Fire and Ice

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

Members of the VB-135 Navy bombing squadron prepare for a mission over the northern Kuriles in May 1944 National Archives

In 2000 James Connell, a U.S. Embassy officer in Moscow, worked his way up the slope of an extinct volcano on Russia’s far eastern Kamchatka peninsula. The former Navy captain carefully stepped around .50-caliber rounds and an unexploded 500-pound bomb, each marked with yellow warning flags, and headed toward the flattened tail of a wrecked aircraft.

Connell was part of a team from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Affairs Office seeking the ruined airplane. Acting on information from a Russian researcher who discovered in a 1962 document a reference to a crashed World War II airplane, the team was deployed to identify the airplane and determine if any remains of U.S. servicemen could be recovered.

Picking through the crash site, Connell lifted the left vertical stabilizer, found the number 34641, and checked it against his list of missing aircraft. The team matched the number to a Navy PV-1 Ventura bomber that during World War II had been stationed 750 miles east, on Attu Island in the Aleutians, a curved chain that extends from Alaska toward Japan.

The discovery of the Ventura, 56 years after the bomber’s seven crewmen had gone missing, finally gave surviving family members some knowledge about how the men had died. It also provides a dramatic reminder of World War II battles that today may not have the familiar ring of “Midway” or “Leyte” but nevertheless played a pivotal role in winning the war in the Pacific.

Just after midnight on March 25, 1944, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Walt S. Whitman and his copilot, Lieutenant John W. Hanlon, looked over their bomb-laden PV-1 Ventura, bureau number 34641. The snow crunched underfoot as they inspected their warplane. Relentless wind blew damp, cold air through even the best parkas, making the pre-takeoff check hard on Whitman, who hailed from sunny Miami. In the air it was worse; the pilots and five crewmen greased their faces to prevent frostbite.

Pilots based in Attu, a flyspeck island at the end of the Aleutians chain, flew long sorties against Japanese installations in the Kurile Islands. The elements and the enemy claimed pilots’ lives. By the end of this day, nearly a dozen men would lose their lives to both.

As Whitman was warming his engines, squadron mate Lieutenant James H. Moore’s Ventura lumbered onto the runway end and shut down beside a fuel truck. After topping off the tanks, Moore restarted the engines and released the brakes. His props churned loose snow into a billowing cloud as the PV-1 swept down the 4,500-foot runway.

Instead of climbing, the airplane stayed level. Wings heavy with ice, the Ventura hit the surface of Massacre Bay, became airborne again, then plunged into the frigid surface. “Water was coming in,” recalls Moore from his home in Lake City, Florida. “I had flight boots on, and one was jammed under the rudder [pedal]. I pulled my foot out of the boot without unzipping it. I surfaced and started yelling, ‘Let’s get to the life raft!’ ”

Only three of the seven men made it. Everyone aft of the cockpit was killed. Whitman and his crew must have watched from the runway as the airplane was consumed in flames, wondering if their mission would be scrubbed. Instead, they received word to fly.

When it was Whitman’s turn to take off, 50 minutes later than scheduled, their PV-1 rumbled into the air and skimmed above the rescue boats, still circling where Moore had gone down. The long delay getting airborne would place Whitman and his crew over the target at first light, something that had not been tried since a spate of disastrous daylight raids the year before.

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 occupation.

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 calamity.

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.

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 routine.

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.

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.

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