An Airman’s Pearl Harbor Survival Story

  • Published
  • By Ashley M. Wright
  • 22nd ARW Public Affairs
Sitting at the Hickam Field, Hawaii, switchboard while covering a work shift for a friend, he heard machine gun fire from outside. His first thought was that his mother told him not to join the service. It was too late now.

Covering this shift for his fellow Airman would alter then Private Mike Schaeffer’s life. Now retired Master Sgt. Schaeffer, 94, currently residing in Hays, Kansas, originally enlisted in the Army, but was later recruited to serve in the Army Air Corps as an aerial radio operator and aerial gunner.

“I was assigned to a crew in the B-18 Bolo,” said the Reading, Pennsylvania, native. “That was our main bomber at that time. The only good thing about a B-18 is that if you were shot down over water, it would float.”

He was soon doing search missions monitoring the waters surrounding the island.

“Get up, have breakfast, get in your plane and go search. The B-18 was a good search plane,” he said of the routine.

On Dec. 6, 1941, Schaeffer was working on the phone switchboard from midnight to 8 a.m.

Suddenly, a transmission came in.

“Tora! Tora! Tora!” the Japanese radioed as their surprise attack was launched on the American forces in Hawaii.

Although Schaeffer was an aerial radio operator and waist gunner, at 7:53 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, he was just trying to survive like everyone else.

“The noises became louder, and when things started shaking and rattling and parts of the ceiling came down, I ran out in the hangar, over to the end where the large doors were,” Schaeffer said. “I saw many fires, aircraft burning, and buildings afire [...] Three aircraft came flying very low across the field firing their wing guns [...] As they passed by, I saw the big red [insignia] on the sides of their aircraft!”

Other Airmen came up waiting for instructions, Schaeffer recalled. Everybody wanted a gun. They broke the door down in the armory and started handing out weapons.

“They gave me a shotgun; a shotgun," he said. "Really nice gun when you go out duck hunting."

Soon, Schaeffer and another Airman were ordered to move the few B-17 Flying Fortresses on the field to a “safe” location.

The two pushed the B-17 to a grassy area to make a less easy target for the Japanese Zeros and their pilots. The Airmen were ordered to stay until a sergeant returned with machine guns that were to be mounted on the B-17s, Schaeffer said.

The enemy was still strafing the field with bullets. Fractions of seconds and inches behind cover meant the difference between life and death.

“I was trying to be small,” Schaeffer said. “I jumped out the plane and hid behind the front landing gear. It was not a good place to hide, but I made it; I didn’t get hit.”

After the wave of attacks subsided, leadership decided three working B-18s were going after the enemy. Schaeffer was selected as a gunner for the mission.

“We took off, and I can still see myself,” he said. “I remember how scared I was. Then, I was thinking of what I learned in gunnery school. We were out seven-and-a-half hours, and we never did catch up [to the Japanese].”

By the time the crew returned to Hickam, night had fallen and there were no landing lights around the runway. Finally, a searchlight was turned on and the crew permitted to land, but not without being shot at.

“It had been a long day. It was really mixed up,” he said. “The pilot decided to look over the side at the harbor. All the battleships were sunk. Then we finally landed, and I went to bed for a long snooze.”

The floor where Schaeffer lived in the barracks was destroyed. His stamp collection, photos, clothes and even his helmet were burnt to nothing. All he could find of his possessions was a Planters Peanut Can used to hold loose change—17 pennies blackened by fire were all he had left.

The crew slept under the wings of the aircraft that night. The base was destroyed and the lives of 139 Airmen were lost with an additional 303 wounded from the attacks, according to the Hickam Air Force Base Factsheet.

In total, Schaeffer flew 95 combat missions in the Pacific and amassed seven Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Silver Star, an Air Medal and a few other achievements.

Every few years he would return to Pearl Harbor, and even brought his three sons on a few reunions, but not this year.

“I feel sad because I am going to miss this one,” he said as he reflected about the 75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor. “We had great gatherings together. There are not too many left.”