He enlisted on the advice of his mother, Bess.
In the late summer of 1940, Ben Steele was working as a
camp tender at a large sheep outfit east of town. It was hard,
sometimes filthy work, but the freedom of it made him happy—on his
own every day, riding a horse or driving a rig between the far-flung
camps of the sheepherders, delivering mail and supplies, sleeping in the
open, wrapped in an oilcloth, staring up at a big sky dark with bright
One weekend that summer Ben Steele’s mother and father drove out
from Billings to visit. His mother had an idea. He’d been a ranch hand
most of his life, she said. He was twenty-two now, grown up. Maybe it
was time to consider something else. She’d heard on the radio that President
Franklin D. Roosevelt had just signed a law creating the first peacetime
military draft. The inaugural call-up, she said, was scheduled for late
“You know, I’ve been thinking,” she went on. “You really ought to
get in before they draft you. Maybe if you do, you could, you know, do
what you want in the army?”
He wasn’t sure he wanted to wear a uniform, but since he usually
took his mother’s advice to heart, he tucked her suggestion away, and a
while later, over a smoky campfire perhaps or riding the green hills and
valleys, he remembered something; the boys he knew from Billings who
had enlisted in the army were usually sent west for training to the golden
valleys of California.
He thought, “Going to California—that sounds good. A little adventure.”
And on a nice warm day in mid-September, he borrowed a car,
went into town, ambled over to the Stapleton Building on Twenty-eighth
Street and into the recruiting station there, where he found a sergeant
sitting at a desk.
“I want to go into the army,” he announced.
“Well now,” the recruiter said, looking up at the lean ranch hand
standing in front of him, “we have the Army and we have the Army Air
Corps, which one you want?”
Ben Steele knew nothing about soldiering, but some years earlier a
couple of fellows up at the Billings Municipal Airport got themselves
a Ford Tri-Motor (a propeller under each wing and one on the nose) and
for a dollar a head started taking people for a ride. It wasn’t much of a
ride—the plane took off from atop the rimrocks, circled the Yellowstone
Valley below, and a few minutes later landed to pick up another
load of wide-eyed locals. But that short hop stirred something in Ben
“The Air Corps?” he said. “That sounds real good. Give me that!”
A few weeks later, on October 9, 1940, a month shy of his twentythird
birthday, Ben Steele stood in a line of enlistees at the United States
Courthouse in Missoula, Montana, raised his right hand, and repeated
one of the republic’s oldest oaths: “I do solemnly swear that I will support
and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies,
foreign or domestic . . . So help me God.”
Like everyone else, like every American who read the newspapers,
listened to the radio, went to the movies, and watched newsreels, Private
Ben Steele of the United States Army Air Corps was convinced his enemies
would be German. Japan was a threat, all right—that fall, in fact,
America cut its shipments of scrap steel and iron to Japan—but Germany,
threatening all Europe, was the menace of the moment.
The Germans had invaded Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the
Netherlands, and France. By the time Ben Steele arrived at the induction
station in Missoula in the fall of 1940, the German Luftwaffe had
been bombing Great Britain for three months.
Reading about all this in the Billings Gazette or listening to it on
KGHL radio, the most popular station in that part of the West, most
Montanans wanted no part of the trouble overseas. Like the rest of
America, they were focused on finding jobs and recovering from the Great
Depression, not crossing swords with the saber-rattling Germans. In a
national opinion poll conducted the week Ben Steele enlisted, 83 percent
of the those surveyed said they did not want to send American troops
Young men looking for a job or a little adventure don’t pay much attention
to opinion polls. The army was offering a paycheck, plus “three
hots and a cot” and perhaps a chance to travel. Since they had no feel for
the killing and dying in Europe, no sense at all of facing Panzer tanks
and Stuka dive-bombers, the ranch hands, soda jerks, delivery boys, and
railroad workers on their way to training camp with Ben Steele were full
of brio and eager for action.
“If war’s gonna come, I wanna be in it,” Ben Steele thought. “Hell,
I want to be over there where it’s happening.”
Saturday, October 4, 1941, San Francisco
Blue sky, bright sun, seventy-two degrees, a good day to set sail for paradise.
On a pier off the Embarcadero, the men of the 19th Bombardment
Group, United States Army Air Corps, waited in long queues to board
the United States Army transport General Willard A. Holbrook, a lumbering
troopship used to ferry men and matériel to American bases overseas.
In the ranks on the wharf, moving slowly toward the gangway, was
Benjamin Charles Steele, serial number 190-18-989, a newly minted
private. He had been in uniform nearly a year now, and he liked the life
of a soldier. The army had given him just what he wanted, a chance to
cross the mountains and see the Golden Land.
California wasn’t as golden as he’d imagined, but he liked it well
enough. Training camp was a dusty tent city on the dry brown flats at
March Field near Riverside. The boys from the cities and suburbs
thought these accommodations “kinda primitive,” but the men who had
been ranch-raised looked around and saw luxury: tents with wooden
floors and gas stoves, hot showers nearby, latrines that weren’t buzzing
with flies, and a mess hall that served seconds if a man wasn’t sated.
Air Corps basic training was short, just six weeks, long enough for
men who would be working as airplane mechanics, gunners, ground
crews, and supernumeraries. They attended classes on military courtesy
and discipline. They reviewed army rules and regulations. They endured
hours of close-order drill and the ritual of forced marches.
These little walks, as Ben Steele thought of them, were too much for
many of the men. After one eight-mile hike the road was lined with
recruits doubled over, gasping for breath and grousing about their training.
Ben Steele had never heard such bellyaching.
“Holy Christ!” he said, to no one in particular. “Eight miles is nothing.
Back home I’d walk that far before breakfast.”
“Oh yeah?” one of the malcontents came back. “Where the hell did
you come from?”
“I’m from Montana,” Ben Steele said.
The army sent him to New Mexico after basic training and assigned
him to the 7th Matériel Squadron, 19th Bombardment Group, Kirtland
Field, Albuquerque. As soon as he was settled, he made inquiries about
buying a horse.
