One of the Lucky Ones: Copilot of First Plane Shot Down at Pearl Harbor
For Canton resident Joan Reid Ahrens, the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor has a personal meaning as well as an historic one. Her father, Air Force Colonel Ernest LeRoy “Roy” Reid, had the unique distinction of being the copilot of the first U.S. airplane downed by the enemy during World War II. He was a second lieutenant at the time.
Roy was also one of the lucky ones on the December day in 1941 when Japanese forces attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, destroying American ships and aircraft and killing more than 2,400 military personnel and civilians.
Through a miracle Roy Reid walked away unharmed and went on to live to the age of ninety-five.
Roy fought valiantly throughout the war, had a distinguished career in the military, and he and his wife, Shirley, are buried at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton. He was laid to rest there in September 2015 with full military honors. His service at Pearl Harbor and throughout the war earned him two Silver Stars and numerous other medals. He flew fifty missions and served twenty-eight years in the U.S. Army Air Corps and Air Force, but on that day in 1941, he was a part of the spark that would ignite the country into World War II.
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt told a joint session of Congress when he declared war during perhaps the most memorable speech of the twentieth century.
Roy decided to join the armed forces in early 1941 at the age of twenty-one and completed pilot training not long before that fateful day he copiloted his B-17C toward Hickam Field at Pearl Harbor.
According to Roy’s written account of the event, “Shot Down at Pearl Harbor,” published in Air Force Magazine in 1991 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, Captain Raymond T. Swenson was the pilot that day. Aviation Cadet G. C. Beale was the bombardier, and Second Lieutenant H. R. Taylor was the navigator.
Roy also discussed the squadron flight surgeon, First Lieutenant William R. Schick, who he says “had just joined the organization. He had been taken out of Flight Surgeon School at Randolph Field [Texas], a few days before he graduated in order to go with us and had been assigned to go as a passenger on our plane.”
Lieutenant Schick would not be among the lucky that day.
Other crew members were Master Sergeant L. B. Pouncy, Sergeant Earl T. Williams, Corporal M. C. Lucas, the radio operator, and Private Bert Lee, a gunner.
When Roy and the others in the plane began their descent toward the landing strip at Pearl Harbor they saw plumes of black smoke filling the air from below. The pilot told Roy he thought it was just sugar cane being burned, but Roy dismissed that assessment, fearing something more serious was happening.
When they got closer they saw planes burning on the ground.
“In that short period of a fourteen-hour-plus flight I saw more action, witnessed more significant events, and felt more strange reactions than in my previous twenty-one years or, for that matter, in all the years since,” Roy continued in his written account. “I have seen much aerial warfare in the intervening years and experienced many of the emotions I felt that day, but never with the same intensity. Fifteen minutes before we finally came to a sudden stop on the east-west runway of Hickam Field, we caught our first glimpse of land. It was Diamond Head, a welcome sight. We all looked forward to spending the rest of the day on the beach at Waikiki.
“As we approached Oahu, Lieutenant Schick began taking pictures with a small camera he had brought along. 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.”
Years later Roy recalled that what he saw shocked him. At least six planes were fiercely burning on the ground. “If I saw one airplane burning, I would just think it was an accident,” he said. “It was obvious, the only thing it could be was that it was an attack. I knew instantly that there was a war on. As if to dispel any lingering doubts, two Japanese fighters came from our rear and opened fire.”
Seconds later the pilot landed the plane with the front half on fire, the back half missing, and black smoke everywhere.
Lieutenant Schick, who had been hit once while in the plane, managed to get out, but a bullet fired from a Japanese plane struck him almost immediately. “We then ran for the protection of the nearest hangar,” Roy recalled.
Schick was picked up by an ambulance and taken to the hospital but died later that day.
Roy concluded his account with this: “The next day, I climbed up into the cockpit of our plane. I discovered four bullet holes in the armor plate behind my seat. I was one of the lucky ones on the Day of Infamy.”
On the Home Front
While Joan Reid Ahrens was growing up, her father was just her dad. She would be an adult before she realized the significance of her father’s career. “We just grew up doing regular things, like all the other children in our neighborhood,” she remembers. “It was only later that I would hear my father speak to groups and realize the significance of his life.”
Roy was born April 13, 1920, and grew up during the Great Depression in Hamden, Connecticut. He completed two years of college at the University of Connecticut, called Connecticut State College at the time, but with the threat of war, Roy decided to join the U.S. Air Corps.
After the Pearl Harbor attack, Roy headed to the South Pacific, where he was stationed in New Guinea and Australia and was involved in the fighting at the Battle of Rabaul in 1942, the same year his first child and namesake, Ernest LeRoy Reid, Jr., was born some five thousand miles away in Connecticut, where Roy’s wife, Shirley, started raising their young family on the home front.
