Note: This article is based on a section of Race of Aces that we edited out after the first draft. Still, it is one of my favorite pieces of writing, as I grew up in Bay Area and in 2017 visited many of the places mentioned here. Photos from that trip are interlaced through the text.
Race of Aces is available now at bookstores and on-line sites everywhere.
May 3, 1942
San Francisco Bay Area
The intruder appeared on a spring Sunday night when the San Francisco Bay glittered silver under the light of a full moon. Europeans would have called that a “bomber’s moon.” They hated such nights, for a full moon helped guide enemy planes to their cities. A bomber’s moon meant a maximum effort; no sleep for those on the ground and a firestorm of high explosives would likely engulf their cities again.
At U.S. Army Radio Station B3, the night watch stood a vigil over the City by the Bay. Twenty-five hundred feet atop Mount Tamalpais, just north of the Golden Gate, B3 wasn’t really a radio station at all. That was just a name designed to throw off the Japanese fifth column assumed to be hard at work detailing California’s defenses.
Instead, B3 was a top secret, state-of-the-art radar site, and its electronic wizardry could detect Japanese planes up to a hundred and ten miles away. Only a few talented operators truly understood the new technology, but the men on the mountain above San Francisco were among the best at it.
At 10:50 that night, the radar crew spotted the intruder. The blip on their oscilloscope bloomed about seventy miles west of Marin County out over the Pacific Ocean. Heading east at almost two hundred miles an hour, it was way out of the normal air lanes used by friendly aircraft.
Radio Station B3 got on the “hot phone” and called it up the chain of command as Target #25. Word of the contact reached IV Interceptor Command’s operations room at headquarters in Oakland less than ninety seconds later. Female civilian volunteers, holding long poles that resembled pool cues, stood around a massive table map of the San Francisco area on the ops room’s main floor. When a new contact was spotted, their job was to lay down a target stand with an arrow showing its direction. Every thirty seconds the plot would be updated. In a world before computers, human power did the calculating.
The senior officer in the ops room, known as the Controller, sat on a second floor balcony that overlooked the plotting map. He stared at the target stand thinking about potential destinations. A slight turn, it could hit the Mare Island Shipyard. A sharper turn, and the target could hit San Francisco from the north.
They had to be certain Target #25 was not a wayward friendly. He turned to his staff and ordered them to run down the identity of the contact. The Navy, Army Air Force and Civilian Aeronautics Administration stationed officers on the balcony. They grabbed phones and checked with their people. Any flight plans approved for this time and location? Could a plane be off course?
At 10:54, the replies came in. “Not one of ours.”
The Controller notified his chain of command. Meanwhile, the incoming aircraft vanished off B3’s radar scope.
Did it change course?
The last report from Tamalpais suggested Target #25 could be either a single aircraft or a small, tight formation of several. Either way, it wasn’t friendly. That meant there were Japanese ships somewhere off the California coast.
The Federal Communications Commission got involved at 11:00 on the dot. Enemy planes could use radio signals to guide them through the night to their target areas. Without any idea where Target #25 was heading, IV Interceptor Command ordered full radio silence from the Central Valley north to Eureka.
Ten minutes later, citizens of the Bay Area listening to late night radio were the first to learn something was wrong. The NBC affiliate in the city, KGO, went dark just as the newscaster covered the latest from Corregidor. On another local station, KPO, Harry Owens and his orchestra kicked off their half hour set. Both suddenly vanished, words and music replaced by the unsettling hiss of static. Husbands and wives sitting in their living rooms around the family’s Philco radio exchanged nervous glances. Was this another drill?
The bomber’s moon suggested otherwise.
As alarm spread through the neighborhoods and farms all over the Bay south to Fresno, the Controller at the ops center prepared to do battle. Anti-aircraft guns went to full alert, manned and ready with orders to shoot anything that came into range. Searchlight crews stood by their massive devices, sweeping the sky for the enemy raiders.
