Reviewed by Lt. Col. Michael D. Miller, USAF
When considering the 7 December 1941 attack on the U.S. military forces on Oahu, the sinking battleships of the devastated Pacific Fleet are the first images that may come to mind. The Pearl Harbor Tactical Studies Series examines the island’s airfields as part of the larger attack and brings them into greater context. “They’re Killing My Boys” is the third book of the well-researched series, detailing the founding of the base, the individuals stationed there, and capturing the strategic significance of the aerodrome. It is incredibly sourced and brings together far-flung images, records, and recollections of the day – some published for the first time.
The collaborative efforts of authors J. Michael Wenger, Robert J. Cressman, and John F. Di Virgilio have produced a synthesis of both U.S. and Japanese primary source records, interviews, and other great research done by recognized experts such as Dr. Gordon W. Prange. Through this lens, the authors articulate the morning attack of December 7th moment-by-moment stitching together both the Japanese attack plan and subsequent bomb reports, with those of the American defenders. Drawing on archive of 151 individual interviews and seven by the authors of Japanese veterans; the book is nearly narrated by those who were there, or part of the attack. A comprehensive array of images, graphics, and flight information tables bring the story to life visually.
A matter-of-fact history starts with the need for a new air base on Oahu to replace the Army airfield on Ford Island and is then colorfully illustrated, albeit in black and white, with stories and images of the new base as it was constructed. The logic behind the airfield architecture and building-by-building backstory is developed for the reader. Then, personal stories from those of all-ranks stationed there fill in the body and bring the story to life. From new enlistees receiving their basic training, overcrowded living conditions, or the off-post pursuits of the pre-war Soldiers; the story develops with the reader always keenly aware of the foreboding future.
The strategic importance of Hickam Field is established early in the book and reinforced through a parallel storyline of war preparations. By 1941, the nearly complete airbase became a vital part of the plan to reinforce General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines with the latest bombers – the Boeing B-17 – to deter Japanese aggression. The high-level oversight and reassignment of some of Hickam’s new aircraft and those being prepared stateside set the strategic stage before late 1941. The B-17 backstory of brand-new aircraft, their outfitting at the Sacramento Air Depot, and long-distance delivery that arrived just as the Japanese attack starts ties together the events on Oahu and national preparations around tensions in the Pacific.
The chronology of the Japanese attack is established starting with Japanese primary source records, describing the attack force from shōtai (small aviation units) to carriers and attack waves. The formations, bomb runs, strike reports, and known impact patterns are compared with event sequenced photographs from a great number of archives. In their systematic matching of attack aircraft to bombs dropped on targets, the authors identify an instance where the documentary and photographic evidence for the first attack wave misalign and suggest the appropriate assignment through their analysis.
Overall, this is an interesting read focused on one airfield adjacent to greater Pearl Harbor. The insights and details of those who served and survived there give the book a human touch. Any reader seeking to understand more of how the Army and its Air Corps were involved in preparations in the Pacific, or those who want to examine formation and strike tactics of the Japanese would benefit from this book.
Lt. Col. Michael D. Miller, USAF, is an Assistant Professor at the Joint Forces Staff College.
They’re Killing My Boys: The History of Hickam Field and the Attacks of 7 December 1941 (J. Michael Wenger, Robert J. Cressman and John F. Di Virgilio, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2019)