Section 3: Tactical Demands: Concentration Versus Dispersal of Forces
Chapter 8: Air Defense of the Western Hemisphere
An order flashed to air defense units in California shortly after noon on 7 December 1941 brought word that the Japanese had attacked Hawaii, that 700 miles west of San Francisco a transport had been sunk, that by direction of the Secretary of War RAINBOW No. 5 had been put into execution, and that all bases were to be alerted for attacks by air or ground.1 That order was typical of many which on that day brought the war home to the United States and its key outposts throughout the Western Hemisphere. Overnight, air raid alerts and blackouts became routine in American cities, as the average citizen assumed the additional duty of air raid warden. The success of the attack on Hawaii had put the united States on the defensive and suggested that the homeland itself was not beyond the range of similar carrier-borne air assaults. For the first time since the War of 1812 the country faced a serious threat of attack.
Estimates of the seriousness of the threat to continental United States varied widely with the perspective of the men who made them. Military planners, thinking in terms of world-wide strategy, were apt to minimize a danger which to an individual in an exposed community appeared to be highly personal and threatening. This emotional element in the situation, the feeling that it took only one bomb to wipe out a home, meant that in continental defense political factors were no less important than strictly military considerations The initial reaction of the people in one of the more exposed areas was described in an account written on 10 December 1941 by Richard L. Neuberger, Oregon journalist; “People who had pooh-poohed any hint of peril on Saturday kept their children home from school on Monday.” While
Mr. Neuberger wrote, the Northwest was blacked out from Puget Sound to southern Oregon, radio stations had been off the air for sixteen hours, and enemy aircraft were reported near the mouth of the Columbia River. It was not known whether the reports of enemy activity were founded on fact or rumor, but “men and women whose Congressional representative less than a month ago voted overwhelmingly against repeal of the Neutrality Act are now prepared to believe such reports implicitly.” And on the preceding night “store windows in Seattle which did not dim were smashed by irate citizens.”2
An official estimate of the danger was given to the nation by President Roosevelt in a radio address on 9 December.3 The Chief Executive admitted that the losses at Pearl Harbor constituted a serious setback and bluntly told the people to prepare for a long war against powerful foes. he warned that the initial attack could be repeated “at any one of many points in both oceans and along our coast lines and against the rest of the hemisphere.” Summing up the terrible lesson which had been contained in the rain of bombs on American ships and planes in the Pacific, the President suggested that it ought to be clear to every citizen “that our ocean-girt hemisphere is not immune from severe attack – that we cannot measure our safety in terms of miles on any map.” At the same time, Mr. Roosevelt outlined views which were to be reiterated through the discouraging months of the first half-year of disaster and retreat, namely, that although the country might be attacked, nothing must deter the nation from its principal job of preparing to take the war to the enemy.
Supporting the apprehensions of the people and the President’s warning, there were sober estimates of the situation by responsible military leaders. As early as 8 December, the Navy reported that the losses sustained in Hawaii had left the Pacific Fleet unable to carry out the tasks assigned to it in the existing war plan,4 and the next day Secretary Stimson reported to President Roosevelt that the War Department plan for the defense of the pacific coast been based on the security provided by Hawaii and the fleet, and that “the present attack has left the West Coast unprotected.”5 There was felt to be a grave possibility that the Japanese might, by renewed attacks, capture islands in the Hawaiian group6 and thereby penetrate the Pacific defense triangle (Alaska–Hawaii–Panama). Even without reducing Hawaii, the enemy was in a position to carry out raids against aircraft plants and ship-building installations along the Pacific seaboard.7
The same grave view of the situation had been adopted by the Air War Plans Division of the Air Staff in an estimate drafted on 8 December. Word had been received that the attack on Pearl Harbor had left only one battleship in complete readiness there. This drastic shift in the balance of sea power had exposed the Pacific coast and, in conjunction with the existing uncertainty over the status of the French fleet, meant the world-wide change in naval potentials had occurred. Even the sea lanes in the North Atlantic appeared to be open to raiders, with consequent peril to Iceland, Greenland, and defense plants along the eastern coast of the United States.8 The loss off Malaya on 10 December of the British capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse added to the pessimism. An air estimate of the situation two days later concluded that the enemy could reach virtually any vital installation located along the coasts of the Americas. A detailed list of enemy capabilities indicated that Axis forces might successfully attempt any of the following operations:–
The capture or isolation of Alaska.
Attacks on the West Coast by air, sea, or land.
Seizure of bases in Canada or Mexico for later attacks on the United States.
Capture of the Galapagos Islands.
Air operations against the Panama Canal.
Bombing of oil refineries in Peru or Venezuela.
Seizure of airports and bridgeheads in Brazil.
The fomenting of revolutions in Latin America.
Attacks on the East Coast, perhaps after taking a lend-lease base.
The capture or isolation of Greenland or Iceland.9
These first estimates undoubtedly reflect the shock resulting from the enemy’s initial victories. As was proper, they sought to cover all conceivable eventualities. But they serve to emphasize the urgent demands of the moment, the necessity, while providing reinforcements for hard pressed outposts and carrying forward plans for attack of the enemy’s vital establishments, to meet immediate and new requirements for an adequate defense of the Western Hemisphere.
Air Defense Activities in the Period of Alerts and Alarms
With the extremely limited resources available to the Army Air Forces in December 1941, it was impossible to provide even token defenses for all vital targets in the hemisphere. A host of advocates – both in and out of the Army – arose to press the claims of each of the “most vital” installations or areas, among these being the Panama and
the Sault Sainte Marie canals, aircraft plants along both coasts, oil refineries off the coast of Venezuela, bauxite mines in the Guianas, and cryolite deposits – needed in making aluminum – at Ivigtut, Greenland. Military commanders, impressed with the damaged reputations which had been caused by Pearl Harbor, demanded large reinforcements to assure the safety of the area each was charged with defending.10 Had the War Department listened to all these pleas, the existing air force would have been dispersed in small and ineffective units, and the AAF would have been required to surrender any early hope of building an offensive force. A system of priorities was essential, and, because the chief fear was of further carrier raids by Japan, initial air defense arrangements took the form of emergency reinforcements for Panama, Alaska, and the continental West Coast.11
A great deal of attention had been given before the war to the defense of the Panama Canal, and to a superficial observer this target might have appeared to be well defended in December 1941.* There were, to be sure, three pursuit groups and the equivalent of two bombardment groups on duty in or near the Canal Zone, and these units had in addition to obsolete equipment more than 100 reasonably modern airplanes.12 The appearance, however, was misleading, and the following fundamental weaknesses demanding immediate remedial measures: of the airplanes assigned, only one squadron of B-17’s was capable of operating at high altitudes; only two ineffectual radar stations were available; neither the Army nor the Navy had enough planes to provide adequate offshore patrols; and aircraft bases were so concentrated that a surprise raid on two fields, situated only five miles apart, might have destroyed two-thirds of the tactical planes assigned to defend the canal.13
Officials in Washington were aware of the danger to the canal and gave priority to furnishing nine additional heavy bombers.14 Pursuit reinforcements were provided from within the Caribbean Defense Command by transferring twenty-five P-40’s from Puerto Rice to the Canal Zone, a movement completed on 14 December.15 At the end of December eighty additional pursuit planes arrived in Panama from the United States.16 The critical need for aircraft warning instruments was eased by the arrival on 26 December of four mobile radar sets.17 Meantime, AAF officers in Panama had taken local measures to increase the readiness of their units. During December, planes were
* See above, pp. 160–66.
dispersed to fields outside the Canal Zone, additional revetments were hurriedly built, and camouflage was employed wherever possible.18 Air traffic regulations for the Canal Zone were revised to provide for a defended zone extending ten miles on either side of the canal.19
December 1941 was marked by invasion fears in Panama and throughout the Caribbean region. Hostile carriers were reported on 8 December along the Pacific approaches to the canal. Again on 10 December the Navy reported that radio transmissions indicated a concentration of enemy vessels to the west of the canal. The War Department relayed a report that a carrier had been sighted off the coast of Mexico.20 On the 10th, convincing evidence was received to the effect that the Vichy regime had turned over the French fleet to the Germans.21 The next day one of the French vessels at Martinique was reported to have left the harbor, and plans were drafted for joint Navy and AAF action to meet what might be a new threat to the canal.22 Because of all these reports, a special alert was maintained for several days throughout the Caribbean, and, as the tension approached its height, an episode occurred which indicated the inexperience of American forces. The incident came to be known as “the battle of Borinquen,” from the air base in Puerto Rico where it took place.23 Shortly after dark on 12 December, a report reached Borinquen Field to the effect that a large enemy transport had dropped anchor in a bay nearby. Landing barges full of troops were said to be coming ashore. A junior officer without investigating the matter, alerted and blacked out the field. A bomber was dispatched to attack the ship but, through neglect, no bombsight was on board. Nevertheless, bombs were dropped and small boats in the bay were strafed. meanwhile guards at the gates of the airfield saw tracer bullets, thought they detected soldiers approaching, and opened fire with machine guns, firing several thousand rounds. The next day it was discovered that the affair had been caused by an innocent American freighter which had been at sea without radio communication and had not heard of the start of war. The firing on shore was caused by the accidental discharge of the rifle of a sentry, which had led to an extended exchange of fire between adjacent guard posts; fortunately the aim was poor. The incident gave proof of the need for better control of both ground and air personnel and for more careful direction by experienced senior officers during periods of alert. It indicated that much remained to be done before the
Caribbean and Canal Zone could be said to be ready for any eventuality.
