Seventy years ago, on December 6, 1941, twelve B-17 Flying Fortresses left Hamilton Field, north of San Francisco, bound for their new station on Mindanao in the Philippines. My great-uncle, then Lt. Roderick M. Stewart, served as a navigator on one of the crews.
The first leg of their journey would take them to Hickam Field in Honolulu. Weighted down by gasoline for the thirteen-hour flight, they were unable to carry ammunition. But why would they need it? The United States of America was at peace.
When the B-17s neared Hawaii the next morning, they were pleased to see fighter planes approach – to escort them to the landing field, they assumed. Imagine their shock when the fighters opened fire on them! When the fighters careened past and the Americans saw the red circles on the planes! Japanese Mitsubishi Zeros. The United States of America was no longer at peace.
The twelve unarmed bombers dodged both enemy bullets and friendly antiaircraft shells and landed where they could on fields cratered by bombs. Eight landed at Hickam Field, two at Haleiwa Field, one at Bellows Field, and one put down on Kahuku Golf Course. One of the planes was destroyed, and three were damaged. Six men were wounded, and one man was killed.
In an interesting historical side note, the brand-new Opana Radar Station detected the Japanese planes coming in for the attack, but the officer in charge, who had started duty that very morning, dismissed the findings, certain the radar blips depicted the expected B-17s. We’ll never know if an extra half hour of preparation could have prevented some of the day’s tragedy.
Lt. Rod Stewart emerged unscathed, served illustriously as a B-17 pilot in the Army Air Force in the Pacific and then in Europe, ending up as a lieutenant colonel in Eisenhower’s Headquarters. He lived a long life and passed away in 2000.
However, on Dec. 7, 1941, over 2400 Americans lost their lives.
The horrific results of the “Date Which Will Live in Infamy” still shock us, as they should. The cost of unpreparedness must never be forgotten. We commemorate those who gave their lives for their country, not even knowing that country was at war, and give thanks for the millions who fought to end that war.
We must never take freedom for granted.