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Chapter 18

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Navy's Air War

by
the Aviation History Unit OP‑519B, DCNO (Air)

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London
1946

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 20
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p191  Chapter 19

The End of the Aleutian Campaign

The beginning of the second year of war saw a continuance of the American dual plan of operations in the Aleutians. It will be recalled that our military forces sought, in the first place, to harass the enemy in his installations on 1 Kiska and 2 Attu in order to prevent development or expansion; and, second, to extend our own bases westward preliminary to an assault on the Japanese stronghold.

3 Adak had been occupied by our forces in August, 1942, placing them within 250 miles of Kiska. On 12 January 1943, Amchitka was occupied without any opposition. The Navy's Catalinas provided anti-submarine patrols as a cover for the invading forces. By May regular patrols were being run from 4 Amchitka. As bases were moved westward, it was possible to lessen the number of patrols to the east. In fact, searches were cut out entirely from 5 Sand Point and 6 Cold Bay, releasing planes for coverage far to the west. After the occupation of Amchitka, patrol plane search could be and was carried out as far as the northern 7 Kuriles.

As a result of these patrols the Japanese supply route to its Aleutian bases was continually menaced, and the way was paved for an attack on these bases. In preparation for this campaign, Patrol Wing 4 was considerably strengthened. It moved its headquarters from Kodiak to Adak in March, 1943. The two original squadrons, which had been sent back to the states, were brought back as bombing squadrons, with a new plane, the PV‑1, or Ventura. This, in comparison to the Catalina, was a land plane and was capable of greater speeds. In addition, there were four Catalina squadrons.

These squadrons were to provide anti-submarine patrol prior to and during the attack which was to be made first on the island of Attu on 11 May 1943. When the actual attack came, they were to furnish air cover for the surface vessels, while a sizable army air force was to cover the landings. To support the landings, Vice Admiral Kinkaid supplied a strong surface force, consisting of 5 battleships, 5 heavy and 4 light  p192 cruisers, 21 destroyers, and 1 escort carrier.1 Unfortunately, this vessel, the Nassau, had little opportunity to show its capabilities. The weather was so bad that no launchings were possible between the time the vessel left the west coast and D‑Day. Coupled with this was the fact that the main squadron aboard, a composite squadron of observation and fighter planes, had had only five days of training as a squadron before going into action.

After the initial bombardment by the surface forces, the Nassau operated to the northeast of Attu, usually at a distance of some forty miles, but sometimes as close to the island as ten miles. Weather seriously hampered flight operations every day. Heavy fog and low overcast made air support difficult and at times impossible. The wind velocities were so slight that because of the relatively low speed of the vessel, it was necessary to catapult every plane that was launched. At no time were weather conditions such that it was felt advisable to launch an all‑out attack. In spite of the need for support for the ground troops, flights of four to eight planes were all that could be operated at any one time. On one occasion the elements were defied with disastrous results. In response to an urgent plea for assistance from the ground forces, two flights of four fighters (Grumman Wildcats, F4F's) were launched in weather so severe that four planes and four pilots were lost. In all, the squadron flew 179 sorties and lost, in the operation 8 planes and 5 pilots, one a Marine enlisted pilot. None of these losses was attributed to the human enemy, but to dangerous weather conditions.

The conquest of Attu was completed by the end of May. Work was rushed on the completion of air facilities, and, by 9 June, a fighter strip was operating. Attention could next be directed to the remaining Japanese stronghold, Kiska. For two and a half months, from 1 June to 15 August, Venturas made repeated daylight attacks on the island. Because army bombers also attacking the island were not equipped with radar, Venturas were used to guide the army attacks. During the same period, Catalinas made the usual patrols of the sea areas and conducted harassing night raids on Kiska.

After this extended period of "softening up" the enemy, the land assault was made on schedule, on 15 August — only to find that the enemy had fled. The only ships that had been sighted during the preliminary bombing phase had been two auxiliaries and two small freighters. Army  p193 B‑25's had sunk two and damaged one of these. Two explanations of the method of Japanese withdrawal were possible. One was that the Japanese garrison had been taken from Kiska on submarines; the other was that the withdrawal had been accomplished during a few days of extremely bad weather that had grounded the search planes.

The capture of Kiska ended the Aleutian campaign. The Japanese had been driven out in slightly more than fourteen months from the time of their attack on Dutch Harbor. It had been necessary to build bases from nothing under the noses of the Japanese and then assemble the men, the supplies, and the ships to expel the enemy. Although weather, a lack of detailed knowledge of the Aleutian chain, and total absence of facilities were often greater obstacles than the enemy, the presence of the Japanese presented an ever-constant threat that had to be guarded against in all operations. The Navy's pilots merit the highest praise for their courage and flying skill in the face of such obstacles.

The final phase of the North Pacific campaign was begun during the second year of war and continued throughout the duration of the conflict. This was an attack on the northern fringe of the Japanese empire, the Kuriles. The first attempted attack was a combined effort by army B‑25's and navy Catalinas. In this and later raids made during the year, the Navy was handicapped by the fact that once again the Catalina was called upon to perform a task for which it had not been constructed. The best bombing altitude for protection from antiaircraft fire was 9,000 feet. With its load, the Catalina could barely reach this altitude. Furthermore, the low speed of the Catalinas meant that an attack on the Kuriles necessitated flights lasting from twelve to fourteen hours. Flights of this duration placed a heavy strain on the officers and men participating in the raids. The inclement weather not only hampered flying conditions but affected bombing operations. Frequently, bombing attempts were unsuccessful because bombs could not be released as a result of the icing of the exterior bomb racks. In spite of these handicaps, Catalinas continued to raid the Kuriles until February, 1944, when they were replaced by faster and more heavily armed Venturas.


The Editor's Note:

1 It will be noted that the landing at Attu occurred before the Gilbert Islands operations recorded in the previous chapter and that the CVE was at that time relatively untried in a combat role.


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