America’s northwest outpost, Alaska, was also exposed to attack after 7 December 1941. The Navy was responsible for the general strategic defense of the region, but the Army was charged with local defense of bases.24 Though, according to currently accepted plans, chief reliance for the latter function was placed on air power, at the start of hostilities only a token force was stationed in Alaska.* A measure of the inadequacy of that force was contained in a letter written by the commander of the Alaska Defense Command, Brig. Gen. Simon B. Buckner, Jr., on 8 December: “At dawn this morning I watched our entire Alaska Air Force take to the air so as not to be caught on the field. This force consisted of 6 obsolescent medium bombers and 12 obsolete pursuit planes.” †25 It was not just poverty in aircraft which made the Alaskan situation so perilous. There were few well-developed airfields, and none at all in the Aleutians.26 Moreover, speedy construction of bases promised to require enormous effort because of the difficulties of terrain and weather. As one Alaskan expert described the problem, there were “no home grown landing areas ... all have to be imported.”27 Such tactical airplanes as were available were of only limited use for want of an effective aircraft warning service.28 The supply of winterized aircraft suitable for arctic flying conditions presented another problem,29 and even aviation gasoline and antiaircraft ammunition were critically short. Alaskan military leaders were concerned about the safety of men and equipment because construction at the bases had been concentrated in small areas for reasons of “economy of sewer pipe.”30
None of these problems would have been so critical had Alaska not been cut off by weather and distance from speedy reinforcement. The lack of a highway or railway connection with the United States meant that supplies had to go by air or by the time-consuming and vulnerable sea route. Two air routes were available, one following the coast and the other going inland through Edmonton to Fairbanks, but both were hazardous and poorly developed. A survey made in October 1941 had revealed that the coastal route was undesirable because of its perpetual low-pressure areas, which created dense clouds and fogs. The inland route offered better weather, but north of Edmonton
* See above, pp. 166–70.
† But cf, above, p. 170.
human habitations were scarce, the terrain was wild and desolate, few radio aids existed, and maps were incomplete or misleading. Particularly poor conditions prevailed between Fort Nelson and Watson Lake, and in this area, as one pilot observed, “any haphazard guessing will lead to disaster.”31 Bitter experience quickly demonstrated the costliness of sending untrained aircrews over this route. Essentially, then, for the first months of the war Alaska had no adequate air defense. Two days before the outbreak of hostilities, Col. Everett S. Davis, pioneer Air Corps leader in Alaska, had aptly characterized the force at his command as no more than “a cadre sent to the territory in advance of the main body.”32 To carry out plans, fortunately already agreed upon, for moving up the main body presented a task of the highest priority, for spring would bring weather favorable to a major enemy attack.
Concern over the safety of the hemisphere was not limited to fears for its outposts. By an order of 11 December, the Western Defense Command became a theater of operations;33 on 20 December, a similar order provided for an eastern theater along the Atlantic coast.34 By these acts, defense received priority over all training activity in both coastal zones, which were now raised to a new category of defense (Category C) in recognition of the fact that minor attacks were not only possible but probable.35 It will be noted that it was not anticipated that enemy forces could bring to bear any sustained attack on the continental area, but, as Pearl Harbor had so forcefully demonstrated, a single and well-directed blow could inflict serious injury.
That the chief focus of attention fell first on the Pacific rather than the Atlantic coast is explained by the former’s peculiarly exposed position following the Pearl Harbor attack.* Concentration of some of the larger aircraft plants in that region appeared to offer especially tempting bait for a Japanese raid, Fortunately, news of the start of war did not come as a complete surprise to the military forces there. The warning message sent by the War Department to the Western Defense Command on 27 November 1941, indicating that negotiations with Japan in effect had terminated and that war was probable, had resulted in an acceleration of measures being taken to provide an aircraft warning service.36 Defense arrangements were further facilitated by the
* On the Atlantic side, principal concern was with the prospect of submarine attack. AAF participation in the inauguration of emergency patrols is separately treated below in Chapter 15.
fact that air force and antiaircraft artillery units, and civilian volunteers working with the warning service, were at the outbreak of war taking positions in California for an exercise scheduled to begin on 11 December.37
Once the news of the Japanese attack had been received on the mainland, the Fourth and Second Air Forces, which shared responsibility for defending the West Coast, readjusted their forces to provide maximum protection for the major cities.38 In cooperation with the Navy, offshore patrols were promptly instituted to provide warning against carriers and to combat submarines. The aircraft warning service was put into operation, with civilians hurriedly manning their observation posts. Amateur radio stations were ordered off the air, and unnecessary civilian flying was prohibited. The War Department ordered the immediate movement of reinforcements for the Pacific coast by air and fast trains. The supply of heavy bombers was so limited that it was not found possible to immobilize any large number by assigning them to stations along the coasts. locally based air units therefore consisted in large part of fighter aircraft, to which were added antiaircraft artillery, barrage balloons, and searchlights. The first reinforcement to reach the Pacific coast consisted of planes of the 1st Pursuit Group, which arrived at San Diego on 8 December; by 22 December this entire P-38 group had been transferred from Michigan to California. An additional augmentation of pursuit strength was provided in mid-December by the temporary assignment to the Fourth Air Force of a Marine unit, Air Wing 1. Meantime, antiaircraft artillery units had begun to reach the West Coast from inland stations, and some regiments which were at ports of embarkation were diverted to coastal defense assignments.39
As these and other forces took up their defensive positions, coastal communities suffered from an “invasion fever” which first showed itself with the calling of an alert in San Francisco on 8 December. In the afternoon of the 8th, rumors of an enemy carrier off the coast led to the closing of schools in Oakland.40 That evening, while residents of the Bay area were having dinner, radio broadcasting suddenly ceased, and this was followed by a blackout which lasted nearly three hours. In the absence of adequate preparations, sirens on police cars were used to warn the people, and self-appointed neighborhood wardens rushed from door to door to help enforce the blackout. Reports reaching Washington of an attack on San Francisco were
regarded as credible,41 but news dispatches soon characterized the affair as a test and announced that California had “caught its breath again.” The Army, however, insisted that radar stations had tracked airplanes approaching the coast from a distance 100 miles at sea.42 The continuity of the tracking convinced officers that the planes were hostile, and Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command strongly denounced those who treated the alert lightly. In the San Francisco News of 10 December he was quoted as follows: “Last night there were planes over this community. They were enemy planes! I mean Japanese planes! And they were tracked out to sea. You think it was a hoax? It is damned nonsense for sensible people to assume that the Army and Navy would practice such a hoax on San Francisco.”43 Newspapers, impressed with these statements, carried banner headlines announcing that the “Army Warns City Danger Near.”44 A similar message had been carried to a national audience on 8 December when Fiorello La Guardia, head of the Office of Civilian Defense, told the radio public: “I do not want to unduly alarm my fellow citizens, but I want to be realistic. The situation is serious. We must not underestimate what happened twenty-four hours ago.”45
Disturbing rumors of enemy threats continued to mount on 9 December. Early that morning unidentified planes were reported off southern California, and the Eleventh Naval District ordered preparations made to repulse a raid by sea or air.46 Later the Navy relayed to the AAF a “red hot tip” which announced that thirty-four enemy vessels were standing off the coast near Los Angeles, waiting for the fog to lift before starting an attack. Army planes were dispatched and found that the alarm had been occasioned by the presence of a group of American fishing boats.47 Later in the day a report told with convincing detail of a “Japanese cruiser 20,000 yards off the west tip of Catalina Island.” Other witnesses insisted that a cruiser and three destroyers, flying Japanese flags, had been spotted off the coast. This of course was the period when whales were mistaken for enemy submarines, and when floating logs were bombed by inexperienced and overeager aircrews.48
Such rumors and alerts were not confined to the Pacific coast. On 9 December an air raid warning, the first of the war, swept New York City and the northeast states.49 At noon, advices were received that hostile planes were only two hours’ distance away. Fighter aircraft from Mitchel Field took the air to intercept the raiders, and radio
