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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 15

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

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

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London

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 17
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p166  Chapter 16

The Northern Dagger

In the days before the war the summer tourist bound for the Orient and a few days out of a west coast port would put on an extra sweater and go on deck. Gazing north, if the bone-chilling fog condescended to lift a trifle, he could dimly discern a forbidding shore. He would be seeing the Aleutians, and the sight would bring home forcibly to him the fact that ordinary travel maps are misleading and that the shortest distance between two points is sometimes not what it seems to be.

In those days of summer vacations few people in the United States thought of the Aleutians or of the Great Circle route. They were not aware of the fact that unless lured by the sound of soft music, the swish of grass skirts, or more tangible reasons, to the Hawaiian Islands, ships bound for the Far East followed the contour of the earth that took them far to the north.

With the advent of war, however, all this was changed. Professional and tablecloth strategists began to see the potentialities of the Aleutians and Alaska. The long chain of islands that bears the name, Aleutian, was seen as a dagger. Who should grasp this weapon? This was a vital question, since, held by the United States, it might be thrust deep into the heart of Japan. Held by the Nipponese, however, it might be utilized in a plunge into our northwest areas that would make the long-talked‑of Japanese invasion a reality.

As it turned out in the course of the war, the Aleutians developed into a dagger that was little used, and one that, from a view of the war as a whole, inflicted not gashes but pinpricks. This observation in no way minimizes the heroism of the men involved, but demonstrates a point that they would be the first to stress. This was the fact that in the Aleutians, the primary enemy was not the Japanese, troublesome though they were, but the weather. Paradoxically, the weather, cursed and reviled by those who contended with it, was in the last analysis on our side. Had the days been normally fair on Attu, and in view of the early striking power of the  p167 Japanese Empire, a power­ful thrust might well have been made in this area before our war machine could get under way.

Having thus theorized, let us see what actually did happen — the days not being normally fair on Attu. The Aleutians form a chain of some 120 islands that stretches from the Alaskan peninsula to within 90 miles of Kamchatka, on the shores of Siberia. Of these 120 islands, there are a few that stand out in view of wartime operations. These are Unalaska (on which Dutch Harbor is located), Unimak, Atka, Adak, Kiska and Attu. The last named is nearly a thousand miles from the mainland of Alaska and is 750 miles from a chain of Japanese-controlled islands, the Kuriles, which lie north of the Japanese main island empire. The Aleutian Islands are volcanic in origin and are unify rocky and barren, making up in precipitous mountains what they lack in vegetation.

Coupled with this inhospitable terrain, is the weather that makes the region consistently hostile even to normal ways of life and more so to life during war. The reason for this foul weather lies in the fact that the Aleutians are at the meeting point of two major air masses. On the one side are the warm ocean currents and accompanying warm air masses flowing up from Japan. On the other side are cold currents and air from the Bering Sea and eastern Siberia. The meeting of these two masses results in an almost constant weather front over the Aleutians which produces heavy fogs and low visibility as the normal weather in this area.

As if this were not hazard enough to flight operations, the natural terrain of the islands is such that airfields are of necessity tucked between snow-covered mountains, and subject to sudden winds, known as "williwaws," that sweep through the valleys with high intensity and are frequently accompanied by heavy snow. In the face of all this, only perseverance and a continued will to overcome all obstacles made it possible for our air forces to operate at all.

The Navy's Weapons for Air in the Aleutians

The Aleutian campaign was conducted largely by land-based aircraft, both army and navy. It was carried out, as will be seen, with planes not specially adapted to meet local weather conditions and operating from inadequately equipped land bases and seaplane tenders. From the beginning it was possible to assign squadrons and men to this area only to the extent allowed by the strategic situation in other areas. Since, primarily in view of adverse weather conditions, this area appeared unlikely to develop immediately as of great strategic importance, and since conditions  p168 were more pressing in the South Pacific, equipment was assigned only in small lots as it could be spared.

At the outbreak of war, the Alaskan area was treated and administered as an outpost. The direction of naval air activity came for Patrol Wing 4, located at Seattle, Washington. There were three naval air stations in operation, one at Sitka, one at Dutch Harbor, and a third at Kodiak. These were manned in December, 1941, by a single patrol squadron, with the navy designation, VP‑41. This squadron's six planes, PBY's, were serviced by the seaplane tender Gillis. Since weather was the worst enemy, even in peacetime some sort of relief was necessary for this squadron. Another squadron, VP‑42, was accordingly based in Seattle, as a future relief for the unit in Alaska.

