The Rifles of Pearl Harbor

On that sleepy Sunday morning 80 years ago, which was interrupted by incoming waves of Japanese warplanes, a lot of the response came from individuals fighting with nothing more than rifles.

The crew abandoning the damaged battleship USS California (BB-44) as burning oil drifts down on the ship, at about 1000 hrs on the morning of 7 December 1941, shortly after the end of the Japanese raid. The capsized hull of the battleship USS Oklahoma (BB-37) is visible at the right. Note the Sailors to the left with rifles. Official U.S. Navy Photograph NH 97399

The most important American base in the Central Pacific, Pearl Harbor was home to the bulk of the Pacific Fleet along with significant Army units. Although a war warning had been sent to the base after intelligence pointing to a looming attack following months of deteriorating relations with the Empire of Japan, it would not be read until hours after the attack had ended.
 
Thus, the fleet and bases were more concerned with threats of sabotage and in capturing spies, rather than warding off 360 incoming Japanese planes armed with bombs and torpedoes. Ships and heavy guns were offline, their crews relaxing on a quiet peacetime morning. This left those on duty able to resist at first with just the arms at hand.

Most common was the M1903 Springfield, a bolt-action .30-06 with an internal 5-shot magazine. The Springfield was used by the Marines and held in the Navy’s small arms lockers and armories. Even lighthouse keepers and NPS park rangers, in the months before the attack, were issued M1903s “on loan from the Army” and .45s for use in patrol work along the coastline.

Lesser encountered was the M1 Garand. A new rifle adopted by the Army in 1937 to replace the M1903, it too was chambered in .30-06 but loaded from an eight-shot en-bloc clip. Not all soldiers in Hawaii in 1941 had the new rifle, and many still relied on the M1903.

Two three-brigade “triangular” infantry divisions were in Hawaii at the time, the newly formed 25th Infantry Division (from the 27th and 35th Infantry Regiments of the old “square” Hawaiian Division and the 298th Infantry Regiment of the recently federalized Hawaii National Guard) and the 24th Infantry Division (made up of the 19th and the 21st Infantry Regiment from the old Hawaiian Division and the 299th Infantry Regiment from the Hawaii Guard). The TO&E for a 1941 triangular infantry division allowed for 7,327 M1 Garands, meaning there should have been at least 15,000 or so of the new guns in the territory.

Other .30-caliber firearms on hand that day included M1918 BARs, M1917 watercooled heavy and aircooled M1919 light machine guns, along with Lewis guns, the latter a light automatic rifle that fired from a 47-round magazine and was still in use by the Navy.

Gordon Prange, in his book on the attack, “At Dawn We Slept,” detailed that General Walter Short, head of the Army’s forces in Hawaii, was so fixated on countering sabotage from perceived local threats that his ordnance department refused to issue ammunition in practice, believing that as long as it was safely locked up and safely guarded it could not be tampered with.

Clips vs. Clips!

Part of the problem resulting from the ongoing switchover from the M1903, which used five-round stripper clips to charge the bolt-action rifle, to the new semi-auto M1 Garand, which used eight-shot en bloc clips, was that .30-06 ammo on hand was often prepacked in bandoliers for the older rifle.

As detailed in a 2002 American Hangunner article by Massad Ayoob, Marine Pvt. Le Fan recalled they had been handed M1 Garands that morning but the only ammo that could be had was clipped for the M1903.
 
“I opened the receiver of my Garand and put one round into the chamber and closed it,” said Fan. “I recall one Japanese pilot coming over, and he waved at us as he did. He was very low – less than 100 feet high – because he was going to Battleship Row. They would wave at us, and we were throwing .30 caliber rounds at them as fast as we could, from single shots because we could not fire semi-automatic. I fired 60 rounds because I recall this particular bandolier that I got had 60 rounds in it.”

The Army Clocks in

Some 43,000 soldiers were on active duty in Hawaii in December 1941. At Fort Kamehameha, named for Hawaii’s national hero, attacking Japanese Zeroes were seen to come in as low as 50 feet off the ground. By 0813, soldiers had set up machine guns on the base’s tennis courts.
 