stations left the air. Since there was no system for warning the public – New York’s air raid sirens were not installed until February 194250 – the police took the initiative in spreading news of the alert. As a precautionary measure school children were hurriedly sent home. No general hysteria was noted, but the warning was taken for the real thing on Wall Street, where a wave of selling on the exchanges brought security quotations hundreds of millions of dollars in the worst slump of the stock market since the collapse of France.51 The alarm spread to Boston, where police shifted heavy stores of guns and ammunition from storage vaults to stations throughout the city, and where industrial establishments were advised to prepare for a raid.52
The many alerts of this period reflect the inexperience of both the public and defense forces. To some critics they indicated a deliberate attempt by the Army to frighten the public in order to stimulate interest in war preparations. Before accepting this view, however, it should be noted that many of the reports of unidentified aircraft, leading to precautionary blackouts, resulted from mechanical difficulties with new radar equipment and from the understandable mistakes of inadequately trained personnel. Further, there is every evidence that Army commanders were genuinely convinced that the danger of attack, especially against the West Coast, was very real.53 Military men knew better than the layman how limited were the defenses against air attack. Along the Pacific coast in December 1941 there were, for example, only forty-five thoroughly modern fighter planes54 to defend a coast line which extended for 1,200 miles, and along which were located such important aircraft plants as those of Boeing in Seattle, Douglas and Lockheed in Los Angeles, and Consolidated in San Diego. In heavy bombers, the defenders were even less well equipped; for at the close of 1941, there were only ten such planes stationed along the entire coast and the number within reach for concentration against enemy force was indeed limited. Although there were seventy-five medium bombers at hand, their short range cut down their usefulness against the type of attack expected. Moreover, during late 1941 crews of both fighters and bombers were handicapped by an acute shortage of ammunition.55
To reconstruct the problem as it appeared to air officers at the time, let us assume that the report of the presence of thirty-four Japanese ships off the California coast on 9 December 1941 had proved to be
true. With what forces could so threatening a surface fleet have been opposed? There is good evidence on this point, for the Fourth Air Force actually issued an order to “attack an destroy” the enemy task force. By good fortune, fourteen bombers destined for the Southwest Pacific were in the vicinity; but it was found that the machine-gun turrets on the planes would not operate, that there was no adequate supply of oxygen for high-altitude operations, that only a few 300- and 600-lb. bombs were on hand, and that the bombers would have to enter an engagement without fighter support.56 How effective this force – which was larger than any normally stationed along the coast – would have been against a major enemy fleet must be left to the imagination, but competent authorities were convinced that a vigorous attack would have overwhelmed American air units at any of the chief points of defense along the western seaboard.57
In spite of this grave concern for the safety of the West Coast, the first attack on a land objective in the Americas actually was directed against Aruba, in the Caribbean. On this small Dutch-owned island, and on neighboring Curaçao, were located large refineries which processed oil from wells in Venezuela and currently accounted for one-third of the United Nations’ supply of high-octane gasoline.58 In May 1940 the British had furnished small garrisons for the islands,59 but the increased danger after Pearl Harbor led the Anglo-American planners at the ARCADIA conference to decide that larger forces of U.S. troops were needed.60 Two flights of light bombers from the Caribbean Air Force accordingly were sent to Aruba and Curaçao in mid-January 1942,61 but attempts to send ground forces encountered diplomatic difficulties. At the end of January, President Roosevelt advised the President of Venezuela that, in deference to the latter’s objections, the United States would delay the dispatch of troops; but his indicated that the situation was so serious that steps would have to be taken to safeguard the vital refineries.62 Public announcement of the troop movement was made on 11 February.63
Early in the morning of 16 February, aggressive enemy submarine action in the Caribbean area began with an attack on shipping off the harbor at San Nicholas, Aruba.* After destroying two tankers, a submarine surfaced and shelled buildings of the Standard Oil refinery and then moved upshore for further attacks on shipping. The damage to the refinery was only superficial, but a torpedo which landed on
* See also p. 536.
shore exploded the next day, killing four men.64 Attempts by Army planes to bomb the submarine were apparently unsuccessful. In any case, the air patrols were powerless to prevent a second attack on Aruba on 19 February65 and additional nuisance shellings of shore installations in Puerto Rico on 2 March 194266 and of a refinery on Curaçao on 19 April.67
The initial attack on Aruba prompted President Roosevelt to warn the nation that enemy ships could shell New York City, or enemy planes drop bombs on Detroit.68 Secretary Stimson added that the public might as well prepare itself to accept “occasional blows,” because the Army was determined not to disperse its forces in small fragments to serve as security garrisons.69 The New York Times, in an editorial on 20 February, pointed out that American seaboard cities were well within the enemy’s reach, but that the only danger was that attacks might create a popular demand for protection at all costs. The real need, it was suggested, was for the perfection of the defense machinery already in existence.70 This raised the question of the adequacy of the national air defenses; a few days later, events along the West Coast provided a not too reassuring answer.
During the course of a fireside report to the nation delivered by President Roosevelt on 23 February 1942, a Japanese submarine rose out of the sea off Ellwood, a hamlet on the California coast north of Santa Barbara, and pumped thirteen shells into tidewater refinery installations. The shots seemed designed to punctuate the President’s statement that “the broad oceans which have been heralded in the past as our protection from attack have become endless battlefields on which we are constantly being challenged by our enemies.”71 Yet the attack which was supposed to carry the enemy’s defiance, and which did succeed in stealing headlines from the President’s address, was a feeble gesture rather than a damaging blow. The raider surfaced at 1905 (Pacific time), just five minutes after the President started his speech.72 For about twenty minutes the submarine kept a position 2,500 yards offshore to deliver the shots from its 5½-inch guns. The shells did minor damage to piers and oil wells, but missed the gasoline plant, which appears to have been the aiming point; the military effects of the raid were therefore nil. The first news of the attack led to the dispatch of pursuit planes to the area, and subsequently three bombers joined the attempt to destroy the raider, but without success.73 The reluctance of AAF commanders to assign larger forces to the task
resulted from their belief that such a raid as this would be employed by the enemy to divert attention from a major air task force which would hurl its planes against a really significant target. Loyal Japanese-Americans who had predicted that a demonstration would be made in connection with the President’s speech also prophesied that Los Angeles would be attacked the next night.74 The Army, too, was convinced that some new action impended, and took all possible precautions. Newspapers were permitted to announce that a strict state of readiness against renewed attacks had been imposed,75 and there followed the confused action known as “the Battle of Los Angeles.”
During the night of 24/25 February 1942, unidentified objects caused a succession of alerts in southern California. On the 24th, a warning issued by naval intelligence indicated that an attack could be expected within the next ten hours.76 That evening a large number of flares and blinking lights were reported from the vicinity of defense plants. An alert called at 1918 was lifted at 2223, and the tension temporarily relaxed. But early in the morning of the 25th renewed activity began. Radars picked up an unidentified target 120 miles west of Los Angeles. Antiaircraft batteries were alerted at 0215 and were put on Green Alert – ready to fire – a few minutes later. The AAF kept its pursuit planes on the ground, preferring to await indications of the scale and direction of any attack before committing its limited fighter force.77 Radars tracked the approaching target to within a few miles of the coast, and at 0221 the regional controller ordered a blackout.78 Thereafter the information center was flooded with reports of “enemy planes,” even though the mysterious object tracked in from sea seems to have vanished. At 0243, planes were reported near Long Beach, and a few minutes later a coast artillery colonel spotted “about 25 planes at 12,000 feet” over Los Angeles. At 0306 a balloon carrying a red flare was seen over Santa Monica and four batteries of antiaircraft artillery opened fire, whereupon “the air over Los Angeles erupted like a volcano.” From this point on reports were hopelessly at variance.
