Head West!! Oregon National Guard's Initial Response to Pearl Harbor Attack

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Ret)
  • 142 FW
On Dec. 7, 1941, the Oregon National Guard launched one of the first missions flown from a U.S. base in defense of the West Coast. When news of the devastating attack on Hawaii reached the west coast of the United States, the Oregon National Guard's 123rd Observation Squadron, founding unit of today's Oregon Air National Guard, was on duty at Gray Army Airfield near Tacoma, Washington. Today, almost seventy years later, Oregon Air National Guard's 142nd Fighter Wing assumes the role of standing alert over the Western Air Defense Sector of the United States.

Only weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor, in September of 1941, the 123rd Observation Squadron (123 Obs. Sq.) was activated into federal service as the storm clouds of World War II gathered. In response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 123rd Observation Squadron was almost immediately involved in the war effort.

When the news arrived at Gray Field, members of the 123 Obs. Sq. took to their duty stations. Those not scheduled to report for duty that Sunday reported anyway. At first some thought it was a joke, but it was soon clear that it was not a laughing matter.

The 123 Obs. Sq. then flew one of the first missions flown from a U.S. base on December 7, 1941. The squadron operated the North American O-47, a three-place aircraft with capabilities for gunnery, observation and aerial photography. Leroy A. Walter of the 123d Obs. Sq. was the Crew Chief of the only O-47B in the squadron and the base commander's personal aircraft (all the rest were A-models). He had been ordered to have his aircraft ready at 0800 on December 7th for a routine flight to Portland.

Walter recalled, "No pilots showed up and at noon when I was relieved for chow I first learned of the Pearl Harbor attack. Sometime later after returning to the flightline, the pilots came out and prepared for take-off. While waiting for signal to pull wheel chocks, a large O.D. staff car with a 1 star plate pulled up and the driver signaled to me and said the General wanted to talk to the pilot. I had to get into the cockpit to attend to the running engine during his conversation with the General. I got out when the pilot jumped up on the wing and he told the observer that they were ordered to fly coastal patrol down to the entrance of the Columbia River on the way to Portland. The observer asked "How come?" and he replied, "Because we are at war." Thus, as far as I know, my aircraft was the first to fly coastal patrol on Pearl Harbor Day."

And so the 123 Obs. Sq. sent an O-47 with pilot, observer and gunner out on coastal patrol on the orders of the 9th Corps Area Command. This aircrew was ordered to fly out to the west to detect any enemy forces threatening Washington and Oregon. As the mission turned out, it was an uneventful observation flight over the Oregon and Washington coasts and the O-47 and crew returned to base.

Subsequently, the squadron was assigned regular shore and off-shore patrols. But regular wasn't always routine. In the week before Christmas, 1941, a spate of Japanese submarine attacks hit the west coast of the United States. Eight American merchant vessels were attacked, with two sunk and two more damaged. As a finale to the week of attacks, eight Japanese submarines patrolling off the west coast were to surface and shell select targets as a deadly Christmas present, then return to Japanese bases.

With the ongoing submarine attacks, the patrols of the 123rd were more important than ever. Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-25 was assigned duty to patrol off the mouth of the Columbia River, and on December 24, was detected by a 123rd Obs. Sq. crew off the mouth of the Columbia River estuary. Afterward, a B-25 Mitchell bomber from McChord Field, Washington, flown by E.W. Holstrom, who would become one of the Doolittle Raiders, attacked this submarine. "We saw the sub on the surface under a rain squall," wrote Brig. Gen Holstrom, USAF (Ret). "Our top turret gunner reported a hit on our second attack. On turning around we saw some oil and debris in the water," he said.

Although there is no confirmation that any Japanese submarine was lost to this attack, it is likely this Army Air Force Observation and Bombardment teamwork contributed to the Japanese fleet command's decision to refrain from the coastal shelling it planned. Information obtained after the war from Japanese records indicated that activities by U.S. anti-submarine forces on the west coast had become "very severe," and thus the shelling was cancelled.

As we commemorate the service and sacrifice of our Armed Forces members at the outbreak of the Second World War, it is good to know that today, as on December 7, 1941, the Oregon Air National Guard's 142nd Fighter Wing is on alert and ready to defend the Pacific Northwestern skies.

Hellis, Lori, TSgt, Oregon ANG, Editor, Guardians of the Pacific Northwest: Oregon Air National Guard, A Commemorative History, 1941-1991, (Oregon ANG, Taylor Publishing Co., 1990), page 13.

"HIJMS Submarine I-25, Tabular Record of Movement," 2002, Revision 2, accessed on 6 December 2010 at: http://www.combinedfleet.com/I-25.htm

"History of the 123d Observation Squadron, Oregon Air National Guard," undated, unattributed, in 142nd Fighter Wing (ORANG) Historical Archives, page 3.

Holmstrom, E.W., B/Gen, USAF (Ret.), Letter of June 18, 1992 to Mr. Fred C. Parish, Secretary/Editor of the 123d Observation Squadron Association, Subject, B-25 attack on submarine off the mouth of the Columbia River on December 24, 1941.

"Japanese Submarines Prowl the U.S. Pacific Coastline in 1941," History Net Staff, June 12, 2006, accessed on 6 December 2010 at: http://www.historynet.com/japanese-submarines-prowl-the-us-pacific-coastline-in-1941.htm/1

"Pacific War, WW2, Japanese Submarines at Pearl Harbor, Order of Battle and Chronology of Operations," updated 23 April 2009, accessed on 6 December 2010 at: http://www.ww2pacific.com/japsubs.html

Parish, Fred C., Editor, 123d Eye - Newsletter of the 123d Observation Squadron Association, Volume I, Number 9 (August, 1992), page 3.

Walter, LeRoy A., M/Sgt, USAF (Ret.), Letter of 5 February 1990 to Mr. Fred C. Parish, 123d Observation Squadron Reunion Committee, Subject, Highlight of Service with the Squadron