A local stockman wanted fifty bucks for an old plug named Blaze.
Not much of a horse, nothing like the spirited animals he was used to,
but he missed riding, so he went to a finance company, borrowed the
money (agreeing to pay five dollars a week against the balance), and
made a deal with a nearby rancher to pasture his mount. His father
shipped him a saddle, and every weekend Ben Steele rode out among
the cactus and scrub grass. It was hot, sandy country but he didn’t care—
he was on a horse, and a horse reminded him of home.
The Air Corps made him a dispatcher, tracking flights, and after a
month or two of this work he got it in his head that he wanted to be a
pilot. Never much of a student, he found a math professor at the University
of New Mexico to tutor him privately in the algebra and geometry
that he would need to pass the exam to become a cadet. He studied
for several months and was about to take the test when word came down
that the 19th Bombardment Group was being sent overseas.
“You can’t ship me out,” he told his commanding officer. “I’m fixing
to take the cadet exam.”
“Oh yeah, we can,” the squadron commander said. “The whole outfit’s
October 3, 1941
Dearest Mother and Family,
Thought would drop you a few more lines before departing the U.S.
Am sailing tomorrow afternoon . . . We don’t know for sure how long we
will have to stay in foreign service but hope it isn’t too long, but it may be
alright . . . Will write you every chance I get so you will know about where
I am at . . . Just heard we were going to the Philippines, but that is just a
rumor not certain. Can’t believe a thing you hear around here . . . Don’t
worry about anything, because everything is O.K. Will write as soon as I
can make connections. It is possible we will stop at some port along the way,
and if we do will send you a line.
Lots of Love to you all
America remembers the attacks on its bases in the Pacific in 1941 as
acts of treachery, but to label them “sneak” attacks is more propaganda
than plain truth. For more than twenty years, a standing committee of
admirals and generals in Washington had been planning against just such
an attack. They looked at Japan as America’s chief antagonist in the Pacific,
and they knew well the value of surprise and Japan’s history of success
with this tactic. The military planners were sure that when war came,
it would begin “with a sudden, surprise attack.” They did not know exactly
where or precisely when, but they were convinced that the Philippines,
just eighteen hundred air miles from Japan and sitting directly
between it and the oil- and mineral-rich Indonesian archipelago in
the southwest Pacific, would top Japan’s list of targets. So in the early
fall of 1941, with war consuming Europe and with the Japanese Army
on the march in Asia, American war planners—more in an attempt to
deter an attack than defend against it—began to rush cannon, tanks, airplanes,
and men to the Philippine Islands. The men of the 19th Bombardment
Group, United States Army Air Corps, were part of that
The Holbrook set sail on the evening tide that October 4. In the ship’s
galley cooks had prepared a greasy ragout of pork, and as the men passed
through the mess line, stewards slopped the dinner on their trays. Later that
night the wind picked up, the waves began to swell and the Holbrook began
to pitch and roll, and it wasn’t long before all that greasy pork began to
reappear. Soon the crappers were clogged and the sinks were overflowing.
October 10, 1941
Dearest Mother and Family,
Have been sitting out on the deck this morning watching flying fish. They
are about six inches long and sail through the air like a bird . . . The water
has been sort of rough all the way . . . The ship is bobbing up and down
and from one side to the other till I can’t even sit still. Am sitting here on
the deck and writing on my knee. Hope you can read this.
After Hawaii, the sailing was easy, flat water most of the way and light
tropical breezes. Most men spent mornings topside, watching the water
or staring at the horizon, absorbed by the vast vista of the sea. Some
played cards on the hatch covers or spread out their towels and baked in
the afternoon sun. In the evenings Quentin Pershing Devore of eastern
Colorado came topside to listen to his Hallicrafter shortwave radio. One
evening a dark-haired fellow with a friendly face eased over and sat
down next to him.
“I’m Ben Steele,” he said, holding out his hand.
“I’m Pershing Devore.”
“What do you get on that thing?” the fellow asked.
“I get the news, sometimes I get music,” Devore said.
Devore too had grown up outdoors, working the land and livestock
in the rye- and wheat-farming country of Yuma County, a day’s drive or
so from the Nebraska border. He considered himself “a plain boy with
no frills,” and that’s how this fellow from Billings struck him, too, “real
“Where did you get that name, Pershing?” Ben Steele asked.
“Well, my name is Quentin Pershing Devore, but they call me
“That’s too complicated,” Ben Steele said. “I’m just going to call
October 18, 1941
Dearest Mother, Dad + Family,
Met a new friend. He likes hunting and fishing about as well as I do.We
get together and talk over old times. It sort of makes me feel at home . . .
They talked for hours, about farming and ranching and cattle and
sheep, about the “hard-up” life on a Colorado farm and the hardscrabble
days on a Montana homestead. Ben Steele often turned the conversation
to horses—cow ponies, broncs and quarter horses, chestnuts,
Appaloosas and bays.
Q.P. thought, “This guy is crazy about horses.”
They talked about war as well. Their convoy was flanked by destroyer
escorts, and at night the ship was blacked out, a shadow on the sea.
A week and a half out of Hawaii, their company commander called
them together. They were going to the Philippines “to fight a war,” he
Thursday, October 23, 1941, Pier 7, Manila, Philippines
Assembled on deck, the thirteen hundred soldiers of the 19th Bombardment
Group were preparing to greet paradise. Down the pier a line of
trucks was waiting to take them north to their billets at Clark Field, a lattice
of sand-and-turf runways laid out on a hot, dry plain fifty miles
northwest of Manila. As the young Americans made their way down the
gangways and ladders to the queue of open trucks, they were wide-eyed
with wonder and delight.
October 24, 1941
Was sure glad to get off the boat after being on it for so long.We were as
dirty as a bunch of hogs when we landed.
It is sure interesting around here . . . The natives are as thick as
bees . . . and live in little bamboo shacks . . . Drive little horses about the
size of a good sized dog, hitched to a little cart. Some have oxen [carabao]
hitched to old wooden wheeled carts, sure is interesting to watch them . . .
