Published on December 2012
As dawn broke, the twelve pilots of Scouting Squadron Six (VS-6) finished their briefing for the morning search grid. As usual, they proceeded to the aircraft carrier’s deck and boarded their planes. Their flight was to take off at 0615, form up over the ship, the USS Enterprise (CV-6), and then proceed to their assigned boxes to scout for unidentified ships in the vicinity. Even though America wasn’t at war, while at sea, an aircraft carrier always flew scouting missions to ensure its own security.
The plan was that after completing the morning scouting mission, the twelve planes were to head to Ford Island at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. There, they would land and refuel. By afternoon, they were to take off again and fly an afternoon scouting search grid before returning to the USS Enterprise for dinner. As they headed out that morning, they had no idea that nearly simultaneously another mission was taking off far away — it was the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, and Scouting Squadron Six was scheduled to arrive between 0815 and 0845 at Ford Island, in other words, right into the midst of the second wave of Japan’s devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Mission :: A Day that Will Live in Infamy
The day’s scouting mission was commanded by Lieutenant Commander H. L. Hopping, who was the head of Scouting Squadron Six. For the mission, he was the pilot of the aircraft designated 6-S-1. As with all of the aircraft of the squadron, Lt. Cmdr. Hopping’s plane was a new aircraft type for the US Navy, a Douglas SBD-2 Dauntless dive bomber. Each plane carried a pilot and a gunner. The planes took off on schedule and climbed to altitude as they orbited the ship to form up. At 0637, they headed together out toward their assigned search boxes.
Halfway to Hawaii, one pair of planes spotted a lone ship on the horizon in its assigned grid — the official report relates the details:
“About half way out on the median of sector 095° – 105° (T) contact was made with an unidentified ship broad on the port bow of 6-S-1, distance 20 miles. A signal was made to 6-S-3 to remain outside gun range while 6-S-1 investigated. It proved to be the “PAT DOHENY”, a Richfield tanker, 0730 position from memory being latitude 20°-55′, longitude 160°-20′, course 070° (T). Upon completion of investigation 6-S-3 could not be found: 6-S-1 completed sector alone, then set course for Barbers Point.”
As the planes neared Barbers Point, they saw the sky over Pearl Harbor filled with black smoke. Uncertain what was going on, they tuned in the radio and listened. Lt. Cmdr. Hopping’s report continued:
“When a short distance from Barbers point heavy smoke was visible. At this time a report was heard over the radio: ‘Do not attack me. This is six baker three an American plane”, and the same voice continued on telling his gunner to break out the boat as he was landing in the water.
When abreast of Ewa the first Japanese planes were sighted. They were attacking Ewa Field. I broadcast a report that Pearl Harbor was being attacked by Japanese aircraft, dived down to low altitude and at 0845 landed on Ford Island during what proved to be the second of three attacks (considering the VT attack the first and the dive bombing as two waves).”
With the attack well underway, Lt. Cmdr. Hopping found that the tower radios were knocked out of commission. Three other planes of VS-6 arrived and successfully landed amidst the chaos. Lt. Cmdr. Hopping returned to his plane and broadcast a series of messages detailing that the field at Ford Island was still usable even if the tower was unable to broadcast. He requested that bombs be loaded onto any of the VS-6 aircraft that made it to Ford Island — if he could, his plan was to take off and attempt to locate and then bomb the Japanese fleet from which the Japanese planes had to have come.
In this regard, history often neglects to note that, like many heroes of that horrible day, Lt. Cmdr. Hopping’s actions and command of the situation reflect the highest traditions of duty and the true of the US Navy — men who, despite all odds, were willing to take off into uncertainty and take the fight to the enemy.
Lt. Cmdr. Hopping’s Second Mission
Locating the Commander of Patrol Wing Two, he received word that there were reports of two Japanese aircraft carriers to the southwest or west of Barbers Point, approximately 25 to 40 miles offshore. He was asked to scout the location with a single plane and report in by radio if the Japanese fleet was sighted. Only then would all of the planes of VS-6 and whatever else could be mustered launch together to attack.
