Ed Dyess and the First Day at War

One of the outstanding leaders and heroes of the Bataan Campaign was William Edwin “Ed” Dyess. He served with distinction and honor in the early days of the Philippine Campaign, on the ground and in the skies over Bataan, survived the Death march and his imprisonment on Mindanao, and escaped to bring out the news of the Death March.


Lt. Col. William Edwin “Ed” Dyess seen Stateside after his escape from captivity in the Philippines in 1943.  (Wikipedia)

As the war began, 1st Lt. William E. Dyess was the Commander of the 21st Pursuit Squadron at Nichols Field, the “Parañaque Sinkhole” just south of Manila.


Emblem of the 21st Pursuit Squadron, approved 20 December 1941. The squadron received the Distinguished Unit Citation, Philippine Presidential Unit Citation and credit for three campaigns for its actions in the war.  Today it is the 21st Special Operations Squadron of the USAF Special Operations Command.  (Wikipedia)

Dyess had arrived in the Philippines with his squadron on 20 November 1941, half-strength with 13 pilots only, the rest to be sent later. In the next two weeks another five pursuit pilots were attached to the 21st from other squadrons. Although 10 of the original pilots were recent (1941) pilot training graduates, they had some hours in P-40s from their time at Hamilton Field, California.

Nichols Field ca 1940

Nichols Field, south of Manila, Philippine Islands, circa 1940.  View is from the south looking north towards Manila, Manila Bay to the left.  (via Fold3.com)

He had been told P-40E’s would be awaiting him but the aircraft hadn’t arrived yet. Nearly a week later, the 21st received pursuit planes, some worn out P-35s from the 17th Pursuit. Finally, on 4 December the squadron received 10 new P-40E’s, and on 6 December another 10, with two more to follow on 8 December.

It took a lot of work to get the new aircraft into service, as none had been flown more than two hours, not enough to meet the slow time requirement for breaking in a new engine. In addition, armament had to be installed, after the machine guns were cleaned of the Cosmoline they were shipped in, installed, and then the weapons boresighted in the aircraft. It was a tall order, working all this literally hours before the war began.


Early P-40E such as the type that served in the Philippines, 1941-1942.  (Courtesy Adf-serials.com.au)

Scant days earlier, on 6 December, the Commander of the Fifth Interceptor Command, Col. Harold H. “Pursuit” George, had given the Nichols pursuit pilots his war talk, warning of impending hostilities within days, maybe even hours. A brash young 21st pilot, Sam Grashio, bet his squadron CO Ed Dyess ten pesos that there would be no war. It didn’t take long for him to lose that bet.

The first day of the war, 8 December 1941 in the Philippines, would be a long one for Lt. Dyess. Japanese reconnaissance aircraft off the west coast of Luzon were detected by the radar at Iba Airfield in Zambales and thought to be headed for Manila. This triggered an 0200 alert and the squadron’s pilots were roused from their sleep by the duty officer. They assembled at the 21st’s Operations tent and held there about ten minutes before being dismissed. After that alert was cancelled, they went back to a fitful rest.

Barely two hours later about 0400 they were awakened again, as news spread that Japan had attacked American bases in Hawaii. Pilots again responded, and the 21s t dutifully manned aircraft at one end of the Nichols runway opposite Buzz Wagner’s 17th Pursuit Squadron also on alert. With no more than three hours flying time on any of the squadron’s P-40E’s, the 21st started aircraft engines, waiting for a signal to take off, a vector to intercept inbound enemy aircraft. But there were no commands and the engines were shut down. Though little-experienced, there was no lack of willingness on the part of the young pursuit pilots to engage the enemy, as would soon be shown.

The squadron had readies 18 of its P-40E’s for action that fateful morning. After a restless morning, at 1100 Dyess called his pilots out of the cockpits of the fighters to the operations tent, where they lunched on sandwiches and Coca Cola iced in a tub. At 1145 the phone rang and Dyess picked it up – Nichols base communications had received a radio signal for the 21st Pursuit “Tally Ho, Clark Field!” Dyess scrambled his pilots into action and led Flights A and B with 12 P-40Es, while C Flight was delayed a few minutes by some aircraft engine issues.

