LT. William Thies - VP41 - Fleet Air Wing 4 - The Aleutians 1941 - 1942
Bill's is a unique story of the early days of the Pacific war and of missions flown in an aircraft never intended to be used in the way that it came to be. Flying in one of the most unforgiving climates and against targets far from the tropical islands mainly associated with the Pacific, he was positioned by chance to make a significant contribution to the American effort. As a result he and his crew helped save the lives of many U.S. pilots later in the war.
A Crew Photo. Standing, with ball cap is George Raptist (he is the one who got sick and retched over the side and saw the Zero); Kneeling in the Middle is Harvey
Radio/Radar operator "(one hell of a radioman ! - he is the one who clued me to not turn off the radar to send the Identification "In" reports.")
UPDATED August 23rd 2007 for Bill's scheduled appearance in a History Channel story on the PBY and an Aritcle from 1942 on VP41.
Bill Thies was born in 1917. As the the only child of a mechanical engineer and housewife living in Washington D.C. he readily admits to being a "spoiled brat". When asked if he ever got into trouble as a child he relates "Only when I got caught putting a railroad warning torpedo on a street car track and blew the trolley wheel off the rails! The punishment meted out for this was "30 strokes with razor strap"
Bill was involved in track, running the quarter mile in highschool and college. He attended the University of Maryland obtaining a B.S. in chemical engineering in 1938. Like most young men of his day he was inspired by Charles Lindberg and his flight across the Atlantic. When asked what sold him on a career in the Navy he says it was the following incident.
"A track team buddy at U of M who graduated a year before I did, landed on the University drill field in an SU >dressed in "Whites" and Ensign shoulder boards, with an application. I signed and cancelled my application to Kelly Field." Asked why he cancelled his application to Kelly Field he says "I went to college for the sole purpose of being able to learn how to fly. At that time
all I had ever heard of was the Army Air Corps and its basic training was at Kelly Field and entrance required a BS in any engineering field. I wasn't aware that the Navy had an "air arm"
until my buddy landed on the campus with an application. I was so impressed with his daring, glamor and uniform, I signed up." So at 21, Bill Thies joins the Naval Air Service. Up to this time the farthest he had been from home was North Carolina.
Bill soon attended ground school at Pensacola, Fla. and primary training at Floyd Bennet Field, Long Island, NY. (1 month - 10 hours instruction and 1 solo is what he received in a N3N for primary. Gunnery, bombing, torpedo training were not given until he was assigned to the Fleet. This was his first introduction to an aircraft. During training I asked what was the worst thing that he saw or had happen to him during training or something that made him angry. "Being told to zip up my leather flight suit on the drill field in 100 degree hot sun and shouldering a rifle. Refusing got me 50 hours of extra duty, still wearing a flight jacket and carrying a rifle, in the middle of the summer in Florida." When asked about his all Navy instructors, if anyone in particular had given him trouble, Bill answers with "Only of my own making"
I also asked about the funniest thing that ever happened to him during training. "Being told to not try to loop a single float seaplane after a catapult shot (I was famous for disobeying orders), which of course I proceeded to try at 5000 feet and at the top of the loop a loose gas tank cap, on top of the fueslage, in front of the open cockpits, came off and gasoline poured all over "our" eyes(another student was with me by the name of Carl Rinehart who later discovered the Bismark in a PBY on loan to Great Britain)(note: The USA was still officially neutral so Carl's part in what later became the Battleship Bismarks downfall is little known or recognized). We went into an inverted spin and luckily pulled out at about 200 feet. We were seen by our instructor and why he never had us court martialed I will never know." Bill only had one cat shot at Pensacola to "give us an idea what it was like. Never did it again."
Training was supposed to have been for 1 year, but was cut to 10 months because of war on the horizon. The aircrews were not provided with any blind or poor weather flying training until they got to the fleet. When asked about how many U.S. pilots indicate they got little training in this area and it caused many unnecessary losses. Bill replied "I'll vouch for that."
He graduated from the class of 121-C - 1939 There was not a special ceremony upon graduation. "There was not enough time, we were rushed to the fleet" When asked how his class fared in the war he could only respond "Badly!" There were many losses, Lots - nearly all that went to carriers, so I was lucky". Asked about how he was assigned to PBY's, if he had chosen them, Bill's response was as follows. "NO! it was against my will." I was in Squadron 5 .(fighters, SNJ's in training, "Bill never got his hands on one before he was sent back") and the fleet was crying for Patrol Plane pilots. So they sent me back to Squadron 4.
