Fire and Ice

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

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)
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One battle-damaged B-25 returned to base only to crash-land; all but two crew members were killed. Twelve of the 20 airplanes were lost. The Army, doubting the wisdom of continuing strikes against the now well-defended Kuriles, withdrew its airplanes to fight in the South Pacific.
The Navy adhered to the restriction on daytime missions until June 11, 1944. That day, Lieutenant John P. Vivian flew a mission that changed the way the Empire Express operated.
Because the night bombers needed decent weather to find their targets in the dark, an airplane was allowed to routinely launch in sunlight to scout out conditions. Taking advantage of exceptional visibility, Vivian pressed on to spy on Shimushu and noticed with dismay that Miyoshino airfield was crowded with Mitsubishi Betty torpedo bombers.

These airplanes posed a major risk to a U.S. task force operating in the area without the protection of an aircraft carrier. A mission to destroy the air base was hastily arranged for the day after Vivian spotted the bombers.
Because its targets were precise, the mission had to be carried out in daylight. Six PV-1s swept in and demolished the Japanese bombers where they sat, with no American losses. The success convinced the leadership that daylight missions were more effective, while adding only limited risk.
The detection screen that snared the Army Air Forces was even more effective in the heyday of the Empire Express flights. To get under the improved Japanese radar, the PV-1s approached going full bore, scant feet above the swells. The first warning to the Japanese defenders that the base was about to be attacked was often the noise the Venturas made streaking over the beaches. Before fighters could scramble, the PVs were gone.
Trying to run down a departing Ventura while it was going flat-out at wave-top level was suicidal. A Japanese fighter coming from behind had to shoot into the wind, so in effect there was a 624-mph airspeed difference in what each opposing bullet had to bore through.
Even with the same caliber round, the PV-1’s effective gun range would exceed the Zero’s by a significant margin. Also, when chasing a bomber, the Zero was a stationary target as it closed, so the turret gunner had an easy time hitting it.
The Japanese liked to push ahead of the bombers and make frontal attacks, with both aircraft facing the same gun range conditions. The Japanese pilots also tried to execute slashing attacks from the side to mitigate the range advantage and make themselves a moving target.

Between the weather, enemy fighters, and anti-aircraft batteries, the Empire Express runs were fraught with dangers. Pilots with damaged engines were not left with many options—it was either ditch in the sea or crash-land in desolate Russia. Combat conditions were savage.

On August 19, 1944, Lieutenant Jack R. Cowles and crew took to the air for a daylight strike against Paramushiro. He spotted 16 Japanese ships at anchor in Kakumabetsu Harbor and bored in at minimum altitude.

Japanese anti-aircraft batteries opened up. A shell ripped through Cowles’ port wing but failed to explode. Tracers converged in a wicked crossfire. Windows were knocked out, the radio was smashed, the navigator’s sextant was shattered, a 25-mm shell exploded in the tail gunner’s position, and the cockpit gunsight was knocked out. Gasoline began spurting onto the fuselage floor. Another 25-mm shell exploded in the right engine. And then the fighters came.
Cowles jettisoned his external wing tanks to lighten the load as three Japanese Oscar fighters came roaring in, guns blazing.
During these attacks, bullets poured steadily into the airplane; one creased an ensign’s jacket and another passed between Cowles’ legs. Gunner John R. McDonald, nearly out of ammunition after 20 attacks, shot down an Oscar. The other fighters then broke off the engagement.

At that point, the Ventura neared Russia, its engine sputtering because of damage to a fuel transfer pump. The airplane was beyond help; Cowles crash-landed near the coast of Kamchatka, tearing off a large section of the tail. When the fuselage came to a stop, it burst into flames. The crew, trapped by a jammed cabin door, scrambled to safety through the split in the fuselage. All five men survived.
As radioman Rudolph Toney and the rest of the crew followed Cowles toward the beach, three armed Russian soldiers appeared. Cowles knew only one useful Russian word.
“He yelled ‘Americanski!’ ” Toney recalls today. “A Russian grabbed him and bear-hugged him like he was a long lost brother.” The crew was interned for six months and repatriated.

The crash site of PV-1 number 49507 is 20 miles to the south of the remains of Walt Whitman’s airplane. At the site today, the ruins of war are preserved amid the barren beauty of Kamchatka.

Fire had destroyed much of the aircraft. One engine showed evidence it was still putting out power at impact.

In September 1944, U.S. Army Air Force bombers were again attacking in force over the Kuriles, operating from Alexei Point on Attu. With the Army and Navy now flying missions, the Japanese became convinced that an invasion from the north was planned. The Japanese took measures to further improve defenses, drawing forces away from other battlefronts.
Historians’ estimates vary: From one-sixth to one-quarter of the Japanese air arm was diverted to the Kuriles to defend against an anticipated invasion from Alaska.

The Empire Express had done its job. The cost was high, considering the small size of the units. Thirty-eight PVs—including Whitman’s—were lost during the campaign, along with 41 Army Air Force bombers. Many disappeared without a trace, leaving families and friends with heartbreaking uncertainties.
Every so often, one of these mysteries is solved.

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