They are always trying to sell us something. They are running from one
barracks to the other trying to get a job making our beds, and shining our
shoes . . . Would hate to think I was so lazy I couldn’t make my own bed.
We have to have mosquito nets over our beds at night so we can sleep. The
mosquitoes here are like humming birds . . .
Don’t worry about me because I never felt better in my life, and am
having a swell time. So please don’t worry. This will be one of the greatest
experiences of my life.
For decades the Philippines had been a backwater post, a collecting
pool for those on the way up, young officers eager to get their tickets
punched for promotion, and those on the way out—the deadwood, the
drunks, the disappointed who had been passed over for rank and were
now holed up in a quiet billet, waiting to put in their papers and take a
It was a gorgeous backwater. Manila was known as “the Pearl of the
Orient,” and parts of the city, especially the precincts where Americans
and Europeans lived and worked, looked like arboretums. Along the
boulevards, the trees were trimmed and ringed with pink hydrangeas,
and white butterfly orchids grew in the coconut husks.
The duty was easy too, inspections and formations for the most part,
then at noon, the workday ended and the enlisted men would head for
the beaches and ball fields and brothels of the nearest barrio where they
would “shack up” with their “brown-skinned squaws,” their Filipina
concubines. Life had its annoyances, of course—the soaking summer
monsoons, the suffocating heat of the hot season, the incessant insects,
the choking dust—but for less than a dollar, a trooper could buy enough
Ginebra gin and San Miguel beer to drink himself senseless.
The officers lived like aristocracy. They played polo, tennis, and golf,
then made for their private preserve, Manila’s fabled Army and Navy
Club, a three-acre toft and croft along the east shore of Manila Bay that
looked like a beaux arts mansion set on a waterfront green of palms,
flame trees, and bougainvillea. The club hosted dinners and soirees,
women and their escorts dancing under the stars and toasting one another
over centerpieces of yellow trumpet flowers and white Cadena de
Amor. First, and above all, however, the Army and Navy Club was a
men’s club, and the men of the Philippine garrison and Asiatic Fleet
liked to drink.
Almost every officer in the islands bellied up to the club’s long polished
bar—pilots, tankers, artillerymen, chasseurs, submariners, marines—but
none more frequently than the gentlemen of the 31st Infantry, the only
“all-American” army regiment in the islands.
|We are boys from the Thirty-first
We are not so very meek
We never wash behind our ears
And seldom wash our feet.
Oh we’re below the scum of the earth
And we’re always looking for booze
Now we’re the boys from the Thirty-first
And who in the hell are youse!
That was garrison life.
Then—it seemed to happen so fast—those unhurried mornings, sultry afternoons, and sybaritic nights were interrupted by an irritating interloper:
Nippon had been on the march in Asia. In 1931 the Imperial Army
occupied Manchuria; in 1937 that same army, reinforced, moved south
to invade northern China; in 1940 Japan pushed into lower Asia and stationed
troops in upper Indochina. To the Roosevelt administration, the
Japanese now appeared ready to move against the Dutch East Indies, islands
and archipelagoes rich with tin, rubber, oil. Convinced that America
would soon be fighting in Europe, the president wanted to avoid a
two-front war, and he decided to impose economic sanctions on Japan,
hoping to get them to pull back, perhaps even declare a cease-fire in
China. He withheld the carrot, then in the early winter of 1940 he
started to show them the stick.
America’s military planners began marshaling reinforcements for the
Philippines. They knew they could never make the islands a redoubt—
Japan, with millions of men under arms, could easily overwhelm any
garrison—but, as the thinking went, the new defenses, especially a new
long-range B-17 bomber, might deter the Japanese, make them reconsider
the cost of attacking the Philippines. If not, then the presence of
reinforcements might at least make them pause long enough for the garrison
to ready itself to receive the blow.
In the late spring 1941, the wives and children of American servicemen
were ordered to evacuate the islands and sail for home. In July the
president recalled General Douglas MacArthur from retirement (he had
been serving as a military adviser to the Philippine Commonwealth government
since 1935) and named him commander of United States Army
Forces in the Far East. The same month the Commonwealth government
mobilized the tens of thousands of reservists that made up the Philippine
Army. In September, American troop ships and freighters began to arrive
regularly at Pier 7. By the end of November, the U.S. Army garrison had
been increased to nearly 31,000 troops (19,000 Americans, 12,000 Philippine
Scouts), triple its original strength. Almost immediately thereafter
MacArthur ordered beach defenses dug and manned by the Philippine
Army at the most likely landing spots on the main island of Luzon.
November 9, 1941
Dearest Mother, Dad and Family
. . . Well I suppose you have been reading the head lines about the U.S.
and Japan, but don’t get excited. Can just see you running around worrying
yourself sick. Of course we don’t hear much about it. I think we are safe.
We get some of the news and there is a lot we don’t get.
The workday was longer now as men and machinery moved north
and south from the piers and warehouses of Manila. Days carried the din
of hammering and sawing, nights the rumble and whine of trucks on
the roads. The polo fields were often empty, the tennis courts quiet.
Some evenings the bar girls at Cavite’s Dreamland Cabaret (“Call us ballerinas,
please!” the taxi dancers insisted) toured the dance floor alone or
in one another’s arms.
And yet there was still an air of assurance in the islands, a sense that
the latest alarm or clarion call would pass without incident and paradise
would soon be paradise again. Intelligence reports about Japanese troop
movements arrived daily at headquarters, but the majority of officers
under MacArthur’s command had convinced themselves “it would be absolutely impossible for the Japanese to attack the Philippine Islands
successfully!” Japan, they reasoned “had everything to lose by going to
war and nothing to gain.”
So they went about preparing for war with little sense of urgency or
imminence. And this strange stupor, this “weakness,” as Colonel Ernest
B. Miller, a tank commander from Brainard Minnesota, saw it, led to
“things left undone,” so many things that even in the end, “with the
black clouds of war directly overhead, it was well nigh impossible to
quicken the tempo” of the work.
