A young aviation machinist’s mate and a veteran Japanese Zero pilot squared off at Pearl Harbor. Only one would survive.
The date December 7, 1941, had been etched in my father’s memory, as it had for so many of his generation. Decades later, in his 50s, his gray hair crew cut and with the sinewy build of an ironworker, he sat at the kitchen table, a grain belt beer held in rough, calloused hands. “Well,” he’d begin in a halting, self-conscious manner, and his account would play out.
Quincy Street Northeast, Minneapolis, had been home, the Hawaiian Islands merely pictures in a National Geographic magazine. In the late 1930s, Al Rogers left family behind to labor with the Civilian Conservation Corps, then set out to join the U.S. Navy. On Thanks – giving Day 1941, Navy patrol flying boats lined the seaplane ramps at Kaneohe Bay on the northeast side of Oahu. Rogers, a 21-year-old aviation machinist’s mate, was assigned to Patrol Squadron 12 at the naval air station.
By November 26, the Japanese Combined Fleet had begun its long voyage through restless Pacific waters, a journey that was predestined to intertwine the fates of my father and a Japanese naval fighter pilot. Aboard the aircraft carrier Soryu, Lieutenant Fusata Iida, a rising star in the Imperial Japanese Navy, wondered what lay ahead. A graduate of the Eta Jima Military School, honored with the Imperial Prize, and an aggressive pilot who had honed his skills over China, Iida would soon add to his stature in the sky above Oahu.
Two hundred twenty miles north of Hawaii at 6 a.m. on Sunday, December 7, the first wave of aircraft lifted off from Japanese carrier decks. As the planes droned through the scattered clouds of a rising Pacific sun, Oahu slept on, unsuspecting. In the naval air station barracks at Kaneohe Bay, the usual morning chatter and noise grew exceptionally loud at about 7:50 a.m. Tired and irritable after working through the night, Al Rogers, a scrappy lightweight, rolled out of his bunk, tightened a fist and started after the loudest sailor in the bunch. Suddenly the roar of radial-engine aircraft overhead drowned out the sailors’ babble, and he heard chaotic shouts:
“What the hell…?
“Must be Army maneuvers.”
“Those big red circles…”
Machine guns began to hammer away. One sailor pointed out the window and yelled, “It’s Jap planes!”
The barracks shuddered. A Zero careened by, tracers from its gun ports streaking toward the administration building. Amid the confusion Rogers frantically donned dress white trousers, a blue work shirt, boots and a white sailor’s cap—the mix of uniform irrelevant.
Kaneohe was under attack!
Japanese planes hurtled down at the air station, a murderous swarm of fighters and bombers. Explosions and gunfire filled the air. Near Hangar One a half dozen Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina flying boats were engulfed in flames. Armor-piercing rounds ripped through their hulls. Fuel tanks exploded into vast columns of fire and smoke. Resolute sailors and Marines struck back in vain, armed only with rifles, light machine guns and even pistols. Some of them paid with their lives.
As suddenly as they arrived, the invaders departed—dark, deadly specs droning into the eastern sky. Kaneohe’s PBYs, scouts of the Pacific Fleet, burned in the early dawn.
Rogers made his way through the disaster scene until he reached his assigned plane outside Hangar One. Close by, PBYs blazed and fires sent monstrous clouds of black, acrid smoke billowing into the blue Pacific sky.
At his duty station, the skipper’s PBY, Rogers climbed inside the hull, feeling ill at ease among the more experienced hands already there. In each of the open waist ports, .50-caliber machine guns sat in their mounts. Extra cans of ammo hung on the bulkhead amidships, and a .30-caliber stood ready in the bow turret.
“I don’t think they’ll be back,” said one sailor with angry bravado.
“After all,” said another, “we’re ready for ’em now.”
Amid the crackling fires and black smoke, the burning aluminum flying boats melted to the ground. The men inside the skipper’s plane anxiously manned their stations and seethed for revenge, trying to comprehend the calamity. Finally some went after additional ammo, a couple more to search for coffee. One of them remarked, “This is going to be a long day.”
Rogers remained in the plane with the radioman, a member of the regular flight crew. They watched the sky as the PBYs burned.
It was about 9 a.m. when sailors in Hangar One suddenly pointed to the sky. A second wave of nine Japanese fighters, led by Lieutenant Iida, was storming in from the north, intent on finishing the job that the first wave had started.
