IN 2000 JAMES CONNELL, a U.S. Embassy officer in Moscow, worked his way up the slope of an extinct volcano on Russia’s far eastern Kamchatka peninsula. The former Navy captain carefully stepped around .50-caliber rounds and an unexploded 500-pound bomb, each marked with yellow warning flags, and headed toward the flattened tail of a wrecked aircraft.
Connell was part of a team from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Affairs Office seeking the ruined airplane. Acting on information from a Russian researcher who discovered in a 1962 document a reference to a crashed World War II airplane, the team was deployed to identify the airplane and determine if any remains of U.S. servicemen could be recovered.
Picking through the crash site, Connell lifted the left vertical stabilizer, found the number 34641, and checked it against his list of missing aircraft. The team matched the number to a Navy PV-1 Ventura bomber that during World War II had been stationed 750 miles east, on Attu Island in the Aleutians, a curved chain that extends from Alaska toward Japan.
The discovery of the Ventura, 56 years after the bomber’s seven crewmen had gone missing, finally gave surviving family members some knowledge about how the men had died. It also provides a dramatic reminder of World War II battles that today may not have the familiar ring of “Midway” or “Leyte” but nevertheless played a pivotal role in winning the war in the Pacific.
Just after midnight on March 25, 1944, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Walt S. Whitman and his copilot, Lieutenant John W. Hanlon, looked over their bomb-laden PV-1 Ventura, bureau number 34641. The snow crunched underfoot as they inspected their warplane. Relentless wind blew damp, cold air through even the best parkas, making the pre-takeoff check hard on Whitman, who hailed from sunny Miami. In the air it was worse; the pilots and five crewmen greased their faces to prevent frostbite.
Pilots based in Attu, a flyspeck island at the end of the Aleutians chain, flew long sorties against Japanese installations in the Kurile Islands. The elements and the enemy claimed pilots’ lives. By the end of this day, nearly a dozen men would lose their lives to both.
As Whitman was warming his engines, squadron mate Lieutenant James H. Moore’s Ventura lumbered onto the runway end and shut down beside a fuel truck. After topping off the tanks, Moore restarted the engines and released the brakes. His props churned loose snow into a billowing cloud as the PV-1 swept down the 4,500-foot runway.
Instead of climbing, the airplane stayed level. Wings heavy with ice, the Ventura hit the surface of Massacre Bay, became airborne again, then plunged into the frigid surface. “Water was coming in,” recalls Moore from his home in Lake City, Florida. “I had flight boots on, and one was jammed under the rudder [pedal]. I pulled my foot out of the boot without unzipping it. I surfaced and started yelling, ‘Let’s get to the life raft!’ ”
Only three of the seven men made it. Everyone aft of the cockpit was killed. Whitman and his crew must have watched from the runway as the airplane was consumed in flames, wondering if their mission would be scrubbed. Instead, they received word to fly.
When it was Whitman’s turn to take off, 50 minutes later than scheduled, their PV-1 rumbled into the air and skimmed above the rescue boats, still circling where Moore had gone down.
The long delay getting airborne would place Whitman and his crew over the target at first light, something that had not been tried since a spate of disastrous daylight raids the year before.
It’s not known why, but the pilot flew beyond his target and reversed course. Whitman’s final transmission to his base in Attu was “Down, down!” The Ventura and its pilots disappeared without another word.
Also on board, and presumed lost, were aviation metalsmith/navigator Donald G. Lewallen of Omaha, Nebraska, aviation radioman Samuel L. Crown Jr. of Columbus, Ohio, aviation machinist's mate Clarence C. Fridley of Manhattan, Montana, aviation ordnanceman James S. Palko from Superior, Wisconsin, and aerographer Jack J. Parlier from Decatur, Illinois, who was on his first combat mission.
Whitman and his crew were said to be riders on the Empire Express, the bombing route from the Aleutians to the Japanese strongholds in the northern fringe of their empire. The Empire Express’ contribution to World War II has slipped from the mainstream idea of how the conflict was fought and won.
Few remember that during World War II the Japanese invaded and held several of the Aleutian Islands, part of Alaska. The Japanese high command, suspecting that the April 18, 1942 raid on Tokyo by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle’s B-25s had originated in the Aleutians, decided to capture the islands before more damage could be done. (In fact, the raid had been launched from an aircraft carrier.)
Between June 1942 and June 1943, the Japanese occupied and fought to hold Attu and Kiska Islands. Both sides suffered heavy losses. In the battle for Attu alone, over 500 U.S. troops were killed and 1,200 wounded.
On top of Attu’s Point Able today, mortar rounds and spent shell casings from both American and Japanese rifles litter the foggy landscape. Rusted hulks of trucks and tracked vehicles from the 1940s dot the nearly treeless island. On the beach of Holtz Bay to the north, a 14-cylinder Sakae 12 engine from an A6M2-N Rufe fighter serves as a solitary reminder of Japanese