Small Arms at Pearl Harbor - The Ayoob Files
Massad Ayoobneak Attack: S
Situation: An air raid savages Oahu, servicemen and armed citizens alike reach for small arms.
Lessons: Valor and marksmanship count. American soldiers shoot back at invading planes with rifles and pistols, as well as bigger stuff.
President Franklin Roosevelt was right when he called December 7, 1941, a day that would live in infamy. Now, in the 60th anniversary year of the devastating sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, our nation commemorates again the courage of those who fought there and the sacrifice of those who died there. A blockbuster film released in 2001 justly lionizes the courageous pilots who went aloft in a hail of fire and fought the attackers. However, all too many contemporary Americans are not aware of the efforts of their countrymen in returning fire from the ground.
As one historian put it, "Everything from 5" ship's guns to regulation Colt .45 pistols and privately owned hunting rifles had been pressed into service" as the Americans responded to the sneak attack. We know more than ever today about how many balls were dropped and how many warnings ignored, leading to the vulnerability of the U.S. military complex on Oahu.
Admiral Husband T. Kimmel, commander of U.S. Navy forces on the island, watched the devastation of Battleship Row from the second floor of Pearl Harbor's submarine base headquarters. A spent .50-caliber machinegun bullet came through the window, struck him in the chest, and bounced off without causing harm. He picked it up and said, "I wish it had killed me."
Kimmel, along with his Army counterpart in Hawaii, General Walter C. Short, would be targeted with the lion's share of the blame for the lack of preparedness.
Some of those on the ground fought with both courage and skill. Some, not having the skill yet, did the best they could with just courage. At one point, a group of well-meaning servicemen tried to arm Browning .50-caliber machineguns but got the belts in wrong and jammed the weapons. This was not the only time such a thing would happen during World War II. One historian would later note, "The story goes of a new replacement plunked down in a firefight near the Rapido River in Italy. With the Germans only 10 yards away, he looked at his rifle and shouted, 'How do you load this thing?"'
Amidst the heroes of December 7, 1941, there were also a handful of cowards and martinets. History is replete with accounts of soldiers, sailors and Marines having to break their way into armories to gain access to weapons as the bombing and strafing approached fever pitch. One quartermaster said he could not issue weapons until war had been officially declared. Another said he could not give out a firearm without a chit signed by a superior
Yeoman 1st Class Leonard Webb, assigned to Headquarters of the 14th Naval District that day, would recall, "(The armorer) starts off on the old routine about you've got to have a chit. Well, I nervously showed him my .45. The clip was out, and I put it back in and said: 'This is the chit.' I got six guns with no further argument; I mean, he changed Navy regs almost immediately."
We learn from historian Stanley Weintraub that, "At Fort Kamehameha, a harbor installation, Sgt. (later Lt. Col.) Ronald D. Moton watched enemy planes bank overhead and return to the docks and airfields... In an open field he and a supply sergeant were firing .30-caliber rifle ammunition helplessly at the dive bombers. A third soldier joined them until a captain, the local motor pool officer, drove up and ordered them to stop: 'You'll Make the Japs mad and they'll start shooting back at us!' It was an order."
But for every such moment that belonged in the hall of shame, there were many that fit the hall of fame. Let us examine some that involved true small arms.
In World War I, at least one and probably more episodes occurred in which pistol shots were fired in plane-to-plane dogfights that resulted in downing an opposing aircraft. This is not surprising, considering the fragile, fabric-skinned biplanes of the period. One of Gen. George Patton's most famous exploits during World War II was standing in plain sight and firing his pistol to slide lock at a German plane that was coming directly toward him on a strafing run. Similar things had happened earlier at Pearl Harbor.
Electrician's Mate Third Class Jack White, aboard the USS New Orleans at the height of the battle, made an observation that well defines the role of a .45 service pistol in such situations: "We had an old master-at-arms, Jacobs. Everyone called him 'Jake.' He was one of the men firing a .45. But I saw him in a crying rage, shooting and hollering, 'They can't do this!' Battle affects different people differently. You never know how you're going to react until it actually happens. I guess the whole thing didn't last 45 minutes or an hour, as far as I remember."
Frustrating as it may have seemed blasting at an enemy air armada with a short-range anti-personnel weapon, our troops, who had nothing else to shoot back, at least had one consolation-- pistols didn't do the enemy much good either. According to historian Dan Van Der Vat, "(At Ford Island) a dive-bomber ditched into the water a few hundred yards away and the pilot alone clambered onto the wing. He drew his pistol when a boat from a destroyer approached to pick him up and was promptly shot dead."
