Long Beach-area GIs Cpl. Clyde C. Brown, Sgt. Henry C. Blackwell and Sgt. Warren D. Rasmussen, artillerymen who yearned to be U.S. Army Air Corps pilots, never stood a chance on Dec. 7, 1941.
The first three U.S. service personnel -- out of 2,403 killed at Pearl Harbor -- might have vanished into that day's oily smoke and horrific history without a clue, but for a lone, sharp-eyed pier fisherman miles away.
The three were friends of U.S. Army Cpl. Anthony J. Iantorno, now almost 92, and their fate was determined because when Tony gets his Italian up, he demands answers and goes looking. All four youths were in the 251st Coast Artillery, at Camp Makalapa--two of them, Tony and Brown--pals since boyhood in Long Beach.
Their story is tragic, but war is the devil's playground and tragedy his favorite game.
Once this singular episode emerged as a planned scene in the script of 1970's 20th Century Fox movie "Tora! Tora! Tora!," it nearly torpedoed the entire cinema project.
The halves were separately created, by the United States and Japan, then spliced together in flashbacks, to show each side's roles, actions, blunders, miscalculations and lucky breaks with relative, though not complete, accuracy.
The documentary took three years and eight months of work.
Critics were not too kind, but those guys who lived it agreed that it rang true for the most part.
Japanese film-makers and military advisors, however, threatened to pull out if a scene were not deleted that depicted the shooting down of a rented Piper Cub carrying three sightseeing G.I.s.
Our onetime bitter enemy would lose face before the world, they adamantly argued, for the ancient Samurai warrior's code of honor forbids intentional harm to the innocent and weaponless.
The Japanese said that to show such an act would lend it credence, a grave and irresponsible insult. Washington and Hollywood quietly relented.
Iantorno was incensed at a premiere showing for the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association (PHSA), when the tragedy he helped investigate 70 years ago was glaringly absent.
"Why in Hell didn't you include those boys and what happened to them?,'" he recalls bellowing to a studio executive he finally reached by phone the next day. "I went to junior and senior high with two of those guys. We were in the same outfit.'"
Chagrined, the studio representative explained the stony Japanese demand to excise the brief segment showing the off-duty soldiers killed, rather than gambling millions on a major historical film that might never be screened otherwise.
"The Japanese wanted that scene out of there," Iantorno says bitterly. "It was so politically sensitive the U.S. finally said 'Okay, let's just drop it, rather than jeopardize making the picture.'"
That day, the three young men had put their money together and rented a Piper Cub to cruise the gorgeous tropic skies, logging flight hours required to apply for Air Corps training transfers, a dream of all three.
"The Army was desperate for pilots," recalls Iantorno, who, in that same hour his pals met their fate, would shoot down a Japanese "Val" torpedo bomber roaring low over his .50 caliber machine gun emplacement, sending it plunging into the sea.
He said barracks bulletin boards promised stateside training, benefits, rank, adventure to men who earned aviator wings. They appealed for licensed pilots, students or those with any flight experience.
"We talked about it. 'Why do you you wanna fly? It's dangerous,' I asked Brown. Clyde was homesick. He figured once he got into the Air Corps he might get stationed closer to home, or even assigned stateside as an instructor."
On that fateful day, the Piper Cub carrying Tony's friends vanished, likely caught by that first wave of Japanese aircraft including swift, nimble Zero fighters plus heavier, slower Val and Kate torpedo and dive bombers.
No trace of human remains or wreckage ever surfaced, although a fisherman reported seeing a small civilian aircraft plunge into the sea a great distance away. There was no smoke, fire or disintegrating debris to mark its nearly vertical dive, he said.
Remembering his visits to Brown's mother and the Blackwell family
at war's end, Iantorno reflected on the differences in war and peace, then and now. A bereaved military family today is notified in person by two officers--one a chaplain--that a son or daughter has fallen in battle.
He said Mrs. Brown received a flimsy telegram informing her that her only son was missing in action and presumed dead, handed over by a Western Union boy, anxious to hurry off before she might make a scene.
She was never given any further clue to his fate or recovery of remains, until Tony explained that Clyde and his friends were the first three casualties among WW II's multitudes of American combat dead.
"Well, I'll be damned," she murmured softly.