Saturday Snippet: The USS Enterprise and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

As we all know, the US aircraft carriers weren’t at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked it on December 7th, 1941.  However, they weren’t far away.  USS Enterprise was one of only three US carriers (along with USS Saratoga and USS Ranger) to serve throughout World War II from the first day to the last.  As the Japanese attack went in, she was returning to Pearl Harbor after delivering fighter aircraft to Wake Island, soon to be occupied by Japan.

Cdr. Edward P. Stafford wrote a history of the ship, “The Big E”.  Published in 1962, it’s become one of the classic accounts of naval warfare.  I’m particularly pleased that the Enterprise car rental company, founded by a veteran who served aboard USS Enterprise during World War II and named his company for the ship, sponsored a brand-new pictorial edition of the book through the Naval Institute Press a few years ago, gathering together almost every photograph of her ever taken, to go with Cdr. Stafford’s text.

It’s a magnificent volume, albeit rather expensive in hardcover.  I’m glad I invested in a copy – the pictures make it worth its price.  Cheaper editions are also available, although without the copious illustrations.  IMHO, it should be on every military and naval enthusiast’s bookshelf.

From Cdr. Stafford’s book, here’s some of what USS Enterprise and her air group experienced on December 7th, 1941, and the following evening.

     The first plane off the Enterprise the day the war began was the air group commander’s.  He and his wingman were airborne in two SBDs at 6:15 A.M., headed for Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor.
     Twelve minutes later the rest of Scouting Six was launched to search ahead of the ships and then follow in.  Lucky aviators.  They would be home in two hours with the ship still eight hours at sea.
     In the rear seat of Commander Brigham Young’s Dauntless was a lieutenant commander on Admiral Halsey’s staff with a report of the Wake delivery too highly classified for radio transmission.
     By 8:20, Young was close enough to notice planes circling the Marine Corps Air Station at Ewa.  He assumed they were Army aircraft.  Then he saw scattered black puffs of antiaircraft bursts over Pearl and was surprised to find what seemed to be target practice taking place on Sunday morning.  While he was wondering how he was going to get into Ford Island through the flak, and thinking that, if this were target practice, every safety precaution he knew was being violated, one of the Army planes he had noticed broke away from the others and swept down on him.  Lieutenant Commander Bromfield B. Nichol in the rear seat saw what looked like a lot of burning cigarette butts flash past him.  Where they struck the wing, pieces of aluminum shredded off.  When the “Army” plane pulled up, Brig Young was at war.  On wings and fuselage was the red disk of the Rising Sun.
     Both SBDs dived violently for the Ford Island runway, with Young longing for the trained gunner who normally sat at his back, and Nichol tried to unlimber the .30-calibers.  Both planes managed to shake off the Japanese and effect a landing despite the ships’ gunners who now trusted no one and were firing at anything that flew.  There was no chance in the desperate seconds between surprise attack and touch-down to warn the rest of the air group already approaching the island.
     As Young rode the brakes and his Dauntless slowed, a sailor on the field leveled a machine gun at it.  During the last shattering, bloody hour he had forgotten there could be any planes at Pearl Harbor not actively seeking his death.  He was stopped from opening fire by a nearby pilot who advanced on him wielding a rock the size of his head.
     It seemed to Brig Young that a week had passed since the dawn launch, but it was just 8:35 A.M.
     Ten minutes later Lieutenant Commander Hallsted Hopping, the skipper of Scouting Six, brought his squadron in.  Or most of it.  No one is certain what happened to Ensign Manuel Gonzales.  His last words were the first to alert the Enterprise.  Out of the Sunday silence west of Oahu they came crackling from her speakers, pleading, urgent:  “Please don’t shoot!  Don’t shoot!  This is an American plane.”  Then in a moment, evidently to his rear-seatman, “We’re on fire. Bail out!” and the speakers were quiet again.  He did not return and no trace was ever found.  Ensign John H. L. Vogt, who had reported the fleet off Wake, never made it to Ford Island.  The Marines at Ewa saw a Dauntless which was probably his, in a twisting, swirling, low altitude mix-up with two or three Zeros, fixed and free guns all firing at once.  They watched it get on the tail of an enemy fighter and grimly stay there as though the pouring tracers were a towline, until the Japanese suddenly lost speed and pulled up so sharply that the Dauntless plowed into him.  They didn’t see anything after that because they were dodging the pieces of flaming metal that scattered for a square mile over the cane fields and the air station.