Now 103 years old, Joe Eskenazi was a 23-year-old Army private at Schofield Barracks who woke up that Sunday morning with a start. “I look up, and I see a Zero (aircraft) flying over my head. He was flying so low that I think I could see his goggles,” Eskenazi recalled in a recent interview. “I said, ‘Oh my God. That’s a Zero fighter going by us,’ and then I saw bombs drop.” His next move was to grab his M1 Garand rifle and some ammo and jump in a truck with other soldiers. Using his rifle on a low flying Zero, just moments later, “I started to see the dirt kicking up only three feet away from the door.”

USAAF Personnel with a “WE WILL KEEP EM FLYING” sign at the entrance to the damaged base engineering shop at Wheeler Army Airfield on Oahu Hawaii – December 1941. Note the early M1 Garand. At this point in the rifle’s production, Springfield Armory, has just cranked out 429,811 guns. LIFE Magazine Archives – Bob Landry Photographer

Prange retells the account of Lt. Stephen Saltzman at Schofield Barracks who, with Sgt. Lowell Klatt, grabbed two BARs and “too mad to be scared” engaged a low-flying Japanese plane whose own machine guns were winking at the men on the ground. The plane pulled up to avoid high-tension wires, then crashed on the other side of the building. When Saltzman and Klatt approached the wreck, they found the two aviators inside to be dead. The author notes that “of the four aircraft which fell to Army guns” during the Japanese first wave, “all succumbed to machinegun or BAR fire when they screamed down to strafe within range of these relatively limited weapons.”

The Navy fights back

“Gunners on board seaplane tender USS Avocet look for more Japanese planes, at about the time the air raid ended. Photographed from atop a building at Naval Air Station Ford Island, looking toward the Navy Yard. USS Nevada is at right, with her bow afire. Beyond her is the burning USS Shaw. Smoke at left comes from the destroyers Cassin and Downes, ablaze in Drydock Number One.” Note the Lewis gun on top of Avocet’s wheelhouse. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. #: 80-G-32445

Tied up at the Navy Yard was the cruiser USS New Orleans, which sounded General Quarters at 0757 immediately after seeing enemy planes dive-bombing Ford Island. While men scrambled to bring the ship’s 1.1-inch “Chicago Piano” battery online,” the Japanese were fired at with rifles and pistols from the fantail.” By 0810, the quantity of fire coming from the cruiser was credited with causing Japanese aviators to turn away or to drop their bombs erratically, causing the bombs to fall into the water between the ships
 
During the raid on Pearl Harbor, the destroyer USS Dewey was moored at berth Xray-2, under overhaul. Nonetheless, her crew, after observing Japanese torpedoes hit the old battleship USS Utah nearby at 0755, sounded General Quarters and by 0802 was firing .50 caliber machine guns at enemy planes while the ship’s gunners’ mates moved to install the firing locks in the destroyer’s larger guns. Meanwhile, “The bridge force fired [Browning] Automatic Rifles and rifles.”
 
The gunboat USS Sacramento, moored port side to berth B-6 at the Navy Yard, was not able to get her 4-inch guns into the fight but instead gave the men of the battery “rifles, Browning Automatic Rifles, and Thompson submachine guns” and got to work. At one point during the attack, an aircraft some 300 yards from the ship was seen to burst into flames.
 
Sacramento’s crew alone fired:

  • 1,950 rounds .50 cal. tracer
  • 4,000 rounds .50 cal. armor-piercing.
  • 2,000 rounds .45 cal. Thompson sub-machine guns.
  • 5,473 rounds .30 cal. armor-piercing.
  • 2,887 rounds .30 cal. tracer.
  • 3,000 rounds .30 cal. ball.

 
Submarines, with few topside weapons, even got into the act. The crew of the USS Dolphin, as early as 0800, used rifles and machine guns against Japanese planes. Meanwhile, ashore at the Submarine Base, sailors manned “250 rifles, 15 [Browning] Automatic Rifles and 15 machine guns, maintaining a continuous fire,” that accounted for “two low flying torpedo planes.”
 