Probably much of the confusion came from the fact the antiaircraft shell busts, caught by the searchlights, were themselves mistaken for enemy planes. In any case, the next three hours produced some of the most imaginative reporting of the war: “swarms” of planes (or, sometimes, balloons) of all possible sizes, numbering from one to several hundred, traveling at altitudes which ranged from a few thousand feet to more than 20,000 and flying at speeds which were said to have
varied from “very slow” to over 200 miles per hour, were observed to parade across the skies.79 These mysterious forces dropped no bombs and, despite the fact that 1,440 rounds of antiaircraft ammunition were directed against them, suffered no losses. There were reports, to be sure, that four enemy planes had been shot down, and one was supposed to have landed in flames at a Hollywood intersection.80 Residents in a forty-mile arc along the coast watched from hills or rooftops as the play of guns and searchlights provided the first real drama of the war for citizens of the mainland. The dawn, which ended the shooting and the fantasy, also proved that the only damage which resulted to the city was such as had been caused by the excitement (there was at least one death from heart failure), by traffic accidents in the black-out streets, or by shell fragments from the artillery barrage.81
Attempts to arrive at an explanation of the event quickly became as involved and mysterious as the “battle” itself. The Navy immediately insisted that there was no evidence of the presence of enemy planes, and Secretary Knox announced at a press conference on 25 February that the raid was just a false alarm.82 At the same conference he admitted that attacks were always possible and indicated that vital industries located along the coast ought to be moved inland. The Army had a hard time making up its mind on the cause of the alert. A report to Washington, made by the Western Defense Command shortly after the raid had ended, indicated that the credibility of reports of an attack had begun to be shaken before the blackout was lifted. This message predicted that developments would prove “that most previous reports had been greatly exaggerated.”83 The Fourth Air Force had indicated its belief that there were no planes over Los Angeles. But the Army did not publish these initial conclusions. Instead, it waited a day, until after a thorough examination of witnesses had been finished.84 On the basis of these hearings, local commanders altered their verdict and indicated a belief that from one to five unidentified airplanes had been over Los Angeles.85 Secretary Stimson announced this conclusion as the War Department version of the incident, and he advanced two theories to account for the mysterious craft: either they were commercial planes operated by an enemy from secrete fields in California or Mexico, or they were light planes launched from Japanese submarines.86 In either case, the enemy’s purpose must have been to locate antiaircraft defenses in the area or to deliver a blow at civilian morale.
The divergence of views between the War and Navy departments, and the unsatisfying conjectures advanced by the Army to explain the affair, touched off a vigorous public discussion. The Los Angeles Times, in a first-page editorial on 26 February, announced that “the considerable public excitement and confusion” caused by the alert, as well as its “spectacular official accompaniments.” demanded a careful explanation. Fears were expressed lest a few phony raids undermine the confidence of civilian volunteers in the aircraft warning service. In Congress, Representative Leland Ford wanted to know whether the incident was “a practice raid, or a raid to throw a scare into 2,000,000 people, or a mistaken identity raid, or a raid to take away Southern California’s war industries.”87 Wendell Willkie, speaking on Los Angeles on 26 February, assured Californians on the basis of his experiences in England that when a real air raid began “you won’t have to argue about it – you’ll just know.”88 He conceded that military authorities had been correct in calling a precautionary alert but deplored the lf agreement between the Army and Navy. A strong editorial in the Washington post on 27 February called the handling of the Los Angeles episode a “recipe for jitters,” and censured the military authorities for what it called “stubborn silence” in the face of widespread uncertainty. The editorial suggested that the Army’s theory that commercial planes might have caused the alert “explains everything except where the planes came from, whither they were going, and why no American planes were sent in pursuit of them.”89 The New York Times on 28 February expressed a belief that the more the incident was studied, the more incredible it became: “If the batteries were firing on nothing at all, as Secretary Know implies, it is a sign of expensive incompetence and jitters. If the batteries were firing on real planes, some of them as low as 9,000 feet, as Secretary Stimson declares, why were they completely ineffective? Why did no American planes go up to engage them, or even to identify them? ... What would have happened if this had been a real air raid.”90 These questions were appropriate, but for the War Department to have answered them in full frankness would have involved an even more complete revelation of the weakness of our air defenses.
At the end of the war, the Japanese stated that they did not send planes over the area at the time of this alert,91 although submarine-launched aircraft were subsequently used over Seattle.92 A careful study of the evidence suggests that meteorological balloons – known
to have been released over Los Angeles93 – may well have caused the initial alarm. This theory is supported by the fact that antiaircraft artillery units were officially criticized for having wasted ammunition on targets which moved too slowly to have been airplanes.94 After the firing started, careful observation was difficult because of drifting smoke from shell bursts. The acting commander of the antiaircraft artillery brigade in the area testified that he had first been convinced that he had seen fifteen planes in the air, but had quickly decided that he was seeing smoke.95 Competent correspondents like Ernie Pyle and Bill Henry witnessed the shooting and wrote that they were never able to make out an airplane.96 It is hard to see, in any event, what enemy purpose would have been served by an attack which no bombs were dropped, unless perhaps, as Mr. Stimson suggested, the purpose had been reconnaissance.
The Air Defense System in Early 1942
No one was more acutely aware of the weakness of our air defenses than was the Army, and energetic steps were being taken to improve them. The sudden opening of hostilities in December 1941 had forced the United States to put into immediate operation an air defense system which was still in a formative stage. Little more than eight months had passed since the Air Corps had received over-all responsibility, and, though substantial progress had been made, no satisfactory system of defense could be improvised in so short a period of time. In assessing responsibility for the initial difficulties, it is fair to note that even such progress has had been made had resulted from the zealous efforts of a small group within the Army who had worked in the face of public indifference. A general lack of understanding of the necessity for this effort is indicated by the fact that as late as October 1941 citizens had been inclined to smile indulgently at Army attempts to organize volunteers for service with the Aircraft Warning Service.97 And even within the Army there was a serious lack of understanding of the utility of the newer devices of air defense, a fact which was indicated on 7 December 1941 by failure of Hawaii-based personnel to make proper use of the radar report which warned of the approaching Japanese planes.
In World War I, the rapid development of the airplane as an offensive military weapon had led some theorists to prophesy that no adequate defense against air attack could be devised.98 Experts, however,
soon defined the elements which would be required in a defense system. It would be necessary to know in advance of the approach of enemy craft. next, there would have to be some method for continuous tracking of the planes as they came toward their objective, and this would require some device to supply information regarding the height, direction, speed, and approximate size of a raiding force. Finally, there would need to be some system for identifying friendly fighters and of communicating to their pilots the information gathered on the movement of enemy planes. Given all these elements, a commander on the ground might then control the interception and bring friendly fighters into contact with any large attacking force. Such a system might no prevent an occasional raider from breaking through, but it would make it possible to limit the advantage of complete surprise which some students of the problem thought the airplane would always enjoy.
With the technical equipment which existed in 1918, no adequate defense against air raids was possible, but attempts to perfect new devices occupied much of the time of military planners through the two decades between World War I and II.99 The first detectors used such equipment as parabolic reflectors to pick up the sound of an oncoming plane, but results were so poor that the United States Army in 1933 abandoned research in the field of auditory detection.100 Several other lines of investigation, notably in the possibility of using infrared heat waves, attracted attention, but ultimately interest came to be centered in discovery of a more exact method of detection by use of radio waves. At first, ordinary radio waves were employed; but severe technical limitations were encountered, and the true origins of modern military radar – “radio detection and ranging” – dated from 1935, when practical microwave radio sets were developed. Four basic steps were involved in the improvements which gave radar its great military significance:101 the discovery that radio energy of very high frequency was reflected by objects in its path rather than being absorbed as was the case with waves of lower frequency; the development of a transmitter to emit pulses of radio energy in a sharply defined directional beam, which, with allowance of a time lapse between emissions, permitted a receiver to pick up the energy reflected from the target; the perfection of a cathode ray tube, or oscilloscope, on which the small time lapse between the outgoing pulse and the reflected image could be measured; and, finally, the invention of the cavity magnetron tube,
which could generate considerable power at very short wave lengths. No one nation enjoyed a monopoly of these discoveries, but the most rapid progress in devising practical military applications was registered by the British.
The basic problem of providing early warning to defending aircraft had been solved in Britain by 1939. A chain of radar stations along the coast provided reasonably effective information on planes approaching from the continent.102 Thus, when the Germans began large-scale daylight raids against England in August 1940, the RAF was able to conserve its limited fighter strength by keeping the planes on the ground until an attack actually impended and thus to achieve a more efficient concentration of force.103 When the Germans switched to indiscriminate night attacks, British defenses for a time proved less effective,104 for advance warning of the enemy’s approach did little good unless he could be found in the dark. Fortunately, the RAF, magnificently served by such advisers as Robert Watson-Watt, rapidly went beyond the original conception of radar as merely a device for early warning. Under the compulsion of war and the special lash of the night blitz, the British perfected and put into use a whole new series of electronic devices which guided every step in the process of intercepting enemy planes.
