The Japanese Juggernaut Unleashed

When the Imperial Japanese military and naval forces commenced their great offensive of December, 1941, the strategic masterstroke at Pearl Harbor received great attention by political and military leaders and carried top billing in many Allied newspapers. So much attention was given the attacks on various installations in Hawaii, coupled with the heavy loss of life, that it still overshadows the many other Japanese attacks on that long tragic Day of Infamy in the Pacific.

As the sun rose across the Pacific from Hawaii to the Philippines, Imperial Japan’s forces struck at multiple locations in the Philippines. The Japanese naval air strike against Clark Field “MacArthur’s Pearl Harbor” as some have called it, is the most prominent attack in the islands which is painfully remembered, as well it should be.

But the raid on Clark Field was only one of several aerial attacks against the Philippines on Monday, 8 December 1941, at points ranging from the north of Luzon to the south of Mindanao.

In the north, Imperial Japanese Army Air Force bombers based on Formosa lacked the fighter escort capability the Imperial Japanese naval Air force had with its Zero fighters which escorted naval bombers in their attack against Clark Field.

Kawasaki Ki-48-Ib Type 99 light bombers (Later code named by the Allies LILY) of the 8th Sentai were assigned the mission to strike Tuguegarao Airfield in northeastern Luzon. The IJAAF’s 5th Hikoshidan (Army Air Division) decided to send a reconnaissance plane ahead to determine if there were any aerial patrols in their target area, and so a Mitsubishi Ki-15-II aircraft was sent to reconnoiter. The pilot returned to report no aerial opposition, so the planned 8th Sentai attack was ordered to proceed, with 25 Ki-48 bombers taking off in the pre-dawn darkness.

Kawasaki Ki-48 Type light bombers in flight over mountains (Courtesy SAS Always Happy Landings)

Kawasaki Ki-48 Type 99 light bombers (LILY) of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force in flight over mountains. (Courtesy SAS Always Happy Landings website)

In addition to the 8th Sentai mission, 18 Mitsubishi Ki-21-IIa Type 97 heavy bombers (Later code named by the Allies SALLY) of the 14th Sentai also took off from Formosa, headed for targets in Baguio, also in northern Luzon.

Mitsubishi Type 97 heavy bombers (SALLY) in flight.  (Courtesy WWII Imperial Japanese Army Aircraft Photos website)

Imperial Japanese Army Air Force Mitsubishi Ki-21 Type 97 heavy bombers (SALLY) in flight. (Courtesy WWII Imperial Japanese Army Aircraft Photos website)

Far to the south and 140 miles east of Davao, the IJN light carrier Ryujo launched a strike at 0400 composed of six Mitsubishi A5M Type 96 fighters (Later code named by the Allies CLAUDE) and 13 Nakajima B5N Type 97 attack bombers (Later code named by the Allies KATE) against the airfield at Davao and ships in the Gulf of Davao.

A Mitsubishi A5M Type 96 fighter (CLAUDE) from the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi in flight with an external fuel tank circa 1938 or 1939.  (Wikipedia)

A Mitsubishi A5M Type 96 fighter (CLAUDE) from the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi in flight with an external fuel tank circa 1938 or 1939. (Wikipedia)

The first Japanese aircraft to reach their targets were the carrier planes from Ryujo, reaching Davao Airfield at 0600. The 13 attack planes dropped their loads of 132-pound bombs on the field and left, after which the fighters descended to strafe the facilities at the unoccupied airfield.

A nakajima B5N1 Type 97 carrier attack plane in flight, carrying an external load of bombs.  The aircraft could also carry an aerial torpedo.  (Courtesy World War 2 Eagles website)

A Nakajima B5N1 Type 97 carrier attack plane (KATE) in flight, carrying an external load of bombs. The aircraft could also carry an aerial torpedo. (Courtesy World War 2 Eagles website)

Making their way from the airfield over the Davao Gulf, the Japanese found the destroyer-seaplane tender U.S.S. William B. Preston (AVD-7) and two PBY-4 Catalina flying boats in Malalag Bay. The fighters descended again to strafe the moored PBY’s and destroyed both of them as they rested on the water.

