CONYERS -- Dec. 7, 1941 -- 8 a.m. Unarmed and out of fuel on a long base leg approach to Hickam Field, 21-year-old B-17 copilot Ernest Leroy "Roy" Reid saw plumes of black smoke billowing above Pearl Harbor. The pilot, with one trip already logged to Pearl, told Reid not to worry.
"Nothing but burning sugarcane," the pilot said. Skeptical, Reid doubted the Hawaiians had mastered the art of growing sugarcane on water.
Reid's B-17 was one of 13 Flying Fortress bombers arriving at Pearl Harbor after a 15-hour flight from Hamilton Field near San Francisco. Flying at 600 feet and turning for their final approach, Reid saw at least six airplanes burning furiously on Hickam. No doubt now. His country was at war.
As if to prove the point, two Japanese Zero fighters jumped on their tail.
"Bullets ricocheted all through the plane before igniting the emergency flares amidships. Then we caught fire," Reid said.
With two wounded on board and trailing smoke, the B-17 crash-landed on Hickam Field and eventually broke into two pieces. Reid's bomber is thought to be the first American plane shot down in WWII. Ironically, protective armor had been installed behind their seats before leaving the states. Bullets were discovered embedded in the seat armor the following day; Reid was among the lucky on that "Day of Infamy."
During an emergency, the pilot or copilot of a B-17 could shut off all four engines by hitting the "gang-bar" across the instrument panel. But curiously, at that moment, both aviators followed peacetime procedures by setting the brakes and cutting the four engines one switch at a time on a totally destroyed aircraft.
"We didn't have time to improvise, so we just stuck to our training," Reid said.
The flight surgeon, Lt. Schick, was aboard Reid's B-17. With a leg wound, Lt. Schick jumped from the crippled bomber and started running for the hangar. A Zero hit him again. He died later that day at the hospital after refusing care so others could be treated before him.
Reid and the pilot finally scrambled out the cockpit escape hatch.
"We ran into a hangar to search for weapons." Reid said. "A sergeant was passing out pistols. We got our weapons and started to leave. The sergeant screamed, 'Hey, you forgot to sign for those weapons!' I don't think you can print what we told him."
Outside the hangar, Reid and the others got directions to the hospital, thinking the rest of their crew may pick it as a rendezvous point. While receiving directions, someone informed Reid that his hair was singed.
"The only thing I remembered was a quick flash in the cockpit!" Reid recalled.
Chaos reigned supreme at the hospital.
"We couldn't help very much," Reid said. "So we decided to find the Officers Club to regroup and gather information."
Instead they found the officers' housing area. They knocked at the first door.
"The house belonged to a Major Akers. Their maid opened the door. There we stood in bloody uniforms, confusion painted across our faces, filthy dirty, and me with singed hair. The maid appeared stunned, to say the least," Reid said.
The maid, Major Akers' wife, and the Akers' children still playing outside, had no idea Hawaii was under attack.
"The maid told Mrs. Akers we'd been in a car accident, so Mrs. Akers offered us a shot of brandy. Shoot, we needed the whole bottle," he said.
Advised of the attack, Mrs. Akers immediately called in her children. Within moments, the second wave of Japanese planes hit Pearl.
"We'd never been through a bombing attack and didn't really know what to do. We jumped under a big oak dining room table and stayed there until the attack was over," he said.
Amazingly, Reid managed to call a cable operator with Mrs. Akers' telephone to send what may have been the final cable that got out that day. It was to his wife and read: "Am Safe, Wire Mother, Love, Roy."
Reeling from the attack and doing what they could, Reid and his crew finally flew another B-17 out of Pearl Harbor on Feb. 2, 1942, to Australia. From their Australian base they flew bombing runs and reconnaissance missions.
Promoted to captain, Reid commanded his own B-17 from Seven Mile Airfield on the island of New Guinea with the 43rd Bomber Command, 8th Photo Recon Squadron. He completed over 49 bombing missions, several against the heavily defended Japanese base at Rabaul. As the bombers and crews rotated out, Reid volunteered to stay on New Guinea to pilot the last B-17 on long-range missions while the shorter-range P-38 fighters flew other missions.
On one operation, Reid and his crew had to fight for their lives. Bushwhacked by 12 Japanese Zeroes, the B-17's gunners "splashed" four enemy planes, plus two other probable kills. Upon returning to base, the crew counted over 250 bullet holes and eight cannon holes in their plane; indeed, a bona fide Flying Fortress. Among numerous decorations, Roy Reid received two Silver Stars during WWII, our nation's second highest medal.
After the war, Reid completed his education at Yale University before working as a manager of Macy's Department Store on Long Island, N.Y. Recalled during the Korean War, he stayed in the military and retired as a full colonel.
A bomber pilot no less, Reid logged flight time in some of the hottest fighters of WWII, like the P-38 Lightning, F-4 Hellcat, P-51 Mustang, and P-47 Thunderbolt.
When asked how he logged time in the fighters, Reid replied, "Well, fighter pilots wanted to fly the B-17 and I wanted to fly their fighters."
Plainly a breech of military regulations, Reid explained how the unauthorized joyrides actually took place.
"We sort of gave each other permission."
And did that also include the British Submarine Spitfire shown in the photo hanging on the wall in his study?
"Nope," he admitted. "I had to steal the Spitfire."But that's another story.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and free-lance writer. Readers may contact him at: Vietnam veteran, columnist, and free-lance writer. Readers may contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.