At 7:55 a.m. on Saturday--the exact time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor 50 years ago--five World War II vintage planes rose in formation from the east, silhouetted by the pink and blue skies over the Mojave Airport.
Traveling 15 to 30 feet off the ground, at speeds of about 120 m.p.h., the pilots aimed their single-engine planes toward a plywood target displaying the Japanese red sun and the date 1941. "Bombardiers" in the rear seats slid away their canopies and dropped flour bags, hoping to send them ripping through the target.
Thus began the 22nd Annual Condor Squadron's Pearl Harbor Memorial Assault--an event that Japanese-American community leaders contend only serves to whip up racial bigotry over events long passed.
As they have for many years, each bombardier took five shots at the target with five-pound bags of flour while about 90 residents and friends of the squadron huddled against the cold and cheered them on. Four bags found their mark.
The mock bombing run is one of the highlights of the year for the Condors, a pilots organization based in Van Nuys, a third of whose 50 members are World War II veterans. None was stationed in Pearl Harbor.
The Condors say the attack on the Japanese target is not an expression of resentment toward the Japanese but rather a tradition honoring the nearly 2,400 Americans who died on the Day of Infamy.
But Japanese-American groups disagree, saying that the event perpetuates racial hatred.
"When you have these acts or these events, the question that I raise is what does America want the commemoration to be?" asked Jimmy Tokeshi, regional director for the Japanese American Citizens League.
He said he had hoped that the 50th anniversary would mark easing of tensions and the strengthening of ties between the two nations. "I mean, what is the legacy going to hold?" Tokeshi asked.
Rev. Dean Yamamoto of West Valley United Methodist Church in Chatsworth, whose congregation is mostly Japanese-Americans, echoed those sentiments.
"To memorialize a tragic event in a way that is mockingly vengeful--what is this doing?" he asked. "It says we are maintaining or sharpening our skills for revenge."
Condor members say the motivation behind the desert assault is being misconstrued.
"It has become more of a fun thing. I don't think anyone wants to get back at the Japanese," Condor pilot Jim Modes, 73, a World War II Air Corps instructor from Burbank, said last week. In all, four of Saturday's five pilots served in World War II.
Although members say they harbor no ill will toward the Japanese, the floor of their clubhouse is painted like the Japanese war flag, and a cloth flag was used Saturday as a mat near the door. In one corner is a plywood figure of a bespectacled, smiling Japanese soldier, holding a rifle and wearing a medal that reads: "Pearl Harbor Hero, 1941." Hanging over the clubhouse bar is a framed countdown of days "till we get our Revenge." On Saturday, the number was zero.
Members played down the significance of the sign and other clubhouse "decorations."
Condor member John Krawczyk, 48, a pilot from Woodland Hills who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, said displaying the Japanese soldier on Dec. 7 is a clubhouse tradition, like hanging Irish decorations on St. Patrick's Day. "It's basically for show," he said.
The bombing event began as a friendly wager between two pilots over who could come closest to hitting a target from the air. Over time, the event was combined with the Dec. 7 anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.
The Condor Squadron, formed in 1962 by veteran war pilots, operates out of Van Nuys Airport, where members drink at the bar and tinker with their AT-6s, a two-seat training plane that was used by all World War II fighter pilots before they got their wings.
In their planes, the pilots seek downed aircraft as a Civil Air Patrol squadron and put on mock dogfights at air shows.
Half of the planes are emblazoned with the markings of an American fighter group. The other planes--known as the "bad guys"--are painted in the colors of a German Luftwaffe fighter group, complete with swastikas--a marking that has prompted protests by the Jewish Defense League.
The tradition of bombing the Japanese target will probably not die with the club's World War II veterans. Modes said he has flown several of the bombing runs with his son Bill, 32, who said he plans to pass the tradition on to his children.