Stories

Recollections of Willard Harding Swapp regarding events of December 7, 1941 and Kaneohe Bay, HI

Willard Harding Swappby Gary Harding, 466th Bomb Group, US Army Air Corps

Forty years ago, on this date, the Japanese attacked the island of Oahu, bombing, strafing and torpedoing the military bases of Pearl Harbor, Kaneohe Bay, Hickam Field and Wheeler Field. I was based at Kaneohe Bay with Patrol Squadron Eleven composed of 12 PBY-5 seaplanes. We were formerly VP-23 based at Pearl Harbor and had only been based at Kaneohe Bay a short time. Our planes were new having been flown from San Diego on 27 and 28 October 1941. I was an Aviation Radioman First Class assigned to squadron aircraft #7, normally flown by the squadron Executive Officer. I also was the radio section leader with the duty Saturday Dec. 6, 1941. We manned a teletype machine on the second deck of the hangar, which was connected to the other squadrons and base communications at Kaneohe. We were not in communication with Pearl Harbor or other stations. Our planes were topped off with fuel and machine gun ammo was aboard plus some of our personal gear as we were standing by to deploy to Midway Island. Planes, in those days, were parked in near rows and ours were no exception, being tied down both on the west and south sides of the hangar.

Memories fade after forty years but what follows is to the best of my recollection.

I reported to the hangar at about 7am to check messages and prepare to turn the duty over to my relief. I parked my car across the street from the hangar and directly in line with parked aircraft. The windows were rolled up and the doors locked. Another squadron at Kaneohe had at least one PBY moored in the bay simulating advanced base conditions.

At about 7:55am several of us noticed three light colored, single engine aircraft in a "V" formation making a sharp turn over the far side of the bay and beginning to make a shallow diving high speed run directly at our hangar. We made some off hand remarks about "what kind of planes are those", "odd color", etc. We then noticed water dancing around the plane moored in the bay and a tongue of flame appeared on the upper wing area. The man aboard the plane leaped into the water. I do not know if he survived or not. Some one made the remark "the Army will catch hell for this" but by the time the words were out all three aircraft were firing at our planes and at least one roared closely over the top of the hangar not far from us. That is when it hit home that we were under attack - there was no mistaking the large red "meatballs" painted on the wings and fuselage of the planes. Someone yelled "it's the Japs" and we all tried to get out the door at the same time. All the radiomen both going off duty and those coming on, perhaps 5 or 6 men, took refuge in the stairwell which was protected by cement walls. I did not know then, nor do I know now, just how many fighters were attacking because by this time most of our planes (except one in the hangar) were burning. The strafing went on for some time, although certainly not as long as it seemed, but up to this point no bombs had been dropped. I personally did not see the attack on VP-14 based in a second hangar but they were wiped out as we were. VP-12 shared the hangar with my squadron so their planes were attacked simultaneously with ours.

At this time my sense of duty took over and I went back up to the duty room and found one of my men sitting at the teletype. I ordered him out of there and as the teletype was clanging away I tore off the paper and read it. It said, and I quote, "hostilities with Japan have commenced" and then proceeded to direct the three squadrons to certain search areas or sectors. I said to myself "whats with ?" and proceeded back down to the hangar deck. More and more personnel were getting to the hangar and locating the squadron duty officer I gave him the message. If I remember right he read it then stuffed it in his pocket.

I should note at this time that the attacking pilots opened fire with their machine guns (7.65mm, I believe) to sight in a target and then and only then opened up with their 20mm cannon. The machine guns were German made and had an extremely high rate of fire. I never found any ball ammo so it would appear they fired incendiary and armor piercing only, although this is conjecture on my part. I picked up numerous of the armor piercing inserts, they were extremely sharp and no larger in diameter than pencil lead.

