For aircraft Enthusiasts: 85 years of the B-17. Part 2: a tragic case of mistaken identity.

Discussion in 'Off Topic [BG]' started by Blazer, Jun 24, 2020.

  1. Blazer


    Nov 27, 2003
    The Netherlands
    Rogue luthier employed at Knooren Handcrafted bass guitars
    Well, time to continue my history lesson on the B-17 and today I will talk about a very tragic case of obsolete military protocol and timing.

    Before the USA entered the war, the B-17 was already being blooded by the Brits in the ETA which will be discussed in part three. Now the Royal Air Force provided the American with some very useful data about the B-17, in as that it was a very good anti-submarine platform if you swap out the bombs in favor of depth charges. The plane's range made it that it was perfect for long maritime patrol duties to protect shipping convoys.
    But the second thing that the Brits supplied the Americans with was Radar, because so far the Americans had relied on spotters for early warning but the threat of war with Japan looming ever more closely as 1941 started to draw to a close and their Hawaiian bases being very likely targets for an attack. Radar units were installed on the island.

    This is Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, who was commanding officer of Pearl harbor in those days. A man of the old ways and very skeptical of anything new.

    And this is Lieutenant General Walter Short, who was the commanding officer of Wheeler Airfield, Much like Kimmel, he too was a man set in the old ways and Skeptical of anything new.

    Both Kimmel and Short saw very little merit in the use of Radar, believing it to be an expensive new toy which was to be manned by people they could use elsewhere.

    The Brits also supplied the Americans with some very valuable information about how the Germans fought using their "Blitzkrieg" tactics which would involve strafing runs on airfields. The Germans made VERY good use of the fact that military protocol dictated that planes should be parked in neat rows wingtip to wingtip as it made them easy to arm, easy to fuel, easy to guard AND as the Germans proved: easy to be taken out by a strafing run before they could have the chance to get airborne in the first place.

    But let's get back to the B-17.

    Wheeler Airfield had been flying both the Douglas B-18 Bolo and the B-17D model in the Maritime patrol role but both planes had been coping badly with the Tropical climate and were due for replacement.

    A B-17D at Archerfield, note the Lockheed Hudson, Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighters and the Boeing stearman trainers in the background.

    So Wheeler's was set to receive a whole batch of newly built B-1E's which were completely redesigned from their previous version with more guns and a larger payload capability.
    I guess if you look at the upper picture and compare it to this picture, you can see that what degree the plane was modified, the vertical tail is completely different to improve structural integrity and to fit a tail gunner position because the Brits said that the main weak spot of the B-17 was that was an easy kill for a fighter attacking from the rear.

    The newly built Bombers left from Washington state where they were build, flew to Salt Lake Utah where they got their crews, who then flew the whole squadron to LA where the planes were outfitted with long range tanks for the long journey over the Pacific.

    So the B-17's came from north east but because of the crews not being that well trained (they actually had briefings with pilots from air lines on what route to follow and what visual markings (If any) to look out for.

    At Pearl Harbor meanwhile, deciding to forgo the Brits' warnings about abandoning military protocol and dispersing planes at different spots on the airfield, Short had placed the planes of his airfields wing tip to wing tip because of fear that since many of the island's inhabitants who were of Japanese ancestry, acts of sabotage would be a threat. As such, he also made sure that none of the planes were armed.

    Kimmel for his part had been ordered (on November 27, 1941, 10 days prior to the attack) to initiate a "defensive deployment" of the fleet. Kimmel understood this to mean defense against sabotage, and so made the necessary arrangements. Because of this misinterpretation, ships were kept in port and the fleet was not placed on alert. Moreover, after his intelligence unit lost track of Japan′s aircraft carriers, Kimmel did not order any long-range air or naval patrols to assess their positions, in part for lack of serviceable Consolidated Catalina Patrol aircraft, in part because he also had a training schedule to maintain, and in part because the Army Air Corps had the responsibility for long-range patrol. (but even less capability in Hawaii than he did, since the Philippines had higher priority).

    And so the pieces were set into place for the perfect storm.

    The Blue line shows where the B-17's were coming from, the Red Lines are the direction from which the Japanese attackers came from, as you can tell they both came from the North east.

    - A large blip on the radar appeared at Wheeler's airfield and people went "Ah that must be the bombers flying from LA. They made good progress." after all, they had been briefed about the B-17 delivery and had no reason whatsoever to believe that the large formation of planes they saw approaching was anything other than those new planes, not even being a bit surprised at them arriving earlier than scheduled.

    - Many of the fighter pilots were off-duty, some were resting after the exercises they had done in the last couple of days or were taking their leisure, one even got married with some of his squadron mates attending. They even were preparing a welcome party for those pilots who were flying in their new planes.