Aside from a few odds and ends of scouting and utility planes, the main weapon of naval aviation in the Aleutians during the first months of the war was the two‑engined PBY or Consolidated Catalina. This lumbering craft, derided as a "cold turkey" in the heart-rending first weeks of the war in the Java Sea, was to emerge as one of the real work horses of naval aviation, courageously attacking any task set before it, even substituting, in the Aleutians, as a dive bomber. In the Alaskan area, the Catalina possessed a number of important assets, and one vital weakness. Among the factors that brought about its use in the north was the fact that it was a seaplane and in case of failure to reach an established landing place could be set down in almost any small inlet or harbor until weather conditions improved. Another asset was its lack of speed. Numerous mountain peaks, obscured by fog or snow, presented a terrific obstacle to a speedy plane. When the PBY's were equipped with radar, these hazards were cut down appreciably by the fact that this craft could make use of its slow speed and the radar to avoid accident. The Catalina, furthermore, had a long cruising range which enabled it to make long patrol sweeps. In February, 1942, PBY‑5A's were taken into the Alaskan area. These were the amphibious model of the PBY, and proved even more versatile than the original PBY.

As a result of these factors, the Catalina made a very satisfactory patrol plane — up to a certain point. This point was the entrance of the enemy on the scene. The slow speed which enabled the plane to avoid mountains made it vulnerable to faster planes, and blind spots not protected by its own guns increased this vulnerability. Consequently, later in the campaign fast land planes, such as the PV (Ventura) were added for certain uses.

During the first months of the war, the primary task of naval aviation  p169 was defensive. As soon as the news of Pearl Harbor reached the commander of the Alaskan sector, maximum daylight patrols were made. Early in February, VP‑41 was relieved by VP‑42, with twelve PBY‑5A's. These planes were sent back to Seattle, two at a time, to be equipped with radar gear. The squadron had three main tasks, to protect shipping in the region, to defend, if necessary, the air stations, and to obtain all information possible concerning enemy movements into the area.

Enemy Action

By the spring of 1942, as already recounted in the story of Midway, a Japanese diversionary operation in the North Pacific appeared probable. Interview with enemy officers after the conclusion of hostilities revealed that, as a preliminary to action, the Japanese had launched a seaplane from a submarine off the west coast to discover the possible concentration of men-of‑war at Seattle and that similar reconnaissance was made of Dutch Harbor. Anticipating such a diversion CinCPac (Commander-in‑Chief, Pacific Fleet), on 22 May, transferred a force of two heavy and three light cruisers with destroyers and submarines from the central Pacific to the north Pacific area under the command of Rear Admiral R. A. Theobald. Patrol Wing 4, composed of Squadrons 41 and 42 moved its headquarters north from Seattle. It was immediately designated the Air Search Group and assigned the responsibility of making long-range patrols in search of the expected enemy force. Four seaplane tenders, Casco, Williamson, Gillis, and Hulbert, were detailed to work the Patrol Wing 4.

Meanwhile the air base facilities were still in the formative stage. At Kodiak there was both an airfield and a seaplane base; Dutch Harbor had facilities for handling a limited number of seaplanes; and the Eleventh AAF had a newly constructed field at Unimak. These were the main bases, and, at each, construction was still in progress. Secondary bases, with seaplane anchorages, were located at Sand Point and Cold Bay.

At 0545 on the morning of 3 June 1942, Dutch Harbor was attacked by 15 carrier-type fighters, launched from 2 Japanese carriers 100 miles offshore, which were followed immediately by three flights of 4 bombers. The attack was detected some distance out by the tender Gillis, and the alerted garrison opened with heavy antiaircraft fire. Despite this warning, the damage was considerable. The bombs destroyed two barracks and two Quonset huts and damaged several buildings in the Fort Mears area. Approximately twenty-five men were killed and an equal number  p170 wounded. All but one of the Patrol Wing 4 planes based at Dutch Harbor were out on patrol. The remaining plane was destroyed by the enemy. On the other side of the ledger, the Gillis claimed that two Japanese planes were shot down. On the following day the enemy struck again, this time causing heavy damage to fuel tanks and the oil supply. Army pursuit planes downed two of the attacking planes before the enemy retired from the scene. Casualties for the two days' attack totaled about one hundred.

The next phase was an attempt to locate the Japanese main force. The first contact with the enemy surface force was made by an army pilot, who was not heard from again after reporting that he had seen a large carrier with a large bomber on deck. Seven hours later Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Lucius Campbell sent a message that he had sighted the enemy, and gave the estimated position. Despite antiaircraft fire and the presence of enemy fighters, he tracked the force so long that he ran short of fuel on his return to base. Fortunately, he and his crew were rescued the next day by a Coast Guard craft.

Despite the terrific odds against them, two naval aviators made contact with the enemy, reporting the presence of a carrier and two destroyers. One made an unsuccessful bombing attack during which he lost an engine by antiaircraft fire, but managed to reach his base in safety. Lieutenant Commander Perkins was ferrying a torpedo to Unimak when he heard Ensign Freerks make his report. He turned toward the enemy, located him and tracked him for two hours. Then, before returning to base, he made an unsuccessful torpedo run through antiaircraft fire.

The patrol wing's task, as has been seen, was to search for the enemy and locate him sufficiently accurately for the army striking force to attack. The full attack of the army striking force, however, could not be brought to bear on the enemy because of adverse weather conditions. The navy patrol planes continued their work, losing both aircraft and lives in the effort, but gradually the Japanese slipped away out of range.

If it was believed at the time that Japanese force had left the area, this belief was soon shattered. The attack on Dutch Harbor was seen to have had a triple purpose. First, there was the attempt to destroy American installations. In the second place, as we have seen, the Japanese were making a feint to cover a strong blow at Midway. Thirdly, they were creating a diversion to cover the occupation of two islands of the Aleutian chain. On 10 June, two patrol pilots discovered the presence of ships and installations at Kiska and Attu.

Upon receipt of this information, CinCPac ordered Patrol Wing 4 to  p171 bomb the installations. Patrol Wing 4, therefore, became more than a mere patrol unit. Its size was increased rapidly to four squadrons, and it set forth on its new task. The seaplane tender Gillis was moved to Nazan Bay on Atka Island, and during the next four days Catalinas carried out an amazing exhibition of continuous aerial attack. Pilots rearmed and refueled their planes upon returning from one attack and took off for another as soon as possible. In four days the supply of gasoline and bombs carried by the Gillis was completely exhausted. The strain on the pilots was terrific, one pilot flying 19½ hours during one 24‑hour period. PBY's were called upon to perform work for which they had neither been planned nor built. Creaking at every joint, they dropped through the clouds as dive bombers at 250 knots as compared to their normal speed of 85 to 90 knots. Their bombardiers dropped their bombs by "seaman's eye," and the pilots pulled back into the overcast for concealment after the bombing run. In the face of the handicaps of construction, only one plane was lost, though many were badly shot up and damaged.

Despite this heroic effort of the patrol squadrons, and although damage was done to their installations, the Japanese remained. On 15 June Patrol Wing 4 resumed its normal function, and that for which it was prepared: long-range patrol. Its operations, however, had demonstrated more than courage. They had shown, in addition, the great mobility of naval aviation. Four days prior to this attack, two of the squadrons had been in Seattle. Within this short period, these squadrons had moved a distance of more than two thousand miles and had gone immediately into action against the enemy.

The remainder of the first year of the war saw the beginning of a program in the Aleutians that was ultimately to result in the expulsion of the Japanese from this area. In general, the plan was a dual one. In the first place, efforts were directed to confine the enemy to his original positions on Attu and Kiska, and, by making things as uncomfortable for him as possible, to prevent the development of these bases. In the second place, our own bases were gradually expanded westward to increase the potency of raids on Japanese-held positions and to pave the way for the final assault.

These were the aims of the entire military force in the Alaskan area. Shore-based aviation had certain functions in connection with these general plans. They were, in brief, to conduct long-range patrols, to detect further Japanese moves into the area, to prevent reinforcement of existing garrisons, and to attack enemy shipping and installations.  p172 In addition, aviation was to protect our own shipping and surface forces, and to aid in the rescue of personnel downed at sea.

In order to carry out these sizable duties, aviation was reorganized. The Eleventh Army Air Force was designated the Air Striking Unit and Patrol Wing 4, the Search Unit. Brigadier General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Butler, Commanding General of the Eleventh AAF, was placed in command of these air groups under Rear Admiral R. A. Theobald, commander of the North Pacific Force. Under this new organization a new and more effective search plan was put into effect for patrols.

Toward the end of summer, steps were taken toward the westward expansion of bases. On 30 August 1942, Adak was occupied by our forces. The only mishap was the torpedoing of the seaplane tender Casco in the bay. The ship was beached, repaired, and returned to service. Work was begun immediately on a runway, and it was ready for operations by the twelfth of September. Thus it was that before the end of the first year of war, the United States forces had started west on their gradual approach toward the Japanese-held islands of the Aleutian chain. In many ways the year had been a discouraging one. The Japanese had gained a foothold and were hanging on tenaciously. We had yet to inflict a defeat upon them. On the other hand the Alaskan area had been reduced for the time being to a minor theater of war, and the heavy fighting was to be done away from our own shores.

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