A lull came in the firing and a lot of us gathered across the read near a small building and a grove of trees. About this time men from the public works department drove several large steel bodied dump trucks to the grove of trees and formed them in a loose circle. Large (2 or so) pipes were driven into the ground and someone ordered me and several other men to go to the nearest aircraft, not burned, and remove the 50 cal. Machine guns and ammo. Since we did not know when the attackers would be back we accomplished this in nothing flat. The guns were installed on the pipes and eventually were fired with one or two men holding the gun down and one firing it. At this time a flight of horizontal bombers came over from north to south but for some reason they were too far west and the string of bombs fell mostly in the water. The strong wind may have helped. They circled around and this time came over more to the east and laid a string of bombs that hit the VP-12 side of our hangar and the parking ramps. VP-12 had stored some depth charges in their part of the hangar and a bomb set them off which practically destroyed that part of the hangar. The cement deck of the hangar was literally pushed down for about 3 to 4 feet in an area of 30 to 40 feet in diameter.

Several people were firing at the low level bombers and at least one was streaming gasoline and smoke and appeared to be descending. We later heard rumors that he had crashed landed up the coast.

Again the fighters came over strafing everything they had missed before, including the grove of trees where most of us had taken cover. I was under one of the trucks near a rear wheel attempting to stay out of sight as the fighter pilots had a nasty habit of swerving out of their way to shoot exposed personnel. This is impressed on my memory - a heavy set chief who was lying next to me but toward the center of the truck kept pushing me with his hips toward the area where bullets were kicking up grass and what not, all the time saying "get over son, get over". Something hit my leg and I thought I was wounded but it turned out to be just very minor cuts and scrapes from rocks and other debris.

At this point all the fighters but one, formed up and headed away, this one made one last run but this time every gun that was around opened up on him. We could see hits being made on his plane and he tried to pull the nose up several times but crashed into the hill just below the "O" club. The pilot was a Lt Cdr and was buried days later with full military honors. Some American made radio equipment was found in the wreckage including the direction finder which I personally saw. This was the end of the attack. Our casualties were very light compared to other areas but we were completely wiped out aircraft wise. To my knowledge there was not a flyable plane at Kaneohe. The plane in our hangar suffered only minor damage but was out of commission for quite some time as self sealing fuel tanks were being installed. It was 17 Dec. before I flew again and then with strange planes and pilots, planes flown out from the mainland after the attack.

My father, W. H. Swapp, continued with stories of deployments to Suva, Fiji, Noumea, New Caladonia, Noeni, Santa Cruz Islands and patrols to the north of the Solomon Islands prior to the Marine landing on Guadalcanal.

On the 25th of August while on patrol about 700 miles out somewhere north of the Solomon's we spotted a single engine Japanese float plane (they used Zeroes on floats). He spotted us and commenced a run at us from the starboard side. I was manning the Stbd 50 Cal gun and was almost ready to open fire when he did a 180 degree turn and flew away from us. This was strange but he had seen something we had not, two SBD dive bombers were approaching from the port side. He evidently had no desire to take on three aircraft so he departed the area. -- later the pilot spotted ships on the horizon almost dead ahead and we closed them at an altitude of two or three thousand feet. The pilot motioned me forward to take a look and I am sure I only confirmed what he had in his mind when I said I thought they were Japanese. There really was no mistaking the pagoda style upper works of a great many Japanese ships. He then told me to challenge them with the Aldis lamp and I looked up the challenge for the day and rigged the lamp. We were not well within anti-aircraft range. Standing between the pilots I flashed the first letter of the challenge toward the lead ship. I hadn't even finished the letter when they answered. Every other ship in line(there were five) lit up like a fireworks display. The pilot rammed the throttles forward and commenced a diving turn to the left and as we did so the A/A shells burst directly behind us, neither too long nor too short. They had been tracking us perfectly and also, without a doubt, been alerted by the float plane. That was a fast as I have ever gone in a PBY, the terrific speed of f150 knots. As we approached the water shells began exploding in the water making large water spouts.

From naval history books the only ships in the area on that day was a force under Rear Admiral Abe consisting of the following capital ships, the battleships Hiei and Kirishima and the heavy cruisers Sizaya, Kumano and Chikuma. Upon return to base we were somewhat disappointed to find not one scratch on the plane.

A Japanese bomber, a thin line of smoke trailing in its wake, after being struck by anti-aircraft fire
A Japanese bomber, a thin line of smoke trailing in its wake, after being struck by anti-aircraft fire.