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VF-6: The Deadly Night of December 7, 1941

ENS Gayle L. Herman’s Wildcat (U.S. Navy Photograph NH 97485)

The night of Dec. 7, 1941, was cold and rainy. Personnel on Ford Island still huddled in ditches, makeshift shelters or hangars, waiting for the Japanese Navy to come back and finish the job. But there was more death to come that night. A hundred miles from Hawai‘i, an Enterprise air-search force was returning near dusk after failing to find the Japanese fleet. With light fading and aircraft short of fuel, Enterprise sent six F4F Wildcat fighters to instead land on Ford Island’s runway. All were members of carrier fighter squadron VF-6. In minutes, five aircraft were shot down, with three of the pilots killed — all by friendly fire.

FIGURE 1: F4F WILDCAT (USNA 80-G-K-15634)

Hebel and Menges

With LT(jg) Francis F. “Fritz” Hebel in the lead, the flight approached a blacked-out Oahu, the only light coming from fires of the morning attack. Wingman ENS Herbert H. Menges flew alongside Hebel. Following were ENS Gayle L. Hermann and ENS David R. Flynn and a final pair consisting of ENS James G. Daniels III and LT(jg) Eric Allen, Jr.

On Ford Island, Enterprise CAG LCDR Howard L. “Brigham” Young had flown in on an SBD scout bomber earlier in the day, into the middle of the attack. He was able to land on Ford Island’s runway and sprint to the control tower. There, he tried to contact Enterprise, but the tower’s weak radio signal could not reach the carrier. Young climbed back into his SBD’s back seat to use the aircraft’s radio, communicating with Enterprise to apprise Admiral Halsey of the situation. That evening, Enterprise notified Ford Island six aircraft from VF-6 would be landing. Young and other personnel sent out the word to hold fire, and then Young waited in the control tower for the Wildcats.

Around 2100 hours, the flight finally arrived. They had flown nearly to the east end of Oahu’s southern shore before determining where they were. They turned around and approached Ford Island from the south, passing over Hickam Field. Hebel radioed that they would make a circuit around the island, landing from the north. Young in the control tower told them to come straight in, but Hebel either could not hear Young or decided to ignore him. Hebel repeated he was making a pass, and Young, once again, tried to get him to fly straight in.

As the flight passed by Ford Island, a few scattered shots were fired and then the floodgates opened. Although the word had gone out that the Wildcats were coming, every gun on the island seemed to open up. The museum’s own Dick Girocco, who was in Hangar 56, said the “sky was lit up like daytime” and the sound was deafening.

Everyone in the flight realized they were in trouble. Flight leader Hebel was able to break away from the carnage and make for Wheeler Field, but when he arrived, he was greeted with another barrage. His aircraft crashed; Hebel died of head injuries the next morning.

Hebel’s wingman Menges crashed into the Palms Hotel near the Pearl City Tavern. No one in the hotel was injured, but Menges died instantly in the crash. He became the first Navy fighter pilot to die in the war.

Hermann was hit 18 times as he tried to escape. His flight came to an abrupt end when a 5-inch naval shell hit his engine. The shell failed to explode, but it knocked the engine out of the plane. The Wildcat fluttered down tail-first to crash on the Ford Island golf course, near where the ADM Clarey Bridge today touches the island. Incredibly, he was uninjured. He picked up his parachute and began walking down the runway to the seaplane base at the other end of the island. The excitement, however, was not over for Herrmann.

Flying next to Hermann was Flynn, who was able to break away from Ford Island’s crossfire. He headed toward Barbers Point, but had to bail out, landing in a cane field. Army security personnel tried to shoot him, imagining he was a Japanese paratrooper. Flynn’s cursing convinced them otherwise.

Allen was hit immediately. He bailed out, but was hit by a .50-caliber shell on the way down, his parachute only partially opened. Allen swam through oily water to minesweeper Vireo (AM-52), but died of severe wounds the next day.

