harbor, a crowd gathered at the new Bloch Recreation Center the night of the 6th for “The Battle of the Bands,” the last elimination round of a Pacific Fleet music tournament begun the previous 13 September and held every two weeks, with the final competition planned for 20 December. The Bloch Recreation Center was a place designed to give the enlisted man every kind of relaxation the Navy felt proper - music, boxing, bowling, billiards, and 3.2 beer. Called by some “The Battle of Music,” “The Battle of the Bands” featured Navy bands primarily from “capital ships” home ported in Pearl Harbor and those attached to shore installations in Hawaii. Four bands were to compete in each round of the tournament with one winner per round selected to perform in the final competition rounds. The (USS) Arizona band won the first round in September, and several of its members attended this night, to listen to their future “competition” - tonight’s winner. 

Each band performed a swing number, a ballad and one specialty tune, then played for the jitterbug contest. Competing this final night of the elimination round, were only three bands. As the men stomped and cheered, bands from the battleships Pennsylvania (BB-38) and Tennessee, and the fleet support ship, Argonne (AG-31), fought it out to go to the finals. The Pennsylvania band won, everybody sang “God Bless America,” and the evening wound up with dancing. When the crowd filed out at midnight, many argued that the best band of the tournament thus far was the Arizona’s.

The threat of hostilities on Oahu seemed farfetched to all but a few. 


Gordon W. Prange, in “At Dawn We Slept,” recorded the chain of events that followed the deployment of the Japanese Empires’ midget submarines early the morning of 7 December: “A waning moon peeked through the broken overcast to glimmer on the waters off Pearl Harbor. About ‘1 3/4 miles south of entrance buoys,’ the minesweepers Condor and Crossbill plied their mechanical brooms. At 0342 something in the darkness ‘about fifty yards ahead off the port bow’ attracted the attention of Ensign Russell G. McCloy, Condor’s Officer of the Deck. He called to Quartermaster Second Class R.C. Uttrick and asked him what he thought. Uttrick peered through binoculars and said, ‘That’s a periscope, sir, and there aren’t supposed to be any subs in this area.’”


USS Nevada afire off the Ford Island seaplane base, with her bow pointed up-channel. The volume of fire and smoke is actually from USS Shaw, which is burning in the floating dry dock YFD-2 in the left background. Wikipedia

In just 90 minutes the Japanese had launched 350 aircraft toward their targets. 

The Zeroes’ (fast, highly maneuverable, heavily-armed fighters, also called Zekes) first, low-altitude strafing passes at Kaneohe were deadly, and the  effects of the remaining 32 in the first wave would prove devastating everywhere that morning. Each carried two rapid-fire 20-mm canons, one in the leading edge of each wing, and two 7.7-mm machine guns mounted on the nose of the fighter, in the engine cowling. To increase the amount of damage caused during their strafing runs, the Japanese loaded their ammunition in the following order: two armor piercing, one tracer; two armor piercing, one tracer; two armor piercing, one incendiary. With this loading the bullets would not only kill, but would shred thin metal, pierce light to moderately thick armor, gasoline and oil tanks, do fatal damage to vehicles, engines, aircraft and anti-aircraft guns - and start fires. 

In the first eight minutes of the air assault on Oahu, the Zekes were commencing the near-total destruction of the Navy’s long range patrol capability on the island. Follow-on attacks by Zekes and horizontal bombing Kates (equipped with torpedoes) and additional fighters in the second wave would bring more death and destruction to Kaneohe Naval Air Station.

Along the beach in Waimanalo to the southeast of Kaneohe, all was serene at Bellows Field until about dawn, when the acting first sergeant ran into the tent area to rouse the sleeping men, yelling that Kaneohe had been ‘blown all to hell.’ Corporal McKinley thought he was crazy and just turned over in his bed. At 0810, someone called from Hickam Field and asked for a fire truck because they ‘were in flames.’ A return call disclosed … they had been attacked, so the Bellows fire chief left for Hickam with the fire truck.

