Just hours after the dawn attack on Pearl Harbor but across the international dateline making it Dec. 8, Japanese planes also bombed American bases and Manila in the Philippines.
"It was a complete surprise. We were unprepared. It was the second of a number of Pearl Harbors in that first year of the war," said Leon Long, who grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and then joined his high school friend George Loritz in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1939.
The two pals, who worked in aircraft maintenance, were stationed at Clark Field with the 19th Bombardment Group composed of 35 B-17 bombers and 23 P-40 interceptors. Just days before, 16 B-17s were flown 500 miles south to the island of Mindanao as a precaution against attack, Long said.
After hearing radio news reports of the Pearl Harbor attack early that morning, Long and Loritz were returning to work after lunch when they saw two flights of more than 50 twin-engine planes approaching the airfield.
"George said, 'Hey, look, it's nice to see the Navy is out protecting us.' About that time, the earth began to erupt at the end of the runway," Long said.
"George ran to the hanger where he worked and I dived into a slit trench. Two other guys jumped in on top of me," he said.
After enduring nearly an hour of bombing and strafing runs that destroyed 16 of the B-17s and 20 of the P-40s and most of the base, Long crawled out from beneath the two other men who had been killed by concussion blasts to find that Loritz was among the 100 Air Corps troops killed that day.
That day was just the beginning of a remarkable year-long odyssey of war for Long as he escaped the Philippines and joined other survivors of his bomber group in striking back against the Japanese.
By the time Japan surrendered in the Philippines, two-thirds of the Americans captured at Bataan had died in Japanese custody. A lucky break allowed Leon Long to escape the island.
About 10 days after Clark Field was bombed, Long was transferred to an artillery battalion on Bataan. One night, after spending a day digging gun pits in the rain, he crawled under a chicken coop to sleep.
"During the night, somebody kicked me in the butt and told me to get my rear end in a jeep. 'You're going back to Clark Field,'" Long said.
The few B-17s that were intact after the Japanese attack had been sent to safety in Australia. But a crew from a bomber with a large hole in a fuel tank were desperate to escape and someone remembered Long's metalworking skills.
Long's tools, which had been buried to keep them from the Japanese, were dug up and he cut the top off a 50-gallon drum and screwed the metal patch over the gaping hole with a seal improvised from a tire tube.
"It worked. The B-17 crew taxied down about 100 yards and then stopped. A guy came running back and said that since I fixed the tank, the pilot wanted me to come onboard," he said. "That's how I got out of the Philippines. I would have never made it through the Bataan Death March."
But there would be no shortage of challenges before he made it back home.
Stationed first in Australia and then at a base in Java and then pushed back to Australia, his unit was first attached to Dutch, then Australian and finally British air forces.
There were no replacements available for bomber crews and Long was soon pressed into duty as a side gunner on a B-17. After bombing missions, he went back to work repairing the planes.
"The first time I ever fired a .50-caliber machine gun was in combat. You learn rapidly in that situation," Long said.
His well-traveled unit finally rejoined the Army Air Corps and late in 1942 his group returned to the U.S.
"Our ship landed in San Francisco and me and a friend slipped away and spent four or five days in the St. Francis Hotel. We were the first troops back, you couldn't buy a drink or meal," he said.
Long spent the last three years of the war training bomber crews at Pyote Air Force Station in West Texas.
Long spent another 20 years in the Air Force, working as a B-36 flight engineer and instructor. After retiring as a master sergeant, he spent 27 years in research and engineering for General Dynamics in Fort Worth.
He learned to fly in 1948 and after retiring from General Dynamics he was a pilot for a Fort Worth law firm for 10 years. He also worked as a flight instructor for 43 years and didn't quit flying until April.
Long's wife of 64 years, Myra Lynn, died resently, and he still lives in the tidy brick home on the west side of Fort Worth they shared for 60 years.
The veteran laughs that he might momentarily forget where his keys are but he has remarkable recall of his more than nine decades of life.
'You just did it'
That momentous day on Dec. 8, 1941, remains a life milestone, but Long shrugs off his extraordinary war service.
"We were doing what we had to do. You didn't think about it, you just did it."
Tom Clark, a 68-year-old former jet fighter pilot during the Vietnam War who worked with Long at General Dynamics, said Long's story from the Philippines amazes him.
"I worked with him for years before I heard anything about the war. His escape from the Philippines, that's one of those deals in life I call a 'God wink.' It's so incredible you have to think something is behind it."
A “God wink” moment –yeah, I’d say that was a good way to describe it. As for Long, and the other vets of WWII (and Korea, Vietnam, Granada, Panama, Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan), his story is one of service, to us. It is just another one of those stories about the many who have served and sacrificed to keep us a free country, an exceptional country –a country to be proud of, despite what so many detractors try to tell our youth today.
We have a President who just doesn’t seem to grasp what "American Exceptionalism" really is. Well, Mr. President –you can start by looking at an “ordinary American” -like Leon Long.
:If everything seems to be going well, you've obviously overlooked something...
Live Long and Prosper….