By Jeremy Prichard
19th Airlift Wing Historian
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the United States’ entry into the Second World War. Most Americans accept that the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor propelled the nation to war, and rightfully so: more than 2,400 Americans died and another 1,200 were wounded from that Japanese onslaught, while more than 300 planes and 18 ships were either destroyed, sunk or damaged.
Yet this incident was only one component of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “date which will live in infamy” speech delivered the following day. Alongside Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt referenced nearly simultaneous Japanese attacks across the Pacific stretching from Hong Kong to Guam to Wake Island that often attract little attention.
Also overlooked are Japanese attacks on the Philippine Islands, where the 19th Bombardment Group – predecessor to today’s 19th Airlift Wing – sustained devastating losses at Clark Field only 10 hours after the raid on Pearl Harbor. It is worth recalling the harrowing trials of the 19th BG that culminated in the United States’ formal declaration of war against Japan.
The group moved its 35 B-17s from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Clark Field three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor in an effort to defend key strategic points in East Asia against purported Japanese aggression. When reports of Japanese activity in the skies increased in the weeks prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lt. Col. Eugene Eubank, 19th BG commander, ordered two of the Group’s bombardment squadrons – the 14th and the 93rd, with their combined 144 uniformed airmen and 16 B-17s – south to Mindanao Airfield at Del Monte for temporary duty, while the group’s 28th and 30th Bombardment Squadrons remained at Clark Field.
When news of the attack on Pearl Harbor filtered throughout the Philippines, pilots at Clark Field were immediately placed on standby until further orders, before most had even sat down for breakfast. (It was Dec. 8 in the Philippines when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, but still Dec. 7 in the U.S.)
To avoid being caught in an air raid, all planes able to take off from Clark Field were immediately ordered airborne. After circling the region for more than an hour with no sightings of Japanese forces, the Clark Field control tower radioed the “all clear” for aircraft to return.
At 12:35 p.m. local time Dec. 8, as everyone at Clark Field focused on the short-notice assignment, air-raid sirens warned of Japanese aircraft nearby. Unfortunately for those on the ground, the alarm came too late as enemy planes were already overhead. Some spotted the aircraft formations just before the warning, but few could distinguish whether they were enemy planes until bombs began descending from them.
Two waves of Japanese bombers shattered hangars, demolished houses, ruined planes, and hollowed out craters across the installation. Following the bombing raids, Japanese fighter pilots made repeated strafing runs across the airfield targeting anything not already razed. They concentrated on the B-17s positioned, to their disbelief, in open formation.
The assault lasted nearly an hour, and the enemy had left Clark Field in tatters. Twelve of the 19 B-17s at Clark Field were destroyed. Only two that survived the attack needed routine maintenance in order to takeoff again; the rest required extensive repairs. The 24th Pursuit Group, also headquartered at Clark Field, lost several of its P-40 interceptors that never left the ground. Some aircraft were no longer recognizable. Thirty-one men from the 19th BG – 21 ground personnel and 10 flight crewmen – died from the events that day.
President Roosevelt sought a declaration of war against the Japanese Empire nearly 12 hours after the attack on Clark Field, which the U.S. Congress quickly approved. The 19th BG continued operations in the region for another 10 months, during which time it suffered further casualties while others were taken prisoner and subjected to the horrors of the infamous Bataan Death March. Beginning in October 1942, what remained of the unit returned stateside for training.
In September 1945, not quite four years after the barrage on Clark Field, the 19th BG was present for Japan’s formal surrender. The group had earned numerous honors during the conflict, though at an alarming cost, none more so than on what many deem the blackest day in American military history.
The U.S. and its Allies ultimately triumphed in war, but it is worth recognizing all service members – from all parts of the globe – who withstood or perished from the coordinated Japanese attacks on Dec 7 –8, 1941.