Even ships not normally considered in the front lines of the battle fleet lent their lead. The minesweeper USS Rail, nested at the Coal Docks next to four other sweepers on that Sunday morning “Opened fire with .30 Cal. machine guns and Rifles and Pistols 20 minutes after attack on Pearl Harbor.”
 
The minelayer USS Pruitt, moored at berth 18 at the Navy Yard undergoing a routine overhaul, had all her armament and machinery disabled and most of the ship’s crew in barracks. Even with all those strikes against it going into a real-life shooting war, Pruitt’s crew shook it off and made ready.

From Pruitt’s report on the attack:

“The initial surprise of the attack passed quickly, and all personnel began arming themselves with all available small arms in the ready locker. The only arms immediately available were .30 caliber machine guns, Browning automatic rifles, service rifles, and service pistols. Within an incredibly brief time, men were equipped and firing at low-flying attacking planes…Three low flying Japanese fighter planes were shot down in the immediate vicinity of this vessel apparently by small caliber weapons.”

 
The battered old tugboat, USS Ontario was moored in the Repair Basin with no fuel onboard and all machinery disabled as she was in overhaul. The vessel had “no offensive or defensive power at the beginning of the attack except for some 30 caliber ammunition in the Abandon Ship Locker.” The “aught six” was soon being fed into a dozen Springfield M1903s as “Members of the deck force were given all rifles and opened fire on all low flying enemy planes.” Lacking any helmets, “Those who manned the small arms and remained exposed, firing upon low flying aircraft, exhibited willing personal bravery.”
 
The destroyer tender USS Thornton was moored port side to dock at the Submarine Base’s berth S-1 and sounded General Quarters at 0756. Using the ship’s landing force weapons – four .50 caliber machine guns, three .30 caliber Lewis guns, three BARs, and 12 Springfield M1903s – her crew commenced firing at 0758. It was noted that an enemy torpedo plane was shot down, with Thornton’s report saying “This plane burst into flames and fell into the water. The torpedo fell clear, but was not launched.”
 
Aboard the repair ship USS Medusa, whose crew were by 0805 firing at enemy planes crossing “not over 100 feet” above and a periscope spotted just 1,000 yards away, some 21 Springfield rifles were used to arm a patrol of men ashore who were eagerly looking for downed Japanese aviators and survivors of midget submarines sunk in the harbor.
 
The survey ship USS Sumner, a vessel normally tasked to make charts, armed members of her crew “with rifles and B.A.R.s” then stationed them in the ship’s two masts to “act as snipers.”
 
At the Naval Air Station at Kaneohe Bay, home to giant PBY Catalina flying boats, “Three rifles were manned immediately” as others retrieved machine guns from planes, eventually setting up two nests in semi-protected spots near the hangar. “Under continuous attacks by the enemy, machine gun and rifle crews manned their guns and all other personnel worked to disperse planes and to save material,” reads the report from one of the base’s squadrons.

A photographer seems to have caught at least some of that, leaving some of the most iconic images from the day. 

“Rescue operations after the first attack and before bombing at Naval Air Station, Kaneohe Bay. Pulling a partially burning PBY aircraft from the center of fire area.” Note the Sailor on the left with an M1903. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. #: 80-G-32837

“Planes and a hangar burning at the Ford Island Naval Air Station’s seaplane base, during or immediately after the Japanese air raid. The ruined wings of a PBY Catalina patrol plane are at the left and in the center. Note men with rifles standing in the lower left.” Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. #: 80-G-19944

“Sandbagged .30 caliber machine gun emplacement with gun crew on alert, at the seaplane base near Ford Island’s southern tip, soon after the Japanese attack.” The gun is a superfast-firing ANM2, pulled from an aircraft. Note the beached battleship, USS Nevada, in the distance. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. #: 80-G-32492

“Sailors at Naval Air Station Ford Island reloading ammunition clips and belts, probably around the time of the attack’s second wave.” Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. #: 80-G-32497

Tell it to the Marines

Marines, both in shipboard detachments and ashore, were in the fight from the beginning. There were approximately 4,500 Marines stationed at Pearl Harbor and its vicinity on that fateful morning, and official report recalled, “practically to the last man, every Marine at the base met the attack with whatever weapon there was at hand, or that he could commandeer, or even improvise with the limited means of his command. They displayed great courage and determination against insurmountable odds.”

