Smoke rises from Clark Field after a Japanese air attack.
Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is one of the most holy days in the Philippine Christian calendar. On the eve of the Feast in 1941, there was a festive mood all around. Because of international dateline, it was Saturday, Dec. 6, 1941 in Hawaii, but across the Pacific Ocean west of the International Date Line in Manila, it was already Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. The Americans were holding a big birthday bash for Brigadier General Lewis Brereton, MacArthur’s Army Air Force commander at the Manila Hotel given by 1,200 men of the 27th Bombardment Group.
While the party was going on in Manila, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, some 320 miles north of Hawaii, Commander Kanjiro Ono of the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi was listening to the radio. The radio showed nothing but some soft island music playing on the radio. He was staff communications officer for Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo who was commanding a huge Japanese task force of six carriers, two battleships, three cruisers, and nine destroyers that were racing quietly southward through the night. The Japanese fleet had moved across the Pacific Ocean under complete silence. He knew that the American had not the slightest idea of the upcoming attack. Admiral Nagumo relaxed, confident that the plan will be carried out without a hitch.
Shortly before 8 am, five thousand miles away aboard the battleship Nagato, the Japanese Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto sent out a message to the whole Japanese fleet: “Niitakayama nobore” (Climb Mount Niitaka), a special code which means war with America should proceed.
The first wave of Japanese bombers struck at 7:55 A.M. Hawaii time when the Army, Navy and Marine airfields were in a typical Sunday peacetime morning relaxation. At Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Pacific fleet had been caught napping. A second wave came over at 8:40 A.M.
In less than two hours, more than 350 Japanese bombers, torpedo bombers and fighters attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor and the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy incurred heavy losses mostly aircrafts on the ground. The U.S. entire fleet stationed in Hawaii was badly crippled. Six American battleships – West Virginia, Tennessee, Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma and California – were either sunk or badly damaged. Three light cruisers were damaged, three destroyers were torn by bombs and four other ships were sunk or damaged, all unserviceable. The U.S. was very lucky that all four American aircraft carriers and five cruisers as well as most destroyers assigned to the Pacific were away on exercises or on missions away from Pearl Harbor. Thousands of servicemen were either killed or wounded and there were hundreds of civilian killed in the attack. The Navy lost more than 2700 men either killed or wounded. The Army and Marine Corps lost more than 700 men either killed or wounded. Not only the huge naval base in Pearl Harbor suffered losses, Japanese high-flying bombers also wreaked havoc on the Army Air Force bases at Hickham Field and Wheeler Field.
In Manila, ten minutes after the first bomb hit Pearl Harbor, a startled radio operator at Asiatic Fleet headquarters intercepted an unencrypted Morse Code from Adm. Husband Kimmel, the Honolulu-based Pacific Fleet Commander: “AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR. THIS IS NO DRILL”. He alerted his duty officer, Marine Lt. Col. William T. Clement, who in turn contacted Admiral Hart who failed to relay the message to anybody. An enlisted army signalman happened to tune in to a California radio station and heard it and immediately told his duty officer who in turn phoned Brigadier Spencer B. Akin, MacArthur Signal Corps chief who went directly to Major Richard Sutherland, MacArthur’s chief of staff who then called MacArthur penthouse atop the Manila Hotel.
MacArthur could not believe it and supposedly exclaimed, “Pearl Harbor! It should be our strongest point.” At 3:40 am, he got a call from Washington, DC confirming the news. Even after the attack was confirmed by Washington, D.C., MacArthur for some reason failed to act for five long hours. Maj. Gen. Lewis Brereton, MacArthur’s commander of the air force, wanted to launch an immediate attack on the Japanese airfields on Formosa but did not get an answer until 10:10 A.M. but only to launch a photo reconnaissance of Formosa, in preparation for an air strike which was the first step before an attack by the B-17s the next day. As a result, his aircrew decided to go to chow instead while his planes, eighteen B-17s, assorted fighters, mostly P-39 Air Cobras and P-40 Tomahawks were parked outside exposed to enemy fire.
Just a few hours later, on the same day Pearl Harbor was attacked, December 8 west of the international dateline, powerful Japanese bombers, stationed in Formosa did a “Second Pearl Harbor” in the Philippines, five thousand miles west of Hawaii. The first Japanese bombs to fall on Philippine soil hit Camp John Hay in Baguio. The Japanese bombers stationed in Taiwan just north of the Philippines bombed Iba airfields destroying all sixteen P-40’s on the ground or about to touch down. They also did great damage to Clark Air Base. Coming in several V-shaped formations, the Japanese pilots was surprised to find the sky clear and rows and rows of planes on the ground. They dropped bomb after bomb on the parked planes.
When the last Japanese planes left Clark and turned toward Formosa, they had destroyed eighteen of the 35 B-17s, along with fifty-three P-40s and thirty other crafts. Half of MacArthur’s air force was gone within the first hour of the war and several men dead. The base was totally destroyed. Tank after tank blew up and flames could be seen as far away as Manila. The Japanese had bombed and strafed the key U.S. air bases on Luzon: Iba, Clark, Nichols, Nielson, Vigan, Rosales, La Union and San Fernando fields.
Shortly after noon on December 8, Washington, D.C. time, President Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress demanding a state of war against Japan be recognized. “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.” He went on to tell the places that were attacked and the casualties. He then offered assurance that we would win the war – “With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounded determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God.” The American people were stunned.
The speech lasted only six minutes but in less than an hour Congress responded with only a single dissenting vote – Representative Jeannette Rankin, a pacifist from Montana who said she wanted to show that a “good democracy” did not always vote unanimously for war. The Senate passed, voted unanimously for an all-out declaration of war, eighty-two to nothing and the House passed it three hundred eighty-eight to one.
On a personal note, my father was in Mankayan, 95 kilometers north of Baguio, about 465 kilometers from home when Camp John Hay was bombed. Worry and fear set in as to how he would get back home. My mother was with her sister in Batangas delivering some embroidered clothes for her mother. All she could think of when she heard the news that Baguio was bombed was my father who was near Baguio. It took Dad almost a month to get home on foot on Jan. 6, 1942. No transportation was available. It took them another year and a half to get married. I was nowhere.
Reminiscences by Douglas MacArthur
The Pacific War by William B Hopkins
American Caesar by William Manchester
Until next time. The Philippine history continues . . .