Daniels was the only pilot left in the air. He turned off his external lights, dove to the water past the end of the seaplane base and continued down the channel. Although Daniels had survived, he still needed to land safely. At that point, Young was able to reach him from the control tower. However, Young was not convinced that the flyer was an American, and Daniels was becoming concerned that the Japanese had seized the island.

Young demanded to know who was there. Daniels answered with his aircraft identification, Six Fox Five (VF-6 squadron, aircraft 5). Daniels then said that he recognized Young’s voice. Young asked Daniels to give Young’s nickname. Daniels replied, “Brigham,” so Young ordered the Wildcat pilot to put his wheels down and come in low and fast.

FIGURE 2: ENISGN DANIELS

The approach was filled with hazards. Coming up the channel, he almost hit battleship Nevada, and the Wildcat was going so fast that he only got his flaps halfway down before landing. Daniels reached the end of the runway and was about to shoot into the weeds but was able to ground loop the aircraft. He taxied down the runway to the control tower — and into more danger.

As Daniels neared the tower, a seaman manning a .50 caliber machine gun let loose at the Wildcat. Fortunately, Hermann had reached the area; he grabbed a rifle and hit the machine gunner in the head with the butt.

In a few, endless minutes of terror, three pilots had died and five aircraft had been destroyed. Only Daniels had safely reached the Ford Island runway. VF-6’s losses that night would not be exceeded until the Battle of Midway. Ironically, Hermann would die a few days before that historic battle in a take-off accident.

Daniels became the only pilot in the air at both the Pearl Harbor attack and the Japanese surrender. He flew 110 combat missions in World War II and Korea, and commanded the carrier Ticonderoga off the coast of Vietnam during the early days of that war.

FIGURE 3: CAPT DANIELS

Table 1: The Final Toll

Pilot

Aircraft

Outcome

LT(jg) Francis F. Hebel

6-F-1

Died of injuries

ENS Herbert H. Menges

6-F-15

Killed

ENS James G. Daniels III

6-F-5

Landed safely, uninjured

LT(jg) Eric Allen Jr.

6-F-12

Died of injuries

ENS Gayle L. Hermann

3-F-15

Shot out of air, survived without serious injury

ENS David R. Flynn

6-F-4

Shot down, survived without serious injury

References

Asato, Bruce (2001). “Pearl Harbor Plus 60 Years, Chapter II; Stories from the Military, Pilots Shot Down by Friendly Fire Remembered.” Honolulu Advertiser. http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/specials/pearlharbor60/chapter2.html. Last accessed December 3, 2012.

Cressman, Robert J. and Wenger, J. Michael (1991). Steady Nerves and Stout Hearts: The Enterprise CV-6 Air Group and Pearl Harbor, Pictorial Histories Publishing.

Hagen, Jerome, (1999, December 4). “After a Deadly Day, U.S. Pilots Greeted by Cloud of Friendly Fire,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, http://archives.starbulletin.com/1999/12/04/editorial/special.html. Last accessed December 3, 2012.

Kakesako, Gregg K. (2004, June 25). “Fighter Pilot Survived ‘Friendly Fire’ at Pearly Harbor,” (obituary) Honolulu Star Bulletin.

Modcineaste, (undated). “Grumman F4f-3 Wildcat ENS Gayle Herman ‘Pearl Harbor Dec 7, 1941.’” http://www.destroyallpodcastsdx.com/toy_review/2007/grumman_f4f3_wildcat_ens_gayle_hermann_quotpearl_harbor_dec_7th_1941/. Last accessed December 3, 2012.

Osprey, Essential Pearl Harbor, Daniels, James, http://ospreypearlharbor.com/encyclopedia/Daniels-James.php.

Thomas, John W., Night of Infamy: One Man’s Pearl Harbor, John W. Thomas, 2011.

WWW.cv6.org, “VF-6 Evening Strike Escort—7 December, 1941, http://www.cv6.org/ship/logs/ph/org-vf6-19411207.htm. Last accessed December 3, 2012.

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