This is written at the urging of Dr. Charles J. Keim, former Professor of Journalism, Director of Publicity, and Dean of Liberal Arts at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
Charles and I were office mates at the University while I was Director of Military Branches of the University of Alaska from 1951 to 1957. We shared "brown bag" office lunches -- and small talk most every day of the week. It turned out that Professor Keim had been in the Army in the south pacific, at Guadalcanal, among other places. I had been in the Air Corps/Army Air Force/U. S. Air Force for the duration, and we had much to talk about!
Professor Keim many times urged me to write up the early part of the Aleutian War, which I had participated in, since almost nothing was recorded about the opening phase.
This is written primarily as the experiences of the crew of one aircraft, who were on the "welcoming committee" when the Japanese struck at Dutch Harbor on June 3-4, 1942.
Many other crews might well have been able to add a great deal of detail to this, form their experiences. In this initial phase of the Aleutian war, we were highly individualized in our actions. There was no organization at Umnak Field, our base, to provide leadership and there was no time to get organized.
During the winter of 1941-42, U. S. Navy Intelligence had broken the secret radio code of the Japanese Navy, and learned Jap plans as rapidly as did their own sub-commands. U. S. Navy kept this Top Secret for fear the code would be changed. Thus the U. S. Navy became aware early in 1942 that a strike was being prepared against Midway/Hawaii, and against Alaska, and knew the fleet composition and dates and times scheduled! Naturally they clamped a lid down tight on this information -- but began preparation to meet the threat. In meeting this threat, priorities were set up for Hawaii, Canal Zone, and Alaska, in that order.
Not much could be done out of spare reserves, since on-going battles in both the European Theater and the South Pacific had highest priority. Our available Naval Force was known to be inferior in number to that of the Japanese fleet being assembled, and shipbuilding and aircraft production were hardly capable of meeting demands of existing commitments, let alone expanding to fill our needs in Alaska.
Thus, Alaska received little flow of reinforcements, even after the Japanese plans were known! It had been held that, if necessary, reinforcements could be made by air as needed. As it turned out, it took nearly a week before any reinforcements began to arrive.
One exemplary exception was the building of two secret airfields, one at Cold Bay, 600 miles west of Anchorage and 180 miles east of Dutch Harbor Navy Base, and the other at Umnak Island, 825 miles west of Anchorage and 50 miles west of Dutch Harbor. The landing field at Cold Bay was a raw, incomplete set of landing mats and dirt strips, and at Umnak a punched iron interlocking sheet runway made by laying landing mats down on the existing tundra surface; grass coming up through the punched holes in these interlocking iron sheets made very effective camouflage! While these advance fields were certainly far from peacetime standards, they gave us an edge -- the Japanese didn't know about them! Even fully loaded heavy bombers could use them, and did. You knew you had taken off successfully when the plane stopped bouncing -- and the same for landings!
Stocking and supplying these landing strips was really minimal. Even "C" rations were in short supply in the Aleutians!
Umnak airfield had no radio, at least not until late in May when a Martin B-26 Marauder, carrying a Navy torpedo under its belly, made a hard landing which broke the torpedo mounts and took out the landing gear as the torpedo snagged the punched iron of the landing mat. Both B-26 and torpedo slid off the runway and came to rest, safely, adjacent to the flight operations tent. This aircraft radio was "salvaged" and put into operation as a base operations radio!
Things were most primitive!
As of June 2/3 the Umnak Island airfield was manned by 8 P-40 "Warhawks," 2 B-26 Martin "Marauder" torpedo planes, 1 Canadian LB-30 (predecessor of the B-24 Liberator), a Coastal Reconnaissance plane, and a YB-17B (predecessor to the B-17 bomber). I was part of the YB-17B crew.
At this time the people at Umnak were well aware that the Japanese forces were nearby for two reasons. First was a report from Dutch Harbor that a Japanese scout plane had flown over that base. The second was that two B-26's from Cold Bay had landed at Umnak airfield about noon on 2 June and had reported contact with a Japanese aircraft carrier 100 miles southwest of Umnak. They had attempted to bomb the carrier under a 250 foot ceiling, but the bomb fuses required a 600 foot fall to unlock the safety, so their bombs were inert and merely bounced off! The two B-26's had been badly shot up and had casualties aboard, whom we helped into an Army ambulance for transport to the Army hospital tent at the Army Post being built a couple of miles from the airfield.
When I was recalled to active duty in the Air Corps in the summer of 1941, I was assigned to the Cold Weather Testing Squadron at Ladd Field, near Fairbanks, Alaska. Our mission there was to test materiel and aircraft in deep cold, with the goal of making these fully operational in the severe cold of high altitude or in severely cold geographical locations.
All this changed in the late winter of 1942 (March 1942), and much effort was suddenly devoted to getting all pilots qualified in such modern aircraft as we had on hand.
