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 3 of 4)
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
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.
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.