The PM2 and N3N,Yellow Peril(seaplanes)."
Fighters would have been Bills first choice.
Bill was not involved in the missions in the Atlantic prior to the official declaration of War on December 7th 1941. "I never had any duty in Atlantic, it was all in the Pacific and Aleutian theaters." His 2 years up to this event was in training to become a Patrol Plane Commander (PPC). Per Bill, "Getting the plane into position for attaching the beaching gear was no mean feat. It required a lot of 'seamanship' using sea anchors streamed from the 'blisters', and judicious use of each engine.
Passing this beaching test to become designated as a PPC (Patrol Plane Commander) was the most difficult part of the test. Many a good pilot at flying the PBY, failed to make PPC because of his lack of "Feel" of what the plane was doing in the water as a result of wind and tide.
It was at the University of Maryland that he met his future wife Vivian. Bill on their meeting. "Our meeting occured while working my way through the University of Maryland as a 'soda jerk' in a privately owned drug store in Washington D.C. She came in for a banana split." The attraction was mutual and they were married with Bill in uniform. For a honeymoon they drove all the way from Silver Springs, Maryland, to Seattle, Washington where Bill was assigned. Bill says "After getting my wings in Pensacola we got married right away. The trip to west coast was just carrying out orders to my first duty assignment". They drove there in a Ford Coupe (one of the first V-8's). In those days there were no interstates and it took the about 9 days using what Bill refers to as "following Barney Oldfield driving methods". While there Bill continued his training. Bill says of his wife Vivian, "She was an excellent secretary, Gregg shorthand and very fast typist. Vivian pinned on Bills Navy Wings at his graduation ceremony.
We lived together in an apartment right across the street from Sand Point Naval Air Station. When Bill was shipped out, Vivian went back to DC where she had her job working for a prominent Washington lawyer in the Bituminous Coal Commission, a government department of some kind. Unlike many couples Bill says "We were always together when ever I was back in the states."
DECEMBER 7TH 1941 VP-41
What was your first war time mission?
"Dec. 7, 1941 out of Kodiak Alaska looking for Japanese ships. Rush was because we had broken the Japanese codes and knew of the forthcoming attacks on Midway and the Aleutian Islands" We had 12 PBY's but half were down for maintenance. (Note: a typical squadron had 15 planes with the intent that twelve would always be servicable) The AAF had virtually nothing in the way of forces available at the time and the Army was a fair sized garrison at Kodiak.
War Declared! All servicable PBY's went on a search for the enemy fleet. 300 miles south of Kodiak, I saw a warship steaming at high speed. We interrogated by radio and Aldis lamp for an ID. No Response. All my training as a Patrol Plane Commander was falling into place (Ha!) Its silhouette looked like a Japanese Battle Cruiser! Out went the contact report. Engine RPM's were "red lined" as we climbed to 10,000 feet for a bomb run with 4, 500 pound bombs. The best Master Bomber on the Norden bomb sight was with me. The Ship Starts to zig zag. Back In Kodiak, women and children are headed for the bomb shelters. The army went on full alert. A Grumman Duck landed in Womens bay and proceeded to sink. It was believed he had been hit by enemy fire. Another PBY nearby joined me, but his wing tip floats would not retract, so he could not climb to altitude and told me he would remain on the deck to observe the results of the bombing. The pilot (Jep Johnson) was a naval Academy graduate and of course knew his ships. With about 30 seconds remaining on the bomb run, Jep called me on the radio and shouted, Bill don't drop. It is one of our destroyers!! So I sent the "Z" signal (a 3 letter code) to Kodiak, which meant, "Cancel my last message" (meaning to cancel my enemy contact report). Back in Kodiak the high command thought the Japanese were reading our code and sending false messages. Trying to authenticate, they sent, "What is Patrol Plane Commanders name?" Back went, William", but Kodiak still thinking this came from the enemy, figured they knew that half the people in the U.S. were named William, so they sent, "What is pilot's middle name?" back went "Nouris". Satisified now that my messages were authentic, the women and children went back to their quarters, the Army came out of the hills, the pilot was rescued from the Duck (he had lowered his wheels to land on the water), the destroyer resumed normal course and speed, and the high command prepared the gallows for me. The next day the skipper and I talked. They had left Pearl Harbor in such a hurry, the war time ID codes were not put aboard, thus he couldn't respond to my interrogations. He thought of trying to shoot me down, but thought better of it. We became good friends and later he risked his career to help me out.
