Anticipation builds as the narrator asks the audience to close their eyes. Drawing steadily closer, the faint sound of aircraft engines grows louder as eight World War II planes speed by overhead, their passing followed by several loud explosions. Sirens begin to wail as black smoke lingers in the air. “The date is December 7, 1941 and you are there!”
Since 1972, the Commemorative Air Force’s demonstration team, Tora! Tora! Tora! has recreated the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor for audiences across the U.S., and even internationally. Their performances at Scott Air Force Base’s Centennial Airshow marked performances 16 and 17 for the year.
“We are a living history lesson of one of the battles that forced our country into World War II and started an early technology boom,” said Michael Burke, Tora! Tora! Tora! lead pilot. “We’re not war mongers, we do not glorify war. It’s a living history lesson.”
In the 1950s, members of the CAF began restoring and preserving aircraft from WWII, eventually developing Tora! Tora! Tora! with hopes of teaching younger generations about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Tora! Tora! Tora! now performs approximately 24 performances a year, said Burke.
“Because of these great airplanes, the infantry, Navy and Coast Guard, we are not speaking Japanese or German today,” said Burke. “These defended our country as the jets do today. The attack on Pearl Harbor is what forced us into war; it forced us into a technology surge.”
With the motto “Lest we forget,” Tora! Tora! Tora! provided the audience with a dynamic history lesson, while memorializing the soldiers from both sides who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving their countries.
“We do this to remember all of the veterans, those alive and those who have died defending our freedom,” said Burke. “Because of the sacrifices everyone made during the war, we’re still free.”
With the combination of aerobatics, pyrotechnics, and narration, Tora! Tora! Tora! entertained and informed the audience, creating a memorable experience unlike other aerial performances.
Successful performances are made possible through the cooperation and teamwork of the entire Tora group.
“The flight part, the pyrotechnics, and the narrator are all equal; if you take one of them out it ruins the whole show,” said Burke. “You’ve got to trust each other. Everyone has everybody else’s life in their hands.”
Aside from being the lead pilot, Burke is also one of three second-generation pilots currently performing with Tora! Tora! Tora!, which is comprised solely of volunteers. The aircraft, maintenance, and performances are made possible through donations, both monetary and of time. Of the group, 90 percent of its members have served in the U.S. military.
“We’re all very patriotic; I spent six years in the Marine Corps,” said Burke. “One of our pilots was a helicopter pilot during Vietnam.”
During WWII, Scott AFB served as a training hub for the Army Air Forces. Knowing the history of Scott and its role in WWII, Burke said the team was excited to perform at the Centennial Air Show.
“We love Scott; (it has the) nicest people in the world,” said Burke. “This is our way to give back to the men and women who fight for our freedom, because freedom isn’t free.”
“It was surprisingly well done,” said Carley Charters, an airshow guest. “I had a moment when I thought it was real, but quickly realized how talented the pilots and the crew on the ground are. All in all, it brought great pride to me, knowing I’m a part of a family that can fly, fight, and win.”