“At their barracks, near the foundation of a swimming pool under construction, three Marines gingerly seek out good vantage points from which to fire, while two peer skyward, keeping their eyes peeled for attacking Japanese planes. Headgear varies from Hawley helmet to garrison cap to none, but the weapon is the same for all — the Springfield 1903 rifle.” Lord Collection, USMC via the NPS.

“View at the Pearl Harbor Marine Barracks, taken from the Parade Ground between 0930 and 1130 hrs. on 7 December 1941 looking toward Battleship Row. Smoke in the distance is from the burning USS Arizona (BB-39). Navy Yard water towers are in the left-center, with flags flying from a signal station atop the middle one. In the center of the view, Marines are deploying a three-inch anti-aircraft gun. Other Marines, armed with rifles, stand at the left.” U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. NH 50928


The admiral in command of the mine force at Pearl Harbor, in his report, noted that one Japanese plane was observed “shot down by Marines with rifles at Main Gate,” confirmed by the crew of the minelayer USS Sicard.

As noted by the National Park Service of the Marine air group at Ewa Field, fighting off an attacking wave of Zeroes led by future Japanese air ace Yoshio Shiga from the decks of the aircraft carrier Kaga:


Firing only small arms and rifles in the opening stages, the Marines fought back against Kaga’s fighters as best they could, with almost reckless heroism. Lieutenant Shiga remembered one particular Leatherneck who, oblivious to the machine gun fire striking the ground around him and kicking up dirt, stood transfixed, emptying his sidearm at Shiga’s Zero as it roared past. Years later, Shiga would describe that lone, defiant, and unknown Marine as the bravest American he had ever met.


Marines reportedly manned stations with rifles and .30-caliber machine guns taken from damaged aircraft and the squadron ordnance rooms. Specifically, the fighting at Ewa saw Marine Pfc. Mann, “who by that point had managed to obtain some ammunition for his rifle, dropped down with the rest of the Marines at the garage and fired at the attacking fighters as they streaked by.”

Effectiveness

To be sure, the act of firing at planes – even low-flying ones made of canvas without self-sealing fuel tanks – with rifles and pistols was not ideal, but, with larger armament offline due to the surprise nature of the attack, it was a tangible way for the crews to fight back, even as the fleet’s mighty battleships were being sent to the bottom.
 
Aboard the minelayer USS Breese, the ship’s post-battle report admitted as much about the crew’s use of rifles against the attacking planes saying, “although its effectiveness is doubtful it served a means of satisfying the offensive spirit of the crew.”
 
Just after the destroyer USS Blue got underway during the attack, two Japanese planes swooped in at mast-height and one of the attackers was seen to flame out under heavy fire from the ship’s guns, crashing near the Pan Am landings in Pearl City. During the pass, a young officer on the bridge was so excited he threw his binoculars at the passing plane, saying later he was “just kind of mad.”
 
While only 29 Japanese planes failed to return to the Japanese carriers after the attack on Pearl Harbor, 74 including 41 bombers were damaged, some extensively. You can bet a lot of that damage consisted of holes roughly .30 caliber in diameter.
 
Finally, the rifles would be put to use the following day, in a more somber task.

“A Marine rifle squad fires a volley over the bodies of fifteen officers and men killed at Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay during the Pearl Harbor raid. These burial ceremonies took place on 8 December 1941, the day after the attack.” Navy Catalog #: 80-G-32854

Among the 2,403 Americans killed, 2,008 were sailors, 218 were soldiers, 109 were Marines and 68 were civilians, according to a National World War II Museum Pearl Harbor fact sheet. Total casualties were almost 3,600.

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