Firsthand Account of Pearl Harbor
The following story was written by my grandfather about his experience at Pearl Harbor on the fateful day of December 7th, 1941. All credit goes to him, not only for preserving history but for his actions on that day. I am only sharing a story that has been in our family for generations.
I did not know my grandfather very well. It is funny how you don’t really know much about family sometimes. Much of it comes out later in life after they are no longer with you. He was a quiet reserved man like most of us in my family. Yet you can see the touch of crazy and love of adrenaline that we seem to have inherited. His reliability and competence is something I feel we have been blessed with.
Among family members and his acquaintances it was mentioned that Bompa, as he liked to be called, was unofficially the first plane off the ground at Pearl Harbor. Reading his story it appears he gives another pilot credit. A bit of poking around does pull up this excerpt from the following book:
“On 11 April, during a squadron mission, Lt. Hagerstrom experienced his first combat engagement while flying wingman to Captain Lawrence “Killer” Kirsch, who was purported to be “the fastest man from the sack to the cockpit of an airplane!” Shortly after take off Kirsch and Hagerstrom climbed to about 10,000 feet, and Jim could see tires in the water near Oro bay, evidently the remaining signs of aircraft which had been shot down. At a range of about five miles, he saw a group of aircraft engaged in aerial combat. Kirsch and Hagerstrom climbed to gain the advantage of a higher altitude prior to joining the fight. Their attacking dive took them through a Japanese formation and resulted in Kirsch acquiring a Zero on his tail. Hagerstrom immediately maneuvered to get behind the Zero where his first attempt to fire met dead silence as his gun switch was still in the “off” position. Before he could arm the guns and pursue his target he spotted the tail of a Zero on one side of his aircraft and the nose of a second one on his other side. He quickly rolled into a dive, turned on his arming switch and pulled out of the dive to join up with a nearby P-40 which turned out to be his leader, Kirsch. After a short skirmish Jim again became separated from his flight leader but spotted what he thought was a P.40 flying behind two P-38s and increased his airspeed to join them. The trailing plane aimed out to be a Zero closing in on the P-38s and quickly became Jim’s target. As Hagerstrom maneuvered into firing position. the Zero turned to the right. and from a distance of about 500 feet. Jim gave him a long burst which caused the plane to explode and fall into the ocean. His next move was to join up with a nearby P-40 which, again, turned out to be Captain Kirsch. At this point they headed for their home strip and landed with very little fuel remaining. The combat activity had lasted about an hour. and Kirsch was also credited with the destruction of a Zero during this mission.”
Apparently there is truth to the stories…
Larry “Killer” Kirsch in his P40 Warhawk.
War – First Day
By Lawrence Kirsch
Those can’t be our planes – that hum high above the field growing into an angry buzz – because it’s early Sunday morning. The army just doesn’t fly on Sundays! I roll over sleepily and eye the alarm clock on the dresser beside the bed. It’s about eight minutes to eight.
But the mean whine of the engines which has awakened me has become the heavy racket of power driving aircraft. Then, at the crescendo of one of the dives there is a muffled heavy kaPLUNK! “The damn show-off Navy is up on maneuvers” I think drowsily. I hop out of bed to the windows to watch the doings.
At the far end of the field coal black smoke is pouring up in a huge column but my mind is too fogged with sleep to think straight. It appears to be some game. Before we can identify the planes the cha-cha-cha stutter of machine guns staccatos the morning quiet. “That’s real machine gunning I say to myself”.
The sky is full of planes diving and zooming over the hangar line a couple of blocks to the South. I pick out one in particular. It has a long unretractable landing gear and strange looking wing tips. It pulls out of it’s dive sharply, more suddenly than any of our planes could do. A missile drops from it’s belly fifty feet above a hangar top. BLAM! A jarring thud. As it chandelles away my stomach turns leaden A huge red eye, a rising sun, glares at me from the bottom of a wing.
“It’s the Japs” I say automatically. My voice trembles strangely. It’s like watching a newsreel.
It doesn’t seem possible. It can’t be true. Something’s crazy.
Across the street come two friends and their battered wives, running with panic from their apartment, which is closer to the field. We see one plane veer, come down, and it’s machine guns begin to spit, loud and close. One of the two girls falls flat.
I wait to see no more. “The sonsabitches”, I mumble, feeling the blood pound up my neck. I run upstairs to slap on a flying suit and shoes. “Must get to the planes” is all I can think.
