Roy Reid shortly before his 90th birthday with a B-17 Flying Fortress in the background. (Inset) Twenty-year-old Second Lieutenant Roy Reid at the beginning of World War II.
By Larry Cavender
It was a beautiful early Sunday morning, blue skies and clear flying. As a copilot of a plane headed to a tropical island, he was looking forward to some down time. Maybe he'd soak up some sun on a beach and swim in the surf. Maybe he'd just stroll through town, see the sights, and do some shopping. Maybe, he'd go to a club and listen to some music. Swing music was popular, and "Chattanooga Choo Choo" by Glenn Miller was the number one hit in the nation. It was early December, less than three weeks 'til Christmas, and all seemed right in his world.
But, all was not right with the world. The island Second Lieutenant Ernest L. "Roy" Reid was headed to was Oahu. His destination was Hickam Field just north of Pearl Harbor. The date was December 7, 1941.
As it was for all Americans, Roy Reid's world was about to change drastically. The Japanese, flying Zekes, Kates and Vals, innocuous sounding names for not so innocuous warplanes, launched from aircraft carriers northwest of Hawaii, were already beginning to lay down destruction to the United States' most important naval port in the Pacific. And, Reid was flying into the proverbial hornet's nest. He was the co-pilot of a B-17 bomber, the first American plane shot down at Pearl Harbor.
Radar was still in its infancy then, yet radar operators, who only monitored the radar screens for just three hours per day, happened to be on duty this fateful morning. The radar had picked up a large number of aircraft headed toward the island. When reported to the officer on duty, he dismissed the radar blips, because there was a squadron of B-17's flying in from the mainland that morning. The blips were probably just these friendly airplanes. Lieutenant Reid's plane was one of the unlucky thirteen B-17's in that squadron of friendlies.
After the 15-hour flight from Hamilton Field in San Francisco, as Reid's Flying Fortress was passing Diamond Head, he looked at his watch. "It was 8:00 a. m. I remember the exact time because I had to fill out a status report on our engines every hour on the hour." It was then Reid spotted smoke billowing on the near horizon. At 7:55 a. m., only five minutes earlier, the Japanese had begun their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Upon making his landing approach, Reid spied at least six airplanes burning on the ground at Hickam Field. At this point, three Japanese Zeroes jumped his tail and started firing. "When we got down to about 500 feet, there were bullets ricocheting all through the plane and they ignited the emergency flares amidships. Then we caught fire," Reid said as he reminisced about that fateful day. "The only thing I remembered was a quick flash in the cockpit! By then, we knew there was a war going on." With two wounded crewmembers on board, the B-17 crash-landed and broke into two pieces.
Wounded in the leg, flight surgeon 1st Lieutenant William R.Schick scrambled from the wrecked aircraft seeking cover in a nearby hangar. The Zeroes circled and strafed again, striking Schick in the head as he ran across the tarmac. He was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital where he refused care, insisting those he thought to be more seriously wounded be treated first. Schick died later that afternoon, the only member of Reid's B-17 crew to be killed that day.
Reid, pilot Captain Raymond T. Swenson, and the other eight members of the B-17 crew also ran from the burning wreckage and sought shelter. "We ran into a hangar to search for weapons," Reid said. "A sergeant was passing out pistols. We got our weapons and started to leave. The sergeant screamed, 'Hey, you forgot to sign for those weapons!' I don't think you can print what we told him."
Reid and his crew barely escaped injury in the second wave which struck 45 minutes after the first attack. He said he saw several Japanese planes had "peeled off and were working over Hickam Field." The destruction on Battleship Row was not actually witnessed by Reid and his crew. "Hickam Field is about a mile away, and you can't see Pearl Harbor from there, but you could sure see the tremendous black smoke."
"We couldn't help very much," Reid said. "So we decided to find the Officers Club to regroup and gather information." Amazingly, amid the chaos, Reid managed to phone a cable operator. He sent what may have been the final cable out of Hawaii that day. It was addressed to his wife, Shirley, whom he had married only six months before. It read: "Am Safe, Wire Mother, Love, Roy."
While walking down the edge of the runway the following day, Reid said, " I looked in awe at what was left of our plane. I climbed up into the cockpit. I discovered four bullet holes in the armor plate behind my seat. I was one of the lucky ones on the Day of Infamy."
Others were not so lucky. As a result of the surprise attack, 2,235 United States servicemen were killed including more than 1,100 on the battleship USS Arizona alone. Another 1,143 servicemen were wounded. Civilians were also victims in the Japanese attack, including 68 fatalities and 35 wounded. The Japanese lost only 65 men with one captured.
Roy Reid's B-17 was one of more than 180 U. S. aircraft destroyed. In addition, eight battleships were sunk or damaged including the aforementioned Arizona, as well as the USS Oklahoma, California, West Virginia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Tennessee. A number of other ships were sunk or damaged including six cruisers and four destroyers. One of the prime targets of the Japanese in the surprise attack were U. S. aircraft carriers, but luckily, they were not in port on December 7th. The USS Enterprise was enroute from Wake Island, the USS Lexington was ferrying aircraft to Midway Island, and the USS Saratoga was undergoing repairs on the mainland. Only five months later, both the Lexington and Enterprise would see action in the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Enterprise would also contribute greatly to the Allied victory at Midway a month later in June of 1942.
Two months after the Pearl Harbor attack, Lieutenant Roy Reid finally left Hawaii when he was assigned to the Fifth Air Force, 43rd Bomber Command, 8th Photo Recon Squadron and flew to Australia. From there, he went to New Guinea where he completed 49 bombing missions in the B-17 Flying Fortress including several against the heavily fortified Japanese base at Rabaul. Promoted to Captain, Roy Reid served the duration of the war as a B-17 pilot and was highly decorated receiving numerous awards including the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and two Silver Stars, the nation's second highest award for valor, second only to the Medal of Honor.
Like others of "The Greatest Generation" who served in World War II, Roy Reid looked forward to returning home after the war, settling down to raise a family, and living a peaceful life. After his discharge, he completed his education at Yale University and then moved to Long Island, New York with his wife, Shirley, and worked for a while as a manager of a Macy's Department Store. But it wasn't long until duty called again. After the outbreak of the Korean Conflict, Reid was recalled and during this tour of duty, he decided to make the Air Force a career. Promoted eventually to full Colonel, Reid's Air Force career spanned twenty-eight years and extended into the Vietnam War.
After serving with distinction for nearly three decades, Reid finally settled into a much deserved peaceful existence. He began a successful second career in real estate and eventually moved south living at times in North Carolina and Florida. In 2006, Roy Reid found his way to Pickens County where he lived in Jasper for nearly two years. About eight years ago, he moved closer to his family and took up residence in Canton. His daughter, Joan, is married to Cherokee County Commission Chairman L. B. "Buzz" Ahrens. The 93 year-old veteran and World War II hero has since moved again to Florida where he resides in an assisted living home.
On Memorial Day weekend, it is always appropriate to honor veterans. Especially "The Greatest Generation" who served our nation so well during World War II and whom we are losing at a rate of over 1,000 per day.
[We would like to express our appreciation to the family of Mr. Reid, who made transcripts and other information from him available after his relocation to Florida.]