As the radioman started forward through the fuselage, he yelled back to Rogers: “They’re coming back! You take the .50s. I’ll take the .30 in the bow.”
Rogers, an airframe mechanic, not a gunner, called the radioman back. Quickly, the man explained: “This is the trigger. This is the charging handle, and this is practice ammo. Every tenth round is a dud.”
Incredulous, Rogers exclaimed, “Duds!”
“Don’t worry,” urged the radioman. “Just pull the handle back, and it’s ready to go again.” With that he turned and hurried forward, gunnery 101 concluded.
The enemy planes descended upon the air station while Rogers mentally reviewed the instructions for firing the .50-caliber. As the formation drew closer, he fired one quick burst, and the rounds fell short of the lead plane.
The Zeros, in single file, circled the air station, death and destruction in their wake. Again they returned toward the flight line and hangars, firing both guns and cannons. Rogers lined up his gun, bullets arcing behind his targets. At every tenth round, his tension mounted with each maddening pull of the charging handle. The clattering of the .50 resounded within the PBY’s hull as if it were a 55-gallon drum. Shell casings tumbled to the deck.
“Like shooting pheasants, lead the target,” Rogers mumbled to himself. “Lead the goddamn target!”
The carnage continued as Japanese guns mauled the blazing hulks of the venerable flying boats. Graceful and slow in flight, on the ground the PBY-5s sat like marooned whales, perched on their beaching gear, large dual wheels to the port and starboard sides, a tail wheel affixed to the stern. Sailors scattered for cover amid the belching fires and smoke, the constant roar of Japanese airplanes, the rattle of machine guns.
Angry and shaken, Rogers realigned his short bursts, catching an – other train of incoming fighters. The planes headed toward the barracks, shops, armory and administration buildings, strafing as they went. Out over the bay a lone A6M2 Zero circled, then swooped down.
Like a winged samurai, Fusata Iida banked his Zero and hurtled down through the smoke and fire. Sweat-soaked, heart pounding and angry as hell, Rogers held his fire. He was determined not to miss this time around.
The fighter pilot, seemingly intent on eliminating the troublesome gunners in the skipper’s plane, closed on his target. A flutter of smoke curled behind the Zero’s wings, as nose and wing guns blazed. At the last moment—“lead the goddamn target”—Rogers fired one short burst, stitching the Zero. Iida abruptly banked away, roaring over 1st Street. Groundfire erupted from the armory.
Moments later, Iida’s flight formed up and turned for Gun Sight Pass, a gap in the mountains across Kaneohe Bay. But Iida himself lagged behind the formation, which flew to his side. Below, Rogers and the radioman watched and waited.
Lieutenant junior grade Iyozo Fujita immediately assessed the problem: Iida’s plane was trailing fuel. The Japanese flight leader had been hit by groundfire. Iida pointed at himself, then at the ground. Fujita remembered his friend’s prophetic affirmation that morning on Soryu. In the event he could not complete his mission, Iida had said, “I will crash dive into an enemy target rather than attempt an emergency landing.” Iida waved his men off and dived toward the bay. Fujita watched helplessly as his comrade plummeted toward Kaneohe.
Iida’s Zero plunged toward the water and leveled off, the angle of dive and recovery abrupt. Engine screaming, the A6M2 swept toward the seaplane ramps and Hangar One.
In the hope of luring his adversary closer, Rogers stepped away from his gun and tugged at the auxiliary ammunition rack on the bulkhead of the PBY. The Zero howled across the ramps, its gunfire chewing through the smoldering seaplanes. At the last minute, Rogers lunged back into position, grabbed the .50-caliber and aimed at Iida’s Zero. A vapor trail streamed from the plane; its cannons blew chunks of debris from the flight line, ever nearer to the PBY.
Iida roared closer, making no attempt to alter his angle of attack. Rogers fired the .50-caliber, and a plume of smoke and lick of flame streamed from the engine. The Zero was hit!
Undaunted, Iida careened over 1st Street toward the armory. Aviation Ordnanceman Sands opened up with automatic rifle fire as the plane plowed into the ground, its airframe buckling on impact. The huge radial engine, torn from its mounts, cartwheeled to rest at the side of a house. Fusata Iida lay crushed within the wreckage.
