One'ula Beach: The Ewa Location Of Historic December 7, 1941 Air Photos By Lee Embree From Army Boeing B-17
2013 Ewa Battlefield Commemoration
Also arriving in the mail to homes all over America and Hawaii was the LIFE magazine cover story entitled "Air Power" featuring a B-17 bomber on the cover.
However, the unfortunately timed arrival of the new B-17's from California destined for the defense of the Philippines were flying right into the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The concept of AIR POWER on that morning belonged to the Imperial Japanese Navy...as well as phenomenal luck!
Instead of a full scale air raid alert that would have sent Army and Marine fighters into the air to challenge inbound Japanese bombers, the B-17 flight arrival caused the Army radar report from Opana Point of a mass of incoming planes (actually Japanese) to be dismissed as the expected flight of American Army B-17 Flying Fortresses.
In order to save fuel, the B-17s had a skeleton crew consisting of pilot, copilot, navigator, engineer and radioman. They carried their bomb sights and machine guns but no ammunition; the 2,400 mile (3,840 km) flight required all the gasoline the aircraft could carry.
Some of the planes also carried Army passengers hitching a ride to the Philippines, such as Army Tech Sergeant Lee Embree
The full story of this B-17 flight is quite amazing, but has been omitted here to primarily address two of the most famous photos taken during the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
These were the very first air to air combat photos taken during the opening moments of the Pacific War and they were taken right over the coastal community of Ewa Beach, Hawaii. The Japanese used the airspace over Ewa as their primary staging area for the attack and withdrawal of their naval air forces.
The long B-17 flight over the ocean was uneventful, and as they neared Hawaii, radio station KGMB was playing Hawaiian music for them to use in locating the island. Ironically this also provided an excellent homing beacon for Japanese planes!
The flight contacted the Hickam Field tower at 0745 hours local Hawaiian Time but was still too far away, and the transmission was too garbled for anyone to understand.
A few minutes later the B-17s sighted the Hawaiian Islands and Oahu came into view on the horizon. As the planes got closer Army Tech Sergeant Lee Embree in one of the B-17's saw what he thought were burning sugar cane fields in the distance as they neared Pearl Harbor. A logical assumption as Pearl Harbor was bordered by sugar plantations.
The B-17 flight then spotted a group of fighter aircraft coming to meet them. Thinking they were Americans, the pilots were glad to have escorts for the remaining miles into the field.
Suddenly the "friendly aircraft" began firing at them, and the large bombers quickly dived out of the formation, scattering in every direction. One pilot still thought that this was just "very realistic" military training...
At Ewa Field, some Marines watching the first Zeros coming in to strafe the lined up planes were saying "somebody's going to the brig for using live ammunition!" But it soon became apparent to everyone that this was no realistic drill and Marine sergeant John Hughes was already at the airfield armory getting ammunition for his 1903 bolt action Springfield rifle.
In the B-17-E passing along the shoreline by Ewa Field that Army photographer Lee Embree was in, they were met by D3A "Val" dive bombers that flew in close firing some shots, but the Japanese planes were still wary of the large American bomber, which they didn't know wasn't armed.
"They passed us so close on the left, I could see the pilots' faces," he said. "They were grinning from ear to ear," Embree recalled in a post war interview.
On its third circle over Pearl Harbor and passing near the already under attack Ewa Field Marine air base, Embree's plane was out of fuel and forced to land — still in the midst of the attack.
The plane made its Hickam Field approach along the Ewa shoreline, passing by One'ula Beach when Embree took one of the most famous photos of the December 7 air attack, which shows Ewa Field in the background and the burning reckage of a Japanese D3A Val and an American Navy SBD from the USS Enterprise, both crashed in the same location.
"Many people have asked me why I didn't take more photos from the air," Embree said. "I can only answer that I was so flabbergasted at what I saw that I forgot about the camera that was in my hand."
(More accounts of this One'ula Beach crash site from ground eye-witnesses Harry Ching of Ewa Beach and Ramsay Hishinuma of Ewa Village who were there on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, which is included in the final Ewa Battlefield report soon to be published.)