     Lieutenant (j.g.) C. E. Dickinson and Ensign J. R. McCarthy came in together at 1,500 feet from their routine morning search.  They too saw the smoke rising from Pearl Harbor while still far at sea and at first thought it was from the usual burning of the cane fields before harvest.  But when they noticed the AA fire they guessed the truth, readied their guns and bored in after what looked to them like an enemy patrol plane.  They lost it in the smoke of the burning battleships and a moment later half a dozen Japanese fighters found them.
     It was not much of a fight.  The Dauntless was designed to be a dive bomber.  And it was an excellent one.  But it was not a match for the Zeros that swarmed over Oahu that December morning.  Nevertheless Dickinson’s gunner, Roger Miller, shot one down before he died under the guns of the others.  Both pilots had their planes riddled and were forced to bail out at low altitude.
     McCarthy’s leg was broken by the tail of the spinning SBD and he spent several months in the hospital.  His gunner, unable to extricate himself in time, died in the crash of his plane.  Dickinson landed unhurt near Ewa Field and made his way toward Ford Island.  En route he watched Marines standing in the open road, professionally firing their rifles at the strafing Japs, saw the USS Nevada make its fighting sortie from Battleship Row, noted that the enemy dive bombers did not attack at the steep angle he had been trained to use, and finally was knocked flat on the concrete of Ford Island when a bomb detonated the magazine of the destroyer Shaw a few hundred yards away.
     Ensign E. T. Deacon used up all his ammunition in another hopeless dogfight with the murderous Zeros and then, with a wounded leg and a shot-up aircraft, glided for Hickam Field.  It was just a little too far, and he landed in the water just short of the runway, unpacked and inflated his rubber boat, lifted his wounded gunner aboard and paddled ashore.  When he was certain his gunner was in good hands, he too somehow got through the burning madhouse of Pearl and across to Ford Island.
     Thus did the lucky aviators of Scouting Six, who had hoped to have the precious extra hours on Oahu, come to their destination that incredible Sunday.
     In the Enterprise, steaming steadily into the low morning sun for Pearl, awareness came slowly in small capsules of garbled phrases from her radios.  It was as though the ship were a person to whom the bitter news could not be told in one dose.
     In his flag quarters Admiral Halsey had showered and shaved and put on a clean uniform after watching the early SBDs out of sight.  He breakfasted with his flag secretary, Lieutenant H. Douglas Moulton, and was on his second cup of coffee when Moulton answered the phone from Radio Central and reported an air raid on Pearl Harbor.
     Halsey sprang to his feet in dismay.  He was certain the Pearl gunners were firing at Lieutenant Commander Hallsted Hopping’s Dauntlesses due to arrive at just that moment.
     The ship’s supply officer, Commander Charles Fox, was in charge of the watch in the code room.  There he had just heard Gonzales’ eloquent few words and seen the men on watch sit up straight “with what-the-hell expressions on their faces”, and in the next few moments recognized the voice of Lieutenant Earl Gallaher, the executive officer of Scouting Six, an old hand and steady under pressure.  His voice was natural and calm as he made his report:
     “Pearl Harbor is under attack by Japanese aircraft.”
     He was too calm.  The men in the code room were certain now this was all a drill.  The thought of an actual Japanese attack on the Oahu they knew so well was simply unacceptable.
     Routinely Gallaher’s message was relayed to the bridge where it corroborated the message received by Halsey and resulted in the insistent, repeated clanging of the general alarm, the call to battle stations.
     In the code room the radios kept talking.  The voices were strained, the words fantastic, impossible.
     “Two enemy carriers thirty miles bearing 085 from Barber’s Point.”
     “Japanese paratroops and gliders landing at Kaneohe.”
     “Eight enemy transports rounding Barber’s Point.”
     But the admiral knew it was no drill.  He had a message in his hand by eight o’clock which told him so:


