By Loran Doane, U.S. Army Garrison, Hawaii, Public AffairsJune 12, 2008
WHEELER ARMY AIR FIELD, Hawaii - A World War II-era fighter returned to action here, recently. Well, sort of.
From a distance, the Curtis P-40 Warhawk at Wheeler's Kawamura Gate looks as though it just rolled off the assembly line and is ready to scream down the runway looking for a fight.
However, upon closer examination, one might notice this is no normal aircraft. It was designed for a different type of mission. This P-40 is an actual-sized movie prop used in the 1970 movie "Tora, Tora, Tora," which relived the events that led to America's entry into World War II following the sneak attack on Oahu.
Made of wood, fiberglass, epoxy, and a few real aircraft parts, thrown in for a touch of realism, the aircraft is simply a static model.
However, some of the mock-ups in the movie had working engines and spinning propellers. They were strafed or blown up during filming. Luckily, this aircraft was spared destruction, and was called into service on Wheeler Army Air Field.
Weather and time had taken its toll on the display, but thanks to the Soldiers of B Company, 209th Aviation Support Battalion, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, the P-40 has received a much needed face-lift. It took Soldiers two months and $3,000, but the aircraft has been returned to its former glory.
"The aircraft is now historically accurate," said Staff Sgt. Jason Ryan, who was in charge of the restoration.
Although in the movie the paint scheme and markings were accurate for some P-40s of the time, they were not accurate for the flight squadrons stationed at Wheeler Army Air Field, December 7, 1941.
"The paint scheme and tail numbers on [this] aircraft are identical to those of 2nd Lt. George S. Welch," said Adam Elia, historian for the 25th Infantry Division. Welch was a hero who distinguished himself the day of the infamous attack.
In the chaos, a few pilots were able to take off and engage the Japanese. Welch was one of them.
Having heard low-flying aircraft, machine-gun fire and loud explosions, Welch, who had returned from a party and was still in his dress uniform, rushed to the air field to engage the enemy.
In what was the first of two attack waves, seven Japanese fighter aircraft and 25 dive bombers descended from the north on Wheeler Army Air Field. Achieving complete surprise, the Japanese destroyed 52 aircraft and rendered about the same number nonmission capable, while also killing or wounding nearly 100 Soldiers.
As the second wave of Japanese Zeros reached the air field, Welch was preparing to take off. Without orders and in an aircraft that was not fully armed - not the least concerned about being greatly outnumbered - Welch entered the fight.
At day's end, Welch had four confirmed kills, and was later recognized with the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroic actions that fateful day.
For this, Welch will be remembered through the restored P-40 aircraft that stands in silent vigil at Kawamura Gate on Wheeler Army Air Field.