And why should they? General MacArthur had told his officers that
intelligence reports on “the existing alignment and movement of Japanese
troops” had convinced him that if Japan, in fact, attacked, it would
not do so until the spring of 1942, April at the earliest. Many of his subordinates
disagreed, but there was no arguing with the general. The enemy,
he insisted, wasn’t coming till spring.
Japan wasn’t much of an enemy either, or so the Americans believed.
For more than a century whites in Asia had looked on the tawny “locals”
as less than human. They thought the Japanese “monkey men”—short,
slight, bucktoothed, “slant-eyed sons of bitches” who “couldn’t see
straight,” even through their horn-rimmed glasses, because, as everyone
knew, “their eyeballs didn’t open up to the proper diameter.” An enemy
who could not see straight could not shoot straight, could not keep his
planes on course or drop his bombs on target. The war wouldn’t last three
weeks, they told one another. “We’ll knock the living shit out of them.”
Even at General MacArthur’s headquarters, where war planning
should have sent up a din, “men went about their work as usual.” On the
evening of December 5, for example, MacArthur’s clerk, Paul Rogers,
settled himself in a seat at the Manila Symphony and enjoyed a program
And it didn’t take long for the young enlistees and reservists fresh
from the States to assume that same attitude of indifference. To be sure,
there were a few who went against the tide, officers who’d come to the
islands “to soldier,” as they put it, professionals who now bridled at being
part of “a military force afflicted” with “siesta-itis,” but their complaints
were lost in the laughter around the bar and the sighs coming out
of the seraglios.
Monday, December 8, 1941 (December 7 across the International Dateline),
Frank Hewlett, a United Press wire service reporter, got the cable from
a colleague in Hawaii around 2:00 a.m. local time. Stunned and looking
for official confirmation, Hewlett quickly called the office of Admiral
Thomas C. Hart, commander of the Asiatic Fleet. At Fleet Headquarters
in Manila, a duty officer answered the phone. Hewlett read him the cable:
“Flash! Pearl Harbor under aerial attack.”
What did he mean, under attack? The man at Fleet HQ thought
Hewlett was goading him. He was tired and in no mood for another “Jap
“Tell your Pearl Harbor correspondent to go back to bed and sleep it
off,” he told Hewlett, then hung up.
At the same time, across Manila Bay at the Cavite Naval Base, Seaman
Second Class Frank Bigelow, a tall, lean message clerk from Pleasant
Lake, North Dakota, stumbled aboard the submarine tender USS
Canopus tied up at a wharf. Bigelow had been out drinking and “catting
around” with the local amourettes at one of many brothels in nearby
Cavite City. Now, “about half drunk,” he crawled up into his bunk and
was just about to drift off when another sailor came running into the
“They’re bombing Pearl Harbor!” the man shouted. “They’re bombing
Bigelow didn’t believe him and turned his face to the bulkhead to
The first public word of the attack came over KZRH commercial
radio sometime after 2:30 a.m. A short while later, MacArthur and Admiral
Hart alerted their commands, but the officers, for the most part,
did not tell the men in the ranks until they awoke for breakfast.
North of Cavite and Manila, some fifty miles up the dusty main
highway, was Fort Stotsenberg, an army base adjacent to Clark Field. At
the nurses’ quarters near the fort hospital, the women had just settled
themselves down in the mess to their fruit, eggs, rolls, and coffee when
someone reached up and switched on a radio and the familiar staccato of
announcer Don Bell started to issue from the box.
“Hey, listen to that!” one of the women said. “They’re having a war
in Hawaii. And here we are in the Philippines, and we’re going to be left
out of it.”
Less than two miles away, on a road just east of Clark Field, Corporal
Zoeth Skinner of Portland, Oregon, part of a five-man crew in a
half-track, a kind of tank without a top, was parked in the sun at the side
of the highway. The tank battalions had a complement of half-tracks to
cover their flanks and scout their points, and for several days the battalions
had been on “maneuvers” near the field. In fact they had been deployed
to protect the airplanes, but the crews thought they were on
another pointless exercise. Then their platoon commander rolled up on
“Hey, fellas!” He was excited. “The war’s started. They’ve bombed
Then he roared off.
“Aw, that’s just part of the maneuvers,” one of the men said.
West of the road, across acres of bamboo and sugarcane, sat airplane
hangars and barracks for the ground crews at Clark Field, among them
the men of the 19th Bombardment Group. At morning chow an officer
had climbed up on a chair and announced: “We’ve been attacked by the
Japanese at Pearl Harbor, but there is no word yet on the extent of the
Maybe “it wasn’t all that bad,” Ben Steele thought. Then, throughout
the morning each new report brought a few more details: battleships
had been hit, sunk, or badly disabled; casualties were rumored to be
high; there was talk that the country’s formidable Pacific Fleet had been
hard hit, perhaps crippled.
The men at Clark Field could “hardly believe” what they were hearing.
They had not expected war to “start so soon” or the enemy to sally
that far from home.
It just didn’t seem real. Shocking, perhaps, but not real, a war without
pain or pounding fear, far away, five thousand miles to the east. So
the men at Clark Field went to work. The flight crews reported to the
flight line, the armorers to the armory, the pilots to their planes. And
they waited. They waited and watched the sky. Seven o’clock, seven
thirty, still nothing.
They were also waiting for word to strike back. Air Corps commanders
in the Philippines knew from intelligence reports that Japanese
Army and Navy bombers would likely come at them from Japanese bases
on Formosa, five hundred miles due north. And Major General Lewis
H. Brereton, the commander of the Far East Air Force, and his staff had
been prepared since November 27 (the day Washington warned all commanders
in the Pacific that it believed Japan was ready to go to war) to
bomb the Formosan airfields or the harbor at Takao, the likely place the
Japanese would gather an invasion force.
