Pearl Harbor Day

“December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt said these words many years ago. Today, Dec. 7 might mean one less shopping day until Christmas, but it means something else to “The Greatest Generation,” the people who fought World War II.

The debate over whether Roosevelt knew of the impending attack on the Pacific Fleet bottled up in Pearl Harbor continues to this day. Whether the attack on Pearl Harbor was indeed a surprise or a cynical manipulation in a geopolitical chess game didn’t matter to my mom at the time.

Mom’s cousin Jack Abernathy, U.S. Navy, got bombed at Pearl Harbor. That got her Irish up! It was payback time for Tojo. There was a war on! Mom could see the need for long-range strategic bombers in America’s war against the Axis Powers. She found a sleepy little airplane factory down along the Duwamish River in her home town, Seattle. In no time mom had the Boeing plant whipped into apple pie order. At one point in the war, she was rolling a B-17 Flying Fortress out the door every 49 minutes! Powered by four 1,200 horsepower engines, the B-17 could carry a crew of 10 at speeds of up to 250 miles per hour. It could cruise 400 miles with a ceiling of 35,000 feet. Most importantly, the Flying Fortress could fly even when it was “shot to hell.”

Cousin Donny (Donald Abernathy, Army Air Corps) always said he worked at a flower shop in the war, no. He was a tail gunner in a B-17, flying support for Uncle Jack’s (Jack Lopresti, U.S. Army) European Expeditionary Force. The B-17 specialized in precision daylight raids, which made them an easy target for the Germans’ deadly accurate 88mm Flak guns.

After the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942, the United States began an island campaign to protect America’s lifeline to Australia. At midnight Aug. 6, 1942, the U.S. Navy’s first amphibious assault began on Guadalcanal. To protect the landing mom’s B-17s turned the Japanese fleet headquarters at Rabaul into what Admiral “Bull” Halsey called “rubble” while bombing and strafing Japanese reinforcements attempting to retake Guadalcanal.

On Nov. 1, 1943, my uncle Len (Leonard Neal, U.S.M.C.) landed in heavy surf on Bougainville with the 3rd Marine Corps to face an estimated 35,000 tough, veteran Japanese troops of the 6th Imperial Division infamous for the Rape of Nanking. Meanwhile a Japanese naval force of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and six destroyers was approaching to shell the beachhead where the Marines were dug into shallow foxholes in the pouring rain.

Fortunately, Dad’s Navy Task Force 39 of four light cruisers and eight destroyers ambushed the Japanese using torpedoes and radar to range their guns in a night action that forced a sudden retreat and saved the beachhead that was only 50 miles away.

Uncle Len and about 34,000 other troops established a defensive perimeter one mile deep and five miles long while the Seabees finished the impossible task of turning swamp into an airfield.

Meanwhile Mom was determined to march north and secure an airbase that was within bombing range of Tokyo. The rugged 30-mile-long island of Guam was ideally suited for the Japanese defenders when a combined force of U.S. Army and Marine veterans of Guadalcanal came ashore on July 21, 1944. Over 3,500 Japanese and 1,500 Americans died in a battle that continued in isolated pockets until the end of the war. The last Japanese soldier on Guam did not surrender until 1972. My Dad (Duane Neal, U.S.N.) ran an airfield on Guam for Mom’s long- and medium-range bomber fleet to conduct reconnaissance and bombing missions.

Once Len Neal’s Marines had secured Bougainville, he headed north to help General Douglas MacArthur return to the Philippines where an estimated quarter of a million Japanese troops were waiting under the command of General Yamashita, the “Tiger of Malaya.” On Oct. 21, 1944, an estimated ton of explosives was fired ashore for every man going to the beachhead with MacArthur at Leyte. Once again Uncle Len’s invasion force was saved from annihilation by Japanese battleships by Dad’s Navy in what has come to be known as the greatest naval battle in history: the three-day Battle of Leyte Gulf, that all but wiped out the Japanese Imperial Fleet. Meanwhile the Leyte invasion was stalled in a campaign reminiscent of the Western Front of World War I and forced the postponement of MacArthur’s optimistic invasion schedule for a month.

As Dad and Uncle Len’s island-hopping offensive drew closer to the Japanese home islands, both sides refined their tactics into more horrifying desperate measures. Admiral Onitsha sent bomb-laden fighter planes to crash into American ships. Named after the Divine Wind that scattered the Mongol fleet of 1281, the Kamikaze became one of the most effective weapons the Japanese used as a defense against the U.S Navy.

In Feb. 19, 1945, the U.S. Marines landed on Iwo Jima to secure an airfield so Mom’s planes had someplace to land if they were shot up trying to bomb Japan. The Japanese defended Iwo Jima with a series of caves and dugouts that withstood the pre-invasion bombardment and waited to ambush the Americans when they could inflict the greatest casualties. The B-17 was the Marine’s best friend on Iwo Jima, precision bombing enemy positions right next to the front lines.

By 1945, Mom was building the larger B-29 bomber. On March 10, 1945, 350 of her B-29s dropped 2,000 tons of magnesium, phosphorous and napalm on Tokyo, incinerating 16 square miles and killing 100,000 people. It remains the single deadliest attack ever inflicted on a civilization. Despite these heavy casualties, the Japanese military continued a fanatical but hopeless defense. That was until mom’s B-29 Bombers dropped two atomic bombs on Japan.

Mom built that bomber fleet, riveting them together in eight-foot sections, one plane at a time until the war was over and there was peace. After the war, Mom went on to create the post-war boom in America. She never let on that she was a war hero. Just another patriotic American teenager doing her part to bomb the Axis Powers back to the hell they came from. Thanks, Mom, from a proud son and a grateful nation.