Pearl Harbor Defender: Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

January 02, 2018

Within Hangar 79 of the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island, visitors have a unique opportunity to see a warplane that once defended Pearl Harbor from the Japanese surprise attack. The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk on display is one of the more than 14,000 that were built during the course of World War II.

One of the legendary aircraft of the American armed forces, the P-40 wasn’t remarkably fast, but what it lacked in speed, it made up for in power. P-40’s were eventually replaced by quicker, more maneuverable aircraft, but their legacy lives on at the Pacific Aviation Museum and through the heroic stories told about its service at Pearl Harbor and World War II.

The Curtiss P-40

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

Curtiss P-40 Warhawks in flight

Designed with a single engine and room for one, the P-40 was an all-metal fighter craft. First flown in 1938, the Warhawk was an improvement on its predecessor the P-36 Hawk.

The P-40 was a welcome addition to the US Army Air Force, serving well as a an attack plane and fighter that could stand up to similar or better-designed enemy aircraft. When it came to the Pacific Theater, the P-40 was the main fighter used by the Army Air Force.

Although the P-40 had its share mechanical shortcomings and design flaws, its success throughout the war was due to the men who piloted them. When manned by an experienced pilot, the P-40 could rule the sky and dole out considerable damage to enemy forces. While deemed inferior to the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, the P-40 could be maneuvered to turn with these quicker fighters, making it possible to keep up with them in combat.

The P-40 Warhawk served in multiple theaters during World War II, but one of the most notable stories comes even before the United States officially entered the war.

The P-40 and Pearl Harbor

On December 7, 1941, bombs fell and gunfire erupted at the air bases and airfields scattered across Oahu. Without a fleet of aerial fighters, the United States would be unable to contest Japan’s assault on the naval base at Pearl Harbor. Among the attackers' main targets were the P-40 fighters on the ground at Hickam, Wheeler, and Ewa, and Japanese fighters and bombers didn’t hesitate to take them out of service.

Curtiss P-40

Kenneth Taylor and George Welch

Though Japan’s aircraft moved quickly on the airfields, several P-40s were able to take off among the madness. George Welch and Kenneth Taylor were two of the pilots who sought to defend their nation from the aloft, and while they were overwhelmed by the number of Japanese fighters, their P-40s withstood the attack. Before having to ground themselves amidst the chaos, Welch and Taylor were both able to shoot down multiple Japanese aircraft.




End of an Era

Production on the Curtiss P-40 finally ended in November 1944, by which time the Warhawk had accrued quite a history during World War II. Between the United States Army Air Force and other countries that utilized the P-40—including the USSR and the air services of the British Commonwealth—the Warhawk became an icon of the Second World War.

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