Pearl Harbor attack began at Wheeler

Published: Dec. 6, 2011 at 10:10 PM HST|Updated: Dec. 7, 2011 at 3:41 AM HST
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Amos Peterson
Amos Peterson
Col. Frank Tate
Col. Frank Tate
Army architectural historian Ken Hays
Army architectural historian Ken Hays

By Jim Mendoza - bio | email

WAHIAWA (HawaiiNewsNow) - Historians believe about four minutes before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, fighter planes swooped in on Wheeler Army Airfield to destroy and disarm America's air defense.

"I was coming in this door," Amos Peterson said, tugging on the handle of the entrance to Wheeler's cafeteria.

That's where he was when an explosion decked the U.S. Army corporal on December 7, 1941.

"I just remember being squeezed together about the size of a pop bottle and tossed, and I was glad no shrapnel hit me," the 89-year-old retired dairy farmer said.

Japan's air forces zeroed in on Wheeler's airfield and 140 fighter planes parked in tight formation.

"When the Japanese bombers and fighter planes came, that made it a very easy target for them to strafe," said Col. Frank Tate, commander of the 25th Infantry Division Combat Aviation Brigade.

Fifty-four planes were annihilated. A bomb blew up an ammunition storage hangar.

"Many of the hangars were destroyed down to their frame. Most all of them were on fire. Many of the pilot's barracks buildings were also on fire. They hit where the pilots were living," Army architectural historian Ken Hays said.

The attack killed 37 Wheeler soldiers and wounded 53. Peterson remembers seeing their bodies.

"They lined them up in a row. I had to go and see if I knew any of them, to identify which ones I knew," he said. "I don't remember who they all were, but I did know three or four of them."

After Wheeler, Japan struck other Oahu airfields to prevent U.S. planes from flying and fighting back.

In 1941, Peterson was a 19-year-old Army cook.  To Wheeler soldiers of today, he's a hero.

"For our cooks to get to talk to him and pass on that legacy - what a joy for all of us," Tate said.

Wheeler's buildings are on the National Registry of Historic Places. They've been restored to look like they did 70 years ago, before the attack on Pearl Harbor started with an attack on the air base.

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