Early morning of December 8, 1941: Japanese carrier attack plane (kankō) type 97 (B5N1/"Kate") from aircraft carrier Ryūjō over seaplane tender USS William B. Preston (AVD-7) in Malalag Bay, Mindanao, Philippines. Note two burning PBY-4 Catalina flying boats (aircraft 101-P-4 and 101-P-7) from VP-101, Patrol Wing 10 off shore.  (Wikipedia)

Early morning of December 8, 1941: Japanese B5N1 carrier attack plane (kankō) Type 97 (KATE) from aircraft carrier Ryūjō over seaplane tender USS William B. Preston (AVD-7) in Malalag Bay, Mindanao, Philippines. Note two burning PBY-4 Catalina flying boats (aircraft 101-P-4 and 101-P-7) from VP-101, Patrol Wing 10 off shore.  The remains of one of the PBY crew members killed in the attack, Ensign Robert Tills, were recovered in 2007.  (Wikipedia)

The seaplane tender, an old destroyer converted to a support role, was attacked by seven of the attack bombers and for nearly 30 minutes they did their best to hit the ship. But they were not successful as the captain skillfully steered his nimble ship and dodged their bombs.

USS William B. Preston underway at speed, 1942 (Australian War Memorial)

USS William B. Preston underway at speed, 1942 (Australian War Memorial)

Three of the fighters split off with two attack bombers and searched for other shipping to attack, strafing an oil tanker and a freighter. One of the Japanese aircraft was hit by antiaircraft fire and made an emergency landing, after which the pilot destroyed his plane and then killed himself.

Two other fighters were lost in the mission, as was one attack plane. The first bombs had fallen in the Philippines.

Back to the north it was about 0825 when the 14th Sentai bombers passed over Camp John Hay and unloaded their 220-pound bombs on the camp’s barracks and facilities. Seventeen actually dropped, as one had turned back earlier due to mechanical trouble. They apparently hoped that General MacArthur was present at his summer retreat, but in this regard their hopes would be dashed. They suffered no damage and returned to Formosa safely.

At about the same time, the 8th Sentai’s Ki-48 bombers attacked Tuguegarao Airfield some sixty miles inland from the north tip of Luzon. They were apparently disappointed to observe an empty pair of runways, no aircraft and no installations as they commenced bombing the field at 0830.

More bombs had now fallen on the Philippines.

Meanwhile, Japanese naval air forces on Taiwan chomped at the bit to commence their attacks. Fog had crept in over their airfields and delayed the launch of their aircraft. By 0750 the fog lifted and they commenced launching aircraft, hoping against hope that the element of surprise wasn’t lost due to the news of Pearl Harbor attacks hours earlier surely spreading, which they had.

At Tainan Naval Air Base 27 Mitsubishi G3M2 Type 96 land-based attack bombers (Later code named by the Allies NELL) of the 1st Ku, laden with a dozen 132-pound bombs each, prepared to take off and by 0818 were ready to go. All except the seventh took off safely, with number seven experiencing a mechanical failure, the landing gear collapsed and the aircraft hit the ground, catching fire and then exploding spectacularly, which delayed the takeoff of the remaining aircraft. Their target was Clark Field.

Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force Mitsubishi G3M Type 96 land attack bombers (NELL) make their way toward a target loaded with bombs early in the Pacific War.  (Wikipedia)

Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force Mitsubishi G3M Type 96 land attack bombers (NELL) make their way toward a target loaded with bombs early in the Pacific War.  Note the two tone camouflage on the upper surfaces of the aircraft, and the externally carried bombs carried externally beneath the bombers.  (Wikipedia)

At 0945, 36 Zero fighters (Later code named by the Allies ZEKE) of the Tainan Kokutai began taking off from Tainan, and would catch up with the slower bombers before they made their final approach to the target. One returned when his landing gear refused to retract, and another returned later after becoming separated from his formation after being sent to investigate suspicious aircraft heading for Formosa – they turned out to be the Japanese Army bombers returning from their morning mission. This left 34 Zero fighters to escort the Clark-bound bombers.