At Mill’s Field—present day San Francisco International Airport—two Curtiss P-40 Warhawk interceptors prepared to take off into the night. Two more waited at Oakland Airport, and other fighters readied to launch at Hamilton Field across the Bay, their pilots already in the cockpits, engines warmed up.
Three minutes after the radio stations left the air, the Controller turned to his Civil Air Raid Warning officer and told him to kill the lights.
From Monterey north to Bodega Bay lights went off. Dozens of air raid sirens around San Francisco proper wailed to life as the city went dark. Trolleys trudging up the city’s legendary hills on their last runs of the night were bathed in darkness. The city planned for such moments by painting white “blackout stars” at intervals along the tracks so the blinded drivers could find a stopping point.
The trolleys braked to a halt. Cars throughout the city pulled over and the drivers hustled out to peer upward from nearby doorways. Trains, busses, cars on the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate all came to dead stops as darkness enfolded them. Lit only by the bomber’s moon, the people aboard sat in vehicles, trapped on the bridges that surely the Japanese considered prime targets. At least one woman stuck on the Bay Bridge picked up some knitting and went to work. Panic was not an acceptable response that night.
Nor was ignoring the blackout order. Volunteer wardens rushed through their assigned blocks, blowing whistles at anyone whose dwellings showed even a spearpoint of light their curtains. Some business were slow to respond. Neon lights along the waterfront continued to blaze as the rest of the city went dark. A seventy-three year old air raid warden saw a light on his block and rushed to dim it. As he did, the tension of the moment proved too much for him. He died of a heart attack while trying to unscrew the bulb.
In March, the Navy issued shoot to kill orders around the Marina district for anyone violating a blackout. The sentries guarding the docks took this seriously. When a cabbie failed to douse his headlights, they shot into his vehicle and narrowly missed his head.
The military killing American civilians who forgot to turn a light off may seem extreme today, but it was not to San Franciscans of 1942. They’d seen the newsreels depicting the destruction Nazi bombers wrought on London during the Blitz. Others showed the Japanese carpet bombing cities in China. After Pearl Harbor, the war no longer seemed far from the Pacific surf lapping the beach at 19th Avenue. Indeed, San Franciscans were among the first mainland Americans to be touched by it when a crippled British cruiser limped under the Golden Gate the previous summer. The ship docked at Mare Island for repairs with over a hundred dead still aboard, killed in German air attacks off Crete weeks before. The locals watched as the British carried their dead from the ship’s battle scarred hull, loaded them into an American ship and took them back out past the Golden Gate to be buried at sea.
The idea that somebody’s son or husband could be summarily dumped overboard off the California coast left a deep impression on the citizens of San Francisco. A few months later, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they knew lives would be shattered here at home. The telegrams began arriving the next day, and San Francisco felt the war in its heart, if not in its streets.
The wounded followed the telegrams as ships arrived filled with victims of the surprise attack. The burnt and traumatized men flowed into the hospitals. Those who could speak told stories of flashing Japanese bombers, strafing Zeroes and a Nisei fifth column that stabbed Hawaii in the back.
Then, the first floating wrecks arrived under tow, bound for Mare Island’s repair yards. Teams of workers descended on these warships to repair them. There were no days off. Three shifts, twenty-four hours a day, the shipyard workers labored furiously as if their families and homes depended on these vessels returning to war.
Meanwhile, the downtown bars became hubs of gossip, each one a node amplifying tidbits gleaned from the returning warriors. The gossip grew so pervasive after the ships’ crews spent their liberties in the Marina district bars, getting drunk and sharing tales of the Pearl Harbor attack, that the Navy launched a full counter-offensive against idle talk. Intelligence teams went out and recruited fifteen hundred bar tenders to act as the navy’s ears in their establishments. If they spotted anyone in uniform talking out of turn, they were to report them immediately. Cabbies and desk clerks, hotel bellhops all joined the eavesdropping effort.
One bartender reported a young lieutenant who repeated a story that the Japanese fifth column had actually operated a short wave radio from the basement of the Marine Corps barracks at Ewa Field on Hawaii just after Pearl Harbor. Later in December, a search team found the transmitter and several Japanese clustered around it and shot them dead.
