R. W. Tanner, USAF CWO-3 Retired, Attack on Pearl Harbor Survivor and 3-War Veteran

Tanner was a “Flying Sergeant” and was the pilot of his B-17 C, or D, plane and the commander of his crew and his four plane formation.

Attack on Pearl Harbor Survivor

The photo of Tanner as a Master Sergeant was taken at Hickam Field when he returned to active duty service in 1945.

A “Flying Sergeant”, Tanner was the pilot of his B-17 C, or D, plane and the commander of his crew and his four plane formation.

“Flight Officer” was the title given to the enlisted with flying experience. Propeller on their collars signified their status.  He had only two years of prep school at Mount Hermon Preparatory in Mount Hermon, Vermont.  From there he enlisted at Fort Hamilton, New York. He had private pilot training, soloed at the age of 16 and was given aviator status and assigned to the Army Air Corps.  He was then assigned to Hickam Field, Oahu, Hawaii where he became a maintenance technical trainer for aircraft engine repair and maintenance. After receiving his Flight Officer status, he was assigned a B-18 Bolo Bomber of the 31st Bomb Squadron, 5th Bomb Group with tail number 9. He flew this plane while in the Hawaiian Air Force and helped bomb the Mauna Loa lava flows to protect nearby cities on the mainland. The same plane was destroyed at Hickam Airfield during the attack on Pearl Harbor. The photo shown here of a B-18 from the Hickam Airfield Squadron with which Tanner served bears a skull and crossbones on the nose and underneath reads, “Death From Above”.

In October through November 1941, he flew a B-17C in formation with Captain Colin Kelley’s B-17C formation (the first U.S. Army Air Corps aviator to lose his life when the Philippines were attacked the same day (but slightly before…because of the time zones) during the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Tanner’s formation carried the provisions for Commander Kelly’s squadron and Captain Kelly’s formation carried the munitions. Captain Kelly’s and Tanner’s formation landed at Nichols Field in the Philippines; where Captain Kelly’s squadron stayed before transferring to Clark Field in the Philippines.  http://www.airartnw.com/colinkellylegend.htm

Upon his return from the Philippines in the last week of November 1941, Tanner remained on duty and missed celebrating his December 5th birthday. His friends said they would take him on a beach party on December 7th, but his friends all perished in the Hickam Airfield barracks when three 100 pound bombs hit the wing where they were getting breakfast. Tanner was standing outside just under the concrete doorway; which saved him from the blast that perished his friends.  He was blown about two feet across the parade area towards the base water tower and immediately got-up to run towards his plane.  He found his plane destroyed along with most of the other B-18’s parked perfectly in parade inspection order along the airfield and runway.  He then spent the rest of the day with teams looking through the wreckage for survivors and helping them to the makeshift tent hospital.

Several weeks later, Tanner was transferred to Canberra, Australia, to assist with the training of Australian pilots to fly the B-17. He later flew gas  shipments over “The Hump” in Burma to the Flying Tigers of the American Volunteer Group (AVG). He flew C-46 cargo craft.

He then joined a composite squadron in Papua, New Guinea where he flew from 1942 until 1943, B-17’s assigned to the Army Signal Corps.

His final flight put him into a hospital back at Hickam Air Base, Hawaii in 1943 after a plane crash during which he made a belly landing in his B-17D into onto the water; just a few hundred yards off the beach of an island and upon a shallow coral reef. His B-17D was just behind and below of his plane and took a flak hit directly in the bomb bay.  The lead plane’s bomb bay doors were open and the bombs armed.  My father veered his bomber up and to the left and the wreckage from the bomber took-off the bomb bay doors of the fuselage his aircraft the flaps, ailerons, and right wing engines took too much damage to remain air worthy.  He had to ditch the plane.  Without the bomb bay doors closed, the plane jolted to a hard deceleration because the water went right into the fuselage when the plane belly landed

Because he wanted to transmit an SOS signal with their location up to the moment they ditched, the radio operator did not assume his water ditching position in the radio and navigator compartment.  As a result, he was slammed into a rib of the aircraft that tore into the flesh and muscle off his back to the bone and might have broken his back too. He later died from these injuries.

The efforts of the brave radio operator paid off. With the assistance of a radio that was kept by the chief of some friendly natives on a small island, the Navy was able to pick-up the crew three days after the crash.

Tanner sustained several injuries from the crash:  A jammed hip (from the rudder pedal that slammed into his left foot and leg), a cut left eye (where he went through the front windshield of the cockpit (the fuselage torqued and [thankfully] the cockpit windscreens popped-out before he did) and a dead kidney (because of the jolt of the aircraft tore his seatbelt releasing him through the front cockpit window.  Fortunately, Tanner was very thin and small (5 foot, 4 inches) and he went right though the pilot cockpit window and over the left side of the aircraft nose.  He was knocked unconscious when his left forehead hit the frame of the wind screen. His 6 foot tall crew chief picked him up out of the three foot deep  water on the coral reef. After setting the charges to destroy the Signal Corps plane, 9 of his crew walked through the coral reef to the shore shredding their leather boots. The injured radio operator they carried through the reef passed away the next day. He was the only crew member lost out of the four bomber planes flown and shot down by Tanner.

He jumped from one burning B-17C bomber and belly landed the other three B-17D bombers he flew.

He went on to join the USAF Attaché service and flew the DC-3 assigned to Ankara, Turkey during the early 1950’s.  There he met a young switchboard operator at the American Embassy who later became Mrs. Ephthalia Tanner.

He then went to Seoul, Korea to setup the USAF communications just before it fell.

He was involved with the Bay of Pigs incident while stationed at the SAC command center at Brize-Norton USAF Base, England.

In Vietnam Tanner served with the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) in Saigon.

In 1966, Tanner retired from the USAF and joined the DoD and was sent back to Vietnam to serve at the American Embassy, and MACV from 1970 until 1973.

Mr. Robert W. Tanner is also a member of the Sons of the American revolution with his ancestor, Ensign Isaac Tanner, proudly serving in the colonial defense during The Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775.


The plane in the upper right side of the picture is his B-18 bomber.

Nose of B-18 most likely of HQ flight, 5th Bomb Group, at Hickam Field, c1938-1939


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