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The Pilots of Pearl Harbor


December 7, 2019 marks the 78th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which sought to incapacitate the U.S. Pacific fleet, and ultimately led to the U.S. entry into WWII. Taking place early on a Sunday morning, the surprise attack left little time for response before a majority of aircraft in the area were destroyed or badly damaged. Despite this, a handful of pilots managed to take to the air and launch a counter attack. Today we remember two of those pilots and their heroism. 

Phil Rasmussen

Phil Rasmussen was one of the handful of American pilots who managed to take to the skies during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Like many others, the 23-year-old second lieutenant was still sleeping when his post at Wheeler Field was bombed, but he rushed outside and found an undamaged P-36 fighter sitting on the runway. Still clad in a pair of purple pajamas, Rasmussen took off and joined three other pilots in a dogfight against 11 Japanese aircraft. His plane was slower and less maneuverable than the enemy Zeroes, but he quickly managed to shoot one of them down. He then crippled another plane before two Japanese pilots raked his P-36 with machine gun and cannon fire, leaving behind some 500 bullet holes. Another Zero just narrowly missed when it tried to ram him. Rasmussen’s canopy was blown off and he briefly lost control, but he managed to right his damaged plane and make a miraculous landing without brakes, rudders or a tail wheel. The young pilot was awarded a Silver Star for his bravery, and went on to serve in the Air Force for another 24 years before retiring as a colonel.

Lewis M. Sanders

1st Lt. Lewis Sanders was reportedly the first person in U.S. uniform to shoot down an enemy aircraft in World War II. Flying a P-36 of the 46th Fighter Squadron, he was one of a handful of USAAF pilots to get off the ground during the Pearl Harbor attack.

The day before the attack, Sanders had inadvertently taken action on December 6th that saved most of his squadron’s P-36 aircraft from the attack on Wheeler Field the following day. After a military formation on the Wheeler flight line on the morning of the 6th, he directed his men to place their aircraft on the eastern end of the field. During the attack, smoke from the burning planes and hangars drifted over the P-36s and hid them.

While most pilots took to the air in whatever clothing was closest at hand, Sanders flew in his full USAAF uniform. His A-2 leather jacket can be seen on display today at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. As the attack began to draw to a close, more pilots could be found rushing to Wheeler Airfield, where ground crews had been frantically moving aircraft and ammunition out of the open field and under cover from Japanese bombardment. Sanders was one of those pilots, picking up three additional pilots as he rushed to the field. Airborne at roughly 8:50 AM, Sanders and  two other P-36 pilots tore into a Japanese formation. Sanders got behind one of the raiders and shot it down. 

Sanders remained as Squadron Commander of the 46th Pursuit Squadron through 1942 then transferred to the 318th Fighter Group as its commander. He participated in the Saipan, Tinian, Guam and Okinawan invasions. He was awarded a Silver Star for his actions at Pearl Harbor.



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