(Note:Bill flew lots of ASW patrols and saw action on one in particular.) "We dropped a 500lb bomb on a Japanese I type sub (their largest) by mistake and blew an engine off the PBY."
What follows is a narrative by Bill's navigator Bob Larson - TOO LOW ALTITUDE BOMBING MISSION JUNE 6-1942
Our mission on that particular day was to search for and bomb a lone Japanese cruiser on which a couple of bearings had been taken by our aircrews the night before. Four planes were assigned to this mission, armed with S.A.P.'s (semi armor piercing )bombs. We all took separate areas to search. The crew that found the cruiser was to keep in contact with it until the rest arrived on the scene. We were then to bomb in formation from 10,000 feet. We had been out for several hours in our sector, which took us westward along the islands. We got a radio message from the base to TORPEDO an enemy group reported to be 35 miles north of Seguam Island. Since we had been previously ordered to arm with 500 pound SAP bombs, with instantaneous fuses, this was obviously impossible, but with PatWing 4 this was a typical order --fouled up as usual. Our ship was the lead plane so we sent out a message to all planes to rendevous over Seguam, formate, then proceed to the target position and bomb it. We didn't want to waste time returning to the base to change to torpedoes. Given a choice bombing is safer (and as the reader will later see much more likely to cause the enemy some damage). We arrived over Seguam and circled for an hour but none of the other planes appeared. It was decided to attack alone so we headed to the reported position of the enemy fleet. In addition to our regular crew we had a Chief Ordnanceman Anderson with us to operate the bombsight. He was in the bow compartment during most of the trip. We searched for quite a while from 10,000 feet over a solid overcast, depending entirely upon the radar to pick up the target. We went down beneath the overcast and searched some more. The clouds hung very low - about 300 feet for a ceiling. We gave up the search below, went on top and headed for home. Half an hour later Harvey, our radio man, called up on the intercom saying there was an object on the radar scope 4 miles away. We turned in on it and passed directly over it. We had several similar indications that day that turned out to be rocks, so we wern't very eager to investigate. We turned 180 degrees, kept this course for several minutes, then resumed our original course to pass over the same spot. We picked up the target again and went below to investigate. The ceiling below was ragged, and varied from 200-300 feet. Visibility was about one to two miles. Suddenly we sighted a surfaced submarine, apparently charging its batteries, accounting for the fact that they hadn't heard us. We were practically unarmed. The 500 pound SAP bombs could not be dropped from less that 750 feet with its fusing arrangement, without endangering our own airplane. The ceiling was so low that we could not get up to that altitude. We headed for the sub anyhow, intending to strafe. Suddenly a sharp explosion changed the situation. Holes appeared all over the plane, and the starboard engine caught fire. Our first though was that we had been hit by A/A fire. We figured that if the sub could do that much damage with one shot it was not very prudent to let him have a second try. We immediately pulled up into the soup above us. The fire was put out with the CO2 system and the engine was feathered. The bombs were also jettisoned to reduce out weight. Shortly before they were dropped I noticed that only three bombs were on the racks when there should have been 4. When things calmed down a bit we thought it over, finally comming to the conclusion that we had dropped our own bomb! Anderson in the heat of the excitement had selected a bomb and must have later stepped on the bomb release switch, unexpectantly dropping the bomb at dangerously low altitude.
We flew back to Dutch Harbor on one engine and repaired the damage in flight as best we could. The hull was full of holes of varying sizes. The large holes were plugged with boards and rags, while the small ones were stuffed with pencils and bits of wood. We all considered ourselves lucky to have come through without a scratch in the entire crew. One piece of shrapnel had come through between the two pilots. The tunnel gunner had a piece of bomb come up right between his arms while he was holding the spade grips of the gun. (That was his last trip with our crew) The largest hole was made in the hull near the side wheel well, and measured about twelve inches long. We made a water landing at Dutch and taxied up to the ramp as fast as possible to avoid taking on too much water. We probably missed the sub completely.
CAMOUFLAGE We had no colored markings nor other insignia that I can remember, except for the black ID numbers.
I seem to remember that while VP41 was still at the Sand Point Naval Air Station, on Lake Washington, in Seattle, we had to fly all the PBYs to San Diego for repainting with the "Wartime" blue, just prior to our deployment to Kodiak.
What follows is a memoir by Bob Larson, Bill's navigator in the Aleutians.
MAYBE CAMOUFLAGE PAINT ON A PBY IS A GOOD THING AFTER ALL
A PBY crew in the Aleutians in the summer of 1942 could count on things being pretty exciting. The assignment were often unusual, and the capability of the PBY to land in the many bays and inlets of the Aleutians made it a versitile plane for the odd jobs. On the other hand the capability of the PBY to defend itself against attacking planes was very poor. One of our submarines (S-27) had run aground on the south west coast of Amchitka Island. This island was close to Japanese held Kiska, and it was feared they might try to salvage it, once they knew it was there. The sub crew hiked to Constantine harbor on the east side, where they were picked up by other PBY's.
Our mission was to take a volunteer demolition crew to Constantine harbor and transfer them and their explosives to the shore in rubber boats. They were to hike over to the sub, plant the explosives, and blow it up. Another PBY would then pick them up a couple of days later. An Army colonel was in charge of the operation. Things didn't get off to a very good start. We were assigned a P-boat that should have been in the shop for repairs. The electric starter on the starboard engine refused to work, and the engined themselves could have used a plug change and ignition work. The engine started the old fashioned way - by having one of the mechanics hand crank it with the inertia starter while standing on top of the wing. The trip to Amchitka was uneventful, (Bill says uneventfull but later told me the method from transporting a Nitro Glycerine jug was to string up its crate by some bungee chords inside the cabin!!) but since the island was so close to the Japanese we were all apprehensive. We were withing range of the float fighters (Rufes) and the four engined "Mavis" sea planes based at Kiska. We didn't have the slightest idea as to when their patrols could be expected. Bill Thies, the plane commander, approached Constantine harbor cautiously, circling the harbor and the abandoned Aleut village at the head. There were no signs of life. We landed and tied up to one of the bouys the navy had installed several months before and Bill cut the engines. The life raft was inflated. Half of the explosives were put on the boat and the demolition crew started rowing to shore. The remaining half of the explosives were moved to the waist hatch for loading on the next boat trip.
I was sorting out my charts and planning the trip back at the navigator's position, when I heard the unmistakable sound of a multi-engined airplane. "Mavis was out on patrol! I have heard the expression "frozen with fear" before, and prior to that time I though it was a quaint figure of speach. Now I am convinced that it is a very real physiological thing. What a spot! - some of the crew was in the life raft, half way to shore - one cranky engine that couldn't start electrically (it would take several minutes to start manually) - our waist guns were stowed and explosives were piled up at the base of the port gun. We were really sitting ducks, all nicely set up for a strafing attack and no immediate way to defend ourselves or escape. I looked out. I could see the "Mavis" on an easterly course, right off the mouth of the harbor. He was only half a mile away and if we could see him, he most certainly must be able to see us! I could almost imagine what was going on with the "Mavis" crew. "Battle Stations! We will prepare to attack!" He stayed on his course an flew out of sight! The Navy camouflage, blue paint apparently did its job of concealment.
The demolition crew decided to stay and continue the assignment. While the life raft made another trip, we went through the painful process of starting the starboard engine. It took two tries as I recall. Our crewmen returned with the rubber boat and came aboard, dragging it in behind. Thies took off with out even waiting for the usual engine warm up. As soon as the engines were warm enough to take full throttle without coughing, he took off. We were half an hour on the way home to Dutch harbor before the panic level got back to normal."
When the Japanese came ashore at Attu and Kiska on June 6th , the original intent was never to hold the islands. The operation was to be a side show to divert the U.S. Navy and draw them into a final destructive battle at Midway. Admiral Yamamoto had hoped that with the bulk of their fleet destroyed, the Americans would accept some form of peace settlement that would let Japan consolidate their gains. He had said to his staff that for the first 6 months Japan would run wild in the Pacific. However, having visited the United States on many occasions as Naval Attache in Washington, he knew that U.S. industrial might would grind Japan under in a war of attrition. After the defeat at Midway the only face saving gesture was to hold American territory.
