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Prelude to World War II

a group of people sitting in front of a store

rooseveltBy Spring, 1941, the Axis powers had attacked much of Europe from London to Athens, Moscow to Chungking. Britain was in desperate straits, unable to purchase the necessary war materials to wage a proper defense. On March 11, 1941, the House of Commons in London lay in ruins having been bombed by the Luftwaffe the night before. Prominent radio reporter Edward R. Murrow’s accounts from England astonished Americans across the Atlantic. Also on March 11, 1941 the Lend-Lease bill was passed and FDR asked Congress for money to fund the program.

America was technically a “non-belligerent” country in the early days of WWII. Yet 60% of the nation stated support for Britain.

In spite of that technicality, the first peacetime draft was held and 900,000 men were selected by draft boards for a year of military service.

china gardingDefense plants began churning out guns, tanks, bombers, trucks and munitions, thus becoming the “Arsenal of Democracy” for America’s ally Great Britain.

Pearl Harbor was quiet and quietly under surveillance by a Japanese spy sent from Tokyo to gather the information needed to complete the plans of thesecret attack. Meanwhile, the first crews of the midget submarines “Type A” which had been accepted by the Imperial Japanese Navy in November 1940, began sea training in March 1941.

Russell R WaescheThe lead-up to the attack on Pearl Harbor is filled with narratives which clearly indicate that human nature played as big a part of the surprise as the war machines. The Army’s mission was not well understood, especially when it came to the use of aircraft. The Navy published ship sailing schedules in the local paper and were predictable in their training schedules. In spite of previous war gaming which indicated the possibility of such an attack, in April 1941 the Army Chief of Staff assured President Roosevelt that, “The Island of Oahu, due to its fortification, its garrison, and its physical characteristics, is believed to be the strongest fortress in the world.”

Meanwhile in Europe the war was in full rage. By the second week of April, 1941, Yugoslavian troops were forced to withdraw to southern Macedonia when the Germans captured Skopje, exposing their flank. German troops captured the Croatian capital of Zagreb. On April 11th, Italy and Hungary joined the German invasion of Yugoslavia. Later in the week the Greek Epirus Army continued to withdraw from Albania, and the German 73rd Infantry Division attempted to block it at Kastoria Pass, resulting in heavy fighting.

Pearl Harbor Submarine

Submarines were a critical part of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The midget submarines of the Imperial Japanese Navy received most of the notoriety after the attack. However, the U.S. had a thriving submarine base at Pearl Harbor and many sailors remember the hostile conditions under which they toiled below the ocean’s surface. Attached is a picture of USS S-35 leaving Pearl Harbor in May of 1932, nine years before the surprise attack. Fortunately, it was not in port on the morning of December 7th. Between 1932 and 1940, USS S-35 was assigned to the Pacific Fleet and was based at Pearl Harbor, US Territory of Hawaii. In April of 1941, USS S-35 transferred to San Diego to serve with the West Coast Sound School; the Pacific War would begin while in this role. In the background you can see the Waianae Mountains to the northwest and smoke from the fires during the harvest of the sugar cane fields. From the vantage point it appears this picture was taken from near Hospital Point were the USS Nevada would ground during the attack.

Elsewhere in the world at war, on April 16, 1941, Iceland declared independence from Denmark and asked United States for recognition. Also the first US Lend-Lease food shipment arrived in Britain on this day.

The Imperial Japanese Navy had high hopes of catching the American aircraft carrier fleet in port on the morning of the scheduled attack. None of the assigned carriers were in Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.

One of the Hawaii based carriers was the USS Yorktown. USS Yorktown (CV-5), sailed for the West Coast of the United States on 20 April 1939, and operated with the Pacific Fleet out of San Diego for the rest of 1939 and into 1940. Yorktown sailed for Hawaii on 2 April 1940 to take part in Navy exercises designated Fleet Problem XXI.

Yorktown operated in Hawaiian waters and off the West Coast of the United States until April 1941 when the success of German U-boat attacks on British convoys in the Atlantic required a reinforcement of the Atlantic Fleet. For this purpose, the Navy transferred Yorktown and four destroyer escorts to the Atlantic. Under conditions of great secrecy, Yorktown departed Pearl Harbor for the Atlantic on 22 April 1941 and arrived at Bermuda on 12 May. From that time until the entry of the United States into the war on 8 December, Yorktown carried out Neutrality Patrols and convoy escorts in the Atlantic, ranging from Bermuda to Newfoundland, and logging over 17,000 miles steamed.

In April 1941, the Japanese signed a neutrality treaty with the Soviet Union to help prevent an attack from that direction if they were to go to war with Britain or the U.S. while targeting Southeast Asia. On 10 April 1941 the Imperial Japanese Navy formed the First Air Fleet (Dai-ichi KōKū Kantai) consisting of all seven of Japan’s aircraft fleet carriers and light carriers with a total of 474 aircraft. This was a naval battle group with the single most powerful concentration of naval aviation in the world. The large fleet carriers had three types of aircraft; fighters, level/torpedo bombers, and dive bombers. The smaller carriers had two types of aircraft, fighters and torpedo bombers. The carrier-based kokutai was staffed with 1500 pilots and over 1500 aircraft. At the beginning of the Pacific War, there would be 10 large carriers with a total aircraft capacity of about 600.

