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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.

The Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Affairs Office team sent to investigate the Kamchatka crash sites included ordnance experts to defuse live ammunition, Russian and U.S. military brass, a forensic anthropologist, and a mortuary affairs specialist to handle human remains.
The site had attracted the attention, and tampering, of Soviet authorities. In 1962, an engineer on a geologic survey spotted the aircraft, and the KGB sent a team to investigate the site.
The team removed the machine guns, cut open the fuselage, hoisted out live bombs, and tried to blow them up. Because Kamchatka was a highly restricted area during the cold war, the area remained relatively undisturbed. Russian nuclear “Boomer” submarines still operate out of Petropavlovsk.
The U.S. team reached the crash site via a Russian Mi-2 helicopter in August 2000. As it turned out, they had no problem making the identification because Whitman’s airplane had survived the crash without bursting into flames.
Examining the wreckage, the team was able to reconstruct the final minutes of Whitman’s mission. Both engines showed heavy battle damage, caused by fighter attacks from above before the Ventura could make its bombing run.
Oil from a punctured prop spinner spilled over the engine’s hot cylinder heads, leaving a dark smoky trail as the airplane struggled to maintain altitude. The crew desperately tried to reach Petropavlovsk, but impending engine failure forced them down.
The lack of damage to the propellers proves the blades had windmilled to a halt. Touchdown was level—the Ventura had been crash-landed, not simply crashed.
However, survivors would then have had to face the unforgiving elements, isolated and unaided. They perished in the frozen wilderness.
Department of Defense officials made a second visit to the area to recover the human remains from Whitman’s airplane for identification and subsequent burial in Arlington National Cemetery, outside Washington, D.C.
Not every body was found on board—the skeletal remains of three crewmembers were positively identified, with other items, like a personalized jacket, indicating that others likely died
at the site as well.
Using DNA analysis, researchers were able to identify Second Class Petty Officer Donald Lewallen among the fallen.
“There was never a funeral,” says his daughter, Donna Lewallen-Atkins, who was two years old when he disappeared. “There was always doubt. I always prayed he’d come back.”
Hearing the fate of her father’s airplane was an emotional moment. “I was surprised,” she recalls. “I was so choked up I could hardly speak. I thought he was lost at sea. My aunts and uncles always wondered if he had been captured by the Japanese.”
The mystery is solved, but a larger question remains: Why these men emerged from World War II with so little recognition.. What they accomplished was not a sideshow of the larger war. To take the fight to the Japanese, they had to move their bases westward into the harsh north Pacific.
The Japanese expended considerable manpower and material constructing naval facilities and airfields, as well as positioning hundreds of anti-aircraft batteries, ships, and airplanes.

Walt Whitman and his crew, like all those who flew unheralded over the frozen waste of the north Pacific, earned their trip home.

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