Attacks on Airfields and Aerial Combat
Military and Naval aircraft at Oahu's airfields were second only to battleships among the Japanese target priorities, though the reason was different. While Pearl Harbor's battleships represented American strategic "reach", and had to be eliminated to safeguard Japan's offensive into Southeast Asia and the East Indies, Oahu's aircraft had to be taken out for a more immediate reason: to protect the Pearl Harbor attack force. U.S. fighter planes, if they could get into the air in any numbers, would be a serious threat to Japanese bombers. U.S. Army bombers and Navy patrol planes potentially imperiled the Striking Force's invaluable aircraft carriers.
The Japanese first attack wave therefore assigned many fighters and bombers to airbase supression, the fighters to set planes afire with machine gun and cannon fire and the bombers to wreck them with high explosives. The second attack wave also had airfield strikes among its tasks. Wheeler Army Airfield, in central Oahu, was Hawaii's main fighter base. It was heavily attacked. Of some 140 planes on the ground there, mainly P-40 and P-36 pursuits, nearly two-thirds were destroyed or put out of action. A similar proportion of the B-17, B-18 and A-20 bombers at Hickam Army Airfield, adjacent to the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, was also wrecked or damaged enough to keep them grounded. Many men were killed at Hickam when the Japanese bombed their barracks. Smaller Bellows Field in eastern Oahu was also hit, destroying several P-40s, including two whose pilots courageously attempted to take off in the teeth of the enemy onslaught.
U.S. Navy and Marine Corps air stations on Pearl Harbor's Ford Island, at Ewa to the west of Pearl and at Kaneohe Bay near Bellows Field, also received concentrated attention from the raiders. Ewa's aircraft complement, mainly carrier-type bombers and fighters, was reduced from nearly fifty operational planes to less than twenty. Ford Island and Kaneohe, home to several squadrons of long-range PBY patrol seaplanes, were massively attacked, with Ford Island losing about half its planes and Kaneohe all but a few.
These very successful Japanese strikes thus prevented any significant aerial opposition, though the few Army fighters that got airborne gave a good account of themselves. Later on December Seventh, surviving bombers and patrol planes were sent out to search for the Japanese carriers. They found nothing and confronted considerable "friendly" anti-aircraft gunfire when they returned to their bases.