     At 8:23 he received another:


     Halsey kept no secrets from the men of Enterprise that day.  The word was passed over the public address system.  Hardly anyone believed it.  The habit of peace was hard to break.
     But in the code room they intercepted a message ordering all medical officers in the Pearl area to rush all available anesthetics to the Naval Hospital.  Realization began to come.
     The admiral appeared on his bridge.  His was not a drill face.
     Snap hooks clicked in the hands of the signalmen and their multicolored flags soared to the yardarms.  The message:


     The flags stayed up much longer than usual.  When at last they plumped like well-shot birds to the deck of the signal bridge, simultaneously from foremast and mainmast of each two-masted ship in the force, the stars and stripes broke clear and bright into the morning sun.  The challenge was accepted.  It seemed that the ships surged forward under the defiant battle colors.

. . .

     The sun had just set [on the eighth of December] as the Big E nosed into the channel.  No one could remember when a carrier had attempted that channel after sunset.  From her bow, black oil from the tanks of broken ships turned back on itself and oozed away.  Flight deck and catwalks, bridge, fo’c’sle and fantail were crowded with men, and every port and hatch was jammed with faces.  On both sides the shore was lined with hastily erected, fully manned antiaircraft guns of all sizes and calibers.  A soldier at Hickam yelled across the water.
     “You’d better get the hell out of here or the Japs will nail you too.”
     They passed the battleship Nevada, heavily aground to port on Hospital Point, the only ship to get away from Battleship Row that awful morning.  Coming around Ford Island, the carrier had to swing wide to avoid the old battleship Utah, ripped to pieces and lying on the mud of the harbor bottom.  For years she had been used as a target ship.  But she had been moored in the carrier Saratoga’s usual berth and her heavily timbered topsides slightly resembled a flight deck from the air.
     The place smelled bad.  Instead of the lush, flowery smell of tropical forests which usually came down off the hills on the land breeze, there was the sick-sweet odor of fuel oil, seared flesh and the charred wood and fabric smell of a half-burned house after the fire.  Black smoke was layered in the sky from the still-burning Arizona.
     The feeling aboard Enterprise was anger and unease.  The crew began to feel the treachery of the Sunday morning murders.  Subconsciously they compared the harbor they had left on November 28, proud and shipshape, with the oil-soaked mess before them.  On the bridge, the admiral was heard to mutter, “Before we’re through with ’em, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell!”

The Enterprise refueled and loaded fresh supplies in about half the usual time that night, with every man in her crew working harder and faster than they’d ever done before.  By three the following morning, she was on her way back out to sea, to start her long war with the Empire of Japan.



  1. Hey Peter;

    That was an awesome post. The sneak attack at Pearl Harbor before war was declared enraged the Americans, violated their sense of "fair play". That is why the war in the Pacific was fought with no quarters. The only place was it worse was the Eastern Front and I am not sure if the Pacific War was more savage. See the Movie Midway if you haven't seen it already, and take Old NFO with you if he hasn't gone.

  2. I read the original edition some years ago. Two other things stuck with me from that chapter: Halsey was ready to fight a meeting engagement, if he encountered a Japanese task force; and the heavy winds and seas which delayed her arrival in Pearl were either fortuitous or Providential.

  3. I must have read that book at least ten times when I was in high school. Living near Great Lakes, some of us breathed NAVY. Fabulous post and I'm ordering myself a new copy

    Thank You all for your service and all my love and respect

  4. While the sneak attack on Pearl certainly angered all Americans, the effective rules of engagement that dictated no quarter came about as the American soldiers, in particular our Marines, learned of the systemic abuse of the rules of war commonly agreed to by most civilized nations.
    By all accounts the abuse and violation inflicted on both captured soldiers and civilians by the Japanese military, along with the common tactic of Japanese soldiers to surrender then set off explosives when captured, caused our men to be very reluctant to offer much in the way of trust or consideration to the enemy.

  5. Then there was the flight of B-17s from California that chose to arrive during the attack. Unlike the Navy planes, these bombers were unarmed and rigged for ferrying.

    Thanks for reminding me about the carrier aircraft from the Enterprise.

    A sad day. I won't ever forget. Unfortunately, kids these days aren't taught much about it.

  6. A great post Peter. What occurred 78 years ago was a horrible tragedy. From what I have heard, many Japanese senior military officers were wary of attacking Pear Harbor; but their loyalties overrode their caution.

    As to Beans comment on the recent generations knowledge of history, they are being taught only the "bad" things that we as a country have done. For them WW II is only about things like the internment of the Japanese, the segregation of units, and other such things. They are told about the horrors of the dropping of atom bombs without the accompanying issues of what the human toll of an invasion of the Japanese Islands would have cost. Nor do they learn of the atrocities committed by the Japanese. War is ugly but we are not the bogeyman overall.

  7. Thanks for a great post, Peter; perhaps some of that gratitude should be towards CDR Stafford, and (your fine choice of) the excerpt. That was a time when the unwise mores of an earlier age (resulting in acts such as the internment of the Japanese) had not yet fallen off, although then "men were men", and it shows in the writings of, about, that time.

  8. Lost in the clutter is the fact of how close things got in 1942.

    Midway was a turning point in that Japan lost 4 front line carriers to our one. However, during the Guadalcanal campaign, we lost three front line carriers. (Wasp and Hornet were sunk and Enterprise was a mission kill and had to return to the shipyard for extensive repairs.) That left only *one* operational US carrier in the entire pacific – Saratoga.

    However, that state of affairs didn't last long. Before the war was done, the US would have 26 front line carriers and over 100 escort carriers or "baby flat tops".

  9. I stand in awe of the men who fought that war. And I wonder if we would have it in us as a nation to do it if it happened today.

  10. My Dad went to the Solomon islands,a CPO on the U.S.S. Gregory, a WW I four-pipe destroyer modified into a "fast attack transport".carried the 1st & 2nd Marine Raiders around Guadalcanal & Tulagi. 13 ships in the squadron, all 13 still out there, "on patrol"… Dad never spoke much about the war,never about the night action that left him with 3rd degree burns over 40% of his body, and shrapnel that set off airport magnetometers in the '70s… And I miss him badly.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *