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Civilian pilots under fire at Pearl Harbor

Students, instructors caught up in 1941 attack

Pilots rose early to take advantage of fair weather before the typical Honolulu winds kicked up on that Sunday morning, 75 years ago. It was a beautiful day to fly, until fabric-covered airplanes were suddenly in a desperate struggle for survival among hundreds of warplanes converging on Pearl Harbor. Among the first Americans killed on that day of infamy were three men in a pair of Piper Cubs, along with the owner of the flying school where they had trained, who was himself shot dead on the ground when a fighter strafed Honolulu’s civilian airport.

Photo courtesy of Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor.

As the nation commemorates the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled America into World War II, hundreds of survivors have joined a coordinated series of events in and around Honolulu. Their stories, along with thousands of others, have been told time and again, in books, movies, museum exhibits, and memorials. The collective memory of many events of that day remains clear, the ships sunk and lives lost.

General aviation also suffered losses. Civilian and off-duty military pilots flying Piper Cubs and Aeroncas were among the very first under fire as 353 Japanese aircraft arrived from the north, an attack that approached in two waves from over the northern headland of Oahu, moving south at about 200 mph toward the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s home base, and other military targets on the island.

First shots fired

An Aeronca 65TC rented by Hui Lele Club with flight instructor Guy Nathan “Tommy” Tomberlin, 26, and club student James Duncan had just rounded the northern headland of Oahu and was headed over land toward Laie when the bullets began to fly.

The pair was about 25 miles north of Pearl Harbor, and Tomberlin would later note the time of that first attack in his logbook: 7:52 a.m. The first sign of trouble was two streams of tracers that converged on the bright orange trainer from behind, as author and historian Stephen Harding, the editor of Military History magazine, recounted in a 2013 article about the civilian flights that became the first victims.

Tomberlin, who was in the rear seat, took control and “snapped the Aeronca into a descending left bank, toward the sea, jinking as the plane lost altitude,” wrote Harding, who has done extensive research on the events of the day. Bullets punched fist-sized holes in the Aeronca’s rear fuselage and vertical stabilizer, and sheared two longerons. Harding said in a telephone interview that he has flown as a passenger in many aircraft (including a Piper Cub) and said he has flown out of Honolulu International Airport, the modern aviation hub that was known at the time as John Rodgers Airport (and had then a single, 1,000-foot runway). He said it is easy to imagine being in a two-seat trainer on a fair-weather day over Hawaii, and suddenly beset by warplanes on a mission to kill.

“The one thing, of course, we can’t really empathize with … is what it’s like to realize the airplane coming toward you is a Japanese fighter, and you’re about to die,” Harding said.

Tomberlin and Duncan escaped with their lives, but only just. Just after the initial attack, two more fighters broke from an 11-ship formation and fired on the Aeronca, but scored no additional hits and quickly rejoined their formation to attack their military target. Tomberlin, now over water, flew just above the waves, heading southeast, and decided to sneak through Pali Pass and return to John Rodgers Airport.

The Japanese pilots did not deliberately attack civilians, said Pacific Aviation Museum Historian Burl Burlingame, credited by Harding as the leading expert on aviation in Hawaii. Exceptions were made, Burlingame said in a telephone interview, for civilian aircraft that could potentially follow the Japanese back toward their carriers.

Back at John Rodgers Airport, just south of the battleships that were at the top of the Japanese target list, a Hawaiian Air Lines DC-3 had just boarded passengers and was preparing to depart. Local attorney Roy Vitousek and his son, Martin, 17, were circling the airport at about 800 feet in an Aeronca TC65 rented from Gambo Flying Service, one of three flight schools that had been established on the airfield to provide instruction under the Civilian Flight Training Program.

The owner of that school, Marguerite Gambo, was teaching a student in a Meyers OTW biplane, flying near another Japanese target, Kaneohe. Plumes of smoke rising from Kaneohe made it clear to Gambo that the warplanes were not American, and her airplane was buffeted by turbulence as fighters pulled up from their strafing run. The fighters did not engage the biplane, however. Gambo, whose encounter was most likely the basis of one depicted in the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora! (albeit with the wrong aircraft, a Stearman, used in the film), turned and raced toward John Rodgers Airport.

Others were not so fortunate.

Graphic by AOPA staff.

‘They never knew what hit them’

A pair of Piper Cubs departed John Rodgers at 7:40 a.m., and headed first northeast, flying just off of Waikiki Beach toward Diamond Head before turning west, bound for Camp Malakole on the other side of the island. That was where soldiers of the California National Guard 251st Coastal Artillery Regiment were based at the time. The Cub pilots, as well as a passenger on one of the aircraft, were all members of that unit. Sgt. Henry C. Blackwell and Cpl. Clyde C. Brown had both been taught to fly in their off-duty hours by Robert Tyce, co-owner of K-T Flying Service, one of three civilian schools then based at John Rodgers Airport. Sgt. Warren D. Rasmussen had come along for the sightseeing excursion.

Tyce and his wife, Edna, meanwhile arrived at the airport not long after the two Cubs departed, and minutes before fighters began to strafe the field. Tyce, standing next to his wife on the ramp, was hit in the head during the first moments of the attack and killed instantly, the first of 68 civilians struck down. The soldiers he had trained were flying about two miles offshore, at around 500 feet, headed toward their base. The Vitouseks were circling overhead, having returned from their own sightseeing. Another instructor, Cornelia Fort, was flying in an Interstate S-1A Cadet with a local student, a defense worker named Soumala. The Cadet was approaching John Rodgers Airport to practice touch and goes.

A sailor aboard a Navy tugboat, whose account was included in a Honolulu Star-Bulletin story published Dec. 20, 1941, and later repeated, with minor variations in detail, in a sworn deposition, recalled seeing the two yellow Cubs flying offshore at about 500 feet, when Japanese aircraft pounced on the flight. (There were "seven" enemy warplanes in the newspaper account, "several" reported in the sworn deposition.)

One Cub plummeted straight into the ocean, while the other “circled for a moment” before also diving into the water. Only fragments were ever found.

Harding, who published a new book, Dawn of Infamy, in November, has extensively researched the plight of the Cubs; he said he is “pretty convinced” that, unlike the civilian pilots who were attacked, the guardsmen in the Cubs “never knew what hit them.”

“The incoming Japanese would have come up on them at probably 200 miles per hour,” approaching from the right side, Harding said. If they saw anything before they were killed, it was tracer fire.

Around that same time, Fort, a Nashville native who would go on to serve as one of the first women pilots on military duty, at first mistook an incoming Japanese warplane as a hot-dogging American military pilot. She spotted two oncoming aircraft, one of them on course to collide, just after telling her student to turn base, and took the controls. The young aviatrix firewalled the throttle and climbed to avoid the fast-approaching warplane. As the Japanese aircraft passed below, the red ball insignia (combined with smoke rising from Pearl Harbor) made her realize what was happening. She landed as quickly as she could, later writing that “the air was not the place for our little baby airplane,” and sprinted with her student for cover as Japanese fighters strafed the field. Bullets narrowly missed the Cadet as they taxied. Another of those bullets had just killed Tyce.

‘You get out of the way’

Vitousek chose a different tactic, said Burlingame, the historian at the museum on Ford Island that houses the very aircraft the father and son were in as the attack reached Pearl Harbor and John Rodgers Airport, not far south of Battleship Row. Rather than scurry to land, they climbed.

“The Japanese were very focused on what they were doing,” Burlingame said, his account based in part on interviews with family members including Martin Vitousek, who died in 1999 at age 74. “Once you realize that, you get out of the way.”

Accounts differ about whether the Vitouseks' rented Aeronca ever took damage. According to some, bullets did cut through the Aeronca's fabric, and Burlingame said the museum’s restoration of the aircraft uncovered evidence of past fabric repair.

But Harding said he is convinced otherwise, in part because no war damage claim was ever filed, while claims were filed and paid for damage done to Tomberlin’s Aeronca, the DC-3 that was destroyed (most likely by the same fighter that killed Tyce) on the ground soon after passengers were hustled out, and the two Cubs shot down near the mouth of the harbor.

“In my research on the Piper Cub story, there’s absolutely no indication at all that the Vitouseks' aircraft was hit,” Harding said.

Harding has also researched the now-debunked story of another Pearl Harbor mystery, that of a sailor named M.F. Poston, who, according to a military report, said he bailed out of another Piper Cub after fighters attacked him, along with Tyce, over the Pali Pass at 6,000 feet. Harding suspects that the story was concocted to explain Poston’s unauthorized absence on Dec. 7. There is no evidence to support it, and a great deal of evidence that Tyce was on the ground when he was shot and killed.

That leaves seven civilian aircraft accounted for on Dec. 7, 1941.

“The civilian plane a lot of people overlook was the Pan Am Clipper that was on its way in,” Burlingame said.

The flight was due to arrive at 8:30 a.m., in the middle of the attack, but was 45 minutes behind schedule, the historian said. The pilot had attended his daughter’s piano recital the night before, and got a late start on the flight. Never was a airline delay more welcome, as it turned out. The inbound Clipper learned of the attack in progress by radio.

“They diverted to Hilo,” Burlingame said.


By the time the attack was over, less than 90 minutes after it began, eight battleships were damaged or destroyed, along with several other ships badly damaged and burning, though the American carrier fleet was out on maneuvers on Dec. 7, and would turn the tide of the war just half a year later, at Midway Island.

The Pearl Harbor attack killed 2,403 Americans, including 68 civilians. Another 1,178 people were wounded, according to a fact sheet posted by the National WWII Museum. The attack damaged 159 military aircraft and destroyed 169.

General aviation in Hawaii came to a grinding halt after Dec. 7, 1941, with private aviation grounded during the war years. Gambo would marry during the war and take the name Wood, reviving her flight school after the Japanese surrender and becoming known to hundreds of Hawaiian pilots as “Ma Wood.”

Varying accounts credit both Gambo-Wood and Fort as the aviatrixes beset by fighters in the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, though Gambo was the one flying a biplane, Burlingame said, a Meyers OTK according to the records the museum has collected.

Fort returned to the mainland determined to forge a path for women in military aviation. She was one of the first 25 female pilots selected for the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Service, a precursor of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, and killed in March 1943 while delivering an aircraft to an Army base in Texas, according to the Air & Space magazine story from 2012  (which credits Fort as the inspiration for the scene in the movie).

Tomberlin, Harding said, went on to serve as a military pilot. Martin Vitousek would become a distinguished geophysicist and inventor who flew his own airplane and sailed a schooner featured in another movie, The Wackiest Ship in the Army.

The Meyers that Gambo was flying also survived the war, Burlingame said, though its whereabouts at present are among the unknowns that linger 75 years after the attack, an event that remains, in Harding’s words, “an enduring point of interest for the American people.”

“That plane still existed several years ago,” Burlingame said, hard at work preparing for events and presentations related to the anniversary when reached by phone. “I think it might have been (in) Idaho.”

Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Taildragger, People

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