The original radar equipment installed along the coasts of Britain had been well suited to handling daytime raids, for it had a long range – up to 200 miles. But these sets did not permit the fine discrimination between targets which was need to guide night fighters to the immediate vicinity of enemy bombers.105 A new type of radar known as CGI (ground controlled interception) transformed the British system from one of crude warning into a machine for dependable control of interception. CGI equipment made it feasible to plot, virtually instantaneously, the positions of a large number of planes. Moreover, it displayed the information on an ingenious PPI (plan position indicator) scope, which was a cathode ray tube on the face of which a map of the region had been drawn. Aircraft within range of the CGI set were shown on the map as spots of light.106 The British also developed equipment known as IFF (identification friend or foe) which indicated to a ground observer which of the targets in the PPI scope were friendly. The identification was accomplished by installing in friendly planes an electronic device – a simple short-wave radio transmitter – which sent coded signals when interrogated by a ground station.107
Controllers were thus able to issue instructions to their pilots and to guide them into contact with hostile planes. The ground-to-air instructions were sent by means of a new type of VHF (very high frequency) radio equipment, which was greatly superior to the high frequency radios then in use in the U.S. Army.108 The VHF command set permitted controllers to maneuver friendly fighters to a point about one or two miles from an enemy plane and to guide them back to their base at the end of the fight. But to achieve interceptions at night, it was necessary for a pilot to get his plane “on the very tail” of his target. The British solved this problem by the development of a new radar called AI (airborne interception). By switching on this equipment, a radar operator in a British plane could guide his pilot to a point a few hundred yards from a Nazi raider.109 One collateral development of the British deserves mention because of its great significance for the United States. This was ASV radar (air to surface vessel) airborne equipment which enabled a patrol plane to detect ships at distance up to fifty miles.110 Offshore patrols using ASV radar greatly enlarged the early warning coverage of coastal radars, and in addition this equipment became a weapon of vital importance in the war against Axis submarines.
Through prewar years the United States had not kept pace with Britain in radar developments. The Air Corps and the Coast Artillery had supported the efforts of the Signal Corps to perfect early warning devices, but the Army lacked both the funds and the manpower to undertake a large-scale development of radar equipment.111 By the fall of 1939, the American Army had only an experimental installation at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.112 In November of that year, General Arnold directed the War Department’s attention to the ‘lack of a national air defense system, and strongly urged that a unit be established to study the problem.113 The result was the creation of 26 February 1940 of the Air Defense Command for the conduct of experiments in the northeastern states to determine how fighter planes, antiaircraft artillery, and an air warning system could be integrated into a single defense network.*114 In its efforts, the command enjoyed through the cooperation of the RAF unusual opportunities to compare results with those attained in actual combat. moreover, Anglo-American cooperation now extended to mutual exchange of technical equipment.115 The United States began to receive information on airborne
* See above, pp. 152–53.
interception equipment before the end of 1940 and was given prototypes of the British VHF radio set early in 1941. Similarly, the IFF device developed in England was copied by the Signal Corps and was adopted in August 1941 as standard American equipment.116
Equally important were the ideas the British supplied on the proper organization of an air defense net. The assignment of full responsibility for air defense to the Air Corps in the spring of 1941 was prompted in no small part by the demonstrated advantage in Britain’s well-integrated system.117 Under the newly established defense commands, four regional interceptor commands, as components of the four continental air forces, were charged in their several areas with control for purposes of air defense of air warning equipment, fighter planes, antiaircraft artillery, and barrage balloons.* These sol-called active agents of defense were to be supplemented by such passive measures as provision for civilian air raid warning and blackouts, which were made the responsibility of organization working under the supervision of the Office of Civilian Defense.118
The warning network planned in the spring of 1941 for the United States represented a compromise with the ideal. A perfect arrangement would have depended primarily upon a series of radar stations sufficiently in number to assure mechanical detection of any hostile force. But there were not enough radar sets or technicians qualified to man them for coverage of the entire area of the country; and radar had not reached a stage of development which permitted it to operate over land with the same effectiveness it showed over the ocean. No radar equipment in existence in 1941 outside the laboratories could locate low-flying airplanes without detecting as “permanent echoes” the images of prominent landmarks.119 Accordingly, the War Department planned to recruit civilians to serve as ground observers for report on the identify and movements of aircraft over land and to use radar to provide a seaward extension of the warning network.120
In the six month which immediately preceded Pearl harbor, the four interceptor commands worked feverishly to create a coastal radar net and a supporting ground observer corps as components of the Aircraft Warning Service. When war came, sites had been picked for thirteen radar stations along the East Coast, and eight of the stations were approaching completion.121 On the West Coast, there were ten radars to guard the 1,200 miles from Seattle to San Diego.122 This
* See above, [153 pp. 153–54].
radar coverage was supplemented on the East Coast by approximately 4,000 ground observer stations and along the Pacific by an additional 2,400.123 Reports from ground observers had to be processed through filter and information centers, both of which required the services of large numbers of volunteer workers. The interceptor commands had managed to expedite the construction of the basic elements of this complex system, but there had not been time to recruit and train all the personnel required to operate it. Moreover, the network even when placed in perfect readiness, could have met only the primary need of early warning. To permit effective control of fighter planes at night or during bad weather would have required the addition of mobile units equipped with the newer radar aids developed in Britain.124 But in December 1941 the United States had no radar equipment comparable to the CGI set of Britain, and fighter planes in this country were still using high frequency – rather than VHF – radio sets. Airborne radar for night fighters was lacking, as was the identification equipment required to distinguish friendly from hostile planes.125 Not a single airplane stationed on the Pacific coast was equipped with ADV radar,126 with the result that crews of patrol bombers were entirely dependent on visual detection and could operate only during daylight hours and when visibility was good.
In providing a remedy for the recognized deficiencies of the American warning service, the War Department once again was able to draw on the experience of Britain. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, at the suggestion of the United States military mission in London, the RAF offered the services of Robert Watson-Watt, Scientific Advisor on Telecommunications to the Air Ministry.127 His presence in the United States might serve, the British agreed, to “increase the scope and operational efficiency” of American radar and would be in line with Anglo-American efforts to “make the best common use of technical personnel and matériel.”128 Accordingly, Watson-Watt arrived in the United States before the end of December 1941 for the purpose of undertaking a detailed analysis of the peculiar problems of American air defense.
Any vestiges of complacency as to the adequacy of the American aircraft warning service which may have remained in War Department circles were destroyed by the severely critical report made by Watson-Watt in January 1942 of the air defenses on the West Coast. Dangerously unsatisfactory conditions existed, reflecting “insufficient
organization applied to technically inadequate equipment used in exceptionally difficult conditions.”129 Progress would depend upon giving all levels of command an understanding of the true capabilities of radar, which, according to the British expert, could be found as a happy medium between two absurd attitudes, one of which viewed radar as an all-seeing, omniscient weapon, “a crystal ball on a truck,” and the other extreme which regarded it as nothing more than a freak gadget “producing snap observations on targets which may or may not be aircraft.” Actually, radar, in the hands of trained technicians, could provide a dependable warning system “in which continuity of tracking is normal, [and] where the unexplained is rare.” But such results could be achieved only with close organization and supervision, a point at which the American warning service fell short.
Equally serious was the problem of equipment. In a report filled with illuminating detail, the British expert found our seaward reconnaissance grossly inefficient because of the total lack of ASV equipment and because of the limited number of patrol aircraft of suitable range. The radar screen along the West Coast was based on too few stations, and the equipment itself had inherent defects which made it “gravely unsuitable.” All radar experts were agreed that each set represented a compromise between a variety of demands, but the principal American radar was “unique in combining slow search with poor cover in elevation, with lack of all facilities for eight finding, and with a grave danger of plotting false tracks.” Moreover, dependable employment of this radar had been made even more unlikely because of a mistake in the selection of sites for its installation. Personnel to operate the radars had not been carefully selected and were inadequate both in numbers and in training. The United States was found to have repeated an early error of Britain in failing to provide for the training of large numbers of skilled radar technicians.
Officials in Washington accepted the report in the constructive spirit in which it was offered. The director of Air Defense at AAF Headquarters concurred in every detail with the findings and called the study “a damning indictment of our whole warning service.”130 He also expressed the view that the situation on the East Coast was worse than the conditions reported along the Pacific.131 The Chief Signal Officer and the Chief of the Army Air Forces agreed that the cause of the trouble lay in the lack of time for improvement of radar equipment and the limitations imposed by considerations of
security.132 But these officers also pointed out that the War Department and its subordinate units were not organized in such a way as to promote a maximum integration of effort in the field of radar.
