Tuesday, December 06, 2011

TOP STORY >> Eyewitness remembers Pearl Harbor

Leader executive editor

(This column about the late McLyle Zumwalt first appeared here on Dec. 9, 1989, and is reprinted to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He died in 2001.)

Most people think of retired Col. McLyle Zumwalt as one of the organizers of Pathfinders, which trains the developmentally and physically disabled in Jacksonville.

Many people remember him as the commander of Little Rock Air Force Base from 1966 to 1970, when he retired to go into business and helped build Pathfinders into the largest private organization of its kind in the state.

But even those who knew him well probably don’t realize how much he accomplished in the military.

He trained bombing crews and commanded several bases, but it might astonish you to discover that he played a role in the nation’s atomic program.

In 1945, while he was assigned near Albuquerque, N.M., he provided air support for the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

While attached to the Manhattan Project, Zumwalt worked with Gen. Leslie Richard Groves, who headed the atomic program and kept the temperamental scientists in line.

Zumwalt met most of them: J. Robert Oppenheimer, the genius who was torn over the awesome power he was about to unleash; Dr. Edward Teller, the hard-charging Hungarian immigrant who later developed the H-bomb and had no qualms about it (and was the driving force behind Star Wars missile defense shield), and scores of other scientists who rallied around Gen. Groves and got the job done.

America had made its mind up to win the war, and nothing less than unconditional surrender was acceptable. That happened just over three years after America’s humiliation at Pearl Harbor, when the Axis powers seemed invincible.

Zumwalt is a Pearl Harbor survivor, and he spoke at the state Capitol marking the anniversary of that attack when America was caught off guard and yet quickly recovered and marshaled all of its resources to defeat two great totalitarian powers.

Since the Capitol rally was organized by the group Arkansas Peace Through Strength, the Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance had a clear message: America must not leave itself defenseless.

“We were unprepared to go to war at the time,” Zumwalt told us. “We were trying to build a fighting force in the Pacific and in the U.S., and if the Japanese had destroyed our carrier fleet, they would have had control of the Pacific.”

That didn’t happen.

“We were rebuilding as fast as we could come up with the equipment,” Zumwalt said. “Pearl Harbor solidified every American.”

The U.S. was caught off guard, but the devastation that was Pearl Harbor did not please the admiral who had organized the surprise attack.

“He said, ‘I’m afraid we’ve awakened a sleeping giant,’” Zumwalt recalled.

It was just before 8 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, at Hickman Field outside Pearl Harbor when 2nd Lieut. Zumwalt, 22, saw the first Japanese plane approach the airfield and drop torpedo bombs on the flight line below.

More than 360 other planes followed in two waves over a two-hour period. Zumwalt, who had been in his apartment when he noticed the first plane approaching, immediately ran to the air strip and saw airmen dying all around him.

There had been extra guards on duty to prevent sabotage on the ground.

“The thing that made it so devastating is that we had reinforced sabotage alert,” Zumwalt said. “We had more airmen there. The aircraft were parked so we could get maximum security.”

Instead, the planes were sitting ducks as the Japanese continued their ferocious bombing.

“They strafed us from almost plane level, and they left us when they ran out of ammunition,” Zumwalt said. “The base commander was trying to save planes and was caught on the ramp, and the only protection he had was how close he got to the pavement.”

Zumwalt went on, “I was the officer guard for a week prior to Sunday, and I got acquainted with most of the men. Most of the security people were lost in the first attack. I knew most of those boys.

“The flight line was the worst place to be,” Zumwalt continued. “You’re trying to function for two hours moving the airplanes and moving the wounded, but the Japanese kept coming. They were hitting all their targets. They lifted the roof off a large maintenance depot. We lost 188 planes and 63 were damaged. We had 30 planes left.”

Out in the harbor, the destruction was just as terrible. Four battleships were sunk and others damaged. Thousands of servicemen were dead and wounded.

“We only had one B-17 left,” Zumwalt said.

There were a few more of the less sophisticated B-18s left.

“The next day, we took off. I flew out in a B-18, which had three .30-caliber guns you cranked up manually,” he said, giving you an idea how much catching up the country had to do.

Eventually, the fighting forces caught up with the enemy and delivered stunning blows in the Battle of Midway and Wake Island and Guadalcanal, where Zumwalt saw action.

“We had broken the Japanese code,” he said, “and we were able to be alerted that they were approaching. We didn’t know exactly when and where, but we knew they were coming.”

Things had changed since Pearl Harbor, but its lessons are no less valuable than they were in 1941.

Just ask the survivors.