Meanwhile in Europe on April 24, 1941 King George of Greece fled the country. Operation “Demon” was underway: Nearly 50,000 men rescued from little beaches and harbors of South-Greece, this action took part till 29 April. On April 27, 1941 German forces captured Athens, Greece.

Pearl Harbor planes

This month, May 1941

The B-17D was the first version of the aircraft to be fully combat ready, and 75% of the aircraft produced were sent to the Pacific. The first twenty one aircraft were sent to Hickman Field, Hawaii, leaving Hamilton Field, California, on 21 May 1941. This was the first time a large group of bombers had flown so far over the ocean, but the aircraft arrived intact, within five minutes of their estimated arrival time. The newly arrived aircraft were assigned to the 5th Bombardment Group.

The following famous aircraft has a connection to Hawaii in May of 1941. I have seen this aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum collection in Washington D.C.

The Swoose
The Swoose is a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress D-BO, USAAF 40-3097, that saw extensive use in the Southwest Pacific theatre of World War II and survived to become the oldest B-17 still intact. It is the only early “shark fin” B-17 known to exist. It is also the only existing B-17 to have seen action in the 1941-42 Philippines Campaign, the first day of the United States entry into the war.

Early History
The 38th of 42 B-17Ds built by Boeing, 40-3097 was accepted by the Army Air Corps on 25 April 1941 in Seattle, Washington. It was ferried to Hickam Field, Hawaii, 13–14 May 1941, by the 19th Bomb Group as part of a group of 21 B-17C and Ds slated to equip the 11th Bomb Group. In response to the perceived hostile activities of the Japanese military, in September 1941, the War Department sent nine B-17s based in Hawaii to Clark Field, the Philippines, assigned to the 14th Bomb Squadron, 11th Bomb Group aircraft number 21, arriving at Del Monte, the only field besides Clark that could handle the Fortresses, on 12 September.

Japanese planes WWIIThe Japanese surprise attacks of 8 December 1941 on military installations on Clark Field and the Philippine Islands, eight hours after the Pearl Harbor raid, caught much of the United States military on the ground and only 17 of the 35 Flying Fortresses escaped destruction. One of the survivors, 40-3097, named “Ole Betsy”, was pressed into bombing duty for the next two months until newer B-17Es began to reach the Pacific in January 1942. Spare parts were scarce and ground crews patched up battle damage with parts salvaged from other destroyed aircraft. The last combat mission flown by 40-3097 was a raid on the east coast of Borneo on 11 January 1942, piloted by the commander of the 19th Bomb Group, Major Cecil Combs.

On the Navy front, the Cruiser Philadelphia departed Pearl Harbor May 22, 1941 to resume Atlantic operations, arriving Boston on June 18th. At this point she commenced neutrality patrols, steaming as far south as Bermuda and as far north as Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Philadelphia entered Boston Navy Yard on November 25th for upkeep and was in repair status there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Meanwhile, the Woban Class District Harbor Tug was placed into service, May 22, 1941 as Hoga (YT-146) then assigned to the 14th Naval District, Naval Station Pearl Harbor, T.H. The Hoga was at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

map-hawaiiThe beginnings of military airfield construction on other major islands, together with General Short’s concern about the possibilities of sabotage or other hostile action by residents of Japanese descent, prompted the first garrisoning of the Hawaiian group as a whole by active Army forces. In May 1941 General Short detached the 299th Infantry Regiment from the Hawaiian Division and sent one battalion to Hawaii, another to Kauai, and divided a third between Maui and Molokai. These detachments and other Army forces sent to the outer islands were put under the local command of military districts (of Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai) which in turn reported directly to the commander of the Hawaiian Department. Trained combat troops on the outer islands numbered about 1,300 at the beginning of December 1941.

In Europe in May 1941:
May 20 – The Battle of Crete begins as Germany launches an airborne invasion of Crete.
May 21 – A U-boat sinks SS Robin Moor.
May 24 – In the North Atlantic, the German battleship Bismarck sinks battle cruiser HMS Hood, leaving only 3 crewmen survivors from a total of 1,418 aboard the pride of the Royal Navy.
May 26 –In the North Atlantic, Fairey Swordfish aircraft from the carrier HMS Ark Royal cripple the steering of Bismarck in an aerial torpedo attack.
May 27 – Bismarck is sunk in the North Atlantic, killing 2,300.

At home
May 27 – President Roosevelt proclaims an “unlimited national emergency.”
Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak begins as the New York Yankee center fielder goes one for four against Chicago White Sox Pitcher Eddie Smith.