As I get into the car the two pilots join me, and here comes one more, still dressing. They pile in. The car starts and we swing towards the street. But here comes a plane, unmistakably at us, It looks as if it will dive straight through the windshield. The doors burst open and we scatter like a bunch of rabbits. One of the pilots tells me later that bullets actually kicked dirt in his eyes as he lay prone.
The plane streak by. Three of us jump back in and drive like mad down the street towards the hangar line. We’re all ducking low on the seat as plane after plane whizzes over us shooting at the hangar line and for all we know, at us. Other cars are racing with us. There’s a big open space to cross before we get to the Officer’s Club.
Someone yells, “Get across this spot fast!” I can only think , as I flatten the accelerator, “What a way to die – shot in the back like a running burglar!”
The hangars are black and red with smoke and flame. Bombs and machine guns are deafeningly doing their work, their bullets darting about like a bunch of crazy bees. A few of our planes in front of one hangar are untouched as yet and we park the car and decide to try to get to them. But the gunnery is too intense, especially as the Japs are starting to concentrate their incendiary shells on the parked planes. It would be suicide to try and reach the line.
I run up to a non-com’s house on the main street and squat against the wall facing the field. I stick my neck around the corner to see if it would be safer on the other side, but the planes are diving from all angles now in a methodical pattern. I might as well face the hangars and watch the show, even though the huge air base barracks across the street may offer a tempting target to a bomber.
Some cars are racing down the main avenue in front of me and tracer bullets seem to bracket them in red streaks, bouncing towards me as they hit the pavement. The noise is terrific – deafening. What a nightmare!
A corporal with blood drained face squats on his heels beside me. “Not much we can do, is there?” I grin at him, or try to grin. He turns his head and stares at me mutely, blank, as if I were a post.
Across the street stands a field guard, calmly watching the proceedings as he leans against a small tree. Does he think the whole thing is some kind of maneuver? Or is he daffy? Bullets really zip about him. Two more soldiers, prone beside a lumber pile near him yell and beckon him to cover. But he ignores them.
I think “which way will I fail? How will hey find my body sprawled if one of these slugs hits me in the head?” The POW-POW-POW of the planes automatic cannons is hard on the nerves.
Suddenly the racket ceases. I crane a cautious neck around the corner and survey the sky. They must be through. I run across the street downhill towards the hangars. At the lumber pile one of the two soldiers has not arisen. His pants are scarlet above the knee. I yell at the guard by the tree to run for a stretcher and he trots off like an automaton.
Men are emerging from underneath buildings. They are grimy with dirt and look as if they can’t believe they are untouched. I bump into two majors. “Get all the good planes on the field”, one of them yells.
Running down that last fifty yards onto the ramp is like descending into some noisy black and red pit. Row after row of parked P-40’s standing like patient blind men are ablaze from the incendiary bullets. I feel that they have been awaiting a terrible and unknown doom.
Only an occasional one here and there has failed to ignite, even though riddled with shells. The hangar line is devoid of any life – it is a lurid stage, set for a horrific scene.
Our hangar is worst hit I notice as I keep trotting down the ramp. The noise from the cracking flames and falling walls is almost as bad as the gunning has been. Smoke and ashes billow about. The burning planes pop, spit, and shower sparks as if in protest to their unexpected destruction. The whole mess stuns one’s mind.
Something is moving in the blackened space between the hangar and planes. It is an arm, rising and falling, a feeble attempt to summon help. The man is hardly distinguishable in the shambles from this distance. But as I approach I see his uniform is mostly blown off and in shreds. His face is black and greenish. I can barely make out his eyes. “My leg is broken” he yells, trying to raise himself on an elbow.
I cup my hands to my mouth and yell “Lie still, I’ll get a stretcher right away!” Broken leg – God! It is split open neatly from hip almost to ankle The white bone is clearly visible. Strangely enough it does not seem to bleed.
The first plane I try to start grinds furiously and refuses. Gas drains from the holes in the tanks and I sit on the windshield glass which has fallen into the seat.
Men are running about on the ramp now. We push one good plane away from the confusion. Another one, with a flat tire, gets a lift from a tug. I see the general striding by grimly. Seawards, towards Pearl Harbor, the sky is split by the same kind of coal black smoke. And from time to time we pause and gaze in that direction, note the puffs of anti-aircraft fire and think “They’re really getting it now!”