The radioman clambered back through the fuselage from the bow turret of the PBY. Rogers, elated, yelled, “We got one!”
“What do you mean, we?” said the radioman. “You got ’em yourself! Our wing was in the way. I couldn’t shoot.” (In the disorder that permeates the heat of battle, several servicemen would lay claim to having shot down Iida, but my father never wavered in his memory of the day’s events.)
Their exuberance was short-lived. Behind them Hangar One exploded when a bomb plunged through its roof. Debris rained across the flight line; fires and clouds of acrid smoke blotted out the sky.
In the commotion, Rogers and the radioman rushed toward the inferno. A burned sailor with a broken leg dragged himself from the wreckage. In the heat and smoke, they pulled the man to safety, putting him in a passing truck with other wounded. The nameless radio – man rode along to help.
Alone, Rogers climbed back into the PBY, assessing the damage. Blistered paint, burnt flaps, shrapnel through the hull, flat tires—it wouldn’t fly soon. Rogers was still incensed, but like the skipper’s plane, he too was spent. After a long while, both he and his guns were commandeered, carted off to the hilltop in the middle of the air station.
An edgy vigil ensued. Through the long night that followed, the occasional boom of howitzers echoed from the hills across the bay and tracers sliced through the murky darkness. As rumors circulated, the besieged sailors strained their eyes, searching for an invasion that never came. Over the Koolau Range, Pearl Harbor, afire, glowed in the night sky.
On December 8, the air station smoldered in the still dawn. Twenty-seven PBYs had been transformed into charred hulks. The hangars were a tangle of rubble, blackened by fire and smoke; the dead were still being counted.
Relieved from their gun post, Rogers and a fellow sailor trudged by the station infirmary toward what remained of their barracks.
“Hey, sailors, over here,” came a commanding voice from behind.
The station doctor had hailed them. In a bloodied uniform and with a haggard, determined expression on his face, he was a man not to be trifled with. Both sailors were taken to the infirmary garage, which was serving as a makeshift morgue, and given hammers and nails to make coffins.
“Get busy,” said the doctor. “I’ll find more help.”
Four more sailors soon arrived. The “Doc” sent another six to the barracks to dress for a burial detail.
As the sailors prepared coffins, two Marines arrived in a jeep. They unloaded a trash can and placed it next to the infirmary entrance. Slumped inside the container were the remains of the only Japanese pilot shot down at Kaneohe. The can sat near the door for much of the day, until the sailors finished preparations for their fallen mates. Clad in a bloody flight suit, the body in the trash can was finally brought in. Battered and broken, Fusata Iida was laid out on a wood table.
Thoughts of dead and wounded sailors, the embattled air station and being machine-gunned by the man who lay before him raced through Rogers’ mind. Anger, weariness and grim bewilderment displaced any feelings he might have had for his fallen adversary. Tall for a Jap, he thought, then hammered nails into the pine box for the man he and others had shot from the sky.
Later that day, an honor guard of sailors and Marines trucked 16 pine coffins to a secluded gully beside the sea. At the same site, the remains of Lieutenant Iida were lowered into a separate grave.
Anonymous, Al Rogers stood quietly on a sand hill in the back row of the farewell formation, still wearing his white trousers, hat and blue work shirt. A cadre of helmeted Marines in khaki with rifles and sailors in dress whites stood at attention. All hands turned to. Over hard-faced salutes, gun salvos echoed across the ravine. The mournful wail of taps faded into the wind and rolling surf. For the men in coffins, the day of infamy in the rising sun had ended—but for the survivors the terrible war in the Pacific had just begun.
Following Pearl Harbor, my father served throughout the Pacific in patrol squadron VP-12. During the liberation of the Philippines, he was assigned to the air division of the light cruiser Denver (CL-58). He attained the rank of petty officer first class. After the war he returned to Minneapolis and raised his family. He died in March 1979 as the sun rose over the Horse Heaven Hills of Washington State, another member of the “Greatest Generation” gone west.
L.E. Rogers is a U.S. Air Force and 30-year police veteran who writes from southwest Florida. He suggests for further reading: At Dawn We Slept, by Gordon W. Prange with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon; Double-Edged Secrets: U.S. Naval Intelligence Operations in the Pacific During World War II, by W.J. Holmes; and PBY Catalina in Action, by W.E. Scarborough.
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.