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Aleutian Patrol

How a young pilot and his Navy Patrol Wing accomplished an impossible task in the Aleutians by Donald E. Keyhoe


 


Bill Thies on left
with Capt. L.E. Gehres
For two hours, the big Navy Catalina had cruised through a gray murk that hid the Aleutians. It was four days since the Japs' first raid on Dutch Harbor. Somewhere beyond that curtain of fog an enemy fleet was still trying to land an invasion force.

In the pilot's cockpit young Lieutenant Bill Thies peered ahead through the mist. Every available plane from Patrol Wing Four was on the search. Twice contact had been made -- and lost in the fog.

The ponderous PBY droned along under a fog-bank ceiling of barely two hundred feet. Suddenly a blur to starboard caught Thies' eye. He banked quickly, saw the long dark hull of a Jap submarine.

The Catalina was carrying 500-pounders that day. Safe release height, for a bomb that size, would have been at least 1,000 feet. But the fog was too thick. If he climbed, he would loose the sub. Thies nosed down, engines full on. He was less than 200 feet from the U-boat when a bomb went plunging down.

Thies zoomed just as the bomb hit. A terrific blast hurled the PBY upward, almost out of control. Fragments gashed the hull, tore a gaping hole in the port wing. Flame leaped out from ruptured gas and oil lines and the port engine went dead.

For an instant the plane seemed doomed. But by sheer luck a fragment had also cut the fire-extinguisher tube. Carbon dioxide streamed out and quenched the blaze. Flying on one engine, Thies and his crew nursed their crippled plane 400 miles back to Dutch Harbor.

Working night and day, the crew changed the port engine, repaired the wing and hull. In thirty-six hours, Thies and his men were back with Patrol Wing Four, searching for the Japs.

"Patwing 4" had been ready, flying armed patrols, on December 7, 1941. For months afterward, Thies and his comrades battled Arctic winter, trying to guard the Aleutians. They fought the blizzards, the williwaw -- a freakish wind that can change direction in seconds, wrecking planes as they land or take off.

Finally the Japs came. Thies had been at Dutch Harbor on June third, when the Jap planes struck. Their calculations upset by strong Dutch Harbor defenses, the Japs had lost heartily, and the remaining planes had fled for their carriers. After them went Patwing 4.

But the Japs had chosen their weather too well. From fisherman-spies of prewar years they knew every vagarity of the Aleutians. There was a vast blanket of fog over the area. Thies saw comrades fly into that gray murk, never to return.

With others, he flew blind patrols, hour after hour, risking the fog-shrouded peaks in that desperate hunt for the enemy.

On one search with Patwing 4 he flew a sweep of more than a thousand miles in solid fog. The big Cats were armed with torpedoes and 1,000-pound bombs -- a laborious job for ground crews with no loading equipment. The ceiling was less than fifty feet, and for 500 miles Thies flew ten feet above the water. There was no trace of the enemy fleet, and they turned back after searching at Kiska. For a while Thies and the other pilots kept an incredible formation through the mists, guiding on Aldis lights in the Patrol Wing leadership's plane.

Then the ceiling closed down toward zero. Thies had to land, and quickly. He checked the map, made for a small bay of which he knew almost nothing. If he had climbed up, jettisoned his torpedo and bombs, no one would have blamed him, but torpedoes and bombs were too precious. Thies landed in murky blackness, with enough TNT under his wings to blow up a battleship. Next morning he took off and calmly went back to Dutch Harbor for another patrol.

It was not long in coming. Suddenly the radio at Kiska went dead. it could mean merely strafing -- or it could mean invasion. Thies was ordered to find out.

There were low clouds above Kiska harbor. Thies let down through them, and ran into a storm of antiaircraft fire. The sky was dark with flak. he took a swift look, saw five cruisers, eighteen destroyers and ten transports. With guns blazing at the Cat from every ship, he zoomed for the clouds.

Circling on top, he radioed a contact report to Dutch Harbor. Back came an order to bomb the enemy. Thies and his copilot looked at each other. The PBY's had never been designed for dive bombing. But horizontal bombing at that low altitude would be sheer suicide.

Thies found a hole in the clouds, dived through with wing howling. The PBY shuddered as the speed went up to 250 knots, and Thies breathed a prayer that the wings would stay on. Ack-ack fragments hit the wings, and bullets went through the plane. here was no time to use a bombsight. Four 500-pounders went hurtling down toward the nearest transport. Then both Thies and his copilot bent back on their controls for a four-handed pull-out.

The wings moaned, but held, and the Cat came out of its headlong dive. With more flak gashing the hull, the big plane climbed into the cloud layer.

The next day Patwing 4 began the "Kiska Shuttle." Every available plane was sent over with the brief order: Bomb the Japs. Thies and his crew made another trip that day. But when they came out below the clouds hey ran into a swarm of Zero fighters. Thies pulled up on top of the clouds -- and met another flight of Japs.

He ducked back into the clouds and made a measured run inside their protecting folds. At the precise moment he dived through, took aim at a Jap cruiser and let go the bombs. Again the copilot hauled back on the dual controls to help him pull out. The bombs struck near the cruiser, one apparently a hit. Thies had no time to make sure.

As they started back to Dutch harbor, flying in the clouds, a radio message ordered Thies to evacuate five aerologists from Kanaga. The PBY's fuel was low, but he headed for the island.

When they arrived, the tide was out. Even at best, landing was difficult in this narrow bay. But Thies put down, took the five men aboard with their equipment. Battling a cross-wind, he got the overloaded plane off the water one second ahead of a crack-up on the rocks.

It was dark when they got back to their base on Atka. Thies found a tiny break in the clouds, made an instrument landing offshore and taxied into the harbor. But his troubles were not over. He still had to find a mooring buoy. And somewhere in the blackness of the harbor were jagged rocks which would sink them instantly. For three hours, Thies and his copilot taxied back and forth in the dark. At last they found the buoy.


Capt. L.E. Gehres presenting the Navy Cross to Lt W. N. Thies
But for the epic battle of Patwing 4 against overwhelming odds, Alaska might have fallen to the Japs. For his part in it, Thies was awarded the Navy Cross.

Others like Bill Thies were decorated for heroic action. But perhaps more valued even than their decorations was the message to Patwing 4 from the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet which ended: "My personal thanks to all hands. I have every confidence you will continue to accomplish the impossible."

Accomplish the impossible. That was Patwing 4.

 

 

 

 


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Lt. William Nouris Thies

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