Most of the movable planes are out of the way now. Remaining, like charred blue tombstones, are the ungurned engines pitifully pointed skywards as they rest on their bent propellers. Their fuselages trail out in blackened smudges behind them. They look like fish heads on an Ocean wharf.
They were the planes we had learned to fly, to stunt, and to shoot. Planes we had come to identify with the field, with our daily course of living. With ourselves. We had cussed at them, mistreated them – but somehow there was a band between us. They were our defenseless friends, butchered without warning.
Our own fiercely burning hangar draws our attention. Ammunition stored there keeps burning away, exploded by the heat. Part of the iron walls has fallen over an outer portion of the cases of the 50 and 30 caliber shells, stacked there recently in preparation for a move to another island to the West. We push and tug the iron away, form a line, and pass the heavy boxes of ammunition arm to arm from the inside of the hangar to the safety of the ramp. Why nobody is struck by one of many exploding bullets farther inside is a mystery. Faces about me are blackened and drawn. One private, very eager, is big and loud and believes he is running the whole rescue business. The Captain is standing next to him and gets orders from the private to move cases along faster. I’m forced to grin.
Firemen are hosing a burned gas truck to one side of us and I wangle the hose away from them. We retrace it through several tents so that it will reach our hangar. Finally we get it bear enough so that the stream will reach and I open the nozzle. Aha! One of my lifetime ambitions is fulfilled – I am working a fire hose!
Suddenly a great yell rises. The mass of men working along the hangars, like a wheat field in a gust of wind, flows away fromt he ramp in one lashing wave. “Here they come again” is the cry. We can hear the approaching plane engines and we drop the hose and run with the rest.
At the top of the hill we pause and survey the sky. It evidently is a pair of planes returning from Pearl Harbor. They are shot down several minutes later by two of our planes who have flown up from an outlying field.
One plane crashes a half mile from the field, and in later hours about fifty three persons claim to have made the shot which got it. One lieutenant with a shotgun, a private with a pistol, a civilian with a 22 rifle, a ground machine gunner – all are sure they are the killers!
About this time in comes a B17, half crippled and scared to death by the chasing he has been getting as he arrived in a long formation flight from San Fransisco. He lands directly n the hangar line, a feat not only difficult to do but against all air regulations. The General himself strides up to bawl him out, but the pilot just steps down and throws his arm around the General’s shoulders. “General” he smiles with a quaver in his voice, “I’m so damn glad to be down on solid earth alive. I don’t care if I landed on the hangar roofs!”
We swap stories as we catch our breaths. One pilot who had driven up from his home on Pearl Harbor has seen at least two big ships sunk by torpedo and bombs. One guard at Hickam Field they say stood immovable at port-arms for half an hour after the attack. Officers kept telling him to lay his gun aside and help. Finally they had to pry the gun from his hands.
I like the story about the one GI who was missed after the raid and everyone thought he had taken for the hills. But someone finally remembered seeing him running across the street just as a bomb hit the corner of the nearby barracks. He must have been a clean hit. That same bomb blew a running man’s head one way and his body another. Anyhow, not a particle of the first GI was ever identified. Although come to think of it, they said that one man, while rummaging in the debris picked up a battered shoe. Inside the shoe was someone’s foot.
Larry Kirsch in New Guinea several years into the War.
As we return from the hangars the second time some of the men are working bedecked with bloody bandages. But they wear grins too. Tin helmets, gas masks, and hip pistols have put in an appearance.
I help pile ammunition into a truck and spend some time dispersing it out to the planes which have been stuck in the bunkers around the field. Mechanics have their hands full, taking parts from badly damaged planes to renovate less damaged ones. Armament men are just as busy loading the guns. Squadrons are getting organized in their respective dispersal conditions.
Alarming reports keep coming in from the Honolulu radio station: Jap troop ships flying the American flag; a major fleet engagement Southwest of the Island; parachutists landing at Barber’s point. We don’t relish the thought of being prisoners for some years to come!
Around 1pm I get in on a patrol flight of four patched up planes. There is not an instrument working in any of them. Below us, Southwest of the island about fifteen or twenty Navy ships are zigzagging around in their methodical patterns. We can’t see if they have any opposition, but there is anti-aircraft fire in a line of black puffs above the ships.
