PAT NEAL: Pearl Harbor Day or how my mom won the war

Claire Quigley Neal

Claire Quigley Neal

“DECEMBER 7, 1941— a day which will live in infamy.” President Roosevelt said these words many years ago.

Today, Dec. 7 might mean one less shopping day till Christmas. “Infamy” might be a good name for a rap group, or maybe a video game.

Dec. 7 means something else again to “The Greatest Generation” — the people who fought World War II.

The debate over whether Roosevelt knew of the impending attack on the Pacific Fleet bottlenecked in Pearl Harbor continues to this day.

Whether the attack on Pearl Harbor was indeed a surprise, or a cynical manipulation in a geo-political chess game, didn’t matter to my mom at the time. Claire Quigley could see the need for long-range strategic bombers in America’s war against the Axis Powers. And besides, her cousin Jack (Jack Abernathy U.S.N.) got bombed at Pearl Harbor.

That got her Irish up! Mom’s birthday is Dec. 1. The attack on Pearl Harbor could have ruined her party.

It was payback time for Tojo!

There was a war on. Mom had some bombers to build.

She found a sleepy little airplane factory down along the Duwamish River, in her hometown, Seattle.

In no time, Mom had the Boeing plant whipped into apple pie order.

At one point in the war, she was rolling a B-17 Flying Fortress out the door every 49 minutes.

Powered by four 1,200 horsepower engines, the B-17 could carry a crew of 10 at speeds of up to 250 mph. It could cruise 400 miles with a ceiling of 35,000 feet. Most importantly, the Flying Fortress could fly even when it was “shot to hell.”

Cousin Donny, Army Air Corps, always said he worked at a flower shop in the war. No. He was a tail gunner in a B-17, flying support for Uncle Jack’s U.S. Army European Expeditionary Force.

The B-17 specialized in precision daylight raids, which made them an easy target for the Germans’ deadly accurate 88mm Flak guns.

My father Duane’s United States Navy and Uncle Len’s Marine Corps invaded and secured island airfields for Mom’s long- and medium-range bomber fleet to conduct reconnaissance and bombing missions.

As Dad and Uncle Len’s island hopping offensive drew closer to the Japanese home islands, both sides refined their tactics into more horrifyingly desperate measures.

On Feb. 19, 1945, the U.S. Marines landed on Iwo Jima to secure an airfield so Mom’s planes could bomb Japan. The Japanese defended Iwo Jima with a series of caves and dugouts that withstood the pre-invasion bombardment and waited to ambush the Americans when they could inflict the greatest casualties. The B-17 was the Marines’ best friend on Iwo Jima, precision bombing enemy positions right next to our front lines.

By 1945, Mom was building the larger B-29 bomber. On March 10, 1945, 350 of her B-29s dropped 2,000 tons of magnesium, phosphorous and napalm on Tokyo, incinerating 16 square miles, killing 100,000 people.

It remains the single deadliest attack ever inflicted on a civilization.

Despite these heavy casualties, the Japanese military continued a fanatical but hopeless defense. That was until Mom’s B-29 bombers dropped two atomic bombs on Japan.

Mom built that bomber fleet, riveting them together in 8-foot sections, one plane at a time, until the war was over and there was peace.

After the war, Mom went on to create the post-war boom in America.

She never let on that she was a war hero — just another patriotic American teenager doing her part to bomb the Axis Powers back to the hell they came from.

Thanks Mom and happy birthday, from a proud son and a grateful nation.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via

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