The Japanese Attack: Air Force, Part 31

February 23, 2009 by Hugh A. Halliday
RCAF personnel and aircraft at Patricia Bay, B.C., in 1942. [PHOTO: NATIONAL DEFENCE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA140638]

RCAF personnel and aircraft at Patricia Bay, B.C., in 1942.
PHOTO: NATIONAL DEFENCE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA140638

May 1942 marked the high tide of Japanese expansion. This ended abruptly at the Battle of Midway on June 4 when four enemy aircraft carriers were sunk. As a diversion, the enemy had sailed a smaller fleet to the Aleutian Islands. Part of this was withdrawn on news of the Midway disaster, and the enemy vacillated about what to do next. Convinced (mistakenly) that several of the islands were heavily fortified, they chose to capture Kiska and Attu at the western end of the archipelago and held them as a consolation prize for defeat elsewhere.

The subsequent campaign has often been called a “sideshow.” Historian Samuel Eliot Morison has been somewhat more generous, describing it as “the fifth and least important ring in Admiral Yamamoto’s Greatest Show on Earth: the one where the less graceful acrobats, the not-quite trained animals and the second-string clowns catered to the fifty-cent seats.”

Without going into excessive detail, American authorities had warned Canada of an impending clash. The United States Navy itself was gambling on the accuracy of its intelligence, and as of May 27 there was no certainty that the Imperial Japanese Navy might not be bent on some other enterprise. Even when enemy intentions around Midway were confirmed, the outcome of the battle could not be foreseen, and the final stunning triumph was almost as surprising to the victors as to the vanquished.

Naval staff inspect a shell from Estevan Point, B.C. [PHOTO: GERALD THOMAS RICHARDSON, NATIONAL DEFENCE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA134083]

Naval staff inspect a shell from Estevan Point, B.C.
PHOTO: GERALD THOMAS RICHARDSON, NATIONAL DEFENCE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA134083

Alerted to a threat in the Central Pacific, with the North Pacific as part of the game, Canadian forces were deployed to assist the Americans, but locating on maps the various bases to which they were dispatched constituted a lesson in North Pacific geography. As early as April 1942, No. 115 Squadron, equipped with Bristol Bolingbrokes, had moved to Annette Island, in the southern Alaska Panhandle. It was joined on June 21 by No. 118 Sqdn. and its Kittyhawks. Although based in Alaska, the two squadrons remained under Western Air Command control and their principal task was that of defending the ap­proaches to Prince Rupert, B.C. Together, they constituted Y Wing.

Closer to the action, No. 8 Sqdn. (Bolingbrokes) and No. 111 Sqdn. (Kittyhawks) were dispatched to the Anchorage area on June 7-8, 1942. X Wing was formed as a linchpin between the Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons and the United States Army Alaska Command. Otherwise, the two units had little in common. No. 8 was primarily an anti-submarine unit while No. 111 formed part of the Anchorage fighter defences. Both squadrons soon had detachments operating in other corners of Alaska. They were the first Canadian units—land, sea or air—ever to serve directly under American command.

Further south, Canada was about to have its closest encounter with the Imperial Japanese Navy. Late in May 1942, in anticipation of their attack on the Aleutians, the enemy had dispatched six submarines to reconnoitre the islands. Two, I-25—carrying an E14Y floatplane scout—and I-26 were assigned to investigate the Kodiak area. They then proceeded south to take up stations off Washington State where they remained until the end of June, attacking ships and conducting shore bombardments. These operations resulted in the sinking of SS Coast Trader on June 7 by I-26 west of Cape Flattery, and another severely damaged ship, SS Fort Camosun on June 19 by I-25.

A Stranraer conducts a patrol over the Pacific coast. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL9596]

A Stranraer conducts a patrol over the Pacific coast.
PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PL9596

About 9:40 p.m. on June 20, 1942, I-26—commanded by Minoru Yokota—surfaced two miles off Estevan Point on Vancouver Island and began shelling the lighthouse, then the hills above it. The lighthouse keeper extinguished the light and radioed a report. The bombardment—variously recorded as between 17 and 30 rounds of 5.5-inch ammunition—lasted 40 minutes. Investigators found one unexploded shell; another was discovered in 1973. The following night, I-25 shelled Fort Stevens at the mouth of the Columbia River. Neither attack yielded material results, but they shocked American and Canadian forces into extensive, though futile, searches.

Western Air Command’s response was confused to the point of farcical. No. 13 (Operational Training) Sqdn. at Patricia Bay in Victoria had been designated as the unit that would respond to any attack such as that at Estevan Point. Across the field, however, Royal Air Force instructors and students at No. 32 Operational Training Unit decided they would tackle the problem themselves and scrambled their Beaufort torpedo bombers. The first OTU machine crashed on takeoff, and although there were no serious injuries, the wreckage blocked the runway for an hour, nullifying any immediate effort by No. 13 (OT) Sqdn. to fly off a strike force.

Whether such a force would have accomplished anything was problematical. From the outbreak of war to early 1943, Western Air Command was devoid of airborne radar. In the absence of such equipment, night searches for ships or missing aircraft were forlorn hopes. Even daylight operations were hampered by fog and rain. One squadron succeeded in completing a scheduled long-range patrol only after six months of scrubbed missions and abbreviated sorties.

Squadron Leader Ken Boomer in his Kittyhawk. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PMR76-596]

Squadron Leader Ken Boomer in his Kittyhawk.
PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES—PMR76-596

The rounds directed at Estevan Point have since become the object of a curious tale. Giving credence to confused reports of shore inhabitants and discounting the evidence of Japanese officers, this story has Prime Minister Mackenzie King arranging for a U.S. warship to shell the area, his motive being that news of the bombardment would speed passage of a Conscription Bill through the House of Commons. Like many conspiracy theories, it is short of supporting facts (proof that a cover-up has succeeded) and dismissive of contrary evidence (further proof of how truth is distorted). Doubtless this article will be denounced as proof that the author is either delusional or another party to the ubiquitous conspiracy.

Japan’s presence on Kiska and Attu was more threatening in appearance than in reality. An American officer, Major-General S.B. Buckner, commander of the Alaska Air Defence Command, discounted further advances upon North America. “They might make it,” he declared, “but it would be their grandchildren who finally got there, and by that time they would all be American citizens anyway.”

The islands had no importance other than as symbolic American territory in hostile hands. As such, they had to be retaken.

The RCAF’s supporting role in the following campaign may be described under three general headings—home defence, detached defence, and advanced operations. Home defence entailed squadrons still operating under Western Air Command control. They were, nevertheless, integral to the operations in that they kept watch over convoys heading northward to reinforce the Alaskan-based formations that would ultimately retake the islands. They also maintained patrols in search of Japanese submarines—a threat which had ceased to exist in Canadian waters by late 1942.

The brunt of these maritime patrols fell upon the Stranraers. So long as an enemy carrier strike was deemed a serious threat, these aircraft carried out seaward patrols as far as fuel and navigational aids permitted. Fitting long-range tanks to the “Strannies” extended their range, but also restricted single-engine performance. Crews accepted the longer flights, knowing that if an engine failed there would be almost no hope of rescue.

The July 7-9 Battle of Annette Island was long regarded as a triumph, with honours shared between the RCAF (No. 115 Sqdn.) and the U.S. Coast Guard (cutter McLean and patrol vessel YP-251). Flight Sergeant William E. Thomas, flying a Bolingbroke, was directed by his navigator, Pilot Officer Leonard Shebeski, to a sea disturbance 145 miles northwest of their base. They sighted little more than churning water and what might have been puffs of white smoke. Thomas dropped a single 250-pound anti-submarine bomb and reported a direct hit. American vessels conducted an 18-hour search, dropped depth charges, and claimed sighting “flotsam resembling rockwool.” Crewmen also stated they had seen a periscope and a launched torpedo during the hunt. Thomas and Shebeski were Mentioned in Dispatches for actions “which resulted in the probable destruction of an enemy submarine.” Immediately after the war it was stated that Japan’s Ro.32 had been sunk in this incident.

Precisely how Ro.32 came to be identified with the action is unclear. However, there were no Japanese submarines operating in the area at that time. Moreover, the Ro-class submarines were old vessels, so slow and short-ranged that they were used by the Imperial Japanese Navy only for instruction and home island protection. Ro. 32 was still afloat, as a training vessel, when the war ended. The myth of its sinking has been debunked several times, yet continues to be repeated by authors relying on old accounts.

The Japanese made one further submarine foray to the eastern Pacific. On Aug. 25, 1942, I-25 left Yokasuka with a seaplane and six incendiary bombs. The vessel made landfall off Oregon and waited for dry weather. The plane made two raids on the forests, on Sept. 9 and 29. These resulted in small fires which were immediately extinguished. On Oct. 4, I-25 torpedoed the SS Camden 50 miles north of Cape Blanco. The ship was abandoned, taken in tow, but sank after catching on fire Oct. 10. On Oct. 5, again off Cape Blanco, I-25 sank the tanker SS Larry Doheny. These were the last Japanese attacks in the Pacific Northwest area. The only other sinking noted in WAC’s diary was that of the SS John A. Johnson on Oct. 30, 1944, at 29.55 N 141.25 W—600 miles northeast of Hawaii; it had been torpedoed by the I-12.

