|Six hours after the attack at Midway,|
President Roosevelt addressed the Nation.
The morning sun was rising in Hawaii when President Roosevelt delivered his now-famous December 8 speech to the nation at 12:30 p.m. (Washington, D.C. time). By 4:30 p.m. when the United States Senate approved that declaration of war against Japan, dawn was breaking over the Philippines. There, as elsewhere, the news continued to become worse. With the morning sun the Japanese launched attacks against Nichols Field and there were reports of enemy troops landing at Vigan. The bombardment continued against American forces at Guam and Wake Islands. So invincible seemed the Japanese onslaught there were even fears back home of potential attacks on the shores of America's West Coast.
In the absence of any good news, Americans were forced to find comfort in the stories of heroism and valor that streamed in from the Pacific:
The Black Mess Steward who picked up a machinegun to shoot back,
The chaplain who coined the phrase "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition" aboard the USS New Orleans,
The few pilots who had managed to get into the air at Pearl and shoot down nine enemy airplanes.
Sixteen men earned Medals of Honor on that Day of Infamy. Eleven of them were dead. In those dark hours there was no shortage of tales of heroic action. The people of a ravaged nation needed more however,...they needed a ray of hope...they needed some good news to reassure them that somehow they would survive and prevail.
Sadly, the news only became WORSE!
On the morning of December 10 more than 6,000 Japanese Rikusentai (marines) landed on the island of Guam. The 150 American Marines and 600 Navy defenders were quickly forced to surrender. It was the first American soil to fall into the hands of the Japanese.
On that same morning an enemy convoy was spotted advancing on the Philippines. Five of the remaining B-17s of the Far East Air Force conducted the first bombing raid of World War II, attacking the convoy unmolested and scoring a few hits. It wasn't enough however, to dent the invincible armada.
Six B-17s attempted bombing missions on Formosa, including one piloted by Captain Collin Kelly, Jr. Captain Kelly's mission was a solo strike without fighter escorts, since there were only twenty-two P-40 fighters remaining in combat condition.
Flying solo en route to Formosa, Kelly noted a large enemy landing party proceeding towards Aparri on the north coast of Luzon. He requested permission to drop his three 600-pound bombs on the enemy formation and was told to stand by. After a second request went unanswered, on his own initiative, he led his crew in three passes to attack what appeared to be a battleship. His ordnance expended, he was returning to Clark Field when enemy fighters destroyed his Flying Fortress. With one rear gunner dead and the cockpit awash in flame, Kelly ordered his crew to bail out while he remained at the controls. When the five men had jumped they turned back to see their bomber explode. Captain Kelly still at the controls.
Colin Kelly's heroism became one more of those badly needed stories of valor, the legend of a pilot who had struck the first real blow against the Japanese by sinking the big battleship Haruna. At home the story was embellished, as legends often are, especially when there is a desperate need for heroes. In time the tale had Captain Kelly diving his doomed B-17 into the warship before he died and earning the Medal of Honor. Such inspiration was needed by a battered nation but it was just legend.
Captain Kelly certainly sank an enemy warship with his bombs but it was not the battleship Haruna. His B-17 was not lost in the bombardment but exploded on the return flight, wreckage landing only 5 miles from Clark Field. Kelly did not receive the Medal of Honor, though he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his valiant efforts. The fallacy of the legend aside, Captain Collin Kelly's heroism can not be diminished by the true facts of that day. Alone, he led his bomber in a courageous attack on a superior enemy force, then stayed at the controls of his damaged airplane on its flight home to sacrifice his life while his crew jumped to safety.
It is true that every legend is rooted in fact, even if the facts don't rise to the level of the legend. On December eleventh the tables were turned. On that day the facts became more than legend could ever dream, and the myth of Japanese invincibility crumbled for the first time.
