Simon Bolivar Buckner to Alaska. Terrain, weather, lack of radio aids slow aviation progress. Elmendorf, Ladd Airbases established.
Copyright 2011 Franklyn E. Dailey Jr.
Triumph of Instrument Flight
A look at polar projection maps of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres
is quite revealing. There is very little land-mass between the 50th and 70th
southern parallels. There is considerable landmass between the 50th and 70th
northern parallels, and parts of it are heavily populated. The northern rims
of both the eastern and western hemispheres were a challenge to the early
venturing peoples. Man's curiosity, and the connectivity ingredients, land,
ice, and navigable waters, were passed on to the sea and air faring descendants
of the original seafarers to continue the pursuit of passage through these
Conquest and hegemony are other words to which that geography contributed. Mankind's deadliest wars have occurred in the northern hemispheres. Most of World War II, and the Cold War nuclear standoff that followed, were waged in the Northern Hemisphere.
Travel distance between major population centers is minimized by use of great circle routes. North of the Equator, these routes arch toward the North Pole. Measured in 1940, progress in exploiting strategic aviation advantages of the north Pacific rim lagged behind its geographic cousin rimming the north Atlantic.
While the U.S. and the USSR gazed at each other across the Bering Strait, and each speculated how it matched up against the other, Japan, actively antagonistic to both countries, made the first overt move.
The Aleutian/Alaskan area, along with Panama and Hawaii, were part of its western defensive region in the 1939 war plans of the United States. With the exceptions of Sitka, Kodiak and Dutch Harbor, the U.S. Navy, though posturing proprietary in its stated domain over defense of the Aleutian Chain of islands, could hardly claim that it had demonstrated a high priority in implementing its avowed responsibilities. It took a United States Army officer and his superior on the West Coast of the "lower forty eight" to give the U.S. military presence in Alaska's mainland and then the Aleutian Chain a major pre-war shot-in-the-arm. The Department of the Army and its U.S. Army Air Corps, in the main, were no more enamoured of Alaska than the Navy. Fortunately, Lieutenant General DeWitt, USA, in charge of the U.S. Western Defense Command, picked Colonel Simon Buckner, USA, to go to Alaska to implement a plan for the strategic military development of the area.
Colonel Buckner arrived in Anchorage, Alaska in July 1940. The U.S. can be thankful that Buckner had a vision for the strategic military position that the United States possessed in its almost orphan territory. Buckner could see that the challenges in creating a base support structure were going to be monumental. The U.S. Navy had made progress with its own effort, but that effort had been centered on the ability of its patrol aircraft to land on the water.
Simon Buckner soon realized one of the many paradoxes of his new command responsibilities. Alaska loved the airplane. Its bush pilots, another distinct breed of pilots like the barnstormers, made things happen in Alaska and their work was appreciated. They moved supplies to outposts that were not reachable any other way. Often these were life saving medical serums and life giving birth supports for newborn babies struggling to live. Those pilots adapted to the region, using skis and pontoons on their aircraft when required. The paradox was that the canny adaptive skills of the bush pilots meant that facilities like paved airfields were not built. Too hard to build and too costly. There were other ways to do it, particularly where budgets were limited.
Buckner, who might have turned out to be a regiments and battalions and divisions kind of Army officer, saw the wisdom of the airplane. He appreciated and used the skill of the bush pilots and at the same time began an effort to build airfields and air support facilities. This ground-trained officer was even handed in his relationships with the Army Air Corps and the U.S. Navy. Where interests coincided, and the other parties were dedicated to the objective, he worked with Navy and Army Air Corps personnel to get a job done that he saw needed to be done. He was not addicted to personal fame. But where the other services held back, he moved on to get his airfields built.
We are not going to be complete in our citations of the air facilities developed in the Alaska/Aleutian region as the result of Buckner's energies and savvy. He found believers like an Army Air Corps pilot, one Colonel Eareckson, and a Navy Captain named Ralph Parker. His passion, animated by his accurate evaluation of Japanese military intentions, was contagious to his small contingent of strong men. Buckner was no purist. He occasionally was moved to diverting funds from other worthy purposes to direct use in enhancing the region's military preparedness. His vision was disciplined. He learned the territory and conducted a survey of sites "out the chain" which would be suitable for airfields.
