Fire and Ice
A wrecked bomber in Russia memorializes a World War II battle for the North Pacific.
- By Ralph Wetterhahn
- Air & Space magazine, March 2006
(Page 2 of 4)
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
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
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.