HAGERSTOWN, Md. (WDVM) — When more than 400 Japanese warplanes attacked the Pacific Fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Sunday morning December 7th, 1941, Corporal Tom Gilliam was getting ready for a date on the eastern side of Oahu where the military installations were located.
Gilliam was an Army Air Corps medic stationed at Fort Kamehameha, a series of seven coastal artillery batteries protecting the entrance to the harbor.
A captured Japanese attack map shows the first wave of fighters, high-level bombers and low-level torpedo planes attacked Battleship Row on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor at 7:50 a.m. Hawaiian time. A second wave struck an hour later. Tom Gilliam heard a plane coming and saw a Japanese Zero pass 50 feet over his barracks at Fort Kamehameha.
Gilliam told WDVM a Japanese Zero escorting torpedo bombers passed 50-feet over his head, he could see the pilot in the cockpit. “I saw his face, but he didn’t look at me.”
The pilot was apparently focused on Hickham Field directly behind Fort Kamehameha where most of America’s warplanes on Oahu were parked wingtip to wingtip like rubber ducks in a shooting gallery at a county fair back home in Maryland.
The results were devastating. Almost all of the fighters and bombers were destroyed. So were hangars at Hickham.
Tom Gilliam who celebrated his 101st birthday with family and friends at his home in Hagerstown on December 11th, 2021 told me he had no idea what was happening 80 years ago.
“All I heard was the explosions, but I couldn’t see them. We were about a half-mile away from Pearl Harbor,” he said.
Gilliam said that Japanese torpedo bombers bore in on eight battleships, including USS West Virginia, which took six torpedoes and two bombs before settling into the muddy bottom of Pearl Harbor. More than half of the 2,000 people who died on December 7th, 1941 — “a date that will live in infamy” — were killed when an armor-piercing Japanese battleship projectile penetrated the forward powder magazine aboard USS Arizona and exploded.
Anti-aircraft gun batteries on several warships in Pearl Harbor were able to return fire, knocking down about nine Japanese warplanes.
A 3-inch rapid-fire cannon on a pedestal at Battery Hawkins, the smallest of seven fortifications at Fort Kamehameha was able to shoot down a Japanese Zero as it flew over the coastal artillery post. “It fell in the yard in front of the ordnance repair shop,” said Gilliam.
“We went down to the repair shop to get the pilot, but Army officers at the crash site wouldn’t let us touch him,” said Gilliam.
He said he will never know if it was the Japanese pilot he saw as his fighter plane zoomed over Gilliam’s head a few minutes earlier.
Fort Kamehameha was built at the turn of the 20th Century in 1904. Its mission was to protect the entrance to Pearl Harbor, a major stopover for ships crossing the Pacific Ocean from Asian ports to ports in North America.
Fort Kamehameha was named after King Kamehameha, a warrior who united the Hawaiian Islands in the late 17-hundreds.
King Kamehameha’s 18-foot tall golden statue stands in front of Hawaii’s Supreme Court Building in downtown Honolulu and is a favorite tourist attraction.
Like other Pearl Harbor Survivors, Tom Gilliam is still amazed at the amount of destruction done to America’s Pacific Fleet on December 7th, 1941.