The Japanese returned to Wake Island on the morning of December 9, confident the battered Marine forces there were near destruction. Only four Marine fighters remained of Major Paul Putnam's Fighting Squadron 211 to meet them but they were enough, flaming one enemy bomber. Marine anti-aircraft gunners dropped a second before the enemy retreated.
With a landing party of Japanese marines steaming in from Kwajalien, the Jap bombers returned again on the morning of December 10. Marine Captain Henry Elrod, of Putnam's 4-plane air force, found himself vastly outnumbered and in a vicious dogfight over the island. Determined to prevail he pressed onward, shooting down two bombers of the 26-plane attack force. Meanwhile, the ships of the Rikusentai landing force moved ever nearer, arriving at last off the shoreline near midnight.
The enemy ships waited until dawn to approach further, unleashing their big guns on the small island that had already been nearly bombed into desolation. Major Devereux ordered his Marines to hold their fire. The enemy mistook the lack of resistance as the sign of a quick and easy victory. Enticed to move in closer, the warships and transports were great targets when at last Devereux unleashed his costal guns. The light cruiser Yubari took three big hits before it retreated with black smoke trailing. Three more enemy vessels took similar damage. In addition the destroyer Hayate was sunk by Wake's 5-inch guns. Almost before it had begun, the amphibious assault was aborted.
It would be the only time of the entire war that a landing party from either side was successfully repelled. The amazing feat of determination and resistance was accomplished by a small but valiant group of Americans, 400 Marines and their 4-plane air force.
Even as the enemy ships withdrew the four Marine pilots pressed their own assault. Captain Elrod dropped a load of bombs directly on the deck of the destroyer Kisaragi, sending it to the bottom of the ocean with 500 enemy soldiers. His fellow pilots damaged two additional enemy ships, forcing the Japanese forces into a full retreat. Such victory aside, the battle damage to Wake Island was heavy and by nightfall Major Putnam commanded what was now only a two-plane air force.
The fate of Wake Island was sealed however. Isolated and vastly outnumbered, the 400 Marines could not survive on guts and determination alone. For two more weeks they provided America with the first GOOD news in the dark days that followed the attack at Pearl Harbor. When commanders at Hawaii radioed Wake Island to inquire what the Leathernecks might need they defiantly responded: "Send us more Japs!"
The First Ace
On the morning of December 13 Lieutenant Boyd Buzz Wagner of the 17th Pursuit Squadron based in the Philippines took off in his fighter. It was to be a solo mission to recon enemy movements near Aparri at the north end of Luzon. Fire streaked up at him from two destroyers accompanying an enemy landing force, and as Lieutenant Wagner dove he found five Zeros on his tail. His P-40 out-maneuvered the enemy planes, which soon broke off and headed towards their new field at Aparri. Wagner followed, shooting down two of them and then strafing the enemy airfield in two runs of deadly destruction that left at least ten enemy planes burning on the ground. On his second pass, the remaining Zeros came in from behind. When the intrepid airman turned towards Clark Field, two of them followed.
Wagner continued his flight home, the two enemy aircraft tailing him and jockeying in for the kill. As they zoomed in to open fire, Wagner throttled back and the Zeros overshot, leaving their quarry dangerously behind them. In minutes both were falling in flames. Buzz Wagner had put in a pretty good day, shooting down four enemy planes and destroying nearly a dozen more on the ground.
Even if every American pilot on Luzon had possessed the skill and courage of Buzz Wagner, it wouldn't have been enough. By now only the Army Air Force had only twenty-two P-40s to defend against nearly 500 Japanese aircraft. On December 16 Lieutenant Wagner was dispatched to Vigan where the Japanese had established an airfield to support their troops which were landing across the north end of the island. Wagner selected Lieutenant Russell Church as his wingman and the two pilots surprised the Japanese at dawn.