To his staff, Brereton was “a square-rigged, stout-hulled believer in
action.” Earlier that morning, after he had learned of the attack on Pearl
Harbor, he had rushed to MacArthur’s headquarters at One Calle Victoria
in Manila and asked permission to arm and launch the nineteen new
B-17 bombers of the 19th Bombardment Group standing by at Clark
MacArthur’s chief of staff, Major General Richard Sutherland, told
Brereton to wait for MacArthur’s approval. Brereton went back to Air
Corps headquarters at Nielson Field and sat. And sat. At seven fifteen he
could sit no more and returned to headquarters. Again Sutherland told
the Air Corps commander, wait.
At clark field, Ben Steele and his Air Corps comrades wanted to hit
the Japanese on Formosa before the Japanese came at them. Most of
all they wanted to get their bombers and fighters off the ground, where
they were the most exposed and vulnerable.
Word had come down that the Air Corps planes at Hickam Field in
Hawaii had been parked wingtip to wingtip, an easy target for Japanese
bombardiers. Enraged by the folly at Hickam, the Air Corps chief in
Washington, Major General Henry H. Arnold, had called General Brereton
in the Philippines and warned him not to make the same mistake at
Sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m., Major David R. Gibbs, the
acting bomb-group commander at Clark, was handed an alert: enemy
planes had been spotted over Lingayen Gulf northwest of Clark Field,
headed toward Manila. Fearing Clark might be their target, Gibbs immediately
ordered the squadrons of bombers into the air, but without
bombs. MacArthur still had not given his permission to arm the planes
for an attack on Formosa, so the bomber pilots were told to cruise high
At last, around 11:00 a.m., MacArthur authorized a reconnaissance
flight over Formosa to be followed by bombing missions later that afternoon,
and the bombers from Clark were immediately recalled to arm
them for the mission. The squadrons of pursuit fighters that had been
flying protective cover over Manila and other parts of Luzon that morning
were also brought down to refuel. By 11:30 most American warplanes
in the Philippines were on the ground, being serviced and readied
to take off again.
After the crews and pilots at Clark Field finished this work, they
went to lunch in shifts. Some of the aircraft were properly protected behind
revetments, others dispersed, but many, too many, were parked in
neat rows in the open on their ready lines, noses to the runway. From
above they looked like toys on a large lawn, silver toys perfectly outlined
against the greensward of Luzon’s wide central plain.
December 8, 1941, 11:00 a.m., 19,000 feet somewhere over the South China Sea
in the cockpit of an Imperial Navy A6M2 Zero fighter
It was not a lonely impulse of delight that had sent Saburo - Sakai aloft to
make tumult in the clouds. It was duty, a sense of obligation born of
both politics and myth.
The myth begins in heaven before the world was the world. Looking
down one day, the celestial kami (gods) created a new domain: the Eight
Great Islands at the Center Of The World, a misty land of emerald hills
and jade valleys known to moderns as Dai Nippon, great Japan.
The rest of the earth, so the Shinto myth goes, was mere matter,
seafoam and mud, but Nippon, the issue of the gods, was sacred soil, superior
to all other lands, the aegis of Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun.
Amaterasu sent her grandson, Ninigi no Mikoto, to consolidate her
domain, then she named her great-great-grandson, Jimmu Tenno, to
rule there. By heavenly charge he became “emperor,” the first of Amaterasu’s
earthly line. Grateful for the appointment, Jimmu Tenno made
his “illustrious” foremother a promise: he and his semidivine seed would
extend the rule of heaven “to embrace” the entire earth. Hakko-ichi-u,
“the world under one roof,” they called it, the plan of a people blessed
by heaven and ruled by the descendants of the goddess of the sun.
The myth of Amaterasu instilled in the Japanese an unfaltering feeling
of uniqueness, Yamato-damashi, “the spirit of being Japanese.” The
feeling, more powerful than any sense of self, stirred every Nipponjin,
especially Japan’s fighting men, men like Petty Officer First Class Saburo–
The twenty-five-year-old Imperial Navy fighter pilot, flying south
with a squadron of Mitsubishi Zeros on the late morning of December
8, 1941, marveled at his luck. It was a perfect day for an attack, bright
sun, clear sky.20
Just before 11:30 a.m., Sakai looked down and saw “the Philippine
Islands hove into view, a deep green against the rich blue of the ocean.”
Then “the coastline slipped beneath” him, “beautiful and peaceful.”
It was the opening hours of what the Japanese would call “the
Greater East Asian War” or “the Great Pacific War.” The Japanese had
marshaled four armies and fleets to strike American, British, and Dutch
targets in the central and southwest Pacific, as far south and west as
Malaya and as far east as Hawaii—a battle zone shaped like an immense
fan some four thousand miles long and seven thousand miles wide with
Tokyo as its pivot. The fan covered a large slice of the globe, all the way
from Burma west to Hawaii, six major meridians of time into the heart
of the vast Pacific.
Sakai, stick in his right hand, throttle in his left, was part of
this great effort, the effort to bring the world under one roof and, myth
and religion aside, to take the territory and resources Japan claimed were
hers by right and necessity. A holy war and a fight for survival rolled into
one and draped with a cloak called honor.
The atavists in the army, and there were many of them, liked to use
history and an old injury to advance their agendas and aims. They
looked back a century, to July 8, 1853, when the ambitious Commodore
Matthew C. Perry sailed into Edo (Tokyo) harbor with four black-hulled
warships and orders from the president of the United States to open
Japan, a closed and feudal society, to the West. Those black ships and
Perry’s implied threats shamed the Japanese, and to recover their honor
and preserve their independence, they moved quickly to make themselves
In the four decades that followed, they cast aside the feudal shogunate,
the moribund military autocracy that had governed Japan since the
twelfth century, and replaced it with a constitutional monarchy. Then,
with help from the French, British, and Prussians, they created a modern,
Western-style army and navy. They also set up new industries, built
transportation networks, and established a national system of public
schools. But in their rush to strengthen their emerald domain and safeguard
their precious sovereignty, the parvenus who were racing to embrace
the present also held hard to the past, for at heart they were
traditionalists, aristocrats, many of them, who did not want Japan to lose
its soul—that deep sense of divine origin and the ancient impulse to loyalty
and sacrifice that they believed held their society together. They
borrowed from the West, these reformers of the Meiji Restoration, as
that great change came to be called, borrowed some of the West’s social
science and many of its machines and fashions, but their aim always was
to keep Japan Japanese. “Eastern ethics, Western science,” was the adage of
the day, though Eastern ethics apparently included the West’s inclination
for empire and the notion that a strong arm was needed to acquire it.
