Tuesday, December 7, 2021

"That Night Was Scary." Pearl Harbor Remembered


Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

Eighty years ago today my father, Ken Cowdery, was at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. He was a 21-year-old private in the United States Army, lined up for breakfast. Japanese bombers bound for Wheeler Field next door flew over his head, so close he could see the pilot's face.

Thirty years ago, for the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he wrote down some of his memories. Mostly they were stories we, his children, had been hearing for years. He passed in 2010, so it's nice to have them now in his own words.

The story of the morning attack I have posted on several of these anniversaries, most recently in 2018. This is what happened that evening.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, chaos reigned on the island. Dad was company clerk, "like Radar on M.A.S.H.," he told us. His job that night was to monitor radio traffic, answer phones, and otherwise handle anything the officer in charge, Lt. Waid, needed him to do. Here is the rest of the story, in his own words.


That night was scary, we could hear random bursts of small arms fire from time to time but had no inclination to investigate. The headquarters building was designated as a pick up spot for dependents to gather. The alert plan had this spelled out and busses were provided to haul them down to Honolulu to get them away from any legitimate target areas. While this mob of women and children was gathering downstairs a long burst of automatic weapon fire was heard nearby. The screaming did not subside for at least 10 minutes.

Fortunately, our people were pretty lousy shots at that point because we never heard of anyone being hit.

The worst case of trigger happiness occurred in our battalion. We had a 50 caliber machine gun set up on the roof of the barracks, it was on an anti-aircraft mount and protected by sandbags. Shortly after dark we heard a P-40 coming in low, (under certain wind conditions the normal landing path for Wheeler Field was directly over our barracks). As the plane approached the barracks we heard the 50 caliber open up. We didn't hear a crash so we figured everything was OK. A little while later we got a phone call, it was a Corporal from Wheeler Field asking us to inform the machine gunners that the plane they shot at was a P-40 and they should make sure what they're shooting at.

We had a field telephone line, not connected to the regular lines, over to the roof so we called them and told them to be more careful. They said that they were sorry, that it was an accident and it wouldn't happen again.

About a half hour later we again heard the familiar sound of a P-40 coming in on its landing path, and again we heard the POM, POM, POM of the 50 caliber. A few minutes later the phone rang again, this time it was a Sergeant, he was a bit more agitated and pointed out that we didn't have very many P-40s left and that our guys should quit trying to shoot them down. We called the gun crew again and chewed them out a bit, and they again said that they were sorry, that they were sure that it was a Jap and that they wouldn't do it again.

Sure enough, a bit later we again heard the familiar sound of a P-40 coming in and, unfortunately, the all too familiar sound of the 50 caliber. This time the call from Wheeler was very quick, very loud, (he wouldn't have had to use the telephone) and very angry. It was the pilot of the last plane. After several minutes of invective he said to tell those jerks up on the roof that he was informing all the other pilots still up in the air that if it happened again they should shoot back. 

Lt. Waid and I went up to the roof ourselves and tried to impress these guys with the gravity of what they were doing and the probable consequences.

They seemed to be duly impressed and promised that it would never happen again. Lt. Waid and I got off the roof quickly and went back to headquarters, in time to hear yet another P-40 start its landing approach. You guessed it, again the 50 caliber opened up.

Then we heard the P-40 pilot pour on the coal. We could hear him circle around and approach the landing path again, only this time we heard his 50 calibers firing.

After that, no more phone calls, no more shooting at friendly planes--those guys probably never fired another shot for the rest of the war.

Lt. Waid and I went back up to the roof the next morning. There were several spots in the roof that we were convinced were 50 caliber bullet holes, none real close to the sandbags but close enough to scare the bejabers out of those gunners.

1 comment:

t ball said...

My great uncle Bill was at Pearl Harbor. He was not one to tell stories other than to give a very general sense of what he felt, eyebrows raised, eyes widened, gesturing, but not actually saying much.

However. He had a treasure trove of books about WWII and I devoured them whenever we visited, about twice a year (1970s.) We'd be there for a few days, maybe a week or more, and I'd spend most of my time reading. He never offered much, and I never pressed. He was a gentle man, always good humored but I was too young to know the right questions to ask. Thinking back, it's striking to me that despite his experiences there and later at Saipan, Tarawa, etc, there was not an ounce of hate in him. My father adored him, and had the same temperament.

His endearing kindness and humanity despite it all, definitely part of the world that made me.