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 4 of 4)
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.
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.