    - A pilot training aircraft spotted the Japanese formation, sensing that this could be bad news, it radioed to Wheeler's airfield that it had seen a large formation of Japanese planes. The reply was dismissive: it were probably those new Boeing bombers, from a then-brand new type that didn't look familiar to the instructor and because of there not being a formal declaration of war from Japan, there was no reason for the Japanese being there anyway.

    The attack started happening, around 80% of the fighters at Wheeler's airfield were destroyed on the ground almost right away, with pilots in either pajamas or tuxedo's rushing to the planes that survived, Radio operators frantically trying to get in touch with the mainland to find out if a declaration of war had been issued and they hadn't heard of it yet. The reply from the mainland was equally confused, they hadn't heard a single word from the Japanese, what was going on?

    And meanwhile on board the Boeing B-17 formation, having nearly completed their 14 hour flight, the tired and fatigued crews were wondering why they got no reply from the airfield as they made their approach at the time they were expected to. Although they were wondering what all those water spouts they saw at the ocean's surface were (They were anti-aircraft ammunition that was falling back down.) and about that large column of smoke, they dismissed it as a pod of whales spouting and a wildfire at the sugar plantations, they had no reason to believe it being anything other than that.

    But as they approached the runway, the fatigue made way for adrenaline as the scope of destruction and the melee of Japanese aircraft suddenly came into view. As by a wonder all but one of the bombers made it safely onto the ground, one even landing on a smaller nearby airfield with a runway that was basically too short for a bomber to land on.
    But also within the melee of the Japanese aircraft there was the feeling that there was something amiss, why weren't the Americans airborne to intercept them, of the around 300 aircraft they sent to do the attack with around 60% were fighters, to fend of American interceptors which could shoot down the bombers and because they had radar they should have seen the strike force approach coming from a long distance but their aircraft were all on the ground, parked neatly in a row where they could easily be destroyed by a strafing run, why weren't they in the air?

    The Japanese didn't know about the bombers arriving, their intelligence hadn't factored that in but it came in their advantage, because the Americans were expecting their new bombers to arrive the Japanese began their attack unopposed, which was a lucky break for them. Any American fighters that managed to become airborne didn't really pose that much of a threat.

    But the second thing that the Japanese noticed that was amiss was much more serious: the harbor was empty, apart from a couple of battle ships and submarines, the big flotilla they were there to sink wasn't there, they were due to arrive that morning but thanks to the weather, they were delayed by at least two days and the Japanese weren't aware of that.

    FDR had said in his interview that he was furious about the fact that despite having received radar and the instructions how to deploy it, never mind also having gotten valuable information on dispersing aircraft and to make sure they were always ready to do battle, the aircraft were ON THE GROUND when they were needed the most.

    I doubt that both Kimmel and Short were ready to admit to FDR on why they hadn't put that "new expensive toy" they were so suspicious of to work in the way they should have.

    Outdated military ideas are hard to drop when one is indoctrinated in them so much.

    Legend says, that Kimmel stood with open mouth in horrified astonishment as the carnage unfolded in front of his eyes. A Fifty caliber round passed, grazing him. To which he remarked "It would have been merciful had it killed me."
    nutdog, Beersurgeon, kobass and 7 others like this.
  2. TBird1958

    TBird1958 As a matter of fact....I am your Queen! Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 13, 2008
    Seattle Washington
    Endorsing Artist Mike Lull T Bass pickups
    Always an interesting and informative post! I'm currently reading William Halsey's biography and it notes that Kimmel did indeed say that. Not to minimize that disaster and tragedy that Pearl Harbor was for the U.S., but it could have been way worse, the oil tank farm was left intact and of course the aircraft carriers assigned to the Pacific Fleet were out of port at the time of the attack , both would prove to be of far greater value to the U.S. than the old, slow battleships (most of them were raised and retrofitted) lost in the attack.
    While B-17s were used in the Pacific theater in the early part of the war, they were never employed in great force, similarly the RAF didn't either, it was a plane that they didn't fully realize how to properly use.

    Nothing like seeing one up close, sadly this one crashed with the loss of several people.

    kobass and garp like this.
  3. garp


    Feb 7, 2009
    Connecticut USA
    Sad indeed. I got to walk through Nine-O-Nine several years ago at a similar static display, and it was quite an experience. My late uncle served with the Eighth Army Air Force in Europe during World War II, so being able to see his "office" up close was really amazing.
    kobass and TBird1958 like this.
  4. bobba66


    May 18, 2006
    Arlington, Texas
  5. TinIndian

    TinIndian Supporting Member

    Jan 25, 2011
    Micco Florida
    That stinks about the Nine o Nine. I hadn't heard that. I have some pics of that one inside and out around here somewhere from an airshow in town here in the late 90's. Sad to see history like that go away.