C Flight did get off, but could not locate the other two flights of the squadron, and headed east over to nearby Laguna de Bay to test their .50-caliber machine guns, which had not been fired yet, by flying low over the lake and shooting them into the water. In the process of accomplishing this, two of the aircraft started throwing oil which marred their windscreens, and these two aircraft of the flight subsequently returned to Nichols. The new engines had not been properly broken in yet.

Passing just north of Manila enroute to Clark, Dyess was aiming for 24,000 feet when he received radio orders to position his squadron over Manila Bay in between Corregidor and Cavite, to protect Manila.

Meanwhile the four remaining aircraft of C Flight, now lead by Sam Grashio and mechanically sound, headed up north from Laguna de Bay to Clark on their original orders, not having received the update.

Around 1230, as Dyess patrolled over Manila Bay with 12 aircraft, Grashio reached a quiet Clark Field and circled. After a few minutes they spotted a formation of six aircraft west of Clark, headed for the East China Sea and in the quiet beneath him and the absence of any orders went to investigate – they turned out to be P-40E’s from the 3rd Pursuit Squadron returning to Iba.

The 24th Pursuit Group’s response directing pursuit operations against the Japanese attacks of 8 December 1941 was anything but efficient and effective that dastardly day. At 1235, enemy bombers were sighted approaching Clark Field, unfortunately unopposed by any P-40s. The bombers went to work pummeling Clark.

P40B 41 Ferris Too Little too late

1st Lt. Joe Moore of the 20th Pursuit Squadron over Clark Field on 8 Dec 1941 about to roll his P-40B in on Japanese Zero fighters chasing after 21st Pursuit Squadron P-40E pilot Sam Grashio in Keith Ferris painting “Too little, too late (Courtesy Aviation Art Hangar)

Grashio and his wingman returned to the Clark area about 1239 to find chaos. After the bombers attacked, their escorting Zero fighters descended to strafe targets of opportunity on the field. Unfortunately Grashio only had his wingman, as he was inadvertently separated from the other two aircraft in the flight. Grashio attacked one strafer and made hits, and then his wingman sighted another nine Japanese A6M Zero fighters passing by and the two attacked the tail end of the formation. Before they could complete their attack, Japanese fighters from the front of that formation had already pitched back into climbing turns and were firing at the American attackers. Grashio’s aircraft was hit and damaged, and both pilots put their aircraft into dives to get away from their pursuers, successfully separating from the fight and each other in the process. Both then decided to return to Nichols Field.

Meanwhile the other two members of C Flight went into action against the Japanese strafers, but soon one of them also had an issue with the engine throwing oil and obscuring the windscreen, and broke off from the engagement to return to Nichols.

In the confusion of the day, Dyess and his men dutifully patrolling over Manila Bay were misidentified by naval personnel as enemy aircraft and taken under fire by Navy gunners at Cavite. After a fruitless patrol, and with no other orders coming from the 24th Group, Dyess returned to Nichols. The four C Flight pilots who went up to Clark returned after that. After the devastating attacks at Clark and also at Iba, which fairly well destroyed the 3rd and 20th pursuit squadrons too, Ed Dyess’ 21st and Buzz Wagner’s 17th pursuit squadrons were the remaining P-40 squadrons in the Philippines at full strength.

At 1730 hours Dyess and Wagner were ordered by HQ Far East Air Force to move their squadrons up to Clark Field. Headquarters apparently thought the airfields in Manila would be targeted next – that night the Japanese made a raid against Nichols, as things turned out.
The 21st flew 18 P-40E’s up to Clark, leaving four behind at Nichols – the three that were throwing oil and Grashio’s battle-damaged ship. Smoke was still rising from fires at Clark, but the 21st managed to set down OK on what undamaged areas there were, though they had to space out the time between landings due to the dust clouds raised as each aircraft set down.