This is not to say that the pistols fired by U.S. military personnel that day were entirely without effect. At least one may have actually brought down an enemy fighter. "One of the fellows had a .45-caliber pistol," remembered Yeoman First Class Kenton Nash, who was at Kaneohe Naval Air Station that morning, "and I think he pierced the oil tank on a fighter plane, which I saw going away smoking. So I feel that he got one. But there was no antiaircraft batteries, and the only thing available was the .45-caliber pistols that they checked out of the armory."
For the most part, however, the pistols fired from the ground did little more than vent the sort of righteous fury which Col. Jeff Cooper, who would fight in the Pacific Theater, later called "The red haze of battle."
Even shots that don't send an enemy plane away trailing smoke cannot be said to be futile. If nothing else, they remind the enemy of the defender's unshakable resolve. At least one enemy pilot was suitably impressed.
Historian Walter Lord's powerful Day of Infamy notes, "Up above, Lt. Yoshio Shiga raked Ewa (the Marine Corps Naval Air Station) with his Zero fighter. He noticed a Marine standing beside a disabled plane and charged down, all guns blazing. The man refused to budge... kept firing back with a pistol. Shiga still considers him the bravest American he has ever met."
Some of the defenders were even more weakly equipped. They had only shotguns.
A review of the literature shows that shotguns were indeed fired at the enemy. At Pearl Harbor, however, they appear to have had no effect, though a shotgun would come into play during the drama of the last enemy pilot captured from the raid.
Private Leslie Le Fan, who was at the Marine barracks, remembered, "There was a Marine officer and a naval officer who walked out of the barracks. They were undoubtedly going skeet shooting that morning. They both had automatic 12-gauge shotguns, and I'm going to say that each one was carrying a satchel filled with four boxes of ammo. They stopped right in the middle of the parade grounds in front of the barracks, loaded their shotguns, and began to fire. The thought went through my head: 'What do they expect to do to an airplane with a shotgun?' But a man had to do something."
As with the brave Marine with the 1911 who hammered a lesson in American resolve into the heart of the invading pilot, the men with the shotguns had at least made a statement. One is reminded of a T-shirt popular in the U.S. in the 1980s. It depicted a mouse raising its middle finger toward a giant eagle that was swooping in upon it with extended claws and rapaciously open beak. The caption was, "The Last Great Act of Defiance."
While privately owned sporting and target rifles were apparently deployed against the invaders, the overwhelming majority of effective small-arms fire by Americans on December 7, 1941, came from .30-'06 military rifles. Photos taken that day show a preponderance of Springfield 1903 bolt-actions, but some of the new semiautomatic M-1 Garands had made their way to Hawaii by then. The Army had some, but the Marine Corps came later to the M-1 and was not yet using it as a primary weapon, according to historian Mike Wright.
The mix of weapons caused a problem, as the Springfield could be loaded with separate cartridges or with an issue five-round stripper clip, while the Garand became a single shot unless the shooter was equipped with eight-round en bloc clips.
Recalls Marine Private Le Fan, who was with a group that had been issued the then-high-tech semiautomatics, "This sergeant put us behind a retaining wall approximately four feet high, facing the harbor. Somehow he got hold of about six bandoliers of '03 ammunition that was in 03 clips. We were all armed, 10 of us with M-1 rifles, the M-1 Garand, semiautomatic, .30 caliber. They would fire the '03 ammo, but we had to have a special eight-round clip to go into the M-1, and we were given bandoliers of 03 ammunition, with five-round clips. I opened the receiver of my Garand and put one round into the chamber and closed it... I recall one Jap pilot coming over, and he waved at us as he did. He was very low-- less than 100 feet high-- because he was going to Battleship Row. They would wave at us, and we were throwing .30 caliber rounds at them as fast as we could, from single shots because we could not fire semiautomatic. I fired 60 rounds, because I recall this particular bandolier that I got had 60 rounds in it."
The bolt-action 1903 Springfield, though supposedly obsolete by then, gave a good account of itself. There seems to be at least one confirmed kill of an enemy plane with such a rifle. Pearl Harbor survivor Thomas Helm would later become a popular writer on matters nautical, and his book Ordeal by Sea: the Tragedy of the USS Indianapolis, was recently republished. In publisher Signet's bio of the author can be found a gem of history: "In the Navy during World War II (Thomas Helm) served aboard the USS Indianapolis and was wounded at Pearl Harbor where he was officially credited with shooting down a Japanese Zero with a Springfield rifle, for which he received a citation from Admiral (Chester) Nimitz."
Lt. Everett Stewart, who fought the battle at Wheeler Field, would say later of one Sgt. Hammer that he observed, "He was shooting at them (with his rifle) and he said: 'I'll get you, you son of a bitch! I'm going to get you!' And he was shooting like hell. Somebody said he shot one down. Now, whether he did or not, I don't know. Nobody knows for sure. A rifle or machinegun probably brought down one of our leading aces in Germany. So a rifle can be effective against an airplane, but it's awful lucky. But this was the kind of resistance we had."
Eyewitness accounts have Japanese planes frequently as little as 50 and 60 feet above the ground as they made their deadly runs on Pearl Harbor and the other military installations on Oahu. Propeller driven aircraft can be hit from the ground with rifle fire at this speed. Decades later, countless more sophistica ted American aircraft would be shot out of the sky over Vietnam by the 7.62x39mm fire of SKS and AK-47 rifles, less potent by far than the .30-'06 rounds Americans fired skyward on December 7, 1941.
Of course, rifle fire is most effective in combat when delivered rapidly. The rifle that performed most effectively that day is one that, for the rest of World War II, American combat personnel considered the queen of battle: the BAR.
Raise The BAR
Is the Browning Automatic Rifle a machinegun or a rifle? In the hands of a master BAR man, of course, it is both. All across the island of Oahu, it gave a splendid account of itself that fateful day.
Pearl Harbor expert Gordon Prange wrote, "Lt. Stephen G. Saltzman... grabbing a Browning Automatic Rifle from one of the men nearby and 'a couple of clips of ammunition,' ran outside and dropped to his knees. Slightly behind him knelt Sgt. Lowell V. Klatt who also had snatched a BAR. Just at that moment the Japanese plane 'opened up with his four machineguns.' Saltzman was 'too mad to be scared.'
"The enemy pulled out of his dive to avoid high-tension wires, and after Saltzman and Klatt emptied their clips, he crashed on the other side of their building. Both men ran around the corner to check damage. The plane was burning so fiercely they could not get close. Klatt believed that the two Japanese (on board) must have died instantly."
However, Lt. Saltzman himself gave a different account to historian Henry Berry. Said the hero, "All of a sudden this Nakazima showed up. It was flying very low and seemed to be hardly moving. Somewhere along the line I had grabbed a Springfield rifle. I didn't think the plane was going any more than 70 or 80 mph. I emptied a clip (five rounds) into the plane.
"The Nakazima then turned so it would miss this high tension wire. I had quickly put a new clip in the rifle. Hell, I am an old duck hunter. I had a perfect shot at the pilot. I led the plane for an instant and let him have it. He just slumped over. The plane crashed in back of the schoolhouse... I should point out that my wire chief, Lowell Klatt, was also firing, but I do know it was my shot that killed the pilot."
Added Saltzman, "In the late Gordon Prange's book At Dawn We Slept, Prange has both me and Klatt firing BARs when we shot down the plane. Not true. I hit that pilot with a Springfield rifle. I saw him go down.
At Kaneohe Bay, Aviation Chief Ordnanceman John W. Finn wielded a BAR against the invading aircraft, ignoring his multiple wounds. He did so with such valor and such effectiveness that he won the Medal of Honor.
Even in 1941, the then-Territory of Hawaii was more rigidly restrictive than most of the United States on firearms' ownership. Nevertheless, the smart people knew that they were on the "sharp end" of a brewing Pacific Rim conflict, and even though they couldn't carry guns in public they often kept them at home. Those who followed this practice had reason to be grateful on December 7, 1941, if only for the peace of mind thus provided.
The wife of infantry captain Carl Eifler armed herself with her husband's handgun, guarding their young son. She would remember thinking, with invasion apparently imminent, "Do I allow myself and my boy to be taken, or do I use this pistol?"
Eminent historian John Toland notes, "Mrs. Claire Fonderhide, whose husband was at sea in a submarine, sat with a .45 automatic and waited." They were among thousands in Hawaii who found the presence of a firearm in the home enormously reassuring in a moment when they had every reason to believe they would be invaded by land forces in the wake of the bombing.
But for some other private citizens in the Hawaiian Islands, the need to defend against invading troops with deadly force, face-to-face, was not merely a possibility. It was about to become a reality.