The second form of RCAF support was more indirect—that of bolstering the anti-submarine defences around Anchorage and Nome, Alaska. These duties fell to No. 8 (Bomber Reconnai­s­sance) Sqdn. Aircrews searched from bleak bases for an enemy that never came. Detachments operating from Kodiak Island, from June 1942 to February 1943, and Nome, between July and December 1942, encountered some of the harshest conditions ever experienced by RCAF aircrews. Anchorage was close to unmapped 10,000-foot mountains, plagued by fog and prone to unexpected squalls known as “williwaws.” Nome was located in flat, featureless tundra and subject to more predictable weather. It was, nevertheless, an uninspiring base with gravel runways, no hangars and canvas accommodation.

No. 8 Squadron’s Bolingbrokes—a Canadian-built version of the Bristol Blenheim—posed special problems because they were unlike any other aircraft in Alaska. Spare parts and tools were available only from distant Canadian bases. Deliveries were routinely late, insufficient, or brought wrong items. All personnel were relieved when they returned to Patricia Bay in February and March 1943. Two members of the squadron—Warrant Officer Thomas Lindsay and Pilot Officer George Woods—were awarded the Air Force Cross for having flown 60 and 62 patrols respectively in difficult northern weather conditions.

The third segment of RCAF participation in the campaign—advanced operations—fell to two Kittyhawk fighter squadrons, Nos. 14 and 111 which were deployed to a series of American bases at Anchorage and along the Aleutian chain—Cold Bay, Umnak, Adak and Amchitka. Since the Kittyhawk was also flown by many USAAF units, aircraft and spare parts were virtually interchangeable between the two air forces.

No. 111 Sqdn. had used Elmendorf airfield since June 1942 to cover Anchorage. In July its aircraft were outfitted with long-range fuel tanks and then dispatched forward to Umnak which would bring them close to whatever front existed. Tragedy struck on July 16 when seven RCAF Kittyhawks, flying the leg from Cold Bay to Umnak, encountered thick fog. Five of them crashed into a cliff.

Those RCAF Kittyhawk pilots who reached Umnak were still some 500 miles from Kiska, but a detachment was sent on to Adak, now 200 miles from Kiska. On Sept. 25, four RCAF Kittyhawk pilots joined a larger American attack on the island. Having strafed gun positions and a Japanese encampment, the Canadians encountered two A6M2 aircraft—floatplane versions of the famous Zero fighter. Squadron Leader Ken Boomer shot down one in flames—the sole enemy airplane destroyed by a Canadian Home Defence unit. This foray was the only one conducted that autumn by No. 111 Sqdn. against Kiska. On Oct. 9, the RCAF detachment was transferred to Kodiak Island where it spent the winter.

After No. 8 Sqdn. was withdrawn to Canada, another Kittyhawk unit—No. 14 Sqdn.—was brought forward to the Aleutians in March 1943. The pilots were gradually passed down the archipelago until they constituted an RCAF presence at Amchitka, poised for strikes on Kiska, which they hit for the first time on April 18, 1943.

Nevertheless, it was the more distant Attu Island that American forces invaded on May 11, 1943. Enemy resistance was fierce; three weeks passed before the garrison was overwhelmed. The follow-up invasion of Kiska was to have a substantial Canadian element, the 13th Canadian Infantry Brigade. Pilots of No. 111 Sqdn. rotated with those of No. 14 Sqdn. at Amchitka and joined in the aerial “softening up” of the island. Weather forced week-long breaks between attacks. Enemy opposition dwindled from slight to non-existent. When the joint American-Canadian force landed on Kiska on Aug. 15, they discovered it abandoned. The same weather that had limited air operations had permitted the Japanese to withdraw undetected almost three weeks before the assault.

The campaign brought a flurry of decorations to the RCAF Kittyhawk pilots—a Distinguished Flying Cross to Sqdn. Leader Boomer plus 13 American Air Medals to various pilots. In addition, Group Captain Gordon McGregor, the first commander of X Wing, was made an Officer, Order of the British Empire (OBE). Air Vice-Marshal Leigh F. Stevenson (Air Officer Commanding, Western Air Command) was appointed a Commander in the American Legion of Merit. The citation to this last award declared, in part, that he had “contributed definitely to the success of co-ordinated air activities on the Pacific Coast of North America, to coastal defence and to our continental solidarity.”

An RCAF public relations officer who spent four months in Alaska, Flying Officer David F. Griffin, wrote a delightful account titled First Steps to Tokyo, published in 1944. He described Kodiak as a frontier town. “The characters on the streets—prospectors, fishermen, hunters—might have stepped out of a Robert Service poem.” He wrote of the unpredictability of the weather, and quoted Flying Officer Arthur Fanning who noted: “I’m scared every time I get over Kiska because I don’t know whether I’m going to find a place to land when I get back.”

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

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