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

Dyess found the group HQ in the jungle near the field and received his orders, to be ready to cover the arrival of B-17s from Del Monte, Mindanao, planned for early the next morning. He and his men then found something to eat, a place to sleep for the night, far away from home, removed from their own base and billets, and now literally in the jungle and at war with Imperial Japan. Things would not get much better for Ed Dyess and his men after day one of the war or in the Bataan Campaign. But his exploits would become legendary, and his example inspiring to many.

Even many years later, the memory of Ed Dyess resonates with bravery, service and sacrifice. In the 1950s, Dyess Air Force Base in Texas was named after him.


Near the front gate of Dyess Air Force base, Texas, stands a replica of Ed Dyess’ P-40E named “Kibosh” which participated in the Bataan Campaign.  (Courtesy USAF)

A replica of Lt. Col. William Dyess’ P-40 Warhawk, named Kibosh, was installed at the front gate of Dyess Air Force Base in his memory.

And earlier this year Ed Dyess received an honor from his home state of Texas, the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor for 2015, bestowed on him posthumously on 30 April 2015 in Austin, Texas, and awarded by Texas Governor Greg Abbott on 26 August 2015. Of note, Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle, the American sniper, was also posthumously awarded the medal on this day.


The Texas Legislative Medal of Honor is a unique state-level award given for personal conduct above and beyond the call of duty.  (Courtesy USAF)

The Texas Legislative Medal of Honor is given to those “…selected for having performed a deed of personal bravery or valor above and beyond the call of duty. It is the highest military decoration that can be awarded to a federal or state military member from Texas.” In the case of Ed Dyess, he was cited as follows:

“William Edwin Dyess, World War II flier, was born August 9, 1916, in Albany, TX. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and began assaults on Bataan and Corregidor, Dyess was thrust into combat in the Asian Theater as commander of all flying squadrons on Bataan. On March 3, 1942, in Subic Bay he sank a Japanese ship and damaged shore installations. As the enemy closed in, Dyess refused evacuation and remained with his men in the Philippines. On April 9, 1942, the American forces surrendered to the Japanese, and Dyess became a prisoner of war. He survived the horror of the Bataan Death March and imprisonment at camps O’Donnell and Cabanatuan and the Davao Penal Colony. At Davao, Dyess and several other prisoners escaped on April 4, 1943. They contacted Filipino guerrillas that led them to the submarine Trout on July 23. After returning home and staying in an army general hospital in Virginia to regain his health, Dyess was promoted to lieutenant colonel and resumed flying on December 22, 1943. He was killed that day in Burbank, CA, attempting an emergency landing and was buried in Albany.”

A Hero of Bataan Ed Dyess

(Courtesy Escape from Davao page on Facebook)

May the memory of Ed Dyess always be remembered and honored, for his leadership, service and sacrifice, on the first day of the Pacific War, on Bataan and beyond. His was an example for all of us to be encouraged by.

Bartsch, William H., Doomed at the start: American Pursuit Pilots in the Philippines, 1941-1942, Texas A&M University Press, 1992

Thompson, Peter, “Dyess awarded Texas Medal of Honor,” at: http://www.acc.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123449813

William Dyess, Wikipedia entry, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Dyess

Gov. Abbott Posthumously Awards Texas Legislative Medal Of Honor To Chris Kyle, Ed Dyess, at: http://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/Gov-Abbott-Posthumously-Awards-Texas-Legislative-Medal-Of-Honor-To-Chris-Kyle-Ed-Dyess-322990871.html

Ed Dyess biography, at Defenders so the Philippines website, at: http://philippine-defenders.lib.wv.us/html/dyess_ed_bio.html

21st Pursuit Squadron emblem, in Wikipedia entry, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/21st_Special_Operations_Squadron

P-40E mini painting at:  http://www.adf-serials.com.au/research/Part3-P40.pdf

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