Wagner came in first, dropping six 30-pound bombs across a neat line of 25 enemy airplanes on the strip below. The enemy responded by quickly filling the sky with deadly anti-aircraft fire, making any further such attacks sheer suicide. Glancing off towards his wingman, Wagner saw Church's P-40 take a hit on the nose and then the entire airplane erupted in flames. He shouted into his radio, ordered Church to turn back and bail out. Wagner later remembered what happened next:
"He dipped the nose of his blazing ship (and) went down like a hellbent fireball...then flattened out right over the target. I watched while every bomb he carried fell squarely among the grounded planes...The ship still held its course, still flaming, and then it suddenly rocked wildly and plunged sideways to earth...enemy planes were destroyed by his bombs and that meant we were able to go just that much longer in the Philippines.
"I know that Church knew he was facing certain death when he decided to remain with his mission. What Russell Church did at Vigan that day (was) the most courageous thing I have ever seen in this Pacific war."
The sight of Russell Church's P-40 going down over Vigan caused something to snap inside the heart and mind of Buzz Wagner. Despite the hail of fire, he dove on the airstrip again, strafing everything in sight. Nine enemy planes exploded on the ground and seven more were damaged. As Wagner made his final pass, one enemy pilot managed to get airborne and swing in behind him. Again Wagner let the enemy pursue, pausing until the last moment before gunfire erupted to throttle back and let the Zero zip past. Rolling over, Wagner came in and claimed his fifth aerial victory to become the first American Air Force Ace of World War II.
Both Wagner and Church were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for the mission over Vigan, Church posthumously. Days later Wagner was injured when enemy fire shattered the windscreen of his P-40, and was sent to Australia. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, becoming the youngest man of such rank in the Army. Less than a year later he was lost at home, the victim of a routine flight from Elgin Field in Florida to Maxwell Field in Alabama.
The day after Buzz Wagner became an ace the first major withdrawal of American Army Air Force assets commenced. The few critical and remaining B-17s were flown out to safer quarters at Batchelor Field in Australia. In the days that followed additional assets departed as Japanese troops continued to land on Luzon. The news from the war front, despite the tales of American determination and valor, continued to be all bad.
On Wake Island only two aircraft remained to defend against increased aerial attacks. The enemy, angered by the defeat of their December 11 landing effort, threw everything they had against the beleaguered Marines. On December 22 a force of thirty-three dive bombers and a dozen fighters attacked Wake. Major Putnam's two remaining fighters rose to the challenge, shooting down two enemy. One American pilot never returned; the other managed to crash-land back at Wake. With no combat aircraft remaining every man on the island became a rifleman. All fought with a vengeance when more than 1,000 enemy soldiers landed the following day. Among these defenders was Captain Henry Elrod whose valor in the air and on the ground would earn him the first Medal of Honor awarded to any aviator, in any branch of service, in World War II. His citation notes:
"Engaging vastly superior forces of enemy bombers and warships on 9 and 12 December, Capt. Elrod shot down 2 of a flight of 22 hostile planes and, executing repeated bombing and strafing runs at extremely low altitude and close range, succeeded in inflicting deadly damage upon a large Japanese vessel, thereby sinking the first major warship to be destroyed by small caliber bombs delivered from a fighter-type aircraft. When his plane was disabled by hostile fire and no other ships were operative, Capt. Elrod assumed command of 1 flank of the line set up in defiance of the enemy landing and, conducting a brilliant defense, enabled his men to hold their positions and repulse intense hostile fusillades to provide covering fire for unarmed ammunition carriers. Capturing an automatic weapon during 1 enemy rush in force, he gave his own firearm to 1 of his men and fought on vigorously against the Japanese. Responsible in a large measure for the strength of his sector's gallant resistance, on 23 December, Capt. Elrod led his men with bold aggressiveness until he fell, mortally wounded. His superb skill as a pilot, daring leadership and unswerving devotion to duty distinguished him among the defenders of Wake Island, and his valiant conduct reflects the highest credit upon himself and the U.S. Naval Service.
"He gallantly gave his life for his country."