As we all know, the US aircraft carriers weren't at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked it on December 7th, 1941. However, they weren't far away. USS Enterprise was one of only three US carriers (along with USS Saratoga and USS Ranger) to serve throughout World War II from the first day to the last. As the Japanese attack went in, she was returning to Pearl Harbor after delivering fighter aircraft to Wake Island, soon to be occupied by Japan.
Cdr. Edward P. Stafford wrote a history of the ship, "The Big E". Published in 1962, it's become one of the classic accounts of naval warfare. I'm particularly pleased that the Enterprise car rental company, founded by a veteran who served aboard USS Enterprise during World War II and named his company for the ship, sponsored a brand-new pictorial edition of the book through the Naval Institute Press a few years ago, gathering together almost every photograph of her ever taken, to go with Cdr. Stafford's text.
It's a magnificent volume, albeit rather expensive in hardcover. I'm glad I invested in a copy - the pictures make it worth its price. Cheaper editions are also available, although without the copious illustrations. IMHO, it should be on every military and naval enthusiast's bookshelf.
From Cdr. Stafford's book, here's some of what USS Enterprise and her air group experienced on December 7th, 1941, and the following evening.
The first plane off the Enterprise the day the war began was the air group commander's. He and his wingman were airborne in two SBDs at 6:15 A.M., headed for Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor.
Twelve minutes later the rest of Scouting Six was launched to search ahead of the ships and then follow in. Lucky aviators. They would be home in two hours with the ship still eight hours at sea.
In the rear seat of Commander Brigham Young's Dauntless was a lieutenant commander on Admiral Halsey's staff with a report of the Wake delivery too highly classified for radio transmission.
By 8:20, Young was close enough to notice planes circling the Marine Corps Air Station at Ewa. He assumed they were Army aircraft. Then he saw scattered black puffs of antiaircraft bursts over Pearl and was surprised to find what seemed to be target practice taking place on Sunday morning. While he was wondering how he was going to get into Ford Island through the flak, and thinking that, if this were target practice, every safety precaution he knew was being violated, one of the Army planes he had noticed broke away from the others and swept down on him. Lieutenant Commander Bromfield B. Nichol in the rear seat saw what looked like a lot of burning cigarette butts flash past him. Where they struck the wing, pieces of aluminum shredded off. When the "Army" plane pulled up, Brig Young was at war. On wings and fuselage was the red disk of the Rising Sun.
Both SBDs dived violently for the Ford Island runway, with Young longing for the trained gunner who normally sat at his back, and Nichol tried to unlimber the .30-calibers. Both planes managed to shake off the Japanese and effect a landing despite the ships' gunners who now trusted no one and were firing at anything that flew. There was no chance in the desperate seconds between surprise attack and touch-down to warn the rest of the air group already approaching the island.
As Young rode the brakes and his Dauntless slowed, a sailor on the field leveled a machine gun at it. During the last shattering, bloody hour he had forgotten there could be any planes at Pearl Harbor not actively seeking his death. He was stopped from opening fire by a nearby pilot who advanced on him wielding a rock the size of his head.
It seemed to Brig Young that a week had passed since the dawn launch, but it was just 8:35 A.M.
Ten minutes later Lieutenant Commander Hallsted Hopping, the skipper of Scouting Six, brought his squadron in. Or most of it. No one is certain what happened to Ensign Manuel Gonzales. His last words were the first to alert the Enterprise. Out of the Sunday silence west of Oahu they came crackling from her speakers, pleading, urgent: "Please don't shoot! Don't shoot! This is an American plane." Then in a moment, evidently to his rear-seatman, "We're on fire. Bail out!" and the speakers were quiet again. He did not return and no trace was ever found. Ensign John H. L. Vogt, who had reported the fleet off Wake, never made it to Ford Island. The Marines at Ewa saw a Dauntless which was probably his, in a twisting, swirling, low altitude mix-up with two or three Zeros, fixed and free guns all firing at once. They watched it get on the tail of an enemy fighter and grimly stay there as though the pouring tracers were a towline, until the Japanese suddenly lost speed and pulled up so sharply that the Dauntless plowed into him. They didn't see anything after that because they were dodging the pieces of flaming metal that scattered for a square mile over the cane fields and the air station.
Lieutenant (j.g.) C. E. Dickinson and Ensign J. R. McCarthy came in together at 1,500 feet from their routine morning search. They too saw the smoke rising from Pearl Harbor while still far at sea and at first thought it was from the usual burning of the cane fields before harvest. But when they noticed the AA fire they guessed the truth, readied their guns and bored in after what looked to them like an enemy patrol plane. They lost it in the smoke of the burning battleships and a moment later half a dozen Japanese fighters found them.
It was not much of a fight. The Dauntless was designed to be a dive bomber. And it was an excellent one. But it was not a match for the Zeros that swarmed over Oahu that December morning. Nevertheless Dickinson's gunner, Roger Miller, shot one down before he died under the guns of the others. Both pilots had their planes riddled and were forced to bail out at low altitude.
McCarthy's leg was broken by the tail of the spinning SBD and he spent several months in the hospital. His gunner, unable to extricate himself in time, died in the crash of his plane. Dickinson landed unhurt near Ewa Field and made his way toward Ford Island. En route he watched Marines standing in the open road, professionally firing their rifles at the strafing Japs, saw the USS Nevada make its fighting sortie from Battleship Row, noted that the enemy dive bombers did not attack at the steep angle he had been trained to use, and finally was knocked flat on the concrete of Ford Island when a bomb detonated the magazine of the destroyer Shaw a few hundred yards away.
