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Air War, the Forgotten Part of the Pearl Harbor Story




Mention “Pearl Harbor” to any American, and they will probably think immediately of ships. The December 7th, 1941, Japanese attack on the United States Pacific Fleet moored at Pearl Harbor, in the territory of Hawai’i, was one of the darkest days in the history of the American Navy. The USS Arizona, wracked by a violent explosion after an armor-piercing bomb hit her forward magazine, sunk quickly into the sapphire waters off Ford Island. The USS Utah and USS Oklahoma were also lost. Other massive battleships were sunk, although most of the ships which went to the bottom on December 7th were later raised and put back into service.



All in all, Pearl Harbor belongs, in American memory, to the Navy. It was a maritime disaster, and its story has been told as such for more than 70 years.


Often forgotten, however, is that aviation played a central role in the events of December 7th. Apart from a handful of small submarines, which launched mostly unsuccessful torpedo attacks on US ships, nearly all of the firepower deployed by Japan on that day came from the air. Two sorties of Japanese planes, totaling 350 aircraft in all, took off from Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s carrier fleet some 275 miles off the northwest coast of Oahu early in the morning on Dec. 7th.




Although their main targets were the ships of the US Pacific Fleet, the Japanese pilots also launched attacks against American planes at Oahu’s Hickam Airfield and elsewhere, destroying nearly every American aircraft on the island. Fewer than a dozen American planes made it into the air, scrambled to meet the Japanese attack. American pilots managed to take down a few Japanese planes—a small percentage of the airborne flotilla, to be sure, but the air-to-air battle over Oahu is an important, and often overlooked, part of the events of that day.


Pacific Aviation Museum in Oahu


One Pearl Harbor institution, the Pacific Aviation Museum, is dedicated to keeping the memory of the air war over Oahu alive. Perhaps more significant, the Pacific Aviation Museum is going beyond Pearl Harbor, fleshing out the history of the attack with stories from other islands while also going outside the temporal confines of December 1941 to relocate aviation at the center of the Pacific War.



In piecing together these forgotten artifacts of the past, the Pacific Aviation Museum, like the Pearl Harbor museum complex, is also looking into the future, bringing long-dismissed Japanese perspectives into the Pearl Harbor narrative while reaching out to the growing numbers of visitors from Japan.


During a recent visit to the Aviation Museum, JAPAN Forward sat down with Ken DeHoff, the museum director and himself a veteran of combat aviation. A helicopter pilot wounded during the Vietnam War, DeHoff instinctually sees military history through the lens of avionics. DeHoff’s guided tour of Pearl Harbor includes brief stops at vistas overlooking the ruined hulks of the USS Arizona and USS Utah, as well as at the memorial to the USS Oklahoma, but his main focus is on how the attack played out from the air.



For example, DeHoff pointed out a several-dozen-yard-long streak of pockmarked concrete on Ford Island, reeling off the kind of airplane and the caliber of cannon that fired the bullets which notched the strip of ground in an undulating row of small craters and pits. And when outlining the Pearl Harbor attack overall, the sinking of the US Pacific Fleet is almost secondary to the ways in which the Japanese planes negotiated the Wai’anae and Ko’olau Mountains sheltering Pearl Harbor, sweeping in from both east and west over the foothills before taking up attack positions low over the water and the land.


It turns out that seeing Pearl Harbor from the perspective of the sky instead of the sea can open up surprising new angles to the story of the day that brought the United States into the world’s deadliest war.



The First Japanese Prisoner of War


For instance, the Aviation Museum’s most controversial exhibit is perhaps the rusted, skeletal wreckage of an A6M Zero fighter piloted by Shigenori Nishikaichi, who took off from the Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu at approximately 8 a.m. on December 7th. Part of the second wave of the attack, Nishikaichi descended on Kaneohe and Bellows before taking a defensive round in the fuel tank. Unable to complete his mission or even to return to the Hiryu, Nishikaichi decided to ditch his Zero on the tiny island of Niihau, at the northwest tip of the eight main Hawaiian islands.






Having survived the forced landing, Nishikaichi, aided by a few Japanese immigrants on Niihau, took local Hawaiians hostage while attempting to use his damaged radio to communicate with the Japanese naval command. Eventually, Nishikaichi was overpowered and killed by local Niihauans Benehakaka Kanahele and his wife, Kealoha. Benehakaka received the Purple Heart for his actions that day, while the treachery of a tiny number of trusted Japanese residents—one of whom committed suicide when Nishikaichi’s daring escape attempt failed—contributed significantly to distrust of all Japanese and Japanese-Americans in Hawai'i after the Pearl Harbor attacks.



Also, in a measure of how much the naval history of Pearl Harbor has tended to overshadow the aviation side of the story, it is worth noting that the first Japanese prisoner taken in the Pacific War was not the crew member of one of the miniature submarines captured at Pearl Harbor, as is often reported, but, in fact, Shigenori Nishikaichi.



Jason Morgan is an assistant professor at Reitaku University in Chiba, Japan. He holds a PhD in Japanese legal history from the University of Wisconsin, and an MA in Asian Studies (China focus) from the University of Hawai’i. He has translated works by Mizoguchi Yuzo, Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, and Muro Saisei. In 2014-2015, Morgan was a Fulbright scholar researching Japanese law at Waseda University in Tokyo. His book, Why do Americans Look Down on Japan?, was published with Wani Books in 2016.




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