Flight Petty Officer First Class Shigenori Nishikaichi had attacked Oahu from the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Soryu and left the fight with his fuel tank leaking from bullet holes inflicted by American gunfire. Knowing that he wouldn't make it back, he landed his plane near the village of Puuwai on the tiny island of Niihau, the westernmost in the Hawaiian chain.
Owned by an American family named Robinson, the primitive island had no phone, radio, or other modern communication. It functioned as a ranch for cattle and sheep, and was populated by some 136 citizens of Polynesian descent in addition to the Robinsons.
The plane came down hard, and Nishikaichi was still stunned from the impact when he looked up and saw the first responding Islander, Hawila Kaleohano, opening his cockpit to rescue him. The pilot drew his issue Nambu pistol, but Kaleohano grabbed the invader's head and smashed it against the plane's instrument panel, then snatched the Nambu away from him.
He pointed the gun at the pilot and, though he had no idea how to fire it, ordered the man out of the plane.
Kaleohano, a citizen of an American territory, had just captured alive one of the perpetrators of the sneak attack. He marched the man back to the village.
The villagers sought out one of two men on the island who spoke Japanese, a Nisei named Yoshio Harada, age 37. It appears that almost immediately that a bond formed between Harada and the Japanese pilot who had attacked Oahu. Not realizing that their resident translator had been suborned by the invader, the villagers, with no other form of communication, decided to wait for the weekly boat from the larger nearby island of Kaui.
On a pretext, the captured Japanese pilot asked to see the translator Harada, and was escorted to meet him at a storehouse. It was a set-up: Harada had stolen a shotgun and a revolver from the Robinson estate in the interim, and he and the captured Japanese pulled guns on their captors.
What followed could be made into a three-hour movie itself, but being true would seem too fantastic to film. Nishikaichi and Harada attempted to take over the island, seizing the machineguns from the downed Japanese combat plane and setting fire to the house of Kaleohano, who had captured Nishikaichi, but not before retrieving the pilot's papers and Nambu pistol. They threatened to destroy the village and began to take hostages.
As the night wore on, villager Beni Kanahali and his wife Ella managed to find, take, and secure the ammunition for the machineguns the Japanese pilot and his newfound cohort had threatened to use to destroy the village, but they were captured by the pair and taken hostage. Kanahele'asked Harada, "How can you do this to us?"
Harada replied, "I'm afraid. I don't know what will happen if I go against the pilot."
What occurred next happened swiftly, and historians differ on the details. It is certain that Kanahele, who had the large and powerful physique traditionally associated with Polynesian Island males, jumped the Japanese pilot and was joined by his wife. Harada, holding the shotgun in one hand, tried to pull Ella Kanahele away.
At that time, pilot Nishikaichi shot Beni Kanahele. One historian says that the bullet hit the big American in the chest. Another account has the Japanese shooting the American in the stomach, groin and leg with either his own Nambu or the revolver stolen from an American by his cohort for his escape. But all accounts agree on what happened next.
Beni Kanahele picked up the pilot exactly the way he picked up sheep to slaughter them-- by the throat in one hand and by one leg in the other-- and smashed him bodily, head-first, into a nearby stone wall. The impact shattered Nishikaichi's skull, killing him instantly.
But, erroneously believing himself mortally wounded and wanting to make certain that his tormentor did not take revenge upon Kanahele's widow, the big Hawaiian reach down for his hunting knife. This armed citizen of an American territory then slashed Out the pilot's throat, finishing the fight.
Yoshio Harda stood by, frozen in horror, holding the stolen shotgun. In a moment, he was dead, killed by a muzzle-contact wound from his own weapon. Historian Walter Lord says he simply committed suicide.
But historian Stanley Weintraub reconstructs it this way: "Grunting in pain, (Kanahele) lifted Nishikaichi and threw him against a stone wall. His skull shattered. To make certain he was dead, Kanahele drew his hunting knife and slashed Nishikaichi's throat. Horrified, Harada broke free from Ella and pressed a shotgun against Kanahele's stomach. Ella clutched Harada's arm and the bullet (sic) missed. Pushing her away, Harada fired again, blowing away his own belly."
The last mortal conflict of the Battle of Pearl Harbor had ended, many hours later, with the last surviving enemy pilot who was part of the attack. He was killed by an armed citizen of an American territory. Nishikaichi, who had attacked both the island of Oahu and the island of Niihau like a fox attacking a chicken coop, had literally been slaughtered like a sheep by a righteously outraged American directly defending his own family and home.