After the turn of the twentieth century, Japan found itself in conflict
with Russia over concessions in Korea, just across the Sea of Japan and
strategically important to the Japanese. Most military observers of the
day predicted that the Russians would swiftly overwhelm the force Japan
sent against them, “The Eagles had . . . already fixed their talons on the
carcass,” wrote one British officer. Nippon, however, struck fast, and its
troops, as fierce as any the West had ever seen, defeated the mighty Russians
at Port Arthur.
In just fifty years Japan had transformed itself from a feudal overlordship
into a modern military and industrial state, and now it was ready to
share in the swag and booty of empire, to grab territory and force concessions
in China and domains south, just as the Europeans had been doing
in the Pacific since Magellan’s famous sorties in the first decades of
the sixteenth century.
Japanese diplomats, pressed to defend their country’s aggression,
claimed necessity. Japan had suffered a series of recessions, and by 1929,
the year of widespread financial collapse, the economy was faltering. Ultranationalists
in government, aided by right-wing army officers, pressed
for a military solution. And by 1937, the army had provoked so many
military “incidents” on the Asian mainland that they got what they
wanted—a full-scale war. By the end of 1938 the Japanese had more than
a million troops fighting in China.
Alarmed, America began an economic war of nerves with the Japanese.
Using embargoes of vital materials such as scrap iron, machine
parts, and aircraft, America hoped to force Japan to pull back from
China. When nothing worked, President Roosevelt in July 1941 froze all
Japanese assets in the United States, in effect creating an embargo of the
commodity Japan needed most—crude oil. And since America was
Japan’s chief source of oil, the boycott left the Imperial Army and Navy
in a crisis.
The Japanese decided to take what they needed, and what they
needed was in the hands of the British and the Dutch.War planners in
Tokyo knew well that by striking the East Indies they would provoke
Europe’s ally, the United States, into a fight. They also knew that they
could not defeat the industry-rich Americans; the United States with its
vast resources and its capacity to manufacture whatever war matériel it
needed would eventually wear them down. Japan’s only chance was to
win as much as they could as quickly as they could, then sue for peace
and the status quo. Keep the Americans off balance for six months, seize
the mineral-rich colonies in the southwest Pacific, then set up a ring of
defenses to protect their gains.
Surprise was essential. Surprise had helped Hideyoshi in Korea in
1592 and had carried the day against the Russians at Port Arthur in 1904.
Officers of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy also knew well the
words of the Kendo master Miyamoto Musashi: “You win in battles
with timing . . . the timing of cunning . . . a timing which the enemy
does not expect.” Surprise leaves an enemy low, outwitted, taciturn.
America “will be utterly crushed with one blow,” an Imperial Navy admiral
told the commanders of the Pearl Harbor task force at a briefing
before the battle. “It is planned to shift the balance of power and thereby
confuse the enemy at the outset and deprive him of his fighting spirit.”
But a surprise attack, a modern coup de main, demanded careful
planning, constant practice, strict secrecy, a willingness to sacrifice, and
a lot of luck.
The Japanese have seven gods of good fortune, and on December 8,
1941, these seven kami were with them. The attack on Hawaii left much
of the Pacific Fleet burning or at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. The surprise
sorties against the other targets in the Pacific were stunning victories
as well. Still, of all the units on the attack that day, the force with the
most luck was the 11th Air Fleet, Saburo¯ Sakai and his fellow pilots in the
fighters and bombers that had soared into the air from bases on Formosa
to bomb Clark Field in the Philippines.
The battle plan had originally called for the Formosa squadrons to
take off at 2:30 a.m., which would have put them over the target just after
first light, roughly the same moment that the Pearl Harbor attack
force, some five thousand miles to the east, was diving on Honolulu’s
airfields and on the battleships of the American Pacific Fleet. But a rare
and very unseasonal “thick pea-soup fog” rolled in from the Straits of
Formosa that morning. And standing on the tarmac in their flight suits,
Saburo¯ Sakai and his comrades could not see more than five yards in
front of them.
Through the fog came a voice from the loudspeakers on the control
tower: “Takeoff is delayed indefinitely,” and with that announcement,
every pilot instantly understood that the element of surprise had been
lost, for surely the Americans at Clark Field and at the other U.S. bases
in the Philippines would have heard of the attack at Pearl Harbor and
would be prepared for them, or perhaps the enemy was on its way to attack
Formosa and the Japanese airfields there.
Sakai and his fellow pilots, cupping their hands to their ears and
listening for the sounds of American bombers overhead, waited for the
fog to lift. Five o’clock, six o’clock, seven o’clock. At last the fog gave
way to mist, mist to blue sky, and by eight forty-five, all squadrons were
The attack was now six hours behind schedule and Sakai was sure “after
the long delay . . . [the enemy] would be awaiting us in great strength.”
Just after noon the formation of fifty-three bombers and forty-five
Zeros came roaring in from the South China Sea and the Zambales
mountains. Below them, on the plains of Pampanga Province, was Clark
Field, the main air base of the United States Army Forces in the Far East,
General Douglas MacArthur’s army in the Philippines. When Sakai
looked down, he saw “some sixty enemy bombers and fighters neatly
parked along the airfield runways . . . squatted there like sitting ducks.”
The Japanese airman was astonished.Why, he wondered, weren’t the
Americans in the air, “waiting for us?”
The bombers made their passes first. To Sakai, whose squadron of
fighters was circling above, protecting the bombers, the attack on Clark
Field looked “perfect.” He watched from his cockpit as “long strings of
bombs tumbled from the bays” of the bombers “and dropped toward the
targets.” When they hit, “the entire air base seemed to [rise] into the air
with the explosions. Pieces of airplanes, hangars, and other ground installations
scattered wildly. Great fires erupted and smoke boiled upward.”
