Tag Archives: WWII

The Akutan Zero

On 4 June 1942, during the Battle of Dutch Harbor, a 19 year old Japanese pilot, Tadayoshi Koga, left the carrier Ryūjō in his Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero. Upon reaching the harbor, Koga and his two wingmen shot down a PBY-5A Catalina Flying Boat. Koga strafed the PBY survivors while they were in the water, and when doing so, his Zero was hit by small arms fire.

Akutan Zero trailing oil
Koga’s Zero above Dutch Harbor after it was hit by small arms fire. Notice the oil trail.

The fatal shot to Koga’s Zero hit the oil return line. Koga and his wingmen flew to Akutan Island, which was a recovery point for Japanese airmen. A submarine was nearby to pick anyone up who needed evacuation. The Zeros all circled the grassy field and Koga went in for an emergency landing. With his wheels down.

Akutan Zero
Koga’s inverted Zero

The wheels of the Zero immediately caught in the soft muskeg, and the plane flipped, killing Petty Officer Koga. The wingmen had orders to destroy any Zero to keep it out of enemy hands, but the wingmen could not fire on the upside down Zero, because they did not know if Koga was still alive. They flew off for their home carrier.

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Recovery of the Akutan Zero

On 10 July 1942, Lt William Thies spotted the wreckage while on patrol in his PBY Catalina. The PBY circled the downed plane several times, marked its location on a map, and returned to Dutch Harbor with the news.

The next day, a recovery team flew out to inspect the Zero. Thies talked his way onto the team. The Zero was almost completely intact. Petty Officer Koga was believed to have died instantly when the plane’s canopy hit the earth. Koga was cut from the Zero and buried nearby.

On 15 July, the Zero was pulled out of the mud and transported to a barge. In Dutch Harbor, it was flipped upright, cleaned and loaded onto the USS St Mihiel. By 1 August, it was in Seattle, and then onward to San Diego, where it was repaired. By 20 September, the Zero was flying again, this time painted with the American Blue Circle/White Star insignia.

Several wrecked Zeros were recovered after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but none were in near flying condition as the Akutan Zero. The plane was analyzed thoroughly, and it is generally agreed that the recovery of the plane led to information which helped the pilots flying against it.

The Akutan Zero was destroyed in February of 1945, when a SB2C Helldiver lost control and ran into the Zero on the runway. The Helldivers propellers cut the Zero into pieces. Several museums, including the Alaska Heritage Museum, have parts of the aircraft.

Tadayoshi Koga
Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga


Attu Island

7 June 1942

attu_village_1937
Attu Village on the island of Attu in 1937

A force of 1140 Japanese infantry, landed on Attu Island in the Aleutians. The island had been occupied by 45 Aleut villagers, a school teacher, and her husband. The school teacher’s husband was shot, and the others made prisoners of war, and shipped to Japan.

Japanese ski patrol Attu
Ski troopers of the Japanese Imperial Army, Attu Island

Construction began immediately on an airbase and fortifications.

Holtz Bay Attu '42
Japanese seaplanes in Holtz Bay, Attu Island, November 1942


Kiska Island

6 June 1942

Japanese Tank Crew Kiska '42
Japanese tank crew on Kiska Island, 1942

After bombing Dutch Harbor on the 3-4 June, a Japanese landing force with 500 marines, stormed Kiska Island, Alaska. Stationed on the island was a U.S.N. Weather Station, with ten of the usual twelve man crew present.

12 man Kiska crew
The 12 man crew of the weather station on Kiska Island, 1942. Front & center, is their dog “Explosion”.

Two of the men were injured by machine gun fire on their shack, and were immediately captured. The other eight men, and the dog Explosion, escaped into the night. Seven were captured later, when they tried to visit their food caches for provisions. Senior Petty Officer William C. House managed to evade the Japanese for fifty days, eating plants and earthworms, and hiding in caves. Weighing 80 pounds, House would eventually turn himself in to the Japanese. All were now prisoners of war.

Twenty Japanese ships moved into Kiska Harbor, and by September, an additional 2000 troops had reinforced the island’s garrison.

Photos courtesy of the National Archives


Battle of Dutch Harbor

3-4 June 1942:

LA Examiner Dutch Harbor

On this date, 75 years ago, the Japanese launched two aircraft carrier raids on the remote Alaskan community of Dutch Harbor.
The Japanese had three reasons for attacking the Aleutian Chain*:
The first is that the Aleutians were thought to be a possible route for the U.S. to launch an attack on the main islands of Japan. As General Billy Mitchell said to Congress in 1935: ” “I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.”
The second is that the Japanese wanted to have a north-south patrol line with Kiska, Alaska as its northern anchor. This was especially important after the Doolittle raid on Tokyo in April of 1942.
And thirdly, and probably most vital, the attacks on the Aleutian Islands was suppose to draw units and ships away from the looming Battle near Midway.

