On Celestial Wings
by Col. Edgar Whitcomb
Colonel Edgar Whitcomb, former Governor of Indiana, served as an Army Aircorps Navigator in the Philippines during World War II. This issue features a segment from his book, On Celestial Wings. The section reprinted here is taken from Chapter 4, â€œAttack on Clark Field,â€ which chronicles the first Japanese attack on American forces in the Philippines. When the Americans were forced to surrender, Col. Whitcomb became a prisoner of war on the island of Corregidor, from which he later escaped. Governor Whitcomb now lives in Hayden, Indiana, and will be a featured speaker at the World War II Veterans Committeeâ€™s Sixth Annual Conference.
Chapter 4: Attack on Clark Field
Back at headquarters, I busied myself with sorting maps until Colonel Eubank returned from Manilla and called a meeting. We assembled on the street in front of the headquarters building at about 1030. There the colonel reported the bewildering news that he had been unable to get authority to fly a bombing mission. He had gone to the headquarters of Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, commander of the Far East Air Force. General Brereton, the top Air Corps officer in the Philippines, had not been able to see General MacArthur. Brereton talked to Gen. Richard K. Sutherland, MacArthurâ€™s chief of staff, who ordered three B-17â€™s to fly reconnaissance missions to Formosa but did not authorize a bombing mission.
Still nothing happened. We waited and speculated. We had no way of knowing that fog covered the airfields at Formosa that morning, nor did we know that there were some 600 plans on the ground there. Had we been able to fly a reconnaissance mission to Formosa that morning, it is certain that we would have received a warm and overwhelming reception.
The long worrisome morning whiled away and again I hurried to the mess hall for a quick meal. As I departed the hall, George Berkowitz, a classmate and fellow navigator, was just coming in for lunch. He reported that nothing had changed at headquarters.
Suspense filled the air, yet we felt helpless. There was no question that America was at war. We all wanted to fly. We were ready.
There was no warning at headquarters of Japanese planes approaching Clark Field. Despite all our warning systems and all the reconnaissance missions we had flown, the Japanese caught us by surprise. The first notice we had at the 19th Bombardment Group Headquarters was when someone screamed, â€œHere they come!â€
At that moment, the bombs were on their way. I dove into a trench about 30 feet to the rear of the headquarters building. Explosions rocked the ground and sent shock waves through my body. Other bodies crushed me to the dark bottom of the trench until my face and body pushed into the pounding earth. The explosions continued and the earth seemed to heave with each blast. We learned later that there had been two waves of 27 high-flying bombers each. Bombs hit the officersâ€™ mess hall, many planes on the flight line, and the hangar area. At the time I did not know that Berkowitz had suffered disaster as he left the mess hall.