Now the Zeros took their turn. They “circled down to 13,000
feet . . . still without enemy opposition.” Then, with his two wingmen
in tow, Sakai nosed over, “pushed the stick forward and dove at a steep
angle for the ground.” He picked out two American B-17s sitting on the
runway unscathed by the explosions and “poured a fusillade of bullets
into the big bombers.”
Later, safely back on Formosa, the Japanese pilots were elated.
“Now,” said one, “we have dealt a spectacular blow!” But, overall, they
were surprised by their success and “bewildered” by their luck. They
told their debriefing officers that they had “found the enemy’s planes
lined up on the target fields as if in peacetime.” It was almost “as if the
enemy did not know that war had started.”
The american pilots and ground crews were eating their lunch when
they heard the drone of planes overhead. Some of them rushed outside
and looked up.
A few, veteran pilots mostly, knew immediately it was the enemy, but
many on the ground, the uninitiated and unknowing, mistook the formations
for “friendlies.” The planes, flying in giant V formations, were
perfect in their spacing, their precision, their unerring course, “beautiful,”
some men thought, and stirring against the vault of powder blue.
Then they began to see something strange, something that seemed to
be floating beneath the giant Vs: small strips of silver glinting in the sun
like tiny pieces of tin foil, “sparkles,” Ben Steele thought. And all at
once, they knew—bombs. Suddenly the air raid klaxon began its urgent
warnings: Eah— Eah— Eah—
“Japanese!” Ben Steele heard someone yell. “Take cover!”
At roughly 12:15 p.m., the first of some forty-two tons of incendiary
and fragmentation bombs started to fall toward the field. Some of the
men simply stood there and stared, transfixed by the Vs and the silver
sparkles falling from the sky.
Then the base erupted. A line of explosions advanced across the
field, then another line, and another. Each bomb held roughly a hundred
pounds of explosive in its warhead, enough TNT to bring down a
building, blow up an airplane, blast a hole in a runway twelve feet wide,
and turn a flesh-and-blood human being into a spray of red. The men on
the south side of the field watched the explosions approach—five hundred
yards, three hundred, one hundred . . . a burst of blinding white, a
sharp, painful crack! followed by an enormous rip, a tearing of the air,
then, finally, a deep shudder in the ground, the earth set atremble.
A bomb blast is lethal science, fluid mechanics meant to maim. First,
the shock wave, a surge of air that hits a man like a wall of wind, hits
him so hard his cerebrum starts to shake concussively in his skull,
swelling at first, then hemorrhaging, rivulets of blood running from his
nose and ears, vomit from his mouth. An instant after the shock wave
passes, the atmosphere turns hot and dense, high pressure sucking the
low pressure from every recess around it, from a man’s lungs and ears and
eye sockets, leaving him gasping for breath and fighting the feeling his
pupils are being pulled from their sockets. Finally, fluid mechanics turns
to terminal ballistics as the blast blows apart the bomb’s casing, sending
hundreds of jagged fragments—pieces of white-hot shrapnel, some no
bigger than a pebble, others as big as a brick—slicing into anything in
Q. P. Devore was hit right away.
He had spent the morning sorting armory supplies and at mess call
had met his friend Ben Steele for lunch. He ate quickly that afternoon;
the fellas in the control tower had invited him up for a look, so he
climbed the stairs to the cupola on top of the first hangar to chew the
fat with the operations boys and take in the view. All at once a voice
came over an intercom: “Enemy bombers overhead.” Devore laughed.
Another false alarm. “Hey fellas, I’m going to step out on the stairs for a
look,” he said, and he began to descend from the cupola, down the stairs
that hugged the outside of the hangar. When he heard the drone of engines,
he stopped and looked up. He was halfway down the stairs when
he heard the loudest noise he’d ever heard, and just like that, his world
When he came to, he was on the ground, lying among a litter of
empty gasoline drums at the bottom of the stairs. His body ached, his
head was thick and heavy. And he kept hearing a voice, faint at first, as
if it were far away.
“Help . . . help.”
As his head cleared, the voice grew louder.
“Help me! Please! Somebody help me!”
Devore rolled over and saw a man he knew, a lieutenant from his
unit. He blinked and looked again. The man was wobbling, struggling to
stand, to get up on the one leg he had left.
A truck stopped nearby and the driver rushed over to the two men.
“Let’s get this officer to the hospital at Stotsenberg,” he said, and Devore
helped him load the lieutenant in the pickup, then jumped in the back.
At Stotsenberg hospital the wounded from Clark Field were everywhere,
filling the wards, the halls, the concrete porch in back. When Q. P.
Devore arrived with the mangled lieutenant, orderlies were putting men
on blankets on the front lawn, and a nurse pressed Devore into service as
a litter bearer, unloading truckloads of hobbled, bleeding, unconscious
men. He hefted and hauled, stretcher after stretcher, until a nurse stopped
him and said, “Hey, what’s the story with you?”
“I’m okay,” Devore said.
“Really? Take a look.”
His coveralls were soaked with blood and riddled with tiny holes.
“Oh,” he thought, “I didn’t even feel it.”
Now and then a nurse, doctor, or patient would wander over to a
window or the front door and look toward Clark Field, less than two
miles away. The base was burning—airplanes, hangars, huts, barracks,
trucks, and fuel tanks, even the fields of cogon grass were ablaze—and
giant twisters of black and gray smoke and clouds of ocher dust were
rising high over the runways. Soon the sky, the great blue dome above
the central plain, was dark with carbon and ash.
Then they heard gunfire from that direction, the stabbing tchat-tchattchat
of machine guns and airplane cannon. The Japanese Zeros had come
down from the clouds to rake and strafe what the bombers had left.
The attack was over in less than an hour, but all afternoon and into the evening, trucks and cars carted the casualties up the road to Stotsenberg.
