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Hays man remembers Japanese attack

12/7/2012

By RANDY GONZALES

rgonzales@dailynews.net

It was a lazy Sunday morning, similar to countless others before it.

Mike Schaeffer was filling in for someone else on the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift at the telephone switchboard at Hickam Field. A member of the Army Air Corps, he was listening to a Sunday morning religious program on the radio while reading a book on aerial navigation.

It was Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941.

Just before 8 a.m., the Japanese launched their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and the air bases at Hickam Field and Wheeler Field.

"Hickam Field and Wheeler Field, the air bases, were hit first," said Schaeffer, a resident at Sterling House who moved to Hays to be closer to family. "They wanted to get the aircraft out of the way.

"I remember looking at my watch. It was 5 minutes to 8. I heard these boom, boom, boom, rat-a-tat-tat -- just like in the movies."

It was the sound of bombs exploding and machine gun fire as Japanese Zeros strafed the field, wiping out most of the obsolete B-18 bombers.

Schaeffer looked outside and saw the planes burning as Japanese fighters took turns swooping in low, looking for targets.

"I saw the planes flying back and forth, the Zeros," Schaeffer said. "I even saw the faces when they buzzed by."

Schaeffer, a country farm boy from Pennsylvania who was 19, couldn't figure out what was happening.

"It was a surprise to me, it really was a surprise. I didn't even know they were mad at us," he said. "I couldn't comprehend it. It was too much for a young kid."

The Japanese sent in a second wave of fighters, just after 9 in the morning.

"They didn't really have anything to blow up anymore," said Schaeffer, who was handed a shotgun and ordered to fire at the fighters.

During that second wave, a fighter came bearing down on Schaeffer, guns blazing.

"Now this is where I experienced what fear is," Schaeffer said. "I watched these planes come across (the air field), their wing guns were firing -- the sod was flying, just like in the movies.

"I said, 'We're going to die, we're going to die.' "

But for some reason, the plane peeled off as it approached Schaeffer, saving him.

Schaeffer remembers a fellow airman not being so lucky. He climbed into a B-18 and started shooting at the Zeros from the ground.

"One brave soul got in the turret, was shooting back," Schaeffer said. "Last I saw of him, he was on fire."

Schaeffer, who was learning to be a radio operator at the time of the attack, finished his training after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was part of a B-17 crew, where he was a radio operator and manned a 50-caliber machine gun as the left waist gunner on the bomber.

His plane took part in the Battle of Midway, an American victory that changed the course of the war. The first day of the battle, the B-17s flew a mission from their base in Hawaii and dropped bombs on the Japanese fleet approaching Midway.

The high-altitude bombers had several near-misses but didn't score a direct hit on a single ship.

"We didn't hit anything," Schaeffer said. "It was embarrassing."

Schaeffer's B-17 also flew missions in the battle at Guadalcanal, as the Marines island-hopped across the Pacific. They bombed a Japanese landing site as they attempted to mount a counterattack.

During that mission, a Zero made a pass on Schaeffer's bomber, cannons and machine guns blazing. Schaeffer's machine gun was mounted on a steel post, which likely saved his life. A 20-millimeter shell hit the post, then tore into Schaeffer's flying suit.

Schaeffer was knocked to the floor of the bomber, feeling cold air in his crotch area. Another crew member checked him out; it was just a tear in the flight suit.

"It's all there," Schaeffer remembers the crew man saying.

Schaeffer kept pieces of the shrapnel as a souvenir.

After 95 missions, Schaeffer was transferred to Great Bend, where his crew made test flights for the new B-29 bomber.

When Germany surrendered in May 1945, Schaeffer was given his discharge. After a short time out of the service, he re-enlisted. Schaeffer ended up serving 22 years before leaving the military for good and settling down in Assaria with his wife and three sons.

Schaeffer, 90, keeps a poster of a B-17 on the wall in his room at Sterling House.

It serves as a reminder of his service and that fateful day 71 years ago.