Ensign E. T. Deacon used up all his ammunition in another hopeless dogfight with the murderous Zeros and then, with a wounded leg and a shot-up aircraft, glided for Hickam Field. It was just a little too far, and he landed in the water just short of the runway, unpacked and inflated his rubber boat, lifted his wounded gunner aboard and paddled ashore. When he was certain his gunner was in good hands, he too somehow got through the burning madhouse of Pearl and across to Ford Island.
Thus did the lucky aviators of Scouting Six, who had hoped to have the precious extra hours on Oahu, come to their destination that incredible Sunday.
In the Enterprise, steaming steadily into the low morning sun for Pearl, awareness came slowly in small capsules of garbled phrases from her radios. It was as though the ship were a person to whom the bitter news could not be told in one dose.
In his flag quarters Admiral Halsey had showered and shaved and put on a clean uniform after watching the early SBDs out of sight. He breakfasted with his flag secretary, Lieutenant H. Douglas Moulton, and was on his second cup of coffee when Moulton answered the phone from Radio Central and reported an air raid on Pearl Harbor.
Halsey sprang to his feet in dismay. He was certain the Pearl gunners were firing at Lieutenant Commander Hallsted Hopping's Dauntlesses due to arrive at just that moment.
The ship's supply officer, Commander Charles Fox, was in charge of the watch in the code room. There he had just heard Gonzales' eloquent few words and seen the men on watch sit up straight "with what-the-hell expressions on their faces", and in the next few moments recognized the voice of Lieutenant Earl Gallaher, the executive officer of Scouting Six, an old hand and steady under pressure. His voice was natural and calm as he made his report:
"Pearl Harbor is under attack by Japanese aircraft."
He was too calm. The men in the code room were certain now this was all a drill. The thought of an actual Japanese attack on the Oahu they knew so well was simply unacceptable.
Routinely Gallaher's message was relayed to the bridge where it corroborated the message received by Halsey and resulted in the insistent, repeated clanging of the general alarm, the call to battle stations.
In the code room the radios kept talking. The voices were strained, the words fantastic, impossible.
"Two enemy carriers thirty miles bearing 085 from Barber's Point."
"Japanese paratroops and gliders landing at Kaneohe."
"Eight enemy transports rounding Barber's Point."
But the admiral knew it was no drill. He had a message in his hand by eight o'clock which told him so:
AIR RAID PEARL HARBOR THIS IS NO DRILL
At 8:23 he received another:
ALERT X JAPANESE PLANES ATTACKING PEARL AND AIRFIELDS ON OAHU
Halsey kept no secrets from the men of Enterprise that day. The word was passed over the public address system. Hardly anyone believed it. The habit of peace was hard to break.
But in the code room they intercepted a message ordering all medical officers in the Pearl area to rush all available anesthetics to the Naval Hospital. Realization began to come.
The admiral appeared on his bridge. His was not a drill face.
Snap hooks clicked in the hands of the signalmen and their multicolored flags soared to the yardarms. The message:
PREPARE FOR BATTLE
The flags stayed up much longer than usual. When at last they plumped like well-shot birds to the deck of the signal bridge, simultaneously from foremast and mainmast of each two-masted ship in the force, the stars and stripes broke clear and bright into the morning sun. The challenge was accepted. It seemed that the ships surged forward under the defiant battle colors.
. . .
The sun had just set [on the eighth of December] as the Big E nosed into the channel. No one could remember when a carrier had attempted that channel after sunset. From her bow, black oil from the tanks of broken ships turned back on itself and oozed away. Flight deck and catwalks, bridge, fo'c'sle and fantail were crowded with men, and every port and hatch was jammed with faces. On both sides the shore was lined with hastily erected, fully manned antiaircraft guns of all sizes and calibers. A soldier at Hickam yelled across the water.
"You'd better get the hell out of here or the Japs will nail you too."
They passed the battleship Nevada, heavily aground to port on Hospital Point, the only ship to get away from Battleship Row that awful morning. Coming around Ford Island, the carrier had to swing wide to avoid the old battleship Utah, ripped to pieces and lying on the mud of the harbor bottom. For years she had been used as a target ship. But she had been moored in the carrier Saratoga's usual berth and her heavily timbered topsides slightly resembled a flight deck from the air.
The place smelled bad. Instead of the lush, flowery smell of tropical forests which usually came down off the hills on the land breeze, there was the sick-sweet odor of fuel oil, seared flesh and the charred wood and fabric smell of a half-burned house after the fire. Black smoke was layered in the sky from the still-burning Arizona.
The feeling aboard Enterprise was anger and unease. The crew began to feel the treachery of the Sunday morning murders. Subconsciously they compared the harbor they had left on November 28, proud and shipshape, with the oil-soaked mess before them. On the bridge, the admiral was heard to mutter, "Before we're through with 'em, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell!"
The Enterprise refueled and loaded fresh supplies in about half the usual time that night, with every man in her crew working harder and faster than they'd ever done before. By three the following morning, she was on her way back out to sea, to start her long war with the Empire of Japan.