I twist and turn my neck searching the sky. Then my heart jumps. There are four black specs out to sea and above us. On the radio I start calling our leader, but he cannot seem to make them out. “They’re coming this way!” I shout, and start imagining Jap slugs tearing into my vitals. I can make out six planes now, approaching us in formation.
“Take the lead and point them out!” calls the leader. I swing ahead, point ship, and waggle wings. “Okay” answers the leader and climbs up to meet them. The “bogies” make a slow arc and start to descend straight at us. It will be a head on meeting. I feel rather glad I am the last man in flight. But it turns out to be another friendly P-40 patrol, and the leaders rock their wings in relief. My hand is very sweaty on the stick.
Just after we get back they call for two pilots to transfer to Bellows Field, our gunnery camp on the Northeast side of the island. I am one who happens to be handy, grab a parachute, check out of headquarters and race down the highway in a command car driven by a bandaged wild man. At every intersection stands an M.P. waving traffic along. By army orders civilian cars are abandoned along the road.
Skirting Pearl Harbor, invulnerable Pearl Harbor, we look out on the still burning Arizona and other sunken ships. One’s huge, bare bottom is turning skywards. Another pair is sunk to their rails and tilted at crazy angles. It is a pitiful sight. Honolulu is devoid of any traffic and we make Bellows Field in record time.
Here no bombing was done. Evidently the enemy planes sent to attack the nearby Navy auxiliary station at Kaneohe saw, just by chance, the pursuit planes stationed at Bellows. This squadron had been told to load it’s guns and go on the alert, but they had no word of the actual attack until the Navy station began to get in.
One pilot ran out to his plane. He was sprayed with lead and fell under the wing. Another barely made off the ground and was murdered from behind. A third flew a few miles down the coast , taking off despite the fact that he had witnessed two deaths. He managed to bail out of a riddled plane and swim safely to shore.
More exchanges of tales as we arrive. Dusk falls soon and with it comes our first blackout. A cigarette butt may mean a beacon to the enemy, or death to it’s owner – so nervous are the guards. Walking about is dangerous to shin and head alike , and with the repeated challenge “HALT! Who goes there?” makes one jump ever time. We fumble about in the mess tent munching a scant supper and we talk in low, tired tones. At present we discover we are the strongest squadron on the island.
For a time after supper we sit in cars, drink canned beer, and listen to mainland radio broadcasts of the blitz which has struck.
A glow of light across the mountains, from the Honolulu side,attracts our attention, and we surmise it to be a fire or anti-aircraft shooting. It turns out to be the latter, which mistakenly shoots down one of our own Navy planes coming in off a carrier.
A flashing pinpoint light at the end of the runway lures a bunch of us out. Like boys playing cops and robbers we stoop low and run in crouches from dune to dune, and keep reassuring ourselves that we are not jittery by saying “Yes, I am sure I saw a light.” One officer raises a hullabaloo when he finds a crouching figure in a hole. It turns out to be a guard, almost too scared by the ruckus to talk. It is pitch black and spooky. A steady wind whispers and soughs in from the sea.
Finally exhausted, I crawl into a bunk. It belongs to one of the killed boys. Before I start to doze thee is a far off mumbling and then a yell “MAKE WAY FOR THE PRISONERS!” Out of the tents we dash, About five soldiers with pointed rifles are herding two little sweat shirt clad Japs to the guardhouse. They have been showing lights from a shack in a cane field.
“Keep your hands up you dirty sonsabitches,” the sergeant in charge keeps up a steady monologue. “Who is more frightened” I wonder, “himself or the prisoners?” “Stop here!” he roars. “Don’t move!”
We get back to bed when they’re taken inside the guardhouse for questioning. I can’t keep awake for much longer. What a day it’s been. I am too exhausted to review it all; too glad to be in bed to think of what the day’s doings may mean to history and to our futures, Somehow I feel at peace; that they will not come back.
“Make W-A-A-Y for the prisoners!” My eyes open again. More thudding of feet up the hill to the guardhouse. I cannot budge – just strain to hear what is being said. The commotion dies down again after a bit.
Two pilots in the next tent get up and walk around the outside. One of them mutters “I just can’t get to sleep. Don’t feel like it at all. “An answer, and their footsteps and low voices drift away.
The wind whooshes about the tent. It brings the sound of the sea. Above my head the loose canvas of the tent slaps lazily, soothingly.