Crusty old Joe's

Kodiak Alaska Military History

The official web site of the Kodiak Military History Museum

West from Dutch Harbor

Until someone turns up with a better weather yarn, airmen of the Aleutians forces will stick to Hannibal, the hitchhiking sea gull. Hannibal, the story goes, turned up on the wing of a Navy Catalina patrol boat one day when it was feeling its way, barely above the sea, in a pea-soup fog. The pilot decided that if the weather was too thick for Hannibal, it was too thick for a PBY too. He landed. As the plane rippled to a stop, Hannibal took off, soared to a full-stall landing, and swam off into the fog.

More details of the Aleutians operations, where weather is a more dangerous enemy than the Jap, were given this week by the Navy. Heroes of its story were the airmen of Captain Leslie Edward Gehres' Patrol Wing Four and their comrades of the Army Air Forces, who indeed flew when the sea gulls were swimming.

In the fateful days of early June 1942, the men of Patwing Four and their Army opposite numbers were in the short side of one of the most successful double gambles in military history. The Jap was casting a two-pronged offensive at Alaska and at Midway. Admiral Ernest Joseph King (COMINCH) chose to throw his biggest defensive punch toward Midway, and his carrier-based airmen spearheaded the victory in one of the decisive battles of history. In the Aleutians, the "PBY Interceptor Command" and a handful of flyers had to fight with what was on hand.

Gongs for Glory. Result was a qualified victory, but unqualified glory for U.S. airmen. Even the decoration-chary Navy gave out plenty of medals. To date 114 officers and men of Patwing Four have "got the gong."

The battle trial of Patwing Four began on June 2. That day the weather was so thick that an officer standing on one landing strip watching for a plane to let down was unable to see it as it landed on another strip in the same field. But other PBYs were out on patrol, fanning out over hundreds of miles. They found nothing.

Next morning Lieut. (j.g.) Marshal C. Freerks of Cuyuna, Minn. hit pay dirt. Easing through a rift in the overcast he popped out over a Jap task force, two carriers, cruisers, a screen of destroyers. Ducking in & out of the overcast, he radioed for help. Another PBY led Army Flying Fortress and Maurauders to the spot. They blasted through the fog, got a probably hit on one of the carriers.

Search for Victory. Meanwhile, 40 Jap carrier planes were hammering away at Dutch Harbor. Anti-aircraft fire and planes drove them off, knocked down some. The rest were probably lost, because the attack on the task force had sent the carriers scurrying out of range.

Next day the dogged PBYs found the task force again. But the enemy threw a second air attack at Dutch Harbor. This time Army P-40s were up waiting for his 30 planes. Between them and anti-aircraft, 20 of the attackers were knocked down and a battle had been won. Dutch Harbor was safe from an attack that, if successful, could have endangered all of Alaska, might have been a threat to the U.S. Northwest.

Bombs for Kiska. The enemy had to be satisfied with taking Kiska and Attu far to the west, and from that day he has been allowed no rest. PBYs have dogged his every move. Their crews have also attacked week after week, using their lumbering craft to fight pursuit planes and even for dive-bombing. One pilot flew 19-1/2 hours in a single day. In June many flyers averaged 200 hours, once a respectable total for a year. They found enemy ships, bombed them and called on Army men to bomb them again.

But PBY pilots are proudest of their dive-bombing of Kiska through the overcast. Flying on top, they would take a sight on the crest of a volcano sticking above the clouds and point the nose downhill. Breaking through the overcast at 250 knots (top level speed of a PBY, about 170), they would release their bombs. Then by the combined pull of both pilot and copilot, the patrol boats would be leveled off and crawl back into the soup. At this unseemly handling, the wings would flutter like old Hannibal's. But the aircraft held together. A PBY almost always does.

This is a clipping from a magazine. The top of the page has ARMY & NAVY but no other identifying marks or date. It is probably circa 1942.

(Note: If largest photo version doesn't load, it may be only available on our CD-ROM of the website.)

FAW4 index

Main index This page created 2001 November 11