Hickam AFB, Hawaii – Walking up to Pacific Air Forces Headquarters, one immediately notices the pockmarked exterior of the building. The holes are not from neglect, but are a solemn reminder of December 7, 1941, when Japanese carrier-launched aircraft devastated U.S. naval and air forces on the island of Oahu.
In preserving the wounds of that day, the U.S. Air Force keeps alive a stark lesson on the centrality of airpower to conflicts past, present, and future.
Yet, America is at risk of forgetting the lessons of the opening act at Pearl Harbor. If current trends continue, the U.S. may lose our air dominance, imposing untold costs on our servicemen and women around the globe.
The Japanese attack on Hickam, Wheeler, and Bellows Fields is the forgotten story of Pearl Harbor. Like millions of tourists, I visited Pearl’s naval memorial sites, including the battleship USS Missouri and the somber USS Arizona Memorial. The new visitor’s center at the naval base provides an excellent introduction to the tragedy of that day, with explanatory markers and films (along with a huge gift shop designed to appeal to everyone). The short boat ride to the Arizona and the bus ride to the Missouri on Ford Island are equally quick and efficient. Yet most visitors hardly are aware that the attacks of December 7 began not at the naval base, but on the airfields located adjacent to the base and around Oahu.
The Japanese attacked Hickam and its sister fields first for one simple reason: they had to control the skies or risk the failure of their plan. The Imperial Japanese Navy may have delivered the strike force to the waters off Hawaii, but success hinged on avoiding an air-to-air fight that could have decimated the invaders.
As the scars at Hickam show, the Japanese prevailed, destroying U.S. Army Air Corps fighters and bombers on the ground. The planes, famously, had been parked wingtip to wingtip, the better to guard against sabotage. In the slaughter, a few P-36 and P-40s managed to get off the ground, engaged the enemy in dogfights, and ultimately downed 10 Japanese planes.
Yet for men on the ground, the attack was merciless. What is today Pacific Air Forces H.Q. was on December 7 the main barracks, housing 3,200 men. The mess hall and roof took direct hits and today, after passing the very flag that flew on that morning, one walks through the interior courtyard, looking at hundreds of shrapnel and bullet holes on all walls.
One interior metal staircase still boasts two bullet holes in its steps, mute testimony of the lack of hiding places on that bloody day. In all, 244 American servicemen were killed at the three airfields, and another 450 were wounded, while 76 aircraft were destroyed. With control of the skies assured, the attack then moved on to the naval base, devastating the Pacific Fleet and inflicting massive casualties, including 1,177 men on the Arizona and 429 on the USS Oklahoma alone.
Such are the costs of not having air dominance. America learned the lesson of Hickam Field well and built a balanced combat force during and after the war that ensured U.S. air superiority for the next 70 years. Fighters, bombers, lift, and tankers all meshed to form an air shield over U.S. interests in peacetime and troops in wartime.
The last time an American soldier was strafed on the ground by enemy air forces was in the Korean War. This air dominance has effectively removed an entire layer of operational planning from U.S. campaigns, as the U.S. Air Force can concentrate on directly attacking enemy forces and supporting ground troops and not worry about enemy air forces.
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