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Circa 2004

HistoryA BIT OF HISTORY: "...Low Profile War - Wings of Gold, Spring 2004 by Schultz, Melvin Ray..." [28MAR2005]

Fearing panic among the American people, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered a low profile kept relative to the Japanese invasion of Alaska in WWlI. On June 3, 1942 15 Japanese carrier aircraft attacked Dutch Harbor, killing 25 five persons and splashing two PBY's. The next day 10 enemy fighters accompanied by 11 dive bombers blew up four oil tanks, set fire to a Naval vessel, destroyed more PBYs, and killed an additional 18 people, wounding 50. Attu was invaded on June 7. One day later a Navy weather detachment was captured on Kiska. The ??-man de- P" tachment spent the rest of the war * in Japanese prison camps. Attu was recaptured by Americans and secured on May 29, 1943 and Kiska was secured on August 15, 1943. Attu continued to be bombed regularly by twin engine Japanese Bettys.

But for 15 months, flying obsolete PBY Catalinas and later, PV Venturas, Navy airdales fought, often emerging from overcasts below a 1,000 feet, returning to base. Early in the campaign most of the losses were due to weather and operational problems. Many of the pilots had been ordered to take crash courses in order to transition from the slow PBY to the "hot" Ventura. Their inexperience led to losses. Whatever the costs, however, all hands knew that operating Japanese air bases in the Aleutians could render defense industries, such as the Boeing Aircraft factory, as well as military installations in the northwest vulnerable to attack.

When VP-43 arrived at Attu on October 10, 1943, the Seabees were still constructing a metal mat landing strip while being exposed to regular bombings from twin engine Bettys. The squadron commenced operations the very next day. VP-43 was comprised of 12 PBYs and 18 aircrews, each consisting of a pilot, copilot, navigator, two radio/radarmen, two engineers, and one ordnanceman.

COMPATWING determined that a fully loaded PBY 5-A could make the 1,500 mile round trip from Attu to Paramushiro in order to bomb the Japanese homeland. After sunset on December 20, 1943 a Catalina piloted by LTJG Carl O. Riedel completed the first Naval air bombing of Japan. A second aircraft had to abort.

The PBY launched with 1,485 gallons of aviation fuel, four 500 pound bombs, six explosive flash bombs which activated a heavy photo electrical aerial camera, twin .3Os in the bow, a .50 caliber in each waist station, and extra ammunition.

The Catalina was extended to the absolute limit of its fuel capacity. In sub-zero weather, the aircraft had no cabin heaters and only one electrical outlet for a heated flying suit. For the crew the uniform of the night consisted of mittens, three pairs of long Johns, wool trousers, a pair of fleece lined khakis, five pairs of heavy wool socks, two wool shirts and wool sweaters topped by a fleece lined flight suit. Steaming coffee froze in its thermos along with hot prepared meals in insulated containers. The cold was unbearable and the pain intense- yet, fly they did.

An hour before the bombing run, the plane captain opened a hatch in the tunnel section where he had set up a photo electric aerial camera that took photos as each flash bomb hit. At the beginning of the bomb run, the four 500 pounders were released on target. As the bombs were dropping, the crewmen were unstrapping the dangerous magnesium photo bombs which had been lashed to a bunk. (The magnesium bombs would freeze and not release from the wing racks ifloaded externally.) The six bombs were loaded one at a time into the cradled arms of another crewman who carefully walked along the narrow catwalk toward an open blister. Amisstep would likely destroy the aircraft and crew. Another crewman manually pulled the arming wire from the bomb as it was being thrown out of the blister.

Next came the small fragmentation bombs which had been stacked neatly in munitions boxes placed near the open blister. It took two hands to gather up each bomb. Again another crewman pulled the arming wire before the bomb was thrown through the open blister. The aircrewmen could give scant attention to the frigid cold or the antiaircraft fire. Their goal was to pick up the bombs gingerly, arm them, and throw them through the open blister without creating a mishap.

Interestingly, no anti-aircraft fire was experienced in daytime raids, as the Japanese did not wish to expose their positions. But ground fire was dangerous on night raids, as were enemy aircraft. Four such raids were flown against Paramushiro. Crew 8 of VP-43 flew all four missions.

Several combat aircrewmen from this forgotten theater of WWII finally have been recognized. On November 9,2001, four combat aircrewmen of Crew 8 - Marvin Lloyd Higginson, Melvin E. Mason, Jack O. Hangen, and Edward D. Jackson - were inducted into the Enlisted Combat Aircrew Roll Of Honor. The ceremonies were held aboard USS Yorktown at the Patriots Point Maritime Museum in South Carolina.

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