Buckner's effort to develop a defense scheme for the U.S. position in the north Pacific rim resulted in the following airfield developments:
Elmendorf Field at Anchorage;
Ladd Field at Fairbanks;
strengthening the defenses at Dutch Harbor;
an airfield later known as Ft. Randall at Cold Bay, Alaska,
an airfield later known as Ft. Glenn on Umnak Island.
For all of the geography education a U.S. schoolchild acquires, including the oft told tale of the purchase of Alaska from Russia, most U.S. "lower forty eight" citizens know little about Alaska itself. Here is one of the little anomalies introduced by the names given to two of Alaska's important geographic features. The Alaska Peninsula, reaching southwest from Alaska, is dominated by the Aleutian Range of mountains. This range extends right into the heart of Alaska itself. The Aleutian Chain of islands, however, does not actually begin until Unimak Island, the first major island off the western tip of the Alaska Peninsula.
Don Fortune, in later civilian life a San Francisco newspaper editor and author, learned about weather in the Gulf of Alaska first hand while serving as an ordinary seaman on board a 1362-ton ship delivering supplies to Cold Bay near the westernmost end of the Alaska Peninsula in 1942. A "coaster", in seagoing terms, the SS Taku had become the USAT (U.S. Army Transport) Taku by the time ordinary seaman Don Fortune made his way aboard for duty during several supply trips between Seattle, Washington and Cold Bay on the south side of the Alaska Peninsula.
In some following paragraphs, Don Fortune provides some details about one sea trip in those storm-driven Alaskan waters in 1942 before he joined the Army.
"My view of Cold Bay in 1942 was limited to the dock area, so I got the impression that almost everything was underground. I was also told (in 1942) that the Japanese did not know of Ft. Randall's existence there. SS Taku became USAT Taku when the Army took it over. On one trip, a storm hit the ship that almost sank the vessel and resulted in my being carried off in a canvas wrapping. The crew quarters were aft and above deck. The black gang's quarters were on the portside, deckhands on the starboard. ("Black gang" is sea lingo for the men assigned to the engineering spaces of a ship, probably originating when the propulsion fuel was coal.) Their cabins were abandoned and I was told later that the doors were torn off their hinges. The storm was so powerful that lifeboats were stove in and useless. Superstructure was hammered. The ship could not make headway. I was carried midship to the Second Mate's cabin, and left soaked and badly bruised for what I was told was almost 36 hours. Finally, the skipper pulled into Juneau, Alaska, possibly against orders. I was wrapped in canvas and carried topdeck. The men carrying me had to twist and turn through the officer's mess and other narrow spaces. It hurt. I was lowered to a launch and taken to the hospital. The Taku spent some time in drydock after it arrived back in Seattle."
Don Fortunes's skipper on the Taku must have been ahead of his time in what we now call "human factors." Putting in at a port like Juneau on the way from Cold Bay to Seattle is not the same as stopping off at a port along the way. Juneau represented a major detour. Almost landlocked on the eastern side of the Gulf, Juneau was possibly the only alternative choice to Seattle in terms of hospital facilities. Looking at sea routes, Juneau was likely just a few miles closer than Seattle for the Taku. That trip into Juneau was made strictly because a man was injured and the time, measured in hours, that could be saved in getting him to a hospital were deemed essential
Don Fortune's glimpse of the rigors of passage across the Gulf of Alaska introduce the reader to the storm factor which influenced so many missions that I would later be called on to fly in that area. A "coaster" type vessel would find real challenges in those turbulent sea states. A lot of storm trouble is generated where the Japanese current meets the frozen northern tundra and its adjacent waters. For aviators, an added factor south of the chain is that at least until 1948 there were no radio aids to air navigation in that airspace. An airman's aircraft had better be self-sufficient electronically. (Thankfully, the PB4Y-2s assigned to our squadron in 1946 were well equipped.)
After an interregnum imposed by the Japanese occupation of Attu and Kiska, Buckner's airfield vision would extend to Adak, Amchitka, Attu and Shemya.
