This is the fourth blog post in a series marking the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II, and will feature an “Aviator Flight Log Book,” which will be available during the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover in September 2020.
There are certain moments in life that stay with you forever. “Flashbulb memories,” as Lisa Taylor points out in a recent blog post, are rich, autobiographical memories derived from highly emotional events. They can be recalled with considerable clarity. For those veterans of World War II and even Korea, “where were you when you learned of Pearl Harbor?” and “what happened next?” prompts are frequently seen in VHP collections.
In an age where news is at our fingertips, it is hard to imagine what was going through the minds of those who learned of the attack that thrust the U.S. into war, mostly through a radio program one Sunday in December. Through the American Folklife Center’s After the Day of Infamy: “Man-on-the Street” Interviews Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor, we learn that many initial reactions were simply shock, with some people even questioning the validity of the report. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “a date which will live in infamy” speech galvanized the country, despite the fact that it would be months before vivid imagery or stories of those who went above and beyond the call of duty would reach the mainland.
During his oral history, David Thatcher remembered learning of the attack and his initial reaction, not of denial, anger or even fear, but rather confusion. Fresh out of high school and in the throes of Army Air Corps mechanic school, Thatcher relished a Sunday at the movies. The short period of relaxation melted away when someone told him the news, and he wondered what the implications of this attack would be considering
I don’t think many people even know where Pearl Harbor is.
Richard “Dick” Cole, on the other hand, knew war was imminent given he had ironically learned the war was declared immediately following a mock war training with the Army Air Corps.
Both men were assigned to the 17th Bomb Group and started training with the B-25 Mitchell Bombers. Eager to help anyway that they could, they both volunteered for a secret mission from which they were told they probably would not return. Despite the deterrent, the men stepped forward for what would later be known as the most daring operation yet undertaken by the United States in the young Pacific War.
On April 18, 1942, four months after the devastation caused by the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, 16 B-25’s launched from the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet on a one-way mission; their target was Tokyo. Having been spotted by a Japanese picket boat, the crew was forced to launch early, in bad weather and without ample fuel to reach their intended base in China. The number one crew, including flight leader Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle, bailed out and parachuted around Quzhou China. Cole gave himself a black-eye from a rough landing in a tree. Thatcher and the number seven crew of the “Ruptured Duck” crashed on a Japanese island, injuring the crew so badly that one of the pilot’s legs was later amputated. As the only one of the five crewmembers who could walk, Thatcher persuaded Chinese fisherman in the area help him to fasten liters from bamboo and to carry the injured men over the mountains to safety. As if crashing wasn’t enough, the crews had to face the constant threat of being captured by the Japanese, language differences and unknown terrain. All of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders relied on Allied China’s kindness to provide food and shelter as they evaded the Japanese patrols and headed to Chungking (now called Chongqing). Cole recalled that trip was tough, even for their intrepid leader, James Doolittle, who was despondent thinking the mission was a failure. The Raiders later learned that despite the relatively minimal damage on the ground, the strike had exposed Japan’s vulnerability, and buoyed our national morale during one of our country’s darkest times.
Joseph “Jack” Holder didn’t need to hear about the attack from the radio or even a friend, as he was stationed at Pearl Harbor the day of the attack. Assigned to the U.S. Navy VP-23 Patrol Bombing Squadron based on Ford Island, Holder had the dream post. He much preferred the beautiful sand beaches to the creeks he grew up with on his Texas farm. The morning of December 7th started the same as many, he woke up, got breakfast and went to the hanger to get ready for his section leader to start calling roll. The screaming whistle of an aircraft could be heard, and then a terrible explosion near the hanger as the first bomb was dropped on Ford Island. Holder explained that a thousand thoughts filled his head as he and some of the other men ran to a ditch for safety. Even there, they weren’t safe.
The aircraft dive bombed, scraping the ditch and missing the men by what Holder estimates to be three-to-four feet. As soon as he could, Holder went and readied his commander’s aircraft to attempt retaliation. The chaos of the day seemed fitting for when Holder finally spotted his commander, Massie Hughes, running toward them in his red pajamas, waving a revolver and hollering. They got Hughes airborne where he spent hours in the PBY-2 flying boat patrol bomber, hoping to retaliate.
God, please don’t let me die in this ditch. As the uh-as the uh, aircraft approached, I could see the pilot’s leather helmet, white grinning teeth…
The retaliation for Hughes, Holder and many others came just six months later at the Battle of Midway. The battle began with radiomen intercepting Japanese’s messages, and cryptanalysts determining the location of Japan’s next planned ambush. Realizing that the Japanese code of “AF” stood for Midway, Admiral Nimitz sent what remained of the U.S. fleet carriers to Midway, located at the northern tip of the Hawaiian Islands. Holder and his VP23 squadron arrived on May 26th, and he served as the flight engineer aboard the PBY Catalina. He was in the second aircraft to spot the Japanese fleet.
By air and sea, the U.S. began its counteroffensive, crippling the Japanese fleet. As a result, Japan remained on the defensive for the remainder of World War II, and the United States’ morale was once again injected with optimism that we could, and would, win the war.
Subscribe to the blog— it’s free! — and the largest library in world history will send cool stories straight to your inbox.