402 American aircraft were present on Oahu on the morning of December 7th; of those, only a bare handful managed to get airborne and bring the fight back to the Japanese.
George Welch and Kenneth Taylor
Perhaps the most famous of the pilots that managed to fight back were Welch and Taylor, two Army pilots who commandeered a pair of P-40B Warhawk fighters from Haleiwa Auxiliary Airfield and began hunting. The two had been awoken by sounds of the attack and drove to the field to meet their fighters, which due to a lack of .50 caliber ammunition were armed only with the .30 caliber wing guns. Welch and Taylor quickly sighted a group of Aichi Val dive bombers over Ewa Field and tore into them; Taylor shot down at least two of the Vals and severely damaged a third, while Welch one destroyed and another damaged. The pair landed at the devastated Wheeler Field to refuel and rearm for a second sortie, this time with .50 caliber ammunition included. Avoiding near-certain destruction by strafing on takeoff, they entered a formation of Zeros and began firing; Welch would shoot down another Val and a Zero during the engagement, with Taylor picking off a third Val despite being injured. Once again out of ammunition, the pilots landed at Haleiwa and returned by car to Wheeler. Both Welch and Taylor were recommended for the Medal of Honor by General Arnold, but received Distinguished Service Crosses for their actions on December 7th.
Woken up by the sound of bombs exploding outside his barracks, Rasmussen ran outside to his P-36 Hawk dressed only in his pajamas. He and three other pilots managed to get airborne from Wheeler and were ordered to Kaneohe Bay to meet the second wave of the attack. Despite flying heavily underclassed aircraft and unfavorable odds, Rasmussen managed to shoot down one Zero before being badly damaged and loosing control of his aircraft. He landed at Wheeler without brakes, rudder controls, or a tail wheel; later examination by ground crew counted over 500 bullet holes in his aircraft. For his actions on December 7th he received the Silver Star.
Two pilots attempted to take off from Bellows Field in P-40Bs during the attack, George Whiteman and Samuel Bishop; Bishop was shot down shortly after takeoff and crashed into the ocean, which Whiteman was killed as his plane crashed at the end of the runway.
From Wheeler Field, John Dains flew two sorties in a P-40B and one in a P-36, reporting one Zero shot down before being hit by friendly anti-aircraft fire and crashing into the ocean.
The final aerial kill of the day was reported by Harry Brown, who shot down a Zero as it returned to its carrier from the second wave. Friendly fire would continue to take its toll for the rest of the day as nervous anti-aircraft gunners fired at whatever they saw, expecting another attack; five aircraft from Enterprise were lost this way as they approached the harbor that afternoon.
The survivors of the day’s combat. From left to right, 2nd Lt. Brown, 2nd Lt. Rasmussen, 2nd Lt. Welch, 2nd Lt. Taylor, and 1st Lt. Sanders.
While the heroic actions of the pilots did little to soften the blow of the Japanese attack, they provided a much needed morale boost to the soldiers and sailors still reeling from the surprise attack, giving them the sense that they could fight back and prevail even against enormous odds.
On this day 78 years ago, some big balls heroism.
Portrait of Curtiss P-36 present at Pearl Harbor December 7th.
It was stripped for aerial gunnery practice and fitted with one .30 cal. Browning.
Flown by 1st.Lt.Harry Brown, 7th December 1941. Brown shot down two IJN Nakajima B5N’s over Ohau.