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“They’re Killing My Boys!”—third of three

18 December 2020
“They’re Killing My Boys!”: the History of Hickam Field and the Attacks of 7 December 1941, J.Michael  Wenger, Robert J. Cressman, and John Di Virgolio, 2019, ISBN 9781682474587, 272 pp.

“They’re Killing My Boys!”: the History of Hickam Field and the Attacks of 7 December 1941 by J. Michael Wenger, Robert J. Cressman, and John F. Di Virgilio

“They’re Killing My Boys!” is the third title (the previous two books were reviewed in the previous posts) of a trilogy centered upon the disastrous series of attacks by the Japanese Empire bringing the U.S. directly into World War II. The authors create a unique approach, as well, by researching the details of a myriad of individual actions—both U.S. and Japanese—and knitting them into the tapestry of the actions at Hickam Army Air Field on 7 December 1941. The three authors collectively possess expertise and proficiency beyond most individual analyses. Photographic images are investigated with every detail extracted and matched to individual events which creates an extraordinary comprehension of the day for the reader.  The trilogy is:
  • “No One Avoided Danger”: NAS Kaneohe Bay and the Japanese Attack on of 7 December 1941 (see the second previous post for the review)
  • “This Is No Drill”: the History of NAS Pearl Harbor and the Japanese Attacks of 7 December 1941 (see the previous post for the review)
  • “They’re Killing My Boys!”: the History of Hickam Field and the Attacks of 7 December 1941
The reactions of U.S. Army forces to the Imperial Japanese attacks on Hickam Army Air Field—which occurred as part of the overall Pearl Harbor Raid on 7 December 1941—have interesting comparisons and contrasts to those of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps elsewhere on Oahu. Fate and service culture were the differential factors, of course, and these three authors create a thorough understanding of the actions leading to that fateful morning as well as the chaos which ensued. “They’re Killing my Boys!” is the quote selected by the authors to spotlight the intense emotion felt of the attacks felt by Major General Frederick Martin (command of U.S. Army Air Forces in Hawaii). Martin said this as he observed and assessed the attack’s first wave while it was unfolding. For months he had coordinated with the U.S. Navy to best defend Hawaii, agreeing the most likely attack, should one occur, would be from the air at dawn. For months he had been requesting Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress long range patrol aircraft to compliment the Navy’s PBY Catalina long range patrol missions. But for months his superiors ordered his efforts to focus on training these aircrews and forwarding them to the western Pacific, especially the Philippines. The U.S. simply had too few assets to deploy in too short a time. Priorities were set. Decisions were made. The authors, as in their previous titles in this outstanding trilogy, place the readers into the times by describing pre-attack service life and the command’s orders. How the enlisted and the officers recreated. How they trained. The many and varied alerts to prepare for potential threats. That the Army was on a war footing is well exemplified by this authoring team as they describe the creating and planning of Hickam Army Air Field as well as the logistics of supporting its aviation efforts. Also, they uncovered in detail interesting history, like:
  • The planning of a secret overflight reconnaissance mission over the Japanese Mandate Islands using a Consolidated B-24A Liberator which was destroyed in the raid with a serviceman experiencing a horrible death.

Consolidated B-24A Liberator BuNo 40-2376 piloted by 1st Lt Harvey Watkins. Photo taken on 8 Nov 1941 while having Ferry Command symbols and and neutrality flags before its intended secret overflight mission set for shortly after 7 December 1941—National Archives

  • The story behind the iconic image of a Boeing B-17C Flying Fortress cut in half—as it turns out not due to a bomb hit as one might assume (see the photo’s caption for details)

Boeing B-17C Flying Fortess BuNO 40-2074 on 7 Dec 1941 at Hickam Army Air Field piloted by Capt. Raymond Swenson. Burned through by on-board magnesium flares ignited while attacked by IJN aircraft during their landing approach—National Archives

  • The recovery of a crashed Mitsubishi Zero, piloted by Petty Officer 1st Class Hirano Takashi, after he pulled up late from a strafing run resulting in a severely bent propeller after striking the apron—as well as scraping off his belly tank. Soberingly, his resulting crash killed thirteen servicemen as it did him. 
  • The procedures of the IJN horizontal bombing (Nakajima B5N2 Type 97 “Kate”) which called for target overflight first, then formation changes as required for the actual bomb run. The lead bombardier would have the rear gunner wave a white flag as the signal for the formation to drop. The authors analyzed photos and plotted bomb strikes by each formation and each wave as a post-damage assessment. Noting overall outstanding accuracy as well as one drop which occurred about one second early. An amazing unwrapping of events and insightful understanding in what seems like real time to the reader.
  • How Army personnel, having less to work with as compared to shipboard heavy guns at Pearl Harbor, mounted machines guns and light arms, most often in the open without benefit of cover or concealment. The witnessing of a three man machine gun crew being killed in a strafing attack to be instantly replaced with another crew particularly brings home the desperation and determination of the base’s defense.
  • Surprisingly, amid the chaotic responses, how U.S. Navy anti-aircraft 3-inch and 5-inch guns unintentionally hammered Hickam with plunging fire.
  • How servicemen were moving, fueling and arming aircraft to find and attack the IJN naval force—during each of the two attacking waves as well as the short interval between the two waves. 
  • The flares fired by the IJN to initiate the type of attack in the first wave (whether to hit the ships first or the aircraft first by the Pearl Harbor attackers) were known as “Black Dragon” flares—although not described by the authors it seems they were navy blue in hue once ignited. 
  • Injuries are described though, thankfully, none are pictured to best describe the waste of war while not glorifying the same—though the valor of individuals is well illuminated.
The authors continue to do well describing many individuals—both U.S. and IJN—with service photos, historical photos and short bios. They make these individuals real to the reader and how their actions played out as these attacks unfolded. Maps, again, help as do images gleaned from several sources with each image scrutinized for every detail they can provide—each of their captions are incredibly informative.

<><><>Why This Series Is Special<><><> 

The authors, and the Naval Institute Press, have produced an excellent series of titles describing the strategic and tactical aspects of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. These books are handsome, well produced and stand out for their detail, historical context, technical description and humanity. I’m unsure if more in the series are in the offing but I hope so—especially of the attack and defense of Wheeler Army Air Field which uniquely managed, among other actions, to launch interceptors which took a toll on the IJN aerial forces.
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