Fort Mears, Dutch Harbor
Fort Mears at Dutch Harbor

Because of the U.S. Navy code breakers, the Americans knew about both Midway and the attack on Dutch Harbor on the 21 May. With limited resources and unpredictable weather, the Americans were as prepared as they could be.
At 0258 hours June 3, 1942, the Japanese launched 12 Zero fighters, 10 Kate high level bombers, and 12 Val dive bombers towards Dutch Harbor. At 0407 the first planes appeared over the harbor. Anti-aircraft flak was heavy as the planes came in low enough for men on the ground to clearly see the pilots faces. 17 men of the 37th Infantry and 8 from the 151st Engineers died when a bomb exploded on a barracks at Fort Mears. Half of the Japanese planes did not reach their target. Some got lost in the fog, returning to their carriers, and some simply crashed into the rough seas.

The barracks ship Northwestern\>
The beached barracks ship Northwestern burning.

The Japanese once again launched attacks on June 4th. More targets were hit, but there were fewer casualties. Oil storage tanks were hit, as well as more barracks, a wing of the hospital and two merchant ships in port. The Northwestern was also hit. The transport ship had been grounded and used as a barracks. After the battle, the hull was saved, and the ship’s power plant continued to bring steam and electricity to the shore installations.

At this time, an amphibious attack on the island of Adak was launched, which was 480 miles to the west of Dutch Harbor. The Japanese would find that Adak was not occupied by any U.S. force.

78 American soldiers died in the battle. 14 U.S. planes were damaged. Ten Japanese died in the attack, and five were captured. Eight aircraft were destroyed.

* From “The Battle of the Komandorski Islands”, by John Lorelli


75 Years Ago

Hickam Field
Hickam Field, Pearl Harbor Hawaii

The attack on Pearl Harbor took place 75 years ago on this date.

attack-on-pearl-harbor


The “Oil Can Highway”

Army Jeep on the AlCan

The Alaska Highway was completed on 20 November 1942. Construction was spurred on by the bombing of Pearl Harbor and really shifted into gear when the Japanese occupied Kiska and Attu Islands in the Aleutian Chain.

Caterpillar working the AlCan in 1942

Dubbed the Oil Can Highway, by the men building it, due to the enormous number of discarded 55 gallon oil drums long its route. The AlCan crossed over 200 streams and contained over 8000 culverts. 16,000 men built the 1700 mile road through the wilderness, at a cost of $138,000,000 in 8 months and 11 days.

Photos courtesy of the United States Library of Congress; Statistics come courtesy of The Thousand Mile War by Brian Garfield


USS Indianapolis

USS Indianapolis
The USS Indianapolis leaving San Francisco Bay

On the 30 July 1945, the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-58. The sinking of the Portland-class cruiser was the greatest single loss of life, at sea, in the history of the U.S. Navy.

Launched on November 7, 1931, and commissioned a year later, the Indianapolis was engaged in a training exercise at Johnston Atoll on the morning of December 7, 1941. After the New Guinea campaign, the Indianapolis would head to the Aleutian Islands, to take part in the shelling of the Japanese held island of Kiska.

After delivering some components, including the enriched uranium, for the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima, the Indianapolis departed Guam for Leyte in the Philippines. She would not make it to Leyte. Two Japanese torpedoes intercepted the cruiser, and approximately 300 men went down with the ship. The sinking happened so quickly, that the desperate crew did not have time to get off a distress signal.

It is estimated that roughly 880 men went into the water, with a lucky few getting into life rafts. Even though the Indianapolis was expected in Leyte, no word was given that she did not arrive. By the time the Navy learned of the sinking, the sailors and Marines had been in the water for over three days. A PV-1 Ventura, flying an enemy sub patrol, spotted the oil slick, and then the men bobbing in the water. This was August 2, and by then over half of the men who entered the water had died. They had no food or water, unless they were lucky enough to find something floating among the debris. Hypothermia started to set in, flesh was rotting from the immersion in the water, some men suffered delirium and hallucinations, other drank the salt water. And there were the sharks. Most sharks fed on men that had already died, or that had floated away solo, but there is no doubt, that many men died from the shark attacks directly.

Lt. Adrian Marks commanded a PBY Catalina seaplane to the location. Upon seeing all of the sharks among the floating men, he set the plane onto the water, and taxied around picking up survivors. Marks later said that he made “…heart-breaking decisions”, as the crew singled out survivors that were floating alone or away from groups. “I decided that the men in groups stood the best chance of survival. They could look after one another, could splash and scare away the sharks and could lend one another moral support and encouragement.” In all, Marks and his crew would somehow manage to pull 56 men from the water, even strapping some to the plane’s wings.

The USS Indianapolis had a crew of 1196. 880 survived the torpedoes, of those only 321 came out of the water alive, with four later dying from their injuries after being rescued.

The Captain of the Indianapolis, Charles McVay, would face a court-martial. He was found guilty of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag”. The Japanese commander of I-58 testified that zigzagging would not have saved the ship. In fact, the Navy’s orders to McVay, were to “zigzag at his discretion, weather permitting”. Charles McVay would retire from the U.S. Navy in 1949 as a rear admiral. He took his own life in 1968 with his Navy service revolver.

The USS Indianapolis had been awarded 10 Battle Stars for its actions during WWII.

USS_Indianapolis-survivors_on_Guam
Survivors of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, in Guam – August 1945

Photo credit: United States Navy