While the men of the 86th rushed to defend against the next onslaught, the three 44th fighter pilots were determined to get into the air as soon as possible. Squadron maintenance men scrambled to disperse, fuel and arm their aircraft. 

Time was of the essence. In another half hour, the second wave’s attack would bring much more than a single Zeke fighter strafing Bellows Field on one pass. Though none from the 86th died at Bellows Field that day, and only three were wounded on a field still under construction, two more of their number received wounds in the Japanese assault on Hickam Field - and two of the 44th’s three pilots would die at Bellows, with the other wounded in desperate, vain, raging attempts to get airborne and strike back at the now-declared enemy. 

The worst was in progress elsewhere, far worse. Between dawn, when the 86th’s acting first sergeant told of Kaneohe’s attack, 0810 hours, when the call for a fire truck came from Hickam, and 0830, when the Zeke roared through on a strafing pass, hell was visiting the island of Oahu. Wheeler Field, the home of the Hawaiian Air Force’s air and fleet defense, the 14th Pursuit Wing, was the first Army Air Force field struck on Oahu. By 0900, when the second wave struck Bellows and completed their work on Kaneohe, the fierce Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and other military installations on the island had become a never-to-be-forgotten, bloody, American national disaster.

Startled, at-first-uncertain and disbelieving men on the ground and aboard ships, all disciplined and trained to respond in a crisis, and fight, were momentarily puzzled. Then they saw bombs or torpedoes released, the white-hot blinking of machine guns and 20-mm canons, the flash of orange insignia - “meatballs” - on the underside of wings or the sides of fuselages, heard a few shouted warnings, the roar of low flying airplanes, and the violent explosions of bombs or torpedoes in the stunning few moments before reality struck home. In the normal preparations for Sunday morning breakfast, church services, a weekend of liberty, lowered crew manning, absence of warning, and low defense alert condition, disaster quickly flourished. While torpedoes, bombs, cannon fire and machine gun bullets tore into the attackers’ primary target, the Pacific Fleet, setting off thunderous explosions, starting numerous fires, and a huge, all-consuming inferno on the battleship Arizona, the men on Army Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps airfields suffered their own brand of hell. Before one hour and forty-five minutes passed, total Army Air Force casualties on Oahu climbed to 163 killed, 336 wounded, and 43 missing. Of these, Hickam Field’s losses were 121 killed, 274 wounded, and 37 missing. Out of 231 Hawaiian Air Force aircraft, 64 were destroyed, 93 damaged and only 74 were left in repairable condition. Hangars at both Hickam and Wheeler were severely damaged. An aircraft repair station in Hickam’s Hawaiian Air Depot was completely destroyed. 12 Kate torpedo-bombers charged low across the water from the southeast and east, after passing at 50 feet altitude southeast of Hickam Field’s hangar line, and past the south and north ends of Ford Island across the harbor from the west toward the main dock and ships in the north harbor, while other torpedo-bombers pressing in from the east and southeast unleashed devastating attacks on the battleships and other ships in the harbor. Val dive bombers, with a two-man crew of pilot and radioman/ gunner, and Kate horizontal bombers from the northeast and southwest almost simultaneously launched shattering dive-bomb and fighter attacks on aircraft and hangar facilities on Hickam Field, Ford Island, and nearby Marine Corps’ Mooring Mast Field at Ewa - while to the northwest, Wheeler Field took staggering blows beginning moments following the assault on NAS Kaneohe Bay. 

Clockwise: Planes and a hangar burning at the Ford Island Naval Air Station’s seaplane base, during or immediately after the air raid. The ruined wings of a PBY Catalina patrol plane are at left and in the center. A Japanese midget submarine after having been raised by the U.S. Navy at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard in December 1941. One of the 29 Japanese aircraft lost on Dec. 7, this ‘Val’ dive bomber trails flames from its right wing. The National WWII Museum.

Wheeler Field, struck shortly before 0800, was home for the Hawaiian Air Force’s entire pursuit (interceptor) force, which was the 14th Pursuit Wing, composed of the 15th and 18th Pursuit Groups. A successful attack on Wheeler would virtually assure air superiority. The Japanese took Wheeler Field completely by surprise, as they did every other installation on Oahu. No one on the ground sighted the oncoming Val dive bombers until they made their final turn for the attack. Aircraft and maintenance facilities along the flight line were the primary targets. Supply depots, barracks and people anywhere in the vicinity of these targets, were secondary but also received devastating blows. The Japanese pilots were too well trained to waste their bombs and ammunition on insignificant targets. One bomb did land in the front yard of a house, but it was the result of a miss rather then a deliberate attack on the housing area. 

The multi-direction attacks by the bombers and fighters added confusion and chaos to the abject fear and terror of defenseless men scrambling for cover and weapons to defend themselves against an enemy bent on destruction of the field’s mission capability. Observations and recollections of events differed widely among those on the receiving end of the destructive weapons tearing Wheeler Field apart. According to some, the first place hit was the gas storage dump on the southwest corner of the base, where all of Wheeler’s flammables such as gas, turpentine, and lacquer were kept. Most witnesses, however, reported that the first bomb struck Hangar 1, where the base engineering shops were located. The tremendous blast blew out skylights, and clouds of smoke billowed upward, making it appear the entire hangar was lifted off its foundation. The explosion decimated the sheet metal, electrical, and paint shops in the front half of the hangar, but spared the machine and wood shops, and tool room, which were protected by a concrete-block, dividing wall. 20 The bomb that hit Hangar 3 had struck the hangar sheltering the central ammunition storage area, where, because of the Hawaiian Department’s Alert One status, the ammunition unloaded from aircraft, including rounds pulled from machine gun belts, had been stored. The hangar’s exploding ammunition, going off like firecrackers in the flames, severely limited the ability to defend Wheeler Field against the continuing air attack.

Immediately behind the completed first wave of dive bombing attacks came the bombers, back again joining the fighters in follow-on, low level strafing attacks. The 72nd Pursuit Squadron tent area between Hangars 2 and 3 came under heavy attack. 

The new P-40 fighter planes were being blown to bits, their burning parts scattering along the ramp in all directions, setting other planes on fire. One P-40 fell in two pieces, its prop pointing almost straight up. A P-36 exploded, hurling flaming debris upon a nearby tent, setting it ablaze.

At times there were over 30 fighters and dive bombers attacking Wheeler from every direction, a tactic used on every target complex on Oahu. The well-planned and executed tactic was designed not only to destroy fighter opposition on the ground and ships in the harbor, but to confuse and overwhelm gunners who might try to mount an effective antiaircraft defense. While aiming and firing in one direction at an airborne target, approaching fighter pilots pressing attacks at low altitude could see and cut down the defenders from another direction.

At the Marines’ Mooring Mast Field, Ewa (pronounced Eva), on the southwest coastal plain of Oahu, near Barbers Point, the first wave hit as the Japanese began their deadly assault on Ford Island and the ships in Pearl Harbor. At 0740, when Fuchida’s air armada closed to within a few miles of Kahuku Point, the forty-three Zekes split away from the rest of the formation, swinging out north and west of Wheeler Field, the headquarters of the Hawaiian Air Force’s 18th Pursuit Wing. Passing further south, at about 0745 the Soryu and Hiryu divisions executed a hard, diving turn to port and headed north toward Wheeler. Eleven Zekes from Shokaku and Zuikaku simultaneously left the formation and flew east, crossing over Oahu north of Pearl Harbor to attack NAS Kaneohe Bay. Eighteen Zekes from Akagi and Kaga headed toward what the Japanese called Babasu Pointo Hikojo (Barbers Point Airdrome) - Ewa Mooring Mast Field. 

By the time alerts were shouted, torpedoes were in the water. No time to react and more Kates followed behind, coming at the largest, most exposed targets among the battleships: Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, Nevada, and California.