Independent analyses by American officials bore out the general verdict rendered by Watson-Watt. Early in February 1942, an Army Air Forces report described the defenses of both the Eastern and Western Defense Commands as “entirely inadequate.”133 A special report of mid-February on Coast defenses indicated that air warning units lacked proper equipment and were manned by poorly trained personnel and that “the only night defense which can be provided by the Interceptor Command consists of single seater aircraft operated by inexperienced personnel in cooperation with antiaircraft searchlights.”134 Many important objectives were totally unprotected by pursuit planes, and even the defense of New York City depended on seventeen fighters, eleven of which were obsolete. As late as 15 April 1942, Maj. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote to General Arnold of the War Department’s concern over the ineffectiveness of coastal air defenses and cited as disturbing evidence a report which indicated that one-third of all flights in the Eastern Defense Command were recorded as “unidentified.”135
Strengthening Continental Air Defenses
The hard fact was that many of the measures required for an operationally dependable system could not be improvised. It was not until late 1943, in fact, that the continental defense forces were generally equipped with VHF radio and a workable system for controlling interceptions at night.136 But steps taken early in 1942 laid the basis both for a strong continental air defense and – what proved even more significant – for an efficient system for controlling fighters in offensive combat operations. Especially important was the extensive research program undertaken in such centers as the Radiation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an effort that served ultimately to raise American radar techniques to engineering and tactical levels unequalled by any other nation. Particularly significant was the development of microwave early warning (MEW) radar.137 The relative inefficiency of radar in use along the Pacific coast in early 1942 attracted the attention of a University of California physicist, Dr. Luis Alvarez, who became convinced that a giant radar which could scan hundreds of miles and which could give
sharper definition of individual targets was possible. His enthusiasm, and the sustained research efforts of a large number of scientists at the Radiation laboratory, led to the production within six months of a practical working model. By 1944, perfected MEW radar was ready to assist in the invasion of Europe, and the offensive employment of this new instrument revolutionized conceptions of what radar could do.138 A weapon inspired by the problem of defending the West Coast thus proved to be a valuable contribution to victory in other theaters.
Helpful, also, to an immediate improvement of continental air defenses were organizational changes which served to clarify responsibilities. The Western Defense Command had been designated a theater of operations on 11 December 1941, with General DeWitt in command. With its headquarters at San Francisco, the command included an extensive area of nine western states, Alaska, and the Aleutians, and to it three air forces were initially assigned – the Fourth and Second Air Forces along the Pacific coast and, in addition, the Alaskan Air Force. A similar situation existed on the other side of the continent, where on 20 December the Eastern Theater of Operations was established with headquarters in New York City and with Lt. Gen. Hugh Drum in command of defense units in the eastern seaboard states and in Newfoundland and Bermuda. Two air forces, the First and the Third, were assigned to this theater.139 Thus all four of the domestic air forces, which had been created early in 1941 and had been operating under the Air Force Combat Command, were removed from AAF control and placed under theater commanders. It is no surprising that this arrangement pleased no one: the defense commands found it confusing to have more than one subordinate air force commander, while the AAF felt that its combat training program would be jeopardized if it had no direct control of any of the continental air forces. A compromise was accordingly worked out and announced on 30 December 1941.140 The essential element of the new plan was a provision which called for moving two of the continental air forces to inland stations and assigning them to the AAF as “training Air Forces.” To effect this arrangement, the Second Air Force relinquished its coastal stations in Washington and Oregon and was removed from assignment to the Western Defense Command; air defense duties for the entire Pacific coast were thereupon assigned to the Fourth Air Force. A similar move within the Eastern Defense Command made the Third Air Force a training unit under the AAF, while
the First Air Force took over responsibility for defense operations along the entire extent of the Atlantic coast. This arrangement lasted until the fall of 1943, when the danger of air attack had greatly decreased and the First and Fourth Air Forces were reassigned to the AAF.141 Much earlier – in March 1942 – the Eastern Defense Command had ceased to be a theater of operations.142
Although the actual direction of air defense operations was thus assigned to the theater commands, the AAF retained vital responsibilities for training and experimental development. In the reorganization of the War Department in March 1942, the reconstituted AAF staff included a director of Air Defense.143 To this post was assigned Col. Gordon P. Saville, whose energy and vision had been in large part responsible for the rapid progress made in 1941 toward the creation of an aircraft warning service. His experience in the experimental work of the Air Defense Command and firsthand observation of the operation of British defense had convinced him that progress in the development of an American defense depended on indoctrination of key personnel in the latest techniques of controlled interception. Accordingly, he secured the establishment (March 1942) of the Air Defense Operational Training Unit, later renamed the Fighter Command School. This unit set up in Florida an ideal air defense net based on the British system, using VHF radio and modern radar equipment.144 The RAF sent skilled officers and technicians to act in an advisory capacity, but care was taken to adjust tactical procedures to American usages. In addition to indoctrinating command and staff members in the latest defense methods, the school trained radar units and tested equipment. its responsibilities included study of the tactical and matériel requirements of overseas commands as well as the demands of continental defense. At the expense of existing task forces, the few specialists available were held for training of the large number of technicians that would be required for later operations.145
The organization adjustments directed on 30 December 1941 had been accomplished by the end of February 1942, and thereafter the pattern of continental air defenses became increasingly clear. Along the Pacific coast from Canada to Mexico a “vital air defense zone” of approximately 150 miles depth and extending 200 miles seaward was created by the Western Defense Command, and a similar zone along the Atlantic coast was established by the Eastern Defense Command.146 Air operations within the western zone were directed by the Fourth
Air Force through its subordinate interceptor and bomber commands. The air force provided planes to defend vital targets and to conduct offshore patrols, supplied an aircraft warning service to alert both military and civilian agencies, and through regional commanders integrated all elements of the air defense. in accordance with the requirements of this last function, units of the 4th Antiaircraft Command – an Army Ground Forces unit – were placed under operational control of the IV Interceptor Command. On the East Coast a similar pattern established the First Air Force as the air arm of the Eastern Defense Command. But much of the attention of the I Bomber Command was directed to antisubmarine operations, and, in order to assure closer cooperation with the Navy, control of bomber units was transferred on 26 March 1942 to the Eastern Sea Frontier.*
It was accordingly within the Eastern and Western Defense Commands that the specific measures required to correct the deficiencies noted in the Watson-Watt report were undertaken. At no time prior to the Battle of Midway in June 1942 were the air defenses of either coast really adequate to repel a major attack, but significant progress was made in improving the aircraft warning nets and in perfecting plans by which the small forces of aircraft assigned to coastal defense duties could be quickly reinforced from inland stations. The record within the Western Defense Command will illustrate the achievements of the first half of 1942. The radar net, which had consisted of ten stations on 7 December 1941, was expanded by the addition of fifteen new ones.147 Many of the original sites having proved unsuitable, extensive re-siting work was carried out. The process was difficult, costly, and time-consuming. Rugged terrain often made the work difficult even for experts – and there were few men of experience available. Good radar sites often were relatively inaccessible, far removed from roads, communications, power, and water; it was frequently necessary to build pioneer trails or roads for considerable distances before preliminary tests of radar equipment could be made, and the effort might be wasted then by the discovery of unpredictable operational difficulties. When the Western Defense Command desired an expansion of radar coverage to protect California’s southern flank, delicate diplomacy was required to assure Mexico that no infringement of her national sovereignty was contemplated.148 Late in May 1942 the negotiations resulted in an agreement by which three radar sets
* See below, Chapter 15.
were transferred to Mexico for installation at sites in Lower California. Meantime, at the other extremity of the Pacific coast defense zone, arrangements had been completed with the Canadians to provide advance warning of aircraft approaching the vital Seattle-Bremerton region from across the international border. This result was achieved by having reports from radar installations in British Columbia relayed to the Seattle information center.149 Relations with Canada on defense measures were intimate, and joint planning was carried to the point of providing for a united command of American-Canadian forces in the event of a major attack. The Permanent Joint Board on Defense, created in August 1940, provided machinery for the cooperation of Canadian-United States forces,* and a practical arrangement adopted early in 1942 permitted decentralization to regional commanders of the power to conclude agreements required for the common defense.150
In addition to perfecting the radar network, the Western Defense Command devoted itself to increasing the efficiency of the civilian personnel of ground observer corps. The organization home front for air defense represented a unique problem in modern American military experience. Although President Wilson had spoken of a total war effort in World War I (“it is not an army we must shape and train for war; it is a nation”),151 it was in World War II, for the first time, that the home front shared actively in preparations for its own defense. Many critics – among them Watson-Watt152 – doubted that a system dependent on volunteer effort could produce reliable information of the type required in a modern warning system. Serious problems in the large-scale use of civilian were encountered.153 but the remarkable fact is that more than 6,000 observer posts in the United States were regularly, and with increasing efficiency, manned by volunteers whose efforts – especially at rural stations – represented real sacrifice.