Navy investigators in San Francisco looked into this yarn and found most of that to be spurious. There was in fact a Japanese-American ham radio operator who had nothing to do with Ewa Field, or any enemy fifth column. His radio gear had been confiscated without anyone getting shot. The Japanese-American ended up serving with five of his brothers in the U.S. armed forces, and the lieutenant spreading the rumor was severely punished.
Stopping the spread of gossip one rumor at a time was like throwing bricks in the Grand Canyon—pointless. A macro effort was needed, and so that spring, the government declared war on words. The Navy hired a cadre of Madison Avenue PR-types to create catch phrases for easy public consumption reminding them to keep their mouths shut. Among the early drafts sent out to the acquiescent media outlets were such rough drafts as:
Words are like razors—they may cut your throat.
The idle tongue carries death in its wag.
Speak fitly or be silently wise.
Finally, some genius streamlined the message: loose lips sink ships. The message stuck, and some well-intentioned, patriotic Americans began reporting on their neighbors, friends and associates when they overheard war rumors. The military offices in the Bay Area received letters detailing which soldier or officers said what, where and when.
Nevertheless, the stories of broken, dying men pulled from the flaming wreckage of America’s battle line spread through the civilian population. The fleet had been crippled, that became common knowledge long before the navy officially admitted the full extent of the loses at Pearl. In those nodes of the Bay Area’s grapevine, the people realized the precariousness of their situation. The Japanese seemed strong and victorious everywhere; America weak and defeated. With the battleships gone, the Army Air Force’s planes smashed, what was to stop the Japanese from sweeping to the California shores?
In this context, shooting a cabby for violating the blackout didn’t seem extreme. Not after Japanese submarines shelled Santa Barbara, sank ships off shore and machine-gunned survivors in their lifeboats. The cruelty of battle lay just over the horizon, and the whispers of it fueled the fear.
Reports of sabotage by a Japanese fifth column spread through California. A railroad bridge destroyed by fire was blamed on Nisei saboteurs, as was an industrial explosion at a shipyard. Reports from the Philippines pointed to an intricate network of spies who helped pave the way for the Japanese invasion. Why would it not be the same way in California? When thousands of second-generation Japanese-Americans renounced their citizenship after Pearl Harbor and set about traveling to Japan to serve in its military, the first steps were taken to round up all Japanese-Americans into camps.
South of San Francisco, the Federal government incarcerated eight thousand Japanese-Americans at a former race track. Some of the prisoners lived in the horse stables. Before the war, these men and women had been part of California’s prosperous middle class. Now, their government threw them into hay and muck while “permanent” internment camps were completed elsewhere.
Then their flyers began to do die. Aircraft crashes were rarities in pre-war life that garned headlines in the local papers. As the Army Air Force and Navy flung farm kids into cockpits and tried to teach them how to survive at the controls of advanced aircraft full of untested technology, crashes took place every day in California. Residents around Hamilton Field heard the whine of overrevved engines like mechanical death wails. They felt the explosions like earthquakes rocking the ground. They learned to live with sights of crash boats fishing the bodies out of the bay, or search crews picking remains out of hillsides strewn with wreckage when pilots slammed into the coastal mountains in bad weather. The crashes grew so frequent that by May, the newspapers barely gave a fatal one more than an inch or two of ink.
Life lost some of its value, replaced by the need of the country to field a modern air force capable of defeating Hitler’s blooded veterans. The rest of the world had a two-year head start, and to catch up meant casualties. Young men died; their families mourned. For others, these micro-tragedies just became a feature of the new landscape. They also reminded everyone that the world California knew on December 6, 1941, no longer existed.
Under the bomber’s moon, San Francisco braced for attack that night. The sirens wailed, families retreated into basements or make-shift bomb shelters. Thousands of other patriotic Americans turned out to man their volunteer civil defense stations. For months as San Francisco expected an air raid, small mountains of sand piled up on street corners, ready to be used to smother flames should bombs cause the water system to fail. Every block had a warden, an aid station staffed by volunteers, and a pre-teen bicycle messenger cadre pulled from the local chapter of the Junior Victory Army. When Japanese bombs finally did fall, each San Francisco block would fight the flames and destruction as an organic team of neighbors and friends. If the volunteers couldn’t contain the devastation, they could call on the firefighters and medical personnel waiting to respond to the worst hit areas.
