Wednesday, December 7, 2011

47th FS makes historical Pearl-Harbor flight

The cover of the December 2011 online PDF issue of "Mohawk Online" with the headline "70 years since 47th FS makes history"

by Senior Airman Wesley Wright
442nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs

12/4/2011 - WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- The skies were partly cloudy on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The temperature was about 70 degrees with a light breeze out of the northeast. The calmness and tranquility of the morning would later prove a stark contrast to the aftermath of Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Airmen of the 47th Pursuit Squadron (today the 47th Fighter Squadron, now part of the 917th Fighter Group, Barksdale AFB, La.), deployed to Haleiwa Landing Field, Oahu, Hawaii were there that day and took to the skies in P-40s to help America fight back.

Decades later, Maj. Gen. James W. Graves carried on the fight as commander of the 47th FS from July 1996 to October 1997. Graves already had ties to the events of Dec. 7, 1941: His father, grandfather and uncles had served with the Army Air Corp and his mother lived in Hawaii. Upon entering the Air Force, Graves began researching the history of the unit he would later lead.

According to Graves, two pilots of the 47th PS were instrumental in the response to the Japanese attack: Lieutenants George Welch and Kenneth Taylor. They, and a few others, were able to get to their aircraft and get airborne, where Welch and Taylor downed a combined seven Japanese planes (fighters and a carrier-based dive-bomber) after launching their P-40 Tomahawks from Haleiwa Landing Field.

"While Dec. 7, 1941 was a disastrous day for America, I feel that the symbolic losses inflicted on Japan by Welch and Taylor that day were the first steps on the long climb back toward winning World War II," Graves said.

Welch and Taylor were later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their actions that day.

Graves was later approached by retired Lt. Col. Gerald Wenner, who had been a first sergeant in the 47th PS at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. The colonel was terminally ill and wanted to donate several foot-lockers full of 47th PS memorabilia including maps, mission reports, photos and a banner that now hangs in the heritage room of the 47th FS at Barksdale.

These photographs came into play later when Graves was tasked with the reunification of flightline maintenance and operations at the 47th FS. Because this was how units were structured during the World War II era, Graves used the photos of the 47th PS to drive the change while linking the unit's past to its present.

Graves said he is committed to maintaining that connection to the past.

"It is incumbent on us who have devoted our lives to defending freedom to take time,
Veteran's and Memorial Day, to talk to people about the strength and sacrifice of the greatest generation," he said.

In order to pass on the experiences and memories of past Airmen, Graves hosted a reunion banquet for the 47th PS in September 1997. A number of men who had gotten airborne, along with Welch and Taylor, spoke and passed on their experiences to the current generation of Airmen. Welch himself had perished in the 1950s in a test-pilot accident, while Taylor, who had retired from the Alaska Air National Guard as a brigadier general, was not well enough to attend.

While later serving at Pacific Air Force Headquarters and continuing to research the history of the 47th FS, Graves collaborated with an officer who would later lead the 47th Fighter Squadron as commander of the 442nd Fighter Wing, Col. Eric S. Overturf.

"Colonel Overturf and I worked closely on a number of initiatives concerning this chapter of Air Force history," Graves said.

The 47th FS has had notable first and last contributions during the WWII period, he added.

"We were among the first to attack Japan, which was the first step to victory in World War II, and the 47th was also part of the last major air action of war," Graves said. "That action was a raid on renegade Japanese elements who were continuing to fight after the emperor had entered into talks on terms of surrender."

At the behest of Gen. Paul Hester, Graves began preserving and supplementing the memorabilia and lore concerning the unit's history in 2006 at the 65th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks. Graves met and talked with other Pearl Harbor survivors, including retired Lt. Col. Kermit Tyler.

Tyler, at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, was the air officer on duty at the command post at Fort Shafter, Hawaii.

"Tyler received a telephonic report about blips coming in from the north on the radar, but he was expecting B-17s coming in from the mainland," Graves said, "so he said 'Turn off the radar and get breakfast.'"

While Graves retired a few years ago, he still continues to speak at events and pass on the accumulated history of the 47th FS and what happened on Dec. 7, 1941 so future generations can learn lessons from the sacrifices made in the past.

"We have to remember when huge numbers of people set aside civilian jobs and volunteer to put on the uniform."

Physical reminders of Pearl Harbor persist to this day, both beneath the waters with the departed and above the shoreline where battle damage to what would later become the Pacific Air Forces Headquarters was deliberately kept intact as a constant reminder.

"There is a plaque that says, and I'll paraphrase, that the battle damage was purposely left as a reminder for constant vigilance in the defense of freedom," Graves said.

Mohawk Online, December 2011 issue

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