Interest in the air defenses of the West Coast reached a climax in the alerts which preceded and accompanied the Battle of Midway. The Doolittle raid against Japan on 178 April 1942 convinced American authorities that the Japanese would be satisfied, in retaliation, only by a blow against the U.S. mainland. In a speech at Chicago on 19 April, James M. Landis, director of the Office of Civilian Defense, began the campaign to prepare the country for a revenge bombing.154 The War Department even feared that the Japanese might try to use poison gas
* See above, p. 121.
against civilian populations and rushed all available training gas masks – more than 600,000 in number – to the Western Defense Command for issue to police, air raid wardens, and other key civilians.155 These measures were accompanied by a newspaper campaign designed to prevent :undue excitement” in the event of a raid.156 A general fear of reprisal was translated into sharp calls for action when intelligence was received in mid-May of the impending moves of the Japanese against Midway and the Aleutians.* Steps were taken at once to strengthen the defense forces along the western seaboard. General Marshall personally visited the Pacific coast and ordered additional antiaircraft artillery and barrage balloon units to the west.157 An air task force from the Second Air Force was moved to coastal stations in support of the Fourth Air Force.158 The danger seemed so acute by 1 June that the pending movement of the air echelon of the Eight Air Force was suspended,159 and on the following day the 97th Bombardment Group (H) left the concentration area in New England to fly in two elements to McChord Field in Washington and the Hammer Field California. Similarly, the 1st Pursuit Group on 5 June flew from Maine to Morris Field in North Carolina under orders to proceed to the West Coast. But the Japanese fleet already had been defeated west of Midway, and on the 6th the pursuit group returned to Dow Field.*
Reappraisal of Panama Canal Air Defenses
The critical examination of air defenses which had followed the Pearl Harbor attack naturally included a re-examination of the defense of the Panama Canal. Plans made in 1940–41 for protection of the canal had anticipated that the chief danger would come from the eastern approaches, but now the emphasis shifted.160 Recently acquired Caribbean bases and operational rights and facilities provided by an understanding with Brazil came to be of primary importance as steppingstone on the ferrying route to Africa or for use in the maintenance of antisubmarine patrols. The real danger to the canal was from the Pacific side, where virtually nothing had been provided by way of outlying defense and where, geographically, the canal was most exposed to surprise attack.
Early in March 1942, both Secretary of War Stimson and Watson-Watt,
* See below, Chap. 12.
* See below, pp. 641–43.
the British radar expert, examined Panama defenses and reported the existence of disturbing weaknesses. The canal, in the opinion of the British observer, fully justified the concern being shown for its safety, for it was “unique in the world, possessing only four vital points, each of small area, but each so fragile that a single projectile on any of the four could cut this vital line of communications, and two projectiles on any one of three could prevent its re-establishment within two years.”161 He agreed with American strategists that the most probable form of attack was a carrier-based raid from the Pacific and estimated that the Japanese could well afford to sacrifice four carriers in an attempt to block the use of the canal. Secretary Stimson reported to President Roosevelt his conviction that the planes from even one carrier could cripple the canal and that if two or more carriers participated in an attack there would be a strong probability of success. Some means of intercepting carriers far to the west of Panama was urgently needed, because once “a carrier has released its planes for attack, no subsequent means of defense against those planes can sufficiently ensure the safety of the Canal.”162 An adequate defense required early detection – and destruction – of enemy carriers at a distance of 500 to 1,000 miles offshore, and since shore-based radars could not reach that distance, the only solution was long-range aerial patrol. Even with such surveillance, a carrier might escape notice long enough to launch its planes, and therefore patrols would need to be supplemented by an effective cordon of coastal radars to provide a twenty-minute warning to alert fighters and antiaircraft batteries for a “last-ditch” defense of the canal.
An adequate patrol on the Pacific side of the canal would require coverage of an arc of 400-miles depth extending from an inner semi-circle 600 nautical miles west of Panama to an outer limit of 1,000 miles and from the coast of southern Mexico to northern Peru.163 To patrol this extensive zone, aircrews needed the assistance of ASV radar, which could detect ships at distances of twenty-five to fifty miles, and of bases at Tehauntepec in Mexico, at the city of Guatemala of San José in Guatemala, on the Galapagos Islands, at Salinas in Ecuador, and at Talara in Peru. [See map on next page.] Of this proposed chain, only the bases at the city of Guatemala and Salinas were in use at the time of Mr. Stimson’s visit to the Canal Zone. A field on the Galapagos was under construction in accordance with an agreement with Ecuador
reached in December, but the runway would not be ready until May 1942.164 Upon his return to the United States, Secretary Stimson initiated action to secure a base in southern Mexico,165 but the negotiations were held up by the problem of control of the field that was to be built.166 Although ASV radars were on their way to Panama, pilots at the time were still depending on visual observation, and the planes were so few in number that even had they all been radar-equipped they would have been unequal to the task assigned. The burden of maintaining the daily patrol was so heavy that no planes could be kept in reserve for a striking force, with the result that even if an enemy carrier had been detected there would have been no way of offering immediate resistance. By mid-1942 the bomber forces available had been improved by the gradual substitution of more modern planes, and, with substantial progress by the AAF in the installation of ASV equipment, the problem of airborne radar as an aid to patrol was no longer critical.167
The problems involved in providing a serviceable radar screen to alert the inner defenses of the canal were less easily solved. in March 1942, there were only eight early warning radar stations in operation in Panama, with six more under construction.168 Equipment in use at these stations was inadequate for early warning and “quite useless” for purposes of controlled interception. Sites had been selected for four British-type radars, the sets to be supplied from Canadian production, but improvement in equipment could not overcome deficiencies of operating personnel. Operators in Panama were largely untrained, had been given no indoctrination in the need for precision standards, and were frequently unenthusiastic about their assignment. Radar crews had made no effort to plot the permanent echoes in their search areas, and therefore could not discriminate between such echoes and “live” targets. The combination of inadequate equipment, poor site selection, and untrained operators produced such inefficiency that even the best station in Panama was “far below any acceptable standard of operational utility.” The elimination of all the deficiencies noted depended on action by the War Department to provide improved equipment and better trained crews. No complete remedy was available to local commanders.
Conditions among the fighter units themselves had been improved with the addition of more modern equipment, new satellite fields, and facilities for dispersing and concealing aircraft. Effective strength was
reduced, however, by the necessity of using the planes as supplement to radar in the identification of targets,169 and indeed no matter how many planes were supplied, the defense of the canal would remain imperfect until better means for detection of an approaching enemy had been provided. This problem was not solved until 1943.
Reinforcements and New Bases for Alaska
Fortunately, when the enemy struck, the blow fell on the Aleutians and not in Panama. The defenses of the Alaskan area were no better prepared, but the stake was smaller. In December 1941, fundamental questions regarding air defense plans in the North Pacific had hardly been solved; it was not until 26 November that the decision had finally been made to build an airfield on Umnak Island for the protection of Dutch Harbor.* Substantial progress had been made under earlier and more limited plans of defense;] but only a handful of combat planes were based on Elmendorf Field at Anchorage, and preparations for moving up air reinforcements from the States in the event of an emergency were still imperfect.170
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that emergency seemed unmistakably imminent. The Chief of Staff informed the President in January 1942 that the War Department feared a damaging raid on Alaska “at any moment,” and prophesied that as soon as the Japanese could assemble troops and ships they would launch an effort toward “actual occupation” of a base in that area.171 This prospect had led to a prompt decision to send aerial reinforcements to the threatened outpost, even in the face of the well-understood risks of winter flights along imperfectly developed airways.172 Because Alaska was part of the Western Theater of Operations, responsibility for the movement was assigned to the Western Defense Command. The shortage of trained aircrews made it necessary to assign to this project squadrons composed of men untrained in Alaskan flight conditions. A pursuit squadron of twenty-five P-40’s was secured by assignment of the 11th Pursuit Squadron from Meridian, Mississippi, and thirteen B-26 medium bombers were ordered to be flown to Alaska by the 77th Bombardment Squadron from Boise, Idaho.