When the Mayor called for volunteers for this civil defense network, fifteen thousand San Franciscans responded. A hundred and fifty thousand more from California to Washington manned the aircraft observer corps’ chain of outposts. The military wasn’t just mobilizing for war, the entire civilian population on the West Coast mobilized for it as well.
The lights stayed off that spring night for almost an hour. The people of Northern California held their breath, stifling fear as they huddled together in their shelters. At 11:28, Radio Station B3 picked up the contact again. This time, they tracked it heading back out to sea northwest of the Golden Gate. The radar crew watched it melt away to the west. Six minutes later, they lost the contact for good.
The anti-aircraft crews received the stand down order. The block wardens in San Francisco sent their people home just before midnight when the all-clear siren broke the tension. The cars and busses trapped on the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate fired up their engines and puttered on their way. The train began to run again. The radio stations returned to the air just in time to sign off for the night. No information was given. Wartime secrecy meant a compliant media willing to not report things everyone had known had happened.
At station B3, the watch changed and fresh eyes stared at the oscilloscope, waiting and wondering what would happen next.
The same thing happened at IV Interceptor Command. The plot was deemed a valid contact, not a flock of geese or some errant friendly plane. What did it mean? The intelligence officers gathered to talk it over.
A small formation, or a single plane, meant a recce mission or a nuisance raid. Possibly, a Japanese aircraft carrier task force lay somewhere west, hidden in the fog. More likely, a raiding cruiser or long-range submarine had launched its float planes to scout the coast’s defenses. That was the most plausible explanation for what happened that night.
Combined with top secret intelligence reports suggesting a series of major Japanese offensives would soon be unleashed, the idea that San Francisco was being snooped by an aerial scout left the Army Air Force jittery. They called for reinforcements, and soon fighter squadrons protecting New York and New Jersey would be on their way to bulk up the Bay Area’s air defenses. In the meantime, the fighter squadrons at Hamilton Field, Oakland and Mills would stand alert, weapons loaded, ready to take off at a moment’s notice to protect the citizens by the bay.
After midnight, those shaken citizens of San Francisco emerged from their basements and bomb shelters. The lights came back on, providing whatever sense of normalcy remained in a world where seemingly at any moment, their lives could be torn apart by bombs and fire. As heads hit pillows, thoughts turned away from what lay over the horizon. To focus on that meant a night bereft of sleep since the future seemed bleak indeed.
To the south of the Bay Area, in the heart of the San Juaquin Valley, two young aviators rode out the alert in a Fresno hotel room. They’d been driving from Luke Field, Arizona en route to Hamilton Field, where the Army Air Force assigned them to an interceptor squadron tasked with defending San Francisco. Neither claimed to be experienced pilots. Second Lieutenant Richard “Dick” Bong had graduated from flight training only a few months earlier. He’d been training other pilots since as an instructor at Luke. His fellow pilot, Danny Robertson, was equally inexperienced. Together, they were part of a steady stream of reinforcements flowing to the squadrons defending the West Coast.
The night of the air raid alert, they drove into Fresno from Anaheim. They grabbed a late dinner and returned to their hotel shortly before the contact first flared on B3’s radar oscilloscope. Though exhausted from the travel, the two young men took turns writing letters home to their parents on the single desk between their hotel room’s beds. They were either still writing, or just ready to turn in for the night when the radio stations left the air and the lights went out all over Northern California.
If Dick Bong held any illusions that duty at Hamilton Field would be a cushy Stateside gig like his time at Luke, the air raid scare that night put that notion to rest. The West Coast wasn’t a backwater to the Pacific War; the military and citizens of California considered the Golden State part of the front lines. The enemy was coming. It would be his job to help stop them as part of San Francisco’s first line of defense.
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