Some exciting, some bizarre, and some tragic events of war occurred between a Japanese fleet's first attack on Dutch Harbor on June 2, 1942 and Japan's occupation of Attu and Kiska, which began just five confused days later on June 7. I would refer readers to "The Thousand-Mile War" by Brian Garfield. My 1981 edition of Garfield's book is labeled a "Bantam War Book" and has a Navy PBY on its cover, but inside one discovers that first publication was by Doubleday in 1969. Garfield not only details the attack by the Japanese and the defense by U.S. forces, but includes the orders received by the Japanese fleet commander during his Aleutian attack operation to send his carriers south to rendezvous with the now defeated main body of Japan's Midway attack force. Those orders, never carried out, allow author Garfield the opportunity to tell his readers in a masterful way, how the war was going in the Pacific in the summer of 1942.
It was as part of the northern prong of its attack on Midway Island, that the Japanese, on 7 June 1942, occupied Kiska and Attu, out at the end of the Aleutian chain of islands. This occupation was preceded by Japanese carrier aircraft raids on the U.S. Navy installations at Dutch Harbor, located on Unalaska Island.
In the context of the six years of active hostilities in World War II, Japan's stay in the Aleutians turned out to be relatively brief. On June 7, 1942, the Japanese commenced landing on Attu and Kiska and quickly captured or killed the occupants there. By the end of May 1943, after a bloody three weeks, the killing of most of the Japanese defenders and the capture of but a handful, the Japanese were eliminated from Attu.
A Japanese objective in the Aleutian sub-strategy to its attack on Midway included bombing attacks on Dutch Harbor, primarily to make the U.S. Navy believe that its Dutch Harbor seaplane base installations were an occupation target. From code breaking, Admiral Nimitz at Pearl Harbor knew that their basic Aleutian intention was to make occupation force landings on Adak, Kiska and Attu to the west. Overlooked by the Japanese until its forces had undergone air surveillance and resistance from islands not believed by them to be militarized, was a U.S. Army Air Corps air base on Umnak Island and another at Cold Bay. These were part of Buckner's handiwork. The disturbing discovery that there were gaps in its intelligence about U.S. airfields in the Aleutians very likely led the Japanese high command to its decision to abandon the Adak landings and concentrate on Attu and Kiska. One does not have to reach for the moon to credit Buckner's vision here. Dismay that their intelligence had not revealed an important U.S. presence created a major change in Japan's objectives. This change left the door open to a major opportunity for the United States. That opportunity was Adak, and Adak ultimately became the pivot of the U.S. Navy's air and sea operations in the Aleutians.
Both the United States and the Japanese had defensive strategy objectives in the Aleutians. Neither figured to invade the other's heartland by use of the Aleutian chain as steppingstones.
The Japanese sea force approaching the Gulf of Alaska in early June, 1942, consisted of cruisers, destroyers, an oiler, transports with troops, and of prime importance to U.S. commanders, two aircraft carriers. Their first mission was to attack Dutch Harbor before the main body of the Japanese Fleet, which included its four large carriers, attacked Midway Island. Japan's military strategists intended to influence Admiral Nimitz and our Pacific command to send forces north to the Aleutians to defend against an invasion there and thereby weaken his Midway defense options. Nimitz did send a small cruiser/destroyer force north under Rear Admiral Theobold. But, he sent no U.S. carriers. Nimitz had none to spare.
The U.S. Navy base at Dutch Harbor in Unalaska Island west of Unimak Island supported PBY Catalina patrol seaplanes, and their seaplane tenders. There were fuel storage facilities, some radio communications towers, and a detachment of U.S. Marines. It was defended by anti aircraft gunnery installations. These were well dug in, but of insufficient range and without modern fire control. Four-stack U.S. destroyers dating from World War I were also based there but their gun systems were also outdated.
The U.S. Corps of Engineers had prepared and put into operation for the U.S. Army Air Corps, primitive airfield installations at Cold Bay and on Umnak Island. At these bases were some P-40 Warhawks, B-26 Marauders and a few B-17 Flying Fortresses. The airfields were "paved" with steel matting that gave ground under the weight of the heavier aircraft, setting up a kind of sine wave under the heavier aircraft as these moved down the "runways."