At 1030, he departed again to undertake the scouting mission personally — this was 30 minutes after the last Japanese planes of the second wave to hit Pearl Harbor had departed, forming up with the high altitude bombers so as to navigate successfully back to their ships. In his report, Lt. Cmdr. Hopping notes:
“At 1030 took off in 6-S-1, and from Barbers Point flew tracks west 30 miles, south 20 miles, east 60 miles and back to Ford Island. There were no contacts except with our own ships and sampans. During the return orders from the ENTERPRISE were received to ‘refuel, rearm and rejoin’. These orders were acknowledged and passed on to 6-S-7 who was in the air with three other planes. At 1145 landed at Ford Island and reported to ComPatWing Two that there were no Japanese surface craft within rectangle covering area 100 miles west and 60 miles south of Barbers Point and informed him of my orders from ENTERPRISE. ComPatWing Two then directed me to search sector 330° to 030° (T), attack enemy forces encountered, and return to Ford Island.”
This next scouting mission order was fortuitous — indeed, the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor from the north and were even then in the process of recovering the last planes of the second wave. Although the pilots wanted to fly a third wave, it was cancelled and by 1300 the Japanese fleet turned back toward Japan.
“At 1210 we took off with 9 VSB armed with 500 lb. bombs, task organization attached as Enclosure (C). No contacts were made. All planes returned by 1545.”
Somehow, despite heading the right direction on what should have been a perfect intercept course, the remaining planes of VS-6 and the aircraft of 9 VSB didn’t locate the departing Japanese fleet, which was steaming north at the time away from the islands. Had the flight crews of VS-6 done so, they might have written a different ending to the story of Pearl Harbor.
Final Comments and Assessment
In the final paragraphs of the report’s descriptive section, Lt. Cmdr. Hopping summed up his observations of the events of the day, including his recollection about Japanese bombing tactics:
“The second Japanese attack was witnessed partly from the air and partly from the ground; the third attack from Ford Island Field Tower [Ed.: referring to the dive bombing portion of the Japanese second wave]. It was noted that attacks were made in a glide rather than a dive, that pull-outs were as low as 400 feet, and that the machine gunning of Ewa Field destroyed planes on the landing mat almost immediately by burning. At least two dud bombs were noted. Two Japanese planes were seen to fall in flames one landing in or just east of Middle Loch and one west of Middle Loch.”
In the midst of the attack, one of the VS-6 pilots, Lieutenant C. E. Dickinson Jr., USN, and his gunner, William C. Miller, RM1c, USN, flying in the SBD-2 Dauntless 6-S-4, flying with another Dauntless, were engaged by many Japanese planes. Lt. Dickinson’s report read:
- At 0825, I was approaching Barbers Point from the south at 1500 feet altitude when I noticed numerous shell splashes in the water by the entrance to Pearl Harbor. I then looked for the source. I could see one cruiser and three destroyers about three miles off the entrance but they were not firing. Upon looking upwards I saw numerous anti-aircraft bursts above Pearl Harbor. Ewa Field was on fire sending up dense smoke as high as 5000 feet above Barbers Point. Smoke was rising from what turned out to be the USS ARIZONA. This covered the channel area and as yet I had seen no other planes.
- I called 6-S-9 alongside and started climbing, at 4000 feet I leveled off over Barbers Point. I had seen no enemy planes as yet, but was very shortly attacked by two Japanese fighters as we headed towards Pearl Harbor. The above two enemy planes apparently concentrated on 6-S-9. As we went down to 1000 feet headed towards Pearl Harbor the above enemy planes were joined by about four others. At that time 6-S-9 caught on fire from the right side of the engine and the right main tank. It lost speed and dropped about 50 yards astern and to the left. I could see it still attempting to fight as it slowly circled to the left losing altitude. I lost sight of it but in a few seconds noticed it below me just as it struck the ground. I saw a parachute open at about 200 feet altitude with the occupant apparently safe.
- During this time, my plane was under fire from 3 – 5 enemy planes. My gunner reported that he had been hit followed by a report that he had hit an enemy plane. He then stated that all of his ammunition was expended and that he had been hit again. I looked aft and saw a Japanese plane on fire slowly losing speed and altitude but did not actually see him strike the ground. At this time I was able to get in two short bursts from my fixed guns as one enemy aircraft pulled ahead.
