In the line of fire


POSTED: Sunday, December 07, 2008

The first shot of any conflict is legendary, like the 1775 encounter at Lexington and Concord—“;The shot heard 'round the world”;—and for the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, the first shot was made by young Wilfred “;Fred”; Toczko, on guard duty on the Hickam Field flight line. On Dec. 7, 1941, Toczko used his pistol to take on dozens of Imperial Navy aircraft.

Toczko was typical of many Air Corps recruits of the era, young and ambitious and eager to escape the farm.

“;We had our choice of assignments—Panama, the Philippines or Hawaii—and of course I accepted Hawaii,”; Toczko recalled in an interview prior to returning to the islands on the anniversary of the attack.

Arriving for the first time in Honolulu, Toczko recalls being loaded into an open boxcar on the Pineapple narrow-gauge railway and getting off at Wheeler Field. “;After a couple weeks of recruit training—close-order drill, how to use a gas mask, how to fire a .45 pistol—they sent us down to Hickam Field, which was under construction. The barracks weren't completed, so we lived in the hangar!”;

Toczko wound up in the 72nd Bomb Squadron, part of the 5th Bomb Group, in turn part of the 7th Air Force, known then as the Hawaiian or “;Pineapple”; Air Force. By late 1941, Toczko was studying aviation mechanics and taking flight lessons “;at John Rodgers Field, a dirt strip that's now Honolulu International Airport.”;

On the morning of Dec. 7, Toczko was assigned guard duty. “;I was a private first class, and so I reported to the flight line with a .45 pistol and 21 rounds of ammunition. We were expecting a flight of airplanes from the mainland, the first big resupply mission to Hawaii. So, I'm standing out there between 7:30 and 8 in the morning, watching the sky. Out of the east, above the Koolau Mountains, I saw this airplane come out of the sky, a dive bomber, and it releases this bomb over Pearl Harbor. I'm thinking, oh, the Navy's practicing again ... and then a big explosion comes up!

“;From the ocean, from the south of Hickam, here come a bunch of Japanese torpedo bombers, down on the deck over Hickam, maybe 50 to 100 feet from me. Here's this character in the back seat, shooting everything in sight with his machine gun.

“;What do I do? I see this red ball on the plane. Must be a war going on! I pull my .45 pistol and I started shooting! Of course, I ran out of ammunition pretty quick.”;

Toczko dashed back into the hangar and helped break open the armament shack, pulling out a machine gun on an anti-aircraft tripod. “;We set it up in front of the hangar. We're getting ready to fire it when some guy in the infantry said, 'You can't shoot that gun! It's water-cooled. You don't have any water in your reservoir!'

“;So the operations sergeant and I ran back into the hangar to get some water. In the meantime, the Japanese have bombed the barracks and what they thought was our underground fuel supply, but it was our water tank. No water in the hangar! We see a Coke machine, and take a fire ax and break it open and grab bottles, and fill the reservoir with Coke, so we can fire our guns. You know, things go better with Coke!”;

Toczko says he's “;kind of hazy about the rest of the day,”; a long afternoon of moving flaming airframes, taking care of the dead and wounded and setting up defenses. “;I know we moved our airplanes back to the dispersal areas and retrieved some of the Japanese aircraft wrecked on base.”;

There were more battles to come for Toczko, on the other side of the world, but those first shots of World War II have stayed in his memory and become part of the lore of Dec. 7, 1941.