For the Alaska part of its defense plan against the major and multi-pronged Japanese thrust centered on Midway Island, the U.S. was plagued by a hastily thrown together tri-service command. The Army commander was General Simon Buckner, just promoted from Colonel. The Army Air Corps commander was General Butler, in command of what was becoming the XI Air Force. The Navy commander and ostensibly in overall command for the expected Japanese assault on the Aleutians was the newly-arrived Rear Admiral Theobold, in charge of the cruiser-destroyer force that Nimitz sent north from Hawaii. A Navy Captain named Leslie Gehres had been in place for some time at Kodiak in charge of Kodiak and Dutch Harbor.
The three flag commanders, Buckner, Butler and Theobold, had no experience with each other and were never able to effect a unified command for this early June 1942 challenge from the Japanese. Their remotely located superiors did not help in defining the command situation although in Admiral Nimitz' defense, he was busy preparing for the main thrust at Midway. Finally, the complete lack of any Alaskan communications infrastructure left the commanders there without even the option of creating an ad hoc plan.
From code-breaking, Nimitz knew what the Japanese were up to with their thrust in the north. He was certain that their main effort would be directed against Midway. He sent the small cruiser-destroyer force north under Radm Theobold in reaction to the intelligence he had.
Here entered one of those nuances of war whose importance could not be understood until many years had passed. Nimitz had provided Theobold with accurate and valuable information. Admiral Nimitz' intelligence was coming directly from an almost providentially provided code-breaking team. The briefings in Hawaii were sometimes conducted with Nimitz and his staff in the physical presence of those who had actually gathered the information and defined its relevance. Nimitz could directly question this team and challenge them. He could get "in their face" in modern parlance, and therefore had a rare opportunity to evaluate the worth of the information. To his credit, he believed their conclusions and took full advantage of both the direct human transfer of information and the intelligence information itself. Our sea defense for The Battle of Midway was undertaken with this knowledge. Pertinent portions of this intelligence were passed along to other commanders who had not been personally involved in the briefings. The difference in credibility between the direct reception from code breakers that Nimitz enjoyed, and the passed-along information to commanders like Theobold, was striking.
Not too much had gone right for the Navy since December 7, 1941. Its Asiatic Fleet had been decimated, the Philippines lost, and Coral Sea could hardly have been called a victory. No, to Theobold, this intelligence was like all intelligence, to be locally evaluated with some hedging as to its accuracy. Consequently, in its defense of the Aleutian Islands, U.S. armed forces in Alaska never took full advantage of the intelligence information that Nimitz possessed and passed along. And which Nimitz himself used so effectively at Midway.
At this juncture, the U.S. Alaskan defense team faltered badly. No unified command, no agreement on defensive strategies, poor intelligence evaluation and totally abysmal communications and instrument flying aids made the effort almost ludicrous. But as I noted, great deeds were performed, some with tragic consequences. With the onset of a series of fast moving weather fronts, the U.S. defense of the Aleutians turned into chaos. We actually came out rather well.
For their part, the Japanese had good communications, experienced ship handlers and skilled pilots. Their Admiral astutely used the adverse weather to the best advantage that could be achieved in atrociously bad weather conditions. His celestial navigation information was outdated by the time his task force arrived off Aleutian Island shores. His location, therefore, with respect to his preliminary Dutch Harbor bombing objective was not as good as he would have hoped. What he did possess was nearly precise knowledge of the location of the leading edge of the weather front he was able to hide in. This was accurate enough for him to control the time he would be able to poke his force out ahead of the front and launch aircraft. A Navy PBY on a long duration patrol mission did spot the Japanese force through a break in the overcast and the Japanese knew they had been spotted but because they did not identify the type aircraft they were not able to even speculate about its point of origin. The Japanese task force was able to mount two air attacks on Dutch Harbor during which the Japanese pilots encountered almost no aircraft resistance over their target and only futile AA fire.
But, the unexpected discovery by the Japanese of U.S. aircraft sorties from Umnak Island, aircraft that might interfere with the Rising's Sun's recovery of aircraft aboard their carriers, was certainly a factor in Japan's elimination of Adak as an occupation objective.