- My left tank being on fire and my controls being shot away, I told the gunner to jump. The plane went into a right spin at about 1000 feet altitude. When it started to spin, I made the necessary preparations and jumped. My parachute functioned normally and I landed unhurt in the vicinity of Ewa Field. I arrived at Pearl Harbor about 0930 and crossed to Ford Island where I reported to my Commanding Officer.
Lt. Dickinson and RM1c Miller’s action that day were probably the US Navy’s first confirmed aerial victory of World War II –in fact, it was RM1c Miller who shot down the attacking Japanese plane, though seriously injured he was unable to bail out and was killed in the subsequent crash of his aircraft. Lt. Dickinson would go on to participate in the Battle of Midway and in numerous other engagements, ending the war with three Navy Cross awards.
Pearl Harbor would not be last action of VS-6 during the war. The squadron would participate in the Battle of Midway, just a half year after Pearl Harbor and, together with the other aircraft of the USS Enterprise, in the pivotal attack of the entire battle, would sink the Japanese aircraft carriers Akagi and Kaga, two of the very ships that “got away” that day, on December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor.
One More Bit of Aviation History
The twelve aircraft of VS-6 suffered badly in the aerial battle of Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. As night fell, Lt. Cmdr. Hopping’s report included just the following notes:
Three (3) officers and five (5) men missing:
Ensign J. H. L. VOGT Jr., USN, Pilot of 6-S-3 (Bu#2160). Listed at Naval Hospital, Pearl Harbor, as killed.
Lieutenant (jg) F. A. PATRIARCA, USN, Pilot of 6-S-16 (Bu#4521). Reported by radio at Burns Field, Kauai, on December 7, 1941. No further information.
Ensign W. M. WILLIS, A-V(N), USNR, Pilot of 6-S-15 (Bu#2159). No definite information. Rumor that body found on Oahu.
PIERCE, Sidney, RM3c, USN, Gunner 6-S-3 (Bu#2160). Listed at Naval Hospital, Pearl Harbor, as killed.
DE LUCA, Joseph F., RM1c, USN, Gunner 6-S-16 (Bu#4521). Same status as Lieutenant (jg) F. A. PATRIARCA.
DUCOLON, Fred J., Cox, USN, Gunner 6-S-15 (Bu#2159). Same status as Ensign W. M. WILLIS.
MILLER, William C., RM1c, USN, Gunner 6-S-4 (Bu#4570). Pilot (Lieut. C. E. DICKINSON) reports he was wounded twice and probably killed before or in plane fire and crash.
COHN, Mitchell (n), RM3c, (V-3), USNR, Gunner 6-S-9 (Bu# 2158). Probably killed before or in crash of plane.
One (1) officer and one (1) man wounded:
Ensign J. R. McCARTHY, A-V(N), USNR, Pilot of 6-S-9 (Bu#2158). Reported by a Commander in the Medical Corps to an officer of this squadron as at Naval Hospital with broken leg presumably incurred parachuting from plane at low altitude.
COSELETT, Audrey G., RM3c, USN, Gunner 6-S-14 (Bu# 4572). Gunshot wounds in throat and wrist. Rescued by pilot of plane which made crash landing on East side of Pearl Harbor channel. Presumably taken to Tripler Hospital
One (1) officer slightly wounded:
Ensign E. T. DEACON, USN, Pilot of 6-S-14 (Bu# 4572). Minor gunshot wound in left leg. Returned to duty after treatment.
The total material losses of Scouting Squadron Six were as follows:
Three (3) planes shot down:
6-S-4 – Bureau No. 4570
6-S-9 – Bureau No. 2158
6-S-14 – Bureau No. 4572
Three (3) planes missing:
6-S-3 – Bureau No. 2160
6-S-15 – Bureau No. 2159
6-S-16 – Bureau No. 4521
Several planes slightly damaged by gunfire but all in commission except 6-S-2 (Bu#2175) which was left at Ford Island for repairs.
Today’s Aviation Trivia Question
Why didn’t the Japanese fly their third wave against Hawaii? Was it the right decision or a wrong one, in retrospect (from the Japanese perspective)?