Taking to the Skies: The Aircraft of Pearl Harbor

December 30, 2016

The morning of December 7th, 1941 turned into a scene of mayhem and destructions when the Japanese surprised the installation with attacks from both sea and air. The United States counteroffensive was scattered and unorganized due to the lack of preparation for the attack, but it still worked to fend off the bombers from completely crippling the harbor and much of Oahu.

Some of the battle was taken to the skies as 14 Army Air Force pilots, including Lt. Kenneth M. Taylor and 2nd Lt. George Welch, manned aircraft and shot down 10 Japanese fighters. To really get an understanding of the air battle that took place, it’s best to start by getting to know the aircraft involved on both sides.

The United States

Though the United States was taken by surprise on December 7th, servicemen were still able to get aircraft off the ground for retaliation against Japanese fighters. Lt. Taylor and 2nd Lt. Welch, the most successful pilots during the attack, were manning Curtiss P-40B Warhawks, which were armed with .30 caliber Browning ammunition and stationed at Haleiwa airstrip.

Assisting Taylor and Welch around the harbor were about 20 other U.S. aircraft, such as P-36 Hawks and the obsolete Seversky P-35. Much of the American aircraft in the region, such as that stationed at Wheeler airfield, were destroyed before pilots had been able to respond.

The United States

As an improvement to the older model Boeing P-26 Peashooter, the P-36A became the principal vessel used by the United States Army until 1941. Though originally highly regarded and set into production, by the time World War II started, the P-36A was obsolete and could not stand up against the Japanese more modern fighters.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, in which limited P-36A use was seen, the aircraft was used for training purposes only. As for the P-35, their limited presence during the attack stemmed from a delay in production, which led to the purchase of the P-36 Hawks.

The Japanese

On the morning of the attack, six Japanese aircraft carriers entered American waters, intending on launching an assault with 408 aircraft. 353 of those Imperial Japanese fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes launched the attack and included the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, B5N Kate Type 97, and Val Type 99 aircraft.

Commissioned for first flat in 1939, two years later, the A6M Zero would serve as the primary force used to attack American soil. The first of 10 different models, including the prototype, the Model 11 used at Pearl Harbor first entered combat in August of 1940 over the Chinese city of Chongqing.

The Japanese

When word of the successful aircraft reached American officials, the notion was disregarded. It was believed that the Japanese had no capability of building such a fighter, a point disproven come the morning of December 7th.

In 1937, Japan produced and flew the first prototype of the Type 97 Carrier Attack Bomber, the primary aircraft responsible for torpedoing Battleship Row. In fact, it’s believed it was aboard one of these craft that Mitsuo Fuchida, Japanese commander of the attack, sank the USS Arizona.

Relics of the Past and Present

For more details on the fighters used at Pearl Harbor and during World War II, visit the Valor in the Pacific World War II Memorial’s Pacific Aviation Museum. The gallery includes aircraft that flew during World War II and the United States’ later conflicts.

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