The injured, when they could talk, described brimstone scenes and
stygian slaughter: bombs falling in trenches, dismembering and decapitating
those caught cowering there; orange fireballs of gasoline and oil
rimmed with a cockscomb of thick black smoke; pilots trying to take
off, shot in their seats or trapped in their flaming cockpits; an airfield that
looked like an airplane junkyard, the runways and aprons littered with
pieces of wings, tails, and fuselage, and the riddled wrecks of bombers
and fighters still smoking. Finally, amid all, derelict corpses and other detritus
of war—an arm, a leg, a helmet with holes in it.
When the Zeros came down to finish the attack, they came in low,
often just thirty feet off the ground, flying through the smoke and fire
left by the bombs, shooting their rounds and tracers into planes and
buildings, emplacements and men. Some of the wounded swore they
could see the faces of the Japanese pilots and shot at them with their rifles
and sidearms, sometimes sighting on the big red circles on the Zero’s
fuselage and wings, those “goddamn red meatballs” and “big fried eggs,”
the hinomaru of Amaterasu, “the circle of the sun.”
In the operating room at Stotsenberg the wounded were taken four
and five at a time, laid out on wooden doors set on crates and boxes. Helen
Cassiani, a surgical nurse from Bridgewater, Massachusetts, had
“never seen such carnage.”
“Oh Lord!” she said to herself, “this is a madhouse.”
In truth it was more like a knacker’s yard, with stretchers of flayed
flesh and splintered bone “all over the lawn, the porch, the hallways,
anywhere you looked.” Outside was better than inside, where the smell
of suffering—the stench of blackened flesh and the reek of green bile
and vomit—collected in the still air of the corridors and wards. Most of
all, the overpowering smell of blood, sweet with a hint of musk, so
much that it made Cassie, as they called Helen, think of her family’s
chicken farm and the way the barn smelled on days when the birds were
Some of the wounded shrieked and howled, but overall the scene
was strangely quiet. Cassie noticed that most of the wounded were
“shuddering from the deathly cold that comes from shock” or were so
numb with morphine they kept their pain to themselves. Now and then
a man with a crushed or dangling limb would summon a nurse to come
close, and he would whisper a question: Was he going to lose his hand,
his foot, his arm, his leg? Don’t worry, Cassie would tell them; the doctor
would do what he could. In the end, of course, the doctor would
amputate. There was no time, no equipment, no way to reconnect what
had been torn loose and left hanging or rebuild what had been blasted
into shards of bone and bloody bits of flesh. So they would shoot up the
man with more morphine and clamp off the wound’s arteries and veins,
and a surgeon would take a scalpel and pare down the muscle, pare it down
to the bone, then the room would fill with the sound of sawing.
Q. P. Devore had been lucky. The shrapnel had bounced off a rib instead
of slicing into him. His legs had been peppered with fragments too,
but looking at the litters queued up for surgery, he considered himself
almost unscathed. Medics cleaned his wounds and gave him new coveralls
and, in the afternoon, sent him back to Clark Field.
He was tired and sore when he wandered into the barracks, and
there, waiting for him, was his good friend Ben Steele. Each man had
prepared himself for the death of the other. And now, sitting side by side
in a barracks full of bullet holes, bullet holes even in the blankets, each
counted himself twice lucky, once for his own sweet life, once for the
life of his friend.
“And what happened to you?” Q.P. asked.
“After lunch I went on back to the hangar area,” Ben said. “Bunch
of us were walkin’ about fifty yards from a trench when we hear this
high drone, and we look up. They dropped so damn many bombs the
sides of the trenches were caving in, you know? Then the fighters came
in, just coming in right out of the smoke. Hell, I was shooting at them
with my forty-five. Really, right at point-blank range.”
The conversation carried them outside, over to the wreckage of the
hangar and control tower stairs where Q.P. had been hit. Ben told Q.P.
that after the attack he had run to the tower to look for him, but all he
found was a jumble of gasoline drums under the stairs, and—he reached
into his pocket—this wristwatch, which he held out to show him.
Q.P. looked, looked again.
“Hey, that’s mine!” he said. “That’s my watch. I didn’t even know I’d
The two stood there, looking around them. The base was a wasteland
of debris and burning junk. Gone were most of the barracks, offices,
hangars, repair shops, fuel and ammo dumps, chow halls, and the base
communications shack. In the gray half-light of evening, the two runways
had so many craters that the field looked like a moonscape. Seventeen
of the nineteen B-17 bombers and most of the American pursuit
planes had been destroyed or heavily damaged. MacArthur’s Far East Air
Force was now a line of wrecks smoldering in the sun.
“They really demolished this place,” Ben Steele said. “They got
The graves registration unit was still busy past sundown collecting
the dead. More than 250 men had been wounded and some 100 killed,
roughly 10 percent of the force manning the base.
Many had fought well—pilots taxiing down the runway under fire,
antiaircraft crews staying at their guns as fighter planes bore down on
them, soldiers rushing into burning buildings to save buddies or retrieve
valuable gear—but surprise strikes deep. And a large number of men,
green privates bewildered by the bombs and veteran corporals and sergeants
who had left their courage in a warm bed or in a bottle, were finished.
At dark they simply abandoned their posts and fled into the woods
and hills and barrios.
The barracks were almost empty, just Ben Steele, Q.P., and a few
others. Where the hell had everyone gone? they wondered. One of the
officers said that sentries along the shoreline had spotted “troop transports”
up north in the South China Sea, “an invasion force.” Invasion?
How were they going to stop an invasion now, without an air force? Another
man was sure he could hear the sound of tanks in the distance, but
Q.P. was in rough shape. He told Ben he was so sore he could barely
stand. Most of all, his nerves were shot; he was sure the barracks would
be hit again and he wanted to get out of there.
“That bombing put the fear of God in me,” Q.P. whispered to his
friend. “I’m afraid.”
Ben Steele helped his buddy outside and across the airfield and into
the relative safety of the woods. He bedded him down on a rush of cogon
grass, and for two nights he ferried food to him and kept him company
until he was ready to fall asleep.
Excerpted from TEARS IN THE DARKNESS: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman, published June 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman. All rights reserved.