When Roy returned home after the war, he was admitted to Yale University on the GI bill, daughter Joan recounts. “He taught flying lessons and worked in a mortuary to make ends meet for his young family. Still, he was able to be captain of the Yale fencing team. After graduating he went to work for Macy’s in New York City in personnel, as his degree was in psychology,” she remembers. The family lived on Long Island at the time.
When the Korean War was imminent, though, the Air Force needed pilots again and made Roy an offer to come in as a major, Joan says. “It was a better deal for him to go into the military than stay in New York. So, he took the opportunity.” He was sent to Tripoli, Libya, where he served for two and a half years. He then came back to Washington, D.C., and served at the Pentagon. He reached the rank of full colonel at just thirty-two years of age while serving in Denver as commander of the rehabilitation center for officers. He retired at age forty-eight after twenty-eight years in the service.
After Joan’s husband, former Cherokee County Commissioner L.B. “Buzz” Ahrens, retired from a corporate career, he and Joan moved to Cherokee County. Eventually, Roy and Shirley moved to the area to be near their family and lived for several years in Eagle Watch in Woodstock.
History in the Making
A photograph of the wrecked U.S. Army Air Corps B-17C bomber at Hickam Field in which Roy was the copilot became one of the most iconic pictures of that day, showing it burned in half after being hit by a strafing attack. The photograph was featured in numerous magazines and publications, including the Life magazine December 14, 1942, issue.
Each year on December 7 we remember those brave men and women who fought to protect our freedoms during World War II that day and throughout the war.
The Georgia National Cemetery in Canton provides a peaceful place to reflect with a Veterans Tribute Carillon Tower Chime and Concert, a patriotic concert presented weekdays for twenty minutes at 8:30 a.m., 12:05 p.m., and 4:30 p.m., and on weekends at 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m., and at 5:00 p.m. Taps is played each day at 7:00 p.m.
The 2023 Wreaths Across America event will be conducted over a two-day period. People with family members interred at Georgia National Cemetery are invited to place one wreath at their family member’s gravesite on Friday, December 15. Council members will be present to assist families in obtaining a wreath.
The 2023 Wreaths Across America public wreath laying will take place at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, December 16. After all wreaths have been placed, the 2023 Wreaths Across America Ceremony will be held at the assembly area at the cemetery.
Did You Know…?
An article in a local New Haven, Connecticut, newspaper in 1942 titled “Capt. E.L. Reid, Aviation Hero, Home at Last,” tells how Col. Roy Reid first saw his son more than a year after his namesake’s birth.
The article recounts how Roy Reid and Shirley Root were married June 3, 1941, in New Haven, Connecticut, Shirley’s hometown. Roy had enlisted in the Air Force in anticipation of the possibility of war and was preparing to enter flight school in Albany, Georgia. He made the trip to Connecticut for the wedding but was late arriving for the ceremony, unable to get clearing papers to travel. The wedding ceremony took place at midnight at Plymouth Congregational Church. The couple enjoyed some time together before Roy headed back to flight school and Shirley went to stay with her parents.
The couple’s first child, Ernest LeRoy Reid, Jr., was born on July 19, 1942. He was the eldest of five children born to Colonel and Mrs. Reid. Colonel Reid would not see his firstborn until the little boy was more than a year old. By the time he met his son, Roy was a decorated war hero who had distinguished himself as a bomber pilot, received the Air Men’s Medal, the Oak Leaf Cluster, and the Distinguished Service Cross, and attained the rank of captain in the Air Force.
When Roy finally got to see his son, he had been expected home since December but arrived many months after that when the little boy had already celebrated his first birthday. Roy had left the country seven months before his son was born to go to war. An account in a publication at the time told of Roy pacing the floor of a Flying Buttress the night his son was being born 5,000 miles away from the Pacific theater, where Roy’s plane had been in a desperate battle over New Guinea just days before.
When his plane returned from the battle, Roy was handed a telegram that he was the father of a nine-pound boy and his wife was doing fine. “I felt so relieved I could have cried,” Roy was quoted as saying.
All through the long period of waiting for his return, Shirley “had never given up hope that he would return to her in good health. He was never wounded despite the many battles in which he fought.”
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Canton writer Rebecca Johnston is a Cherokee County native and graduate of Cherokee High School and the University of Georgia. Rebecca has won several Georgia Press Association awards for her writing, including the 2007 First Place Award for Serious Columnist. She currently writes for Enjoy Cherokee Magazine.