Those of us who have visited Pearl Harbor and have stood over what remains of the USS Arizona, knowing that brave citizens of our country who fought and died on December 7, 1941, were entombed therein from that moment, understand lessons that must not be repeated.
There must be armed force in readiness. Warning signals cannot be ignored. The price that we pay for failure to heed this, in the presence of predators predisposed to attack, is death.
Those who would argue that Second Amendment provisions are meaningless in the time of 21st century weaponry all said the same about 20th century weaponry. Of the 29 Japanese planes destroyed during the multi-pronged air raid that has become known simply as "Pearl Harbor" by those of us who weren't alive when it happened, a significant number were neutralized by small-arms fire from the ground.
We are reminded that from the late 1930s on, England begged Americans to send handguns, rifles and shotguns "to guard British shores" against the Nazi invasion that seemed imminent. When the invasion by the Japanese was literally upon our Hawaiian citizens of the United States, they found their firearms to be a most comforting presence.
An epilog belongs here. We all know that the events of December 7, 1941, did indeed "awaken a sleeping giant and fill it with a terrible resolve." The United States swept to its revenge very shortly thereafter, beginning with the Battle of Midway and culminating with the nuclear firestorms that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But, for many, one question remained: When the Pacific Fleet lay in ruins in Pearl Harbor, with the West Coast of the United States unprepared for battle, why did the Imperial Japanese forces simply not invade the mainland?
Fifteen years after Japan's unconditional surrender, that very question was asked. By 1960, what was then known as the Japanese Defense Forces were allied with the United States against the Communist Bloc, and naval forces of both nations met in the Pacific for a conference aboard the USS Constellation, Most of the senior officers on both sides were veterans of World War II, and in the natural way of the men who fought the battles discussing it after cessation of hostilities, they felt a grudging and honest mutual admiration and were frank with one another.
A friend of mine was there, Commander Robert Menard of the U.S. Navy. When the question of, "Why did you not invade" was asked, he would never forget the answer.
A senior member of the Japanese Navy looked at the man who had raised the issue with an expression on his face like someone who had caught another person asking a trick question. Yes, the Japanese commander replied, his people did indeed have intelligence on the matter and had explored the question in depth. They had determined that more than half of American homes contained firearms.
They had been shocked to discover that the United States still had state and national championships of military rifle shooting for private citizens. They had invaded disarmed countries like China with smooth success and had worked out the scenarios of what the death toll to them and their kind would have been like if the victims had been able to shoot back.
Menard never forgot what the Japanese navy man told him then, and I in turn will not be able to forget them: "We were not fools, to step into such quicksand."
His research had been valid. So had his assessment. Perhaps he had read the account of one of his own lieutenants, Yoshio Shiga, speaking in awe of the courage of the American Marine who had stood on the ground and fired his Colt .45 automatic in the face of the oncoming Japanese fighter plane and its blazing machine guns.
Lt. Shiga had seen it in our servicemen, and in his last instant on earth Shigenori Nishikaichi had seen it in the face of the American civilian who killed him with his bare hands.
It is sad that, only 60 years after the sacrifices of so many at Pearl Harbor, a generation of Americans has arisen that wishes to disarm its brothers. Sad. And contrary to the documented lessons of something that, in perspective, is very recent history.
Van Der Vat, Dan, "Pearl Harbor: the Day of Infamy: an Illustrated History," New York City: Basic Books/Madison Press, 2001, P. 122.
Toland, John, "Infamy: Pearl Harbor and its Aftermath," Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982, P. 11.
Wright, Mike, "What They Didn't Teach You About World War II," Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1998, P. 18.
La Forte, Robert S., and Marcello, Robert E., "Remembering Pearl Harbor: Eyewitness accounts by U.S. Military Men and Women," Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc., 1991, P. 150.
Weintraub, Stanley, "Long Day's Journey Into War," New York City, Lyons Press, 1991 and 2001, P. 272.
Lord, Walter, "Day of Infamy," New York City: Henry Holt & Co., 1957, P. 118.
Helm, Thomas, "Ordeal by Sea: The Tragedy of the U.S.S. Indianapolis," New York City: Signet, 1963 and 2001, final page.
Prange, Gordon W, "At Dawn We Slept," New York City: Penguin Group, 1981, PP. 526-527.
Berry, Henry, "'This Is No Drill': Living Memories of the Attack on Pearl Harbor," New York City: Berkley Publishing Group, 1992, P. 137.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Publishers' Development Corporation
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group
R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GnySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952 (Plt #437)--'72
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