Notification of the movement was given on 19 December 1941, but two weeks elapsed before the planes reached the Sacramento Air Depot to be winterized. Hastily conceived and inadequately organized,
* See above, pp. 167–68.
the movement encountered a series of discouraging setbacks: the depot was so congested with “extra priority” work that prompt action on the winterization was impossible, cold-weather equipment proved to be hard to obtain, and bad weather delayed test flights and caused the loss of some of the planes. It was not until 1 January 1942 that the first planes left Sacramento. It was expected that the movement to Spokane and thence by an inland route through Canada to Fairbanks would be rapidly completed, but the inexperience of the pilots, together with poor communications and inadequate landing fields along the route, delayed execution of the plan. By 25 January only thirteen of the twenty-five pursuit ships had reached Alaska in flyable condition, while six were still en route, and six had crashed. of the thirteen medium bombers, eight had arrived at Fairbanks, but the other five had been wrecked beyond repair. It was clear that only crews experienced in Alaskan conditions could be used on such flights, and accordingly the unfinished task of forwarding the aircraft was taken over by veteran pilots of the Alaskan Air Force. This ill-fated winter project emphasized the need for special training of squadrons assigned to Alaska, and during the spring of 1942 familiarization flights between continental bases and fields in Alaska were conducted by the Fourth Air Force in preparation for such reinforcement of Alaskan bases as might be required.173
Equally important was the effort to complete the construction of necessary bases in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. in the Joint Board decision of 26 November 1941 to build an air base on Umnak Island for protection of the naval base at Dutch Harbor, it had been specified that work on the new field would not be pushed at the expense of previously approved projects in presumably more vital areas.174 After Pearl Harbor, however, it was clear that construction of the Umnak base presented a task of the highest priority, as also did rapid completion of an intermediate field which the Civil Aeronautics Administration had undertaken to build at Cold Bay.175 Lying between Kodiak and Dutch Harbor, the latter base could be used in support of actions at either of those two points.
It was not only necessary to move fast but at the same time to act with the greatest possible secrecy. As an aid to concealment of construction efforts from the enemy, the Army operated under the cover of fictitious corporations. For the Cold Bay project, “Saxton and Company” was invented, and, in its name, equipment and supplies were
purchased and personnel employed, ostensibly for construction of a fish cannery. At Umnak the “Blair Packing Company” served to mask the actual operations of Army engineers. Bulldozers, scrapers, and graders were crated in the United States and rushed to the Aleutians under labels which identified them as cannery equipment. The efforts of the two dummy corporations were directed by a holding company,
the “Consolidated Packing Company,” in whose name the Alaska Defense Command issued it directives. Prospects completing the work in advance of an anticipated spring attack on Dutch Harbor were greatly improved when news was received in Alaska at the end of January that 3,000,000 square feet of pierced steel-lank matting suitable for use over unstable ground would be shipped from the United States at once. The original plan to lay paved runways was accordingly abandoned and completion of the task at Umnak and Cold Bay was greatly accelerated.176
Even so, the work was carried forward under heart-breaking conditions.177 The first troops, the 807th Engineers (Aviation), arrived in the Umnak area on 17 January, but in the absence of a suitable harbor on Umnak it was necessary to land them at Chernofski on Unalaska Island at a point separated from the site selected for the airfield by eleven miles of very rough water. After a full month had passed, only half of the company had been transferred, in barges, to Umnak. The arrival at Chernofski of a transport early in march with 5,000 tons of cargo, approximately half of which was steel matting, permitted a start on the main construction. On 11 March the rest of the troops were transferred from Chernofski to Umnak, and the next day work began on stripping the field in preparation for the laying of steel mats. Despite bad weather, rapid progress was made. There were some 80,000 mats, each of them weighing approximately 65 pounds, which had to be unloaded from the hold of the transport in Chernofski harbor, ferried across the treacherous waters of Umnak Pass by barge, transferred piece by piece and by hand from the barge to the beach, and then loaded on “cat-trains” to be hauled to the runway. Exceptionally vicious winds and several inches of snow impeded the effort, and some of the men worked without the protection of heavy gloves; but they kept at it in eight-hour shifts with three shifts per day for seven days a week, and by 30 March all the mats had been brought to Umnak. Meanwhile, laying of the mats had been begun on 23 March, and by 5 April a runway 5,000 feet long and 100 feet wide had been completed. Indeed, the first plane, a transport, landed on the new runway as early as 31 March, but much remained to be done before the field could be made ready for combat. Additional engineer troops and some civilian workmen, who arrived on 11 April, speeded up the effort to widen the runway, to build hardstands and revetments, and to undertake other necessary construction. The first combat planes flew in
from mainland bases on 20 May. The Umnak field was still far from complete, but American land-based planes would be on hand to greet the Japanese in June. Not even the Seabees, would tackle a more difficult job than that credited on Umnak Island to the Army’s aviation engineers.
By 1 June the Eleventh Air Forced, so designated on 5 February, had been greatly increased in size and strength. Brig. Gen. William O. Butler had assumed command in March. From a force of just over 2,200 on 6 December 1941, it had risen to double that strength seven months later. To the 23rd Air Base Group, the 18th Pursuit Squadron, and the 28th Composite Group (comprised of the 73rd Bombardment Squadron [M] and the 36th Bombardment Squadron [H]), had been added the 11th and 54th Fighter Squadron* (the latter on 31 May) and the 77th Bombardment Squadron (M). The force also included the 42nd Transport Squadron, activated in May.178 Much of the equipment of P-40’s, P-39’s, P-38’s, B-17’s, and B-26’s, however, was received from the United States only in the weeks and days immediately preceding the Japanese attack on Dutch Harbor.*
Meantime, the new base at Cold Bay had also been put in a state of readiness.179 But the provision of additional planes and new bases in the Alaskan area left one grave weakness in its defense, for there was still no adequate aircraft warning service. The existence of extensive uninhabited regions made it impossible to develop an Alaskan ground observer corps, with the result that a warning net had to depend almost entirely upon radar. And in addition to the shortages of equipment and trained men which prevailed elsewhere, special problems impeded efforts to provide radar equipment for Alaska. Sites were usually inaccessible by road, and in most cases there were no landing fields close enough to permit the aerial supply of radar stations. Thus it became necessary to move equipment by small boats when the pack ice permitted; and, because of these problems in transportation, a radar set installed in Alaska – even the so-called mobile equipment – tended to become a fixed station. The time and labor required was made the greater by the necessity to provide quarters for the operators.180 These considerations made it particularly unfortunate that the directives governing earlier site selection had been imperfect. The necessary
* AAF pursuit and interceptor units had been redesignated “fighter” on 15 May.
* See below, pp. 462–65.
work of resiting Alaskan radar installations was further complicated by an involved command situation which made it necessary to refer recommendations of the fighter command of the Eleventh Air Force through regular channels to the Western Defense Command. Worse still, there was a procedure in effect which required that proposed changes in radar sites be processed through the War Department before corrective action could be instituted.181 Indeed, there was not even an agreement in early 1942 as to how extensive a warning net was required for Alaska. General DeWitt of the Western Defense Command presented in January a strong plea for a “cordon” defense based on a screen of twenty radar sets so arranged as to guard all vital military installations.182 Officers in Washington found that commitments to other theaters made it impossible to provide all of the equipment that would be required and reduced the number of stations to ten.183 By June 1942, however, not even this minimum figure had been provided, for only two radar sets were in operation in Alaska, with two more en route.184 As a result, the Eleventh Air Force had to depend on bomber patrols for intelligence of enemy movements. The assignment in March 1942 of four heavy bombers equipped with ASV radars made the use of such aerial patrols more efficient,185 but the lack of an aircraft warning service was keenly felt.
Only in the Aleutians and along the water routes of the western Atlantic and the Caribbean did our enemies make any serious effort to test the defenses of the Western Hemisphere, and it was fortunate that this proved true. The war found us, as this chapter has shown, by no means ready for large-scale enemy attack. To remedy the many deficiencies revealed at the outset, it was necessary to immobilize on purely defensive assignment substantial forces for which there was urgent need overseas, to divert from offensive preparations time, energy, and productive capacity, and to improvise and in other ways to rely upon uneconomical methods. Yet, when the test came, it was met, though hardly by a comfortable margin, and events proved that the gauge of the enemy’s intentions and capabilities had been well enough taken. Our strategy in defense of hemisphere security from the first had been to intercept the enemy at the greatest possible distance from our own shores and to carry the battle to him. Though the unexpected exposure of our western coast by the defeat at Pearl Harbor gave us some uneasy moments, there was no popular hysteria to shake the commitment to predetermined strategy. Preparations for taking
the offensive proceeded apace with efforts to bolster our immediate defenses. By the fall of 1942 we had turned on our pursuers in the Pacific, and, counting many benefits from that outward extension of hemispheric defenses in the Atlantic which marked prewar policy, we were ready to open the attack 3,000 miles from our shores. All things considered, the record stands in our favor though it can hardly be recommended in all particulars as a guide to future policy.