Dec. 7, 1941
The peaceful quiet of a typical Sunday morning in Hawaii was shattered Dec. 7, 1941, when 360 aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Oahu’s military installations and plunged the United States into World War II. Their main objective was to cripple the U.S. fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. To reach the fleet, however, they needed to destroy the Hawaiian Air Force, so they struck Hickam, Wheeler and Bellows fields with devastating fury.
Six Japanese carriers transported the strike force of torpedo planes, dive bombers and fighters to a point about 220 miles north of Oahu. Launching the aircraft in two waves, the attackers achieved total surprise and wreaked havoc at all of the Army Air Force installations. The men who were there experienced death, destruction, shock, disbelief, fear and mounting outrage.
They saw their assignment in paradise turn into chaos and mayhem. Parked aircraft and hangars were priority targets, as were personnel in the immediate area. When the attack was over, nearly 700 people had been killed or wounded at Hickam, Wheeler and Bellows. Of the 234 aircraft assigned, 146 had been fully mission-capable at the time of the attack. Afterward, only 83 were still operational and 76 had been destroyed. In contrast, only 29 of the enemy planes participating in the attack were lost, and only two Japanese were captured: the commander of a midget submarine that grounded on the reef off Bellows Field and the pilot of a crippled plane that landed on the Island of Niihau.
The Air Force Arrives in Hawaii
With the formation of the Air Force as a separate branch of the Department of Defense in 1947, Air Transport Command and its successor, Military Air Transport Service, assumed control of Air Force activities in Hawaii. The Pacific Air Force was activated in 1954, and in 1955, the 7th Air Force was activated at Wheeler. In 1956, the Pacific Air Force was redesignated Headquarters Pacific Air Forces/Far East Air Forces (Rear) in preparation for the move of Far East Air Forces (FEAF) from Japan to Hickam. Concurrent with the relocation to Hawaii, FEAF was redesignated Headquarters, Pacific Air Forces and HQ PAF/FEAF (Rear) was inactivated.
Today, the PACAF serves as the air component for the U.S. Pacific Command. The PACAF commander advises the unified command leadership on the use of aerospace power throughout the theater and carries out missions as directed by the commander in chief of Pacific Command. Missions are often performed in conjunction with Army, Navy and Marine Corps forces. The PACAF also participates regularly in combined exercises with forces of Asia and Pacific nations.
PACAF’s primary mission is to plan, conduct and coordinate offensive and defensive air operations in the Pacific and Asian theaters. The command maintains combat capability and security in the region with over 400 aircraft, including air-superiority F-15C/Ds, F-15Es, multirole F-16s, OA-10s, KC-135s, C-130s, E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft and C-17s. More than 40,000 Air Force military and civilians are assigned primarily at the major installations in Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, Japan and the Republic of Korea.
The command’s area of responsibility extends from the United States’ West Coast to the east coast of Africa and from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Major PACAF organizations include the 5th Air Force in Japan, 7th Air Force in Korea, 11th Air Force in Alaska, 13th Air Force at Hickam and the 15th Air Base Wing in Hawaii.