After the landings on Attu and Kiska the only aircraft capable of reaching the Islands from U.S bases were the Navy PBY's and the B-17s and B-24s of the AAF. Commander Leslie E. Gehres was a 4 stripe Regular Navy Captain was in Command of Patrol Wing 4. Arriving in November 1941, he was determined to carry the fight to the Japanese at all costs. He was not an approachable type. Bill indicates. "Ensigns don't get to "know" Wing Commanders very well." By the time Commander Gehres left the Aleutians he would be promoted to Commodore. (the Army equivalent of Brig. General)
The AAF attempted to bomb the Japanese forces but with little success with the small amount of aircraft at their disposal. Captain Gehres seeing an opportunity notified CINCPAC of the landings on Kiska and informed them that he had a seaplane tender at Nazan Bay, Atka Island, halfway to Kiska with 20+ PBY's. The USS Gillis was the tender and on the 10th she entered Nazan Bay. The captain had his hands full servicing many more aircraft with bombs and fuel than his ship was designed or supplied to support. The crews took over part of an Aleut fishing village and were fed by a school teacher from her small kitchen with the help of some of the willing Aleut natives. Off the bay one of the PBY's bombed a Japanese submarine near Tanga Island. This same submarine had been detached after the airstrikes on Dutch Harbor where it was on life guard duty. It would have picked up any downed pilots on Akutan Island. The PBY's opened the campaign on June 11th, following up a bombing run by B-24's of the 11th AF. The PBY's came down through the overcast dive bomber fashion and the Japanese soon got the range with their 20mm anti aircraft cannon and 13.2mm heavy machine guns.
The air combat went on for 3 consecutive days and at the end the exhausted crews suffered multiple dead and wounded. The entire supply of pencils and rags of the Aleut fishing village were used for patching holes in the aircraft as the planes continued a non stop shuttle back and forth to Kiska. The effort was not just limited to the Nanzan Bay group. Other PBY's after flying their standing patrols were ordered to over fly Kiska, dropping their bombs. The PBY was a dependable but slow, lumbering aircraft (175 mph), not suited to sudden stressful evasive maneuvers, often they came back to the Gillis so riddled by AA fire that they almost sank. (Note:established on the island the Japanese were able to site formidable AA defenses.)
The last casualty was that of the PBY flown by W.O. Leland Davis aircraft who was shot down in the same location that the 11th AAF had lost their B-24 days before.
The Japanese, now wise to the Americans tactics, they brought out more heavy anti-aircraft guns, pointed their AA batteries at holes in the low overcast and waited for the PBY's to emerge. Finally, with ammunition and fuel almose exhausted and men pushed to the brink of their endurance, the Gillis withdraws from Nazan Bay, urged on by the arrival of Japanese float recon planes from Kiska.
Japanese Commander Mukai later stated that the PBY's interfered considerably with their efforts to develop Kiska into a support base and with the setting up of their defense systems. Their attacks forced them to withdraw their ships from Kiska harbor. The Japanese had brought in their Mavis 4 engined recon planes on June 7th, but the attacks had kept their supplies out of their reach. Bill flew one other support mission at this time. He returned to Kanga to pick up a weather team of 5 men who after burning the station climbed aboard. When the Mavis's got operational they flew over the Aleut village at Atka and even though it was burned out, dropped their bombs anyway. Bill and his crew would soon return to Nazan Bay within a few weeks with both the Gillis and Casco and find the fighting worse, if that were possible. They would fly every day for 33 days, with an occasional every 3rd day off, Kiska bombing missions included.
Bill relates an incident during the short but concentrated campaign against Kiska where his contact with the destroyer captain he almost bombed on December 7th saved him and his crew. Both the Gillis and the Casco ( a seaplane tender built from the ground up specifically for the task) were Bill's support ships during the actions of the summer of 1942. Here he relates a particular incident that took place in August when the tenders returned to Nazan Bay:
"We were comming into Nazan Bay where the Casco was anchored at midnight in one helluva storm, on radar alone. Unbeknownst to me the Casco had been torpedoed and all the ships were under radio silence and blacked out. I pleaded for some one to turn on their searchlight so I could see where I was and get to the Casco for refueling. A Lt. Commander named Norm Garton was the C.O. of the Gillis (an old four stack 1919 destroyer that was converted to a seaplane tender) heard my plea and because I had befriended him on the first day of the war by not dropping a salvo of 4, 500 pound bombs on him, turned on his searchlight. He took an awful chance because the Japanese sub (RO61) was still in the bay. It was sunk the next day by a PBY. (note: It was blown to the surface by the DD Reid after the PBY attack damaged it, forcing an oil slick to give away its trail. 5 of its crew were rescued) When I got astern of the beached Casco,Gehres was there and wanted to know what I was doing with two torpedoes still hanging on my wings. I told him that I didn't see anything to drop them on, so rather then jettisoning them and taking all night to reload, I decided to bring them back. I had kept them so my crew could get some sleep before the next run at dawn.
