78 years ago today
For the 36 Enterprise fliers, their entry into World War II was “come as you are.” Air group commander Howard “Brigham” Young and his wingman, Ensign Perry Teaff, were passing over Barber’s Point when they spotted aircraft in the sky above the Marine air station at Ewa. Young commented that it was early for the Army to be flying on a Sunday. An instant later, he saw anti-aircraft explosions in the sky over the base. At the same time, Teaff spotted a low-wing single-engine aircraft closing on the formation. A moment later, he saw bullet strikes in the tail of Young’s airplane. As the attacker adjusted his aim, Teaff saw the red circles of the Japanese rising sun on its wings.
The enemy pilot overshot the two Dauntlesses and turned to make a second attack. Teaff’s radioman unlimbered his single .30 machine gun, but the unknown fighter took aim at Young. “Follow me!” the group commander ordered, and Teaff followed his leader as the two dive bombers dove for the hills below. They managed to land successfully at Ford Island through a barrage of fire from the defenders.
Lieutenant Clarence E. Dickinson had been looking forward to landing at Ford Island, where his gunner, Aviation Radioman 3rd Class William C. Miller, would finish his enlistment in the Navy. Dickinson and his wingman, Ensign R. McCarthy, were approaching Barber’s Point from the south at an altitude of 1,500 feet when he spotted flak bursts over the base. Beyond, he saw the explosions aboard the battleships moored to Ford Island at Battleship Row. Climbing for a better look, the two Navy fliers came across two enemy fighter pilots who immediately attacked. Dickinson dived away, followed by McCarthy, and ran into four more enemy fighters. They quickly shot down McCarthy and set his Dauntless afire. McCarthy was able to bale out, landing in a tree and breaking a leg in so doing, while his gunner, Aviation Radioman 3rd Class Mitchell Cohn, died in the crash.
Dickinson, pursued by three of the enemy, kept turning to see his wounded gunner Bill Miller fire at the fighters as they flashed past. In a few minutes, Miller ran out of ammo and was wounded a second time. As one of the enemy planes crossed his nose, Dickinson cut loose with his two .50 caliber machine guns. The enemy fighter caught fire at the same moment his controls went slack under the fire of another on his tail. His left wing caught fire and the Dauntless spun in.
Dickinson was at 1,000 feet when he managed to overcome the g-forces and get out of the cockpit. He saw Miller slumped over his gun as he threw himself off the wing. A moment later he pulled the ripcord, and landed in a cane field in time to see his airplane hit the ground and explode. Twenty-two year old Bill Miller died on the day that was supposed to be his last in the Navy.
Back aboard Enterprise, Admiral Halsey had just poured himself a second cup of coffee when his aide dashed into the cabin. “Admiral, there’s an air raid on Pearl!” Halsey’s first thought was that the Army, which had been scheduled to conduct a readiness exercise the week before, was taking things too far. He leapt to his feet, telling his aide to radio Kimmel that the Army was “shooting down my own boys!” A second aide entered with a message direct from Admiral Kimmel: “AIR RAID PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NO DRILL.”
Officer of the Deck Lieutenant John Dorsett ordered General Quarters. Nineteen-year old Seaman Jim Barnill, one of Enterprise’s four buglers, sounded the staccato notes of “Boots and Saddles.” Twenty-eight year old First Class Bosun’s Mate, Max Lee, played his pipe over the 1MC then called “General Quarters! General Quarters! All hands man your battle stations!” Lee’s enlistment was almost up. After the war, he remembered that he then turned to OOD Dorsett and said “We’re at war and I’ll never get out of the Navy alive.”
Dick Best remembered coming onto the flight deck shortly after general quarters had been called and looking up at the island. “The first thing I saw was the biggest American flag I had ever seen, flying from the masthead and whipping in the wind. It was the most emotional sight of the war for me.”
(From my next book, “I Will Run Wild: the Pacific War From Pearl Harbor to Midway” – coming next spring)