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How a "Flying Pickup Truck" Survived Pearl Harbor

Posted on Fri, October 13, 2017
  • by: Hillary Brady, Digital Content Specialist
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The historic importance of the Sikorsky JRS-1—a weathered blue-gray airplane now on display at our Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia—is not because of the type of airplane it is. As curator of U.S. naval aviation Larry Burke describes it, “in many ways, it was a flying pickup truck,” part of a noncombat utility squadron that did things like take aerial photographs and deliver mail to Navy troops on the Hawaiian Islands. Its importance lies in one of the places the JRS-1 has been and survived: Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

The JRS-1 is one of only three airplanes still in existence that were at Pearl Harbor during the attack, and the only airplane in the Museum’s collection that was there during the attack. Utility Squadron 1 (VJ-1), including the Museum’s JRS-1, was assigned to Hawaii in the summer of 1940 to be used for the noncombat day-to-day activities that kept the Navy running.

Sikorksky JRS-1 and Engine

The second of two Pratt & Whitney R-1690 engines is prepared for mounting on the Sikorsky JRS-1 float plane inside the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA. This photo was taken on August 20, 2012. This JRS-1 is the only aircraft in our collection that was stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

VJ-1’s area of Ford Island was not damaged during the attack on Pearl Harbor, so all of its planes survived. Soon after the attack, the Navy ordered VJ-1’s airplanes and crews into action despite being untrained and unequipped for combat. “We have stories of enlisted men picked up to be extra eyes, sitting at the doors at the back of the plane, with their rifles or machine guns, to act as last-ditch defense. Basically, they were hoping to spot something [of the Japanese attack force] and be able to radio it back before they were shot down,” Burke said. In addition to these desperate searches for the Japanese, which continued for several days after the attack, most of the aerial photography of the attack’s aftermath we see in history textbooks today was likely taken by the squadron’s JRS-1s.

After surviving and recording the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, our JRS-1 continued its unique service record. It remained at Pearl Harbor until 1943, when it was given an overhaul and returned to service as a personal aircraft assigned to the commander of Fleet Airship Wing 31, based at Moffett Field in California. After the war, it was reconfigured as part of a research project conducted by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to NASA. After the NACA experiment, which focused on improving seaplane hull design, was completed, the JRS-1 was sent to storage at Bush Field in Georgia.

It was by luck, though, that our JRS-1’s winding path from Pearl Harbor, out of military service and then back again, ended with the National Air and Space Museum. When the plane was dormant at Bush Field, a ferry pilot happened to be flipping through the entries in the plane’s logbook, which marked the JRS-1’s flights and its history. While looking back through the book’s many entries, one date in particular caught the pilot’s eye—December 7, 1941. After that, the Museum was contacted and it was delivered to the Smithsonian in 1960.

Dramatic photo of the Sikorsky JRS-1 in a hangar.

The Museum's Sikorsky JRS-1, an aircraft carrier that survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

You don’t need to read the logbook to see the long, exciting history of the JRS-1, however. Now that the plane is on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center, you just need to know what to look for.

The multiple layers of paint you can see today offer a look into the JRS-1’s past. Underneath the airplane’s blue-gray top-coat (applied in the weeks after Pearl Harbor), you can see glimpses into what it would have looked like during the attack.

“If we restored its inter-war paint job, it would be one of the more colorful aircraft we have,” Burke said. The Navy preferred a colorfully-painted airplane for a number of reasons. If it were forced down, for example, it would be easier for a search and rescue aircraft to find it at sea.

The paint also helped communicate what the plane did and who was on it—particularly important because radios were not yet standard-issue by World War II, Burke said. Larger airplanes would have a full radio set, but a fighter plane probably only had a short-range radio at best. So, the colors on the plane were meant to describe practical information: the plane’s duties, what squadron it was a part of, and who might be on it.

In its earliest days, the JRS-1 was painted silver with bright chrome yellow upper wings, and a black hull. A willow green tail identified it as belonging to Utility Squadron 1. The numbers on the side of the plane would have read 1-J-1, with “J” designating a utility squadron. So, 1-J-1 told the other pilots that the plane was the first airplane of Utility Squadron 1. A big red stripe near the back doors of the airplane, which you can still see today, meant that this was a commander’s airplane. Speed rings around the cowlings would have told you the aircraft’s position within the squadron, depending on the color and formation of the stripes.

If you look for the flat, diamond shape near the pilot’s windows, you’ll find the most unique part of the JRS-1’s pre-war paint job—its squadron logo. Painted on the diamond is a flying pelican, holding different objects representing its day-to-day duties: a mail bag, a target practice sock, and a photographer caught in its beak.

The logo only tells part of the JRS-1 story, though—one that changed both at Pearl Harbor and in its wake, and ends with the aircraft as a key piece of our collection.

Lt. Cmdr. Harvey Waldron, USN (ret.) with the JRS-1

Lt. Cmdr. Harvey Waldron, USN (ret.) got a chance to view his old radio station inside the JRS-1 at the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar.