As he maneuvered his unarmed B-17 bomber over the island of Oahu, U.S. Army Lt. Robert Thacker was puzzled.
It should have been a peaceful Sunday morning in Hawaii.
Water spouts just offshore?
“Whales!” a crew member guessed.
A plume of black smoke up ahead?
“They’re burning off cane fields,” another suggested.
Thirteen empty, defenseless bombers were flying in from California. Thacker’s crew called the air-traffic control tower at Hickam Field. No answer. After 14 hours, the bombers were to land at 8 a.m. Dec. 7, 1941.
“I said, ‘I can see which way the wind is blowing,’” recalled Thacker, now 99 years old and living in San Clemente. “‘We’ve got to land.’”
Thacker dropped his flaps, got the landing gear down and headed over Ford Island – over the middle of Pearl Harbor.
Then, Thacker said, this:
“Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow!”
This week marks the 76th anniversary of the Japanese sneak-attack on Pearl Harbor. About 2,400 American service members died, hundreds of which were forever entombed at the harbor’s bottom. Thacker, a retired colonel in the Air Force (that branch was created after he entered the Army), who served in the Pacific and European theaters of World War II, and in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, recalled that day.
Thacker was born nine months before World War I ended and has always loved airplanes. In El Centro as a youth, he would wash down aircraft at the tiny commercial airport for free rides into the sky.
He went to junior college, then applied to the U.S. Navy and the Army Air Corps. The Army took him.
On Dec. 1, 1941, while stationed in Salt Lake City, Thacker received an assignment: He and a dozen other pilots would fly the new E model of Boeing’s B-17 bomber, a technological marvel, from California to the Philippines – via Hawaii.
The United States had already frozen Japanese assets and cut off trade. Now the military was moving bombers to Japan’s doorstep.
The 13 bombers took off from Hamilton Field, north of San Francisco, on the night of Dec. 6. The crews were green: Each bomber’s navigator was a cadet who had to find their way by the stars.
Two planes had to turn back, and the 11 others approached Pearl Harbor from every which way.
“I had one night flight with that gentleman,” Thacker said. “He hit Diamond Head right on the nose after 2,500 miles of celestial navigation.”
That, of course, put his crew in the middle of a war zone: 350 Japanese planes,…