(Note: At the time, torpedoes were in short supply as only one factory in the U.S. was producing them in any quantity. In addition the U.S. torpedoes were often faulty, failing to explode or run at the depth set. This situation that was not admitted to or rectified until late 1943. It cost many Americans their lives in wasted torpedo attacks from submarines and aircraft. Bill heard of one incident where a B-26 pilot dropped his torpedo like a bomb because he felt he might at least do some damage that way)
I was smoking cigars at the time and Gehres gave me a box for saving the torpedoes. Captain Gehres was in the wardroom of the Casco drinking coffee at the time of the torpedo attack and scratched his hand on the ward room table. He was later awarded the Purple Heart.
(note: Captain Geheres later went on to command the aircraft carrier Franklin whick took on several bombs from Japanese aircraft during the airstrikes by carrier forces in the spring of 1945. The Franklin suffered the worst damage and some of the highest casualties (800+)of any ship of the war. She survived to return to the U.S. under her own power, but she was out of the war.)
As the PBY was not the most manuverable or fastest aircraft in the skies over the Aleutians I asked Bill about what his tactics were if he encountered enemy aircraft. The Rufes had made their appearance in mid June 1942. A derivative of the A6M2 Zero, it was actually built by Nakijima. Though its speed suffered from the large central float, none the less, it was a nimble fighter and heavily armed with two 20mm cannon. It was responsible for taking down several B-17's and shooting up several of the PBY's. It made it's first appearance in the Aleutians.
"As I remember it, the best evasive maneuver was to make a high speed diving turn. I can't remember if it was to the left or right, but which ever it was, it was because the Zero(RUFE) could not overcome the propeller torque." There was no runway at Kiska and the single float Zero was the only "Zero" there. We got chased a few times but lukily never got hit. There was a very small island near Kiska, with a mountain on it about 500 feet high. When a Zero (Rufe) got on our ass, I would head for that island, dive for the deck and circle the island. When the Zero (Rufe) made a run at us he had to break off before his guns were in range. Otherwise he would have crashed into the water."
Asked about the weather and its impact to operations Bill came back with:
I don't know if I mentioned it to you already, but in 33 days between June 2nd and July 4th 1942, my squadron lost 9 planes and crews. Several of those crashed into the mountains around Dutch Harbor as they were returning from a mission. Our PBY's had the first crude airborne radar. Our generators could not carry the load of the G.O. Transmitter and the radar at the same time. Orders were to send an identification report when approaching Dutch. I never turned off the radar to send the report in order to find my way through the mountain passes. So I was always 'identified' as a bogey and the Army forces at Dutch had to go on alert and man the AA guns. My skipper threatened me with court martial many times for disobeying orders. I've forgotten what the G.O. stood for but it was a large and very heavy voice and C.W. radio transmitter. We threw them overboard a few times to lighten the PBY when we were on one engine."
The Akutan Zero
The June 3-4 1942 attack by Japanese carrier forces on Dutch Harbor, (a feint to draw away attention for the real target of Midway island), resulted in destruction to docks and the losses to the Americans of several aircraft. Two of Bills squadron mates in VP41 got shot up. "John Litsey (who became a fishing budy of mine after the war) got attacked while he was trying to take off at Dutch harbor, and Johnny Heron ran into one of their carriers and was shot down by their aircover. The Good Lord spared me from ever sighting any of those carriers."
One of the Zero fighters had taken damage over the target and crash landed on Akutan Island farther down the Aleutian chain. This island was to be a rendevous point for damaged aircraft and the Japanese had stationed a submarine near-by to rescue any downed air crews. Tadayoