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A fleet of PV-1s race over the Bering Sea toward Japan. Jettisoning into the water meant death in 10 minutes. On land, it took longer. (National Archives)

Fire and Ice

A wrecked bomber in Russia memorializes a World War II battle for the North Pacific.

With the Japanese driven from the Aleutians, the stage was set for the U.S. military to take the fight directly to enemy territory. The targets were the islands Paramushiro and Shimushu, both in the Kuriles.
The Japanese had taken over the pair from Russia following the 1875 Treaty of St. Petersburg. By the start of World War II, the Japanese had settled them in large numbers, making the islands part of the Japanese homeland.
Being close to Siberia, these northernmost and treeless islands experience harsh winters, more severe even than those in the Aleutians. Soldiers lived in half-subterranean barracks, dug into pits with roofs reaching ground level to better withstand high winds and heavy snow. Inside, men slept on bunks above dirt or wooden floors and used potbelly stoves for heat and cooking. They waited for U.S. airplanes to arrive, anti-aircraft batteries and Oscar fighters at the ready.

After the liberation of Attu, U.S. forces began creating airfields from which they could attack Japan. It was not a glamorous posting: The island is located about 1,500 miles from mainland Alaska. Its moist soil is covered in thick moss and lichen, giving the ground an elastic, trampoline-like quality. But the terrain is honeycombed with hidden sinkholes that can snap the leg of an unwary hiker.

Attu’s violent history echoes in the names of its locales: Massacre Bay, Murder Point, Mount Terrible. From the Russian fur traders’ slaughter of native Aleuts to the costly battles of World War II, the island has been
witness to more than its share of
calamity.

The Venturas were not deployed to the Aleutians until early 1943. Living in hastily constructed Quonset huts that sprang up later that year all over the Casco Bay area, the air wing began flying patrols over the Bering Sea. Except for engaging Japanese shipping involved in the evacuation of Kiska, the patrols were long and monotonous.
All would change, however, with a single experimental flight. On November 16, 1943, Lieutenant H.K. Mantius received permission to fly a Ventura to within 30 miles of the northern Kuriles. He was hoping to prove that the Venturas stationed on Attu could reach Japan, both to spy on and attack the enemy. Airborne for nine hours and 35 minutes, Mantius landed with 40 minutes’ worth of fuel remaining. The point was proven: The airplanes and the pilots were ready. All they needed was a commander to give a green light.

Commodore Leslie E. Gehres commanded Fleet Air Wing Four in the Aleutians from his lavishly appointed quarters on what would be called Sweat Hill on Attu. Cutting a tall, imposing figure, he was referred to as the Navy’s Hermann Goering by many of his subordinates because of his physical resemblance to the German air marshal and the penchant for luxury the two men shared.
The latter was evident in Gehres’ personal PBY, outfitted with an easy chair, and the construction of a barn on Attu for a cow he had shipped from Seattle so he could have fresh milk.

A tough taskmaster who had risen from the enlisted ranks, Gehres earned a reputation as an aggressively creative commander. He was particularly interested in taking the war to the Japanese.
Navy headquarters in Honolulu wanted photographic intelligence of Japanese activity in the Kuriles. With the Battle of Midway won, Pacific Command’s planning was fixed on the emperor’s homeland.
Gehres proposed a program that would not only provide the Navy with the photographs it needed, but also damage the enemy.
The Lockheed PV-1 Ventura was a twin-engine patrol-bomber. Its Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines generated 2,000 horsepower, which pushed the airplane to a maximum indicated airspeed of 312 mph while flying low to the ground, considered quite speedy at the time.

With two (later five) .50-caliber Browning machine guns in the nose, two more in the top turret, and two .30-caliber Brownings under the tail, the PV-1 was a formidable opponent to Japanese fighters.
The ambitious Navy fliers relied on their skill, their airplanes, and their guns to stay alive. The days of the
boring patrols were over. Missions out
of Attu became anything but
routine.

Since Japanese targets were well guarded, Fleet Air Wing Four scheduled its missions only at night. The Navy did not want to repeat a deadly lesson learned by the Army Air Forces.
On September 11, 1943, 12 B-25s and eight B-24s made a foray over Shimushu. Emboldened by the success of an earlier high-altitude raid on the Kuriles, the bombers expected to again have the element of surprise.

But this time the Japanese were ready with searchlights, sound detectors, and 25-mm anti-aircraft batteries. A radar unit was guarding Shimushu’s east coast, and picket boats cruised off the coastline.

The inbound aircraft were detected and Japanese fighters took to the air. By day’s end, more than half of the U.S. force had been shot down or crippled and forced to land in Siberia.

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