Two A6M2 Type 0 Model 11 Zero fighters in flight from Yichang, Hubei Province to attack Nanzheng, Shaanxi Province in China, 26 May 1941.  Similar A6M's took part in the 8 December 1941 attacks on the Philippines. (Courtesy World War II Database)

Two A6M2 Type 0 Model 11 Zero fighters in flight from Yichang, Hubei Province to attack Nanzheng, Shaanxi Province in China, 26 May 1941. Similar A6M’s took part in the 8 December 1941 attacks on the Philippines. (Courtesy World War II Database)

At Takao Naval Air Base, 27 Mitsubishi G4M Type 1 land attack bombers (Later code named by the Allies BETTY) of the Takao Kokutai took off beginning at 0930 with Clark Field as their target. Another 27 G4M of the Takao Ku took off a few minutes later, destined for Iba Airfield on the west central coast of Luzon. These were followed by another 27 Type 1 bombers of the Kanoya Ku that took off starting at 0955, also bound for Iba Airfield. Last off the ground at Takao was the Zero escort for their mission, 53 A6M Zero fighters of the 3rd Ku.

Mitsubishi G4M Type 1 land attack bombers of the Kanoya Kokutai in flight early in the Pacific War.  (Wikipedia)

Early production series Mitsubishi G4M1 Type 1 land attack bombers of the naval air Kanoya Kokutai in flight early in the Pacific War. (Wikipedia)

By 1235 p.m., bombs from 53 Japanese bombers were falling on Clark Field, followed shortly thereafter by the Zero pilots descending to strafe the field thoroughly. Some American P-40’s were in the air but poorly vectored and in no position to hit the attacking bombers. They did their best to oppose the Zero fighters, though the odds were against them and they were unable to provide any effective counter to the Japanese attacks.

At 1244, 54 Japanese bombers hit Iba Airfield, with the first formation of 27 aircraft dropping 12 132-pound bombs, and the second formation a single 1,100-lb bomb and six 132-lb bombs from each aircraft, destroying Iba’s operational capability, its vital SCR-270B radar (that had warned of approaching aircraft) and aircraft on the ground. As at Clark, escorting Zero fighters came to strafe surviving aircraft and facilities. And as at Clark, a few American P-40s defended against the Zero fighters but could not stop their strafing attacks.

Clark Field burns in the aftermath of the Japanese air raid of 8 December 1941. (Courtesy The Bataan Commemorative Research Project Scrapbook)

Clark Field burns in the aftermath of the Japanese air raid of 8 December 1941. (Courtesy The Bataan Commemorative Research Project Scrapbook)

The explanation for the largely unopposed Japanese air attacks in the Philippines on day one of the war can be found in detailed works on the subject, especially a pair of books by author William H. Bartsch titled “Doomed at the Start” (Texas A&M University Press, 1992) and “December 8, 1941: MacArthur’s Pearl Harbor (Texas A&M University Press, 2003).

The aerial attacks on the Philippines of 8 December 1941 were a brutal lesson on the cost of readiness, or lack thereof, and one that would be seared into the hearts and minds of those who experienced the attacks that day. So let us not only remember Pearl Harbor on this day, but also the attacks against the Philippines on that infamous day, which serve as a warning of the consequences of unpreparedness in any place or era.

References

Bartsch, William H., “Doomed at the Start” (Texas A&M University Press, 1992) and “December 8, 1941: MacArthur’s Pearl Harbor (Texas A&M University Press, 2003)

Ki-48 picture in “Friday’s Child, Kawasaki Ki-48 Lily” topic on SAS Always Happy Landings website at:  http://www.sas1946.com/main/index.php?topic=15028.0

Ki-21 picture on WWII Imperial Japanese Army Aircraft Photos site at:  http://www.ijaafphotos.com/jbwki211.htm

B5N over Malalag Bay picture on Ensign Robert Tills webpage in Wikipedia at:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Tills

USS William B. Preston image, Australian War Memorial webpage at:  http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/302774/

Zero fighter picture on WWII Database website at:  http://ww2db.com/image.php?image_id=13050

Clark Field attack photo at:  http://www.proviso.k12.il.us/bataan%20Web/D%20DTW%201a.htm

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