In late May we at Ladd field were notified to send all aircraft capable of aerial combat and/or capable of delivering bombs, plus all crews, to NW Sea Frontier Command, Kodiak Navy Base, for a briefing. All other combat and bomber craft already having been sent, our response was to dispatch to Kodiak our one remaining such aircraft, a YB-17B. The YB-17B was a service test aircraft which evolved into the B-17 series as its weaknesses were eliminated. It never became an operational bomber except for 10 sent to England, and this one. It lacked fuel range, had no gun turrets, and had a weak vertical stabilizer. Its bomb load was small, and it needed more power. Prior to this call, this aircraft had only been used as a "test bed" for cold weather testing.
[Notes added by JLR:] Below is a picture of the actual plane involved in this narrative. Its designation was B-17B, non-radar, 38-215, #1, and the events which Lt. Col. Ragle review here are also described in a "Statement of Captain Jack S. Marks, Air Corps, US Army, 9 June, 1942" to be found in the Hoover Archives at Stanford University in the papers of Admiral Robert A. Theobald, the commandant of the Alaska Theater at the time of the 3 June 1942 Dutch Harbor attack. Captain Marks was killed over Kiska Island in the Aleutians on July 16, 1942.
Note the lack of a tail turret and the "conventional-appearing" vertical stabilizer, rather different from the tail structure for which the B17 was later known.]
The crew of this aircraft consisted of the following personnel:
Pilot -- 1st Lt. Marks Copilot -- 1st Lt. Ragle Navigator -- 1st Lt. Mitts Bombardier -- M/Sgt. Hunter Radioman -- T/Sgt. B. J. Grossi Engineer -- T/Sgt. W. E. Ogan Gunners -- S/Sgt. Floris -- S/Sgt. K. E. Nelson -- W. O. Gilbert -- M/Sgt. Sexton
These notes were facilitated by material found in "Foul Weather Front -- A History of Air Operations in the North Pacific Vol. 1" by Rhodes Arnold, Ed. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 95-069174. [End Notes added by JLR]
Additional passengers were three light bomber pilots, 1st Lt. Walseth, 2nd. Lt. Crawford, and 2nd. Lt. Hebert.
Arriving at NW Sea Frontier HQ. in Kodiak, we reported for the scheduled briefing. We were informed of the Japanese strike force and given estimated strike time of 3 or 4 June. We were cautioned that this was secret information. Additionally, we were told that our base would be Umnak Island, also secret. We were instructed to report through flight Operations, Patrol Wing 4, PBY5A's, at Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, the next island east of our new base on Umnak Island, and were assigned to Navy Patrol Wing 4 for operations.
We then had to inform Navy Flight Operations, Kodiak, that we must return to Ladd Field, that we were not combat ready. Maintaining secrecy had led to our departing without bombsight, bomb shackles, guns, ammunition and maintenance gear, as well as personal gear. And we had a sick engine which needed changing! We were grudgingly released but warned to be in place by 2 June at the latest. So we returned to Ladd Field the evening of 26 May, and after 24-hour-a-day work on the old YB-17B, made it to Umnak Island about noon of 2 June.
If we had any doubts that we were about to have invaders, all were quickly dispelled. Shortly after our landing, two Martin B-26 Marauder aircraft from Cold Bay landed. They were badly shot up and had several casualties aboard. They had stumbled onto a Japanese aircraft carrier with two cruisers and two destroyers close in for anti-aircraft support, only 100 miles south of our base! The two B-26's had attacked with a low altitude bomb attack, but the bombs bounced off without exploding. (the ceiling was 200 feet, and the bomb fuses required a 600-foot fall before arming the bombs!)
We barely had our aircraft fueled, checked, and four 500-lb bombs loaded when we received orders for our first mission, and took off at about 6:00 PM. This was a reconnaissance mission, to search west for the Jap fleet along the Aleutian Chain out to Tanaga Island, some 400 miles from Dutch Harbor. We searched under the cloud ceiling, 200 to 400 feet, at maximum fuel economy, power circling each island as we went until we reached Tanaga Island and turned back. By this time dawn was breaking (June 3), and we began to see oily iridescence here and there in calm water near embayments. This oily evidence of pumped bilges increased and became a 300-yard pathway as we covered the next 100 miles. As we reached Amukta Pass, this oily streak broke into two paths, one of which went through Amukta Pass, and the other continued on the south side of the chain a short distance then turned south and faded out. We completed our mission and landed at Umnak at about 5:30 AM, 3 June. We reported our findings - only to be informed that Dutch Harbor was under attack!
We called the ordinance officer, who quickly loaded us with 4 1100-lb armor piercing bombs. As sons as the loading was complete and we were refueled, we taxied out to the south end of the runway, which was in the clouds, and took off north.
Turning into Umnak Channel, we "meshed into" a flight of 7 Jap fighter/bombers on their way back to their carrier! There we were, part of their formation, close enough to see individuals in the Jap planes! The first thing I did was set the directional gyro to zero, setting their course to their carrier. Then I tried to get our gunners to open fire. Over the intercom they protested, "But Lieutenant, I can see their faces!" - and this was nearly our downfall!
We flew together under a 150-foot cloud ceiling through the narrows of the rock-walled channel and out to the wider exit where suddenly the Jap formation was split up by eight P-40 fighters from the Umnak base. Two Jap planes fell in flames into the sea, and then our gunners opened fire, sending another Jap plane into a flaming crash to the sea.
Suddenly, the hammer of .50-caliber machine gun fire echoed throughout our plane very loudly, and then it was quiet and we were alone in the fringes of the overcast, 150 feet above the ocean. We found out later than our right waist gunner, Sgt. Nelson, had sighted a Jap plane settling in on our tail close behind, where none of our guns could be brought to bear. Nelson had swiveled his .50 caliber machine gun around to point down the fuselage of our aircraft, stuck his head out the window so he could see the Jap, and fired a long burst, putting the tracers on the Jap and shooting him down (score #2 for our gunners) - as well as poking 50-60 holes through the tail of our aircraft in the process! (Fortunately, no control cables were cut!)
At this point we settled down to follow the course set into our directional gyro - the direction the Jap aircraft had been heading. Just outside Umnak Channel we met another B-17! He paid no attention to us and continued on his way west. Sure enough, just 50 miles out we spotted their carrier! At this time I was piloting, giving Lt. Marks a rest after the tense time of piloting through the dog fight in the channel, and I put the aircraft into a gentle circle, out of sight and gun range of the massed guns of the five Jap ships, so we could work out our attack plan.
The solid overcast gave us 250 feet of air space to work in, and I could remember being told that the bomb fuses required at least 600 feet of fall to arm themselves, so it would do no good to drop our bombs from 250 feet. I called our bombardier to the cockpit to confirm this limitation, and he said there was no use in dropping bombs from 250 feet - they had to have at least 600 feet of clear fall for the safety propeller on the fuse to unwind the safety mechanism. The bombs would be "dead" up to that time. I then asked if he could bypass the safety, but he replied that he could not.
Lt. Marks and I discussed what we could do. We'd have to have at least 600 feet plus the height of the carrier deck, say another 60 feet, absolute minimum, to have any hope of a productive strike - which meant we would be at least 410 feet into the clouds, and of course the bombsight would be useless!
We settled on an instrument flight procedure: we would return to where we had first seen the carrier and as soon as we could see it, would make a 90o turn to the left and climb 200 feet into the clouds and hold this new course for 3 minutes. Then we would turn right 90o and hold that course for 10 minutes, then make another 90o turn to the right and hold that course for 3 minutes. Finally, we would make another right turn of 90o, and should then be on a true heading for the carrier, if it hadn't moved. (When last seen, it had been at rest awaiting its returning aircraft.) We would then drop down to visual contact level and increase power to take-off power in order to build up speed for a climb, desynchronizing propellers 100 RPM on the left side to foil sonic locators. As soon as we could see the carrier, we would climb, holding our course by directional gyro. We would open the bomb bay on this leg and time our drop point to be 45 seconds after we sighted the carrier. We would signal the bombardier to drop his 4 bombs at 2-second intervals by shaking the aircraft fore and aft.
And so we went. It worked perfectly - relocate the carrier (visibility was about 1 ½ miles in light fog and rain), make our procedure turns, come out of the last turn and open the bomb bay, and there it was, still waiting! Climb and watch the second hand, then signal the drop! Altitude - 900'! Airspeed 90 mph!
Our first bomb exploded with a deep thunk in the water, second the same, then all hell broke loose as the third bomb exploded above water. The explosion was so strong that the blast flipped our B-17 onto its back, tail over nose. As I was rolling it right side up, we heard the fourth bomb go off in the water. There were a few delicate moments of acrobatics by means of the bank-and-turn indicator, as all the gyro instruments had flipped and were of no use for the moment (but that was the way I had learned instrument flight in the "flying cadets" in 1930-1931). So we didn't break out of the clouds as we recovered to normal flight. Guessing at a compass heading, we headed for home. Twenty minutes later we landed at Umnak, and taxied to the revetment where our B-26 torpedo planes (2 of them) were parked. I shouted the news at them: 190 compass heading, 50 miles out, carrier believed hit and damaged. The two B-26's, with jury-rigged 18-inch Navy torpedoes slung below their bellies, were off in less than 5 minutes. Forty-five minutes later they returned, reporting two solid hits on a cruiser and no sign of the carrier. The cruiser had been at rest with all boats in the water when torpedoed.
In the meantime, all information had been radioed to Dutch Harbor and to HQ., NW Sea Frontier at Kodiak. PBY-5A's, radar equipped, were dispatched to search for Jap naval vessels. They found one light cruiser 150 miles out, "heading for Tokyo," and no sign of the carrier or the second cruiser that had been torpedoed!
As soon as our aircraft had been serviced and reloaded with 1100-lb bombs and ammo, about 2:00 PM, the entire crew settled down to catch a nap. We had been going for over 24 hours almost steadily, with no sleep, no food, nothing to drink except rain water dripping off the wing, coupled with unaccustomed highs of excitement! We had been given no quarters and no transportation, and we had no knowledge of the base at all - except how it looked from the air!
Our passengers from Ladd Field, Lt.'s Walseth, Crawford, and Hebert had been absorbed by the light bomber unit which had been pulled back to Cold Bay airfield, 230 miles to the east, where some maintenance facilities had been set up, for the time being, and where new torpedoes could be mounted.
We were "awakened" at about 9:00 PM, by assignment of a new mission from HQ., NW Sea Frontier, Kodiak, stating, "A Jap carried has been damaged south of Umnak. Search and destroy." (Our own message to them!)
Again we had to take off from the high end of the field, which was experiencing snow mixed with rain and zero visibility, while the lower end was not so restricted. We turned south down the channel below a 200-foot ceiling. We flew 1 ½ hours south at 200 mph and worked back in a grid search with 50-mile east and west legs 5 miles apart, for six hours. Having completed the search pattern with no results, and having worked our way back to Umnak Channel, we set about finding the unlighted landing strip. It was fully dark, being about 3:00 AM, and we searched for the field with our landing lights. Each time we passed one headland we saw winking lights. We tried to read them as signal lights, but found they were too fast to read. It must have been our fifth pass when Lt. Marks shouted, "There's the runway - help me turn!" Between us we swung the B-17 30o to the right, chopped the power, and landed - if you could call that a landing: no lights, no radio, no marker lights! And there were still Japs around!
As we were making our report in the operations tent, we were interrupted by a very embarrassed and apologetic young captain, commander of the artillery unit on the headland where we had tried to read what we thought were signal lights. It seems that he had been firing on us every time we had flown by! Only the fact that we had been flying at landing approach speed, landing gear down and flaps at 30o down - 90 mph - had saved us from being shot down by our own defense artillery! He had laid his two batteries of 40 mm automatics for attack airspeeds of 250 mph. We all had a good laugh and parted friends!
Since we had had a really hard landing returning from our night search mission, the aircraft was given a very thorough inspection. We also relocated some wiring which was positioned in our flank and tail where Sgt. Nelson's burst of .50 cal machine gun fire had really roughed up the area. Nelson had been very sad about shooting up our own plane and had asked Lt. Marks, "Sir, do you think the Colonel (our C.O. at Ladd Field) will make me pay for the repairs?" Lt. Marks had reassured Nelson on this, adding " I have recommended you be sent to Officer Candidate School. You think quickly and take the right action. We need officers like you!"
By about 6:00 AM, aircraft inspected and serviced, and reloaded with 1100 A. P. bombs, we reported we were operational, and were given a new mission - our third in less than two days. We were to search the north side of the island chain and into the Bering Sea for the rest of the Jap fleet.
As we swung around the north end of Umnak Island we found bad weather - light fog from sea level up. Suddenly we could see a familiar shape ahead of us, barely visible in the fog: a flat-topped shape, long and narrow, with a spire jutting up from one side - aircraft carrier! Only the Japs had such a vessel in this area, and only 30 miles from our base!
We broke radio silence to announce this and prepared to attack just as we had the day before. Again we went through the necessary procedure turns, but cut our rectangle down to 2-minute and 3-minute legs. All set up, we dropped down out of the clouds - and found no carrier after all! From close up it was merely a small, flat top island with a slim lava spine at one side! On the map it was Bagislov Island. Our message, however, had been sent, so we hastened to correct it, then proceeded to carry out our search mission.
For as far as we could see, west and north, a fog bank closed off all visual search. We attempted to go under the fog, but desisted when we found no ceiling under the fog, even at 20 feet altitude indication on the sensitive altimeter. We zagged northwest on 15-minute legs, but found no let-up in the fog and finally decided to abort. As we began to climb out of the icing fog, our crew chief/engineer called Lt. Marks/ attention to the engine cowl of #2 engine. The cowling had moved forward and was leaning down dangerously near the propeller. We had to shut that engine down. Our climb was slow on three engines as we were heavily loaded on fuel and a full bomb load, and by the time we broke out of the 4000'-thick icing fog bank we were somewhat east of Umnak Channel.
To the east we could see a medium-sized ship, dead in the water, being circled by a group of aircraft which were diving on it in sequence. Since we could see no bomb blasts, it figured that the vessel was being strafed. As we drew closer we could see the vessel was flying an American flag and the seven aircraft sported the red ball of Japan - Jap Navy Zeroes!
Seeing us approach, the Jap fighters broke out of their circling and headed for us. We headed for the nearest clouds! Had the fighters attacked individually, they would surely have shot us down. However, they gathered into formation and circled, probably to spot any fighter escort we might have, and then positioned themselves to give a coordinated attack. As they dove on us we made it into a medium-sized cloud. When we came out the other side, we found the Zeroes positioning themselves for another attack run, and again fled for the safety of a cloud. A second time we broke out and a third time they attacked, but then we were into the fog bank, and relatively safe. All of these were firing passes, but we were untouched. Loaded as we were, and with one dead engine, we could only manage 170 mph, and they must have been allowing for the usual 250 or 300!
Every time we went through a thin spot in the fog, the Zeroes made firing passes, but only 2 or 3 planes actually fired, the rest having probably used up their ammunition on the ship they had been attacking (which they were soon to regret)!
Flying through the dense cloud layer, we were soon heading south across Unalaska Island, the next island east of our Umnak base. All of the sudden the clouds turned brown ahead of us and Lt. Marks gave a might heave on the wheel and we went up and over a mountain peak! Then he hollered for help as he couldn't get the nose down and the plane was nearing a stall. I lunged into the wheel and brought it under control. This sudden ups-a-daisy lifted the 4400 lbs of bombs off their shackles and down they went - through the closed bomb bay doors!
We were now in a mess: bomb bay doors mashed open, broken engine cowling mounts on #2 engine, and a badly shot up tail. We needed extensive work done before we would be operational again, so Lt. Marks headed us east for Elmendorf Field repair depot.
Meanwhile, a drama was shaping up back where we had met our pursuit, at the vessel north and west of Dutch Harbor. We were to hear the details about this later.
The vessel was a Russian freighter. It had raised the American flag after leaving Dutch Harbor only to be found by the Jap Zeroes. When the Zeroes left, the Russians had raised the Japanese flag, and shortly thereafter 10 American P-38 Lockheed Lightning fighters enroute to Umnak came by and worked it over, firing all their ammunition before going on to Umnak! Our Zeroes had followed us across Unalaska before turning up Umnak Channel. As they flew under the clouds from the south, the 10 Lightnings entered from the north, and they met right at Umnak field! Ten Lightnings and 7 Zeroes fought the goldarndest dogfight, but no one had a bullet left! The result was one Zero hit the ground trying to dodge a couple of toothless Lighnings. The remaining Zeroes streaked north to their rendezvous, and the Lighnings settled down on Umnak air field.
Further drama was awaiting. Just after we had cried "carrier" earlier this morning, a B-18, an obsolete Douglas bomber as old as our YB-17B, had taken off from Elmendorf Field. Its bomb bay was loaded with C-rations and sleeping bags, plus two 100-lb bombs. It was notified of our "carrier" sighting and headed for it. In the poor visibility still prevailing, the crew of the B-18 also identified the "carrier" - and bombed it with a ton of C-rations, sleeping bags, and two 100-lb bombs! However, they were too low when they released their load, and the bombs did not go off. This was fortunate because Bagislov Island was a secret U. S. Navy installation - a submarine base!
Our flight to Elmendorf Field was uneventful, and after we tucked the B-17 into the repair depot the whole crew gratefully headed for the mess hall and food, then showers and bed. This was the first real sleep we'd had since leaving Ladd Field early the morning of June 2nd.
Early the next afternoon, June 5th, we were notified our aircraft was ready, and immediately left for Umnak, landing at our base that evening. There were changes. Most noticeable was the presence of four spanking new B-24 Liberator Bombers - real up-to-date aircraft. A new unit was in process of being formed, the Provisional 36th Bombardment Squadron.
They had saved our revetment for us. It had a canvas shelter we'd brought from Ladd Field plus tools and supplies.
As we had reported in, there was a new mission for us, but this time it was to the east. We had been called for by the Commanding Admiral at NW Sea Frontier, Kodiak, the overall commander of the entire theater. We were to come in to HQ to tell him "just what the hell is going on out there."
We made the run well in time for our 1:00 PM meeting on June 6. At the briefing Lt. Marks was able to clarify much that had been taking place. He brought out the fact that the major part of the Jap fleet, north of the islands, was still there, though it seemed to be trapped. In a large, dense, icing fog bank. (However, the northern aircraft carrier had flown a group of Zero fighters only two days before.) All in all, it went well. Captain Marks received a field promotion at the close of the briefing.
Upon our return to Umnak, we were given a new priority mission: to make a search from Umnak as far southwest as fuel would permit.
Our faithful old YB-17B lifted her wheels into the early morning mists below the low overcast at first light on June 7. We headed southwest down Umnak Channel. This time we were carrying our long-range 600 gal. Fuel tank on the left bomb racks, and four 500 lb. bombs on the right. With that extra fuel and economy cruise power we could expect 12 or more hours of flight.
Weather south of the Aleutian Islands was improving; broken clouds and scattered beams of sunlight could be seen ahead. One hundred miles out we were 10,000 feet altitude and had a good 50 miles of visibility. Capt. Marks and I both noted that, after almost a week of flying at 200 feet or below, it seemed queer to be so high - almost scary!
We flew southwest for 6 hours, and began our search, setting up 50-mile grid legs at right angles to our outward course, which would give us 200-mile-wide visual coverage. As we made our third easterly leg, Capt. Marks called the crew chief and asked him to transfer the fuel from the bomb bay tank into the main tanks, which were down to less than half full. After a few minutes the crew chief reported back, "Captain, the fuel transfer pump isn't working! I can't transfer the fuel." It was obvious that we must break off the search pattern and head for the nearest refueling location! Heading on the reciprocal of our out-bound leg, we dumped our bombs and the 600 gallons of fuel and fuel tank, and did some quick calculations of our fuel hours left and the course to nearest refueling. By dead reckoning we were closest to Cold Bay Airfield. What little wind drift there was, and had been - as determined by the bombsight - had been to the east. It was going to be a close thing.
Since Cold Bay was closest, we headed there. We reduced our power and leaned out the fuel mixture for ultimate fuel range. Five hours later we could see land ahead, dead on course for Cold Bay. As we drew closer, however, it was apparent that weather at Cold Bay ruled it out - black as could be and clouds down to the water. We changed course for Umnak. Halfway there #4 engine (outboard, right) fuel pressure dropped and the red warning light came on. Thirty seconds later the engine quit - out of fuel. We feathered the prop and bored on. As we entered Umnak Channel, #2 engine quit, and as we made the turn onto base leg, #1 engine died. Now we were in a power glide with one engine still working. We barely made it to the landing strip, and just after we touched down #3 engine quit. We rolled to a halt with all propellers standing still! We had to be towed to our revetment.
We were delighted to hear, from the Operations Officer, of the destruction of the Japanese fleet in the aircraft carrier battles northwest of Hawaii, and to learn that our Jap fleet had escaped the fog bank and had headed west. At least they were no longer looking down our throats! We were also happy to report the defeated Jap fleet had not come our way from the Midway battle!
Inspection of the fuel transfer pump on our aircraft located the defect. A large piece of bomb/shell fragment, the size of a man's hand, had sliced through the outer skin of the fuselage and destroyed the pump! We also learned from the crew chief that the engine cowl supports of #2 engine had been shot away and three cylinders of the engine had been damaged sometime while we were searching the fog bank on the 4th of June. We had apparently come close enough that the enemy had fired at our engine noise - and we had heard and seen nothing! The repair depot had repaired it, and had told the crew chief about it. As for the fuel transfer pump, it must have been knocked out during our bombing of the Jap carrier on June 3rd. It hadn't been used since, until we'd tried today.
If Captain Marks hadn't taken a walk-around break and decided to transfer fuel just when he did, we'd likely not have made it back!
One June 8, PBY's located the Jap fleet which had been trapped in the fog north of Umnak. They were in Kiska Harbor! 26 vessels were located, including troop transports, but the 2 aircraft carriers and the battleship supposed to have been with them were not in the harbor. They undoubtedly were recalled to Japan. All aircraft available were to attack on the 9th.
By June 8, the Umnak field was loaded with B-24's - 6 of them. They made our old B-17 look like an antique, bless its old heart!
Lieutenants Walseth, Crawford, and Hebert were among the pilots, and we had a new co-pilot for the B-17. This would allow for pilot rests, so Captain Marks and I could now alternate as pilot: but the rest of the crew really needed a break, too - crew chief, bombardier, radio/gunner, armament/gunner - all looked ten years older than a week ago. None of us had had much sleep or much to eat for the past week.
We were concerned about the fuel-hours-distance capability of the B-17 in carrying a full load of bombs to Kiska and returning to Umnak in a formation of the new B-24's. They were 50 mph faster with full loads, and we feared we'd burn too much fuel at settings fast enough to keep up. Captain Marks planned to try it on the run scheduled for June 9th, aborting if necessary. I would take it the next day, if successful.
It was still dark when the "Squadron" took off at 4:00 AM on June 9th, and the formation was slow to make up and head out. Better organization was needed; the planes first off burned almost an hour of fuel before the rest were airborne!
By 11:00 AM all the planes were back. Captain Marks said he barely made it back; there was too much difference in speed. He had to slow to max economy on the way back, and was half an hour late getting back.
At the 7:00 PM briefing for the next day's raid, the "Squadron" Commandeer assigned me to lead the second element of the formation. After the briefing I tried to persuade him to designate someone else, but he refused, saying he did not want the B-17 to separate from the formation. I tried to explain fuel and speed problems, but he wouldn't listen. He scheduled me for first one off, to await the rest to form up on me.
Take-off time was 3:00 AM. Nothing but coffee for breakfast! I took off at 3:00 AM, as scheduled, and circled, and circled, and circled. Finally we were enrolled at 3:45 AM. It was soon obvious that the B-17 had a bad engine; it was rough, and even at climb power on the other three, we were dropping behind. As it became lighter, the crew chief pointed out that we were leaking oil from #2 engine. As the oil pressure had dropped to half its normal, we had to abort and return to base. After we were parked, we could see the wing was dripping with oil and the engine was soaked with it. It was a wonder that we hadn't had a fire. Ordnance came out and removed the 8 500-lb bombs, and base ops reamed me out for not dumping them at sea (although bombs were in short supply).
When the engine and wiring had been wiped off and new spark plugs put in, we started the engine up. It was still sick, but would deliver about half power. We tried pulling the prop through by hand and found two cylinders had almost no compression. A new engine was mandatory. There were none available except at Ladd Field, our home base. So I set us up for the flight to Ladd. Captain Marks was asleep and didn't wake up when I spoke to him and shook him, so I figured he needed the sleep and we took off without him.
Ladd field had an engine and promised to have it installed and ready to go by noon the next day, June 11. It wasn't, but finally work was completed and we were able to leave at 11:00 PM.
Enroute we stopped to refuel at Kodiak. We were met by the Navy Ops Officer, who gave us a priority 1 mission: a Navy troop transport had called for help. It was under attack by a Japanese submarine, and was being shelled. There were no other surface vessels or aircraft available. I told him we were just out of repair depot and had neither bombs nor ammunition with us. He informed me that he, also, had no bombs or ammo!
I had the crew rounded up, worked an intercept for the transport's last position, course, and speed, and we were off again in less than fifteen minutes. In the air I asked the crew chief to look up maximum continuous power for these engines - and, light as we were, we soon were batting along slightly over 300 mph.
As our intercept time came up, we could see the transport about 10 miles ahead, black smoke pouring out of her stacks, and behind her the sub, on the surface, with a white bow wave attesting to her speed.
While enroute we had discussed our plan of "attack." We hoped we could scare the sub into submerging by faking an attack pattern. If we could make it submerge, the transport would pull away from it. However, we also discussed what we had on board that we could use if the sub fought instead of submerging. The only thing we had was the crew chief's big metal tool box! If we had to do it, we could dive bomb the sub's gun crew with that - might even knock the gun out!
As soon as the sub was in range I dropped down to 100' and had the bomb bay doors opened, then pulled up sharply and dived on the sub. I'm sure he set a new Japanese record for crash diving!
We then throttled down to economy cruise power and circled the transport until three PBY's from Sitka (?) arrived, circling close in and then spiraling out to about 10 miles. But saw nothing more of the sub. The PBY's undoubtedly had bombs and depth charges aboard, as well as radar, and could handle anything that ensued. Being down to half fuel by this time, we headed back and three hours later we landed at Kodiak.
Supplementary Information (Biographical)
During the flight back to Kodiak I had spells of dizziness and rested my head against the cockpit side window, which helped me fight off the need for sleep. On landing at Kodiak I found it difficult to determine our height during landing flare out, but landed safely. We arranged to have the aircraft serviced, then broke up for food and a nap, to resume our flight to Umnak in four hours.
When the crew assembled I was not there, and my co-pilot came to my quarters to wake me up. He found me unconscious on the floor and called an ambulance which took me to Kodiak Station hospital.
I woke up 5 days later, much surprised at my location! No medical officers were at the hospital, all having been sent to Dutch Harbor to take care of casualties there. My nurse informed me that my temperature had dropped to 75, and they hadn't expected survival! Since I was in no condition to pilot an aircraft, I was returned to my home base, Ladd field, where medical facilities and staff were available. It was 90 days until I was again on flying status, and that only after my insistence that "I feel like my ignition was retarded to the point that my engine would barely run." This led to discovery that my thyroid gland was not producing its normal secretion. Replacement medication made a world of difference, and I quickly returned to flying status, where I remained until the end of the war.
From mid-September 1942, I served as Base Engineering Officer (air) at Ladd Field until the winter of 42-43, when the Russian lend-lease program began. Ferry Command pilots brought US aircraft to Ladd Field where they were winterized and made combat-ready - guns, ammo, and all - and Russian ferry pilots picked them up and flew them to the eastern front where they were often flying against the Germans within a matter of days after leaving Ladd Field.
As the really cold weather settled in the whole ferry route began to break down. Aircraft out of service clogged the parking areas of intermediate landing fields and the turn-over point, Ladd field, was overloaded with the same problem. Ferry Command had neither the personnel nor the arctic experience to meet the problem it was facing.
Very soon thereafter the commander of Ladd Field, Col. Dale Gaffney, received a telegram from General Arnold, Commander of the U. S. Air Force, which said, "Regardless of command or assignment, you are hereby given responsibility that this Lend Lease Program gets on its feet and works." Col. Gaffney called me in and let me read the telegram, and then asked if I could do it! I already had many ideas of what could be done and told him, "If you back me up, yes." So he told me it was my baby.
My first action was to call on the Commander of the Russian Mission, Col. Machin, and bring him up to date. Then I requested him to brief me on Russian Arctic techniques, explaining that we were rather new at Air force operations in severe arctic weather and would be able to serve him better if we could draw on the Russian knowledge and experience in this area.
Col. Machin promised to have a complete report as soon as possible, and we parted on cordial terms. (As it turned out, our technology and procedures were far superior to the Russians, and they were soon borrowing from us!)
Analysis of our own problems showed we were woefully short of skilled and trained manpower in every aspect of the job. In the Cold Weather Testing Squadron there was a small cadre of skilled and trained personnel, but we had no access to qualified replacements. The few men we had were working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week and were tired and discouraged. We had to have more manpower where it was critically needed.
I reviewed the personnel records of every man on the base to see if there were any mal-assignments and counted no aircraft mechanics, but found many men with mechanical knowledge and experience and had them transferred to aircraft and servicing departments.
Once we had the bodies, we brought in the best crew chiefs and mechanics from the Cold Weather Testing Squadron to i8nstruct in inspection, winterizing, and the chronic minor repairs characteristic of each type of aircraft we would be processing. These would all be new aircraft, and their delivery flights would be "shake down" flights also.
Then I gave the entire crew a 3-day pass to help them get over their accumulated fatigue and discouragement. All this got me called on the carpet, of course, particularly the three days off and the new work schedule of 6 days a week and 10 hours a day. However I was able to quote from a British study of hours of work versus finished product - during their dark days of the early part of the war - which showed 6 days of 10 hours gave maximum finished product, and to quote the dangers of overworking in product spoilage and failure.
Sure enough, things really sparkled from then on, and we worked our parking lots empty and called for speed up of deliveries, within two months. By the time summer came, Ferry Command had personnel on hand to do the job, including a full-scale repair depot.
With the increase in flights we had a new problem: accidents enroute and the need for accident investigation and rescue/retrieval of crews, both US and Russian. As Base Engineering Officer (air), it was my job to investigate aircraft accidents. My Alaskan flying experience (3500 hours of "bush" flying) made me the most qualified for necessary selecting of "target of opportunity" landing sites from which accidents were accessible, landing on skis in the winter or floats or wheels in the summer. This was demanding on personnel and base aircraft resources and led to a request to HQ USAF for personnel and suitable aircraft. ;USAF replied, authorizing formation of a new unit designation -an Arctic Air Rescue Squadron.
I was sent to HQ USAF in August of 1943 to write up Tables of Organization and Equipment, and to set up a training facility for personnel at Buckley field, Denver, Colorado. Since the project had the personal support of General Hap Arnold, it did not take long to have it set up and approved. (At that time a project was under consideration to move 175 aircraft per day through Alaska and eastern Siberia into strike bases against Japan, and the need for search and rescue was given high priority. The Russians finally vetoed this.) Two Arctic Search and Rescue Squadrons were formed up, "trained," and sent out. The first of these went to the North East Wing of the air Transport Command to cover the North Atlantic route, and the second to the Alaskan Wing of the ATC. I took over the rescue flights of the alaskan sector.
In 1945, HQ USAF ordered me to Washington DC where I was assigned as OIC Search, Rescue, and Survival for the Air Transport Command's worldwide responsibilities.
As WW II had wound down by 1946, I was transferred to the Active Reserve at my own request in the fall of 1946, in time to report back to the University of Alaska for the opening of the fall semester, teaching Geology.
From fall 1946 to spring 1951 I was Professor and Head of the Department of Geology.
At the end of the spring semester 1951, Dr. Terris Moore, President of the University of Alaska, requested that I take over as Director of Military Branches of the University. This function had been established the previous year, under Dr. Richard Burns, who had resigned at the end of the 1951 school year.
From 1951 to 1956, I served in this capacity, and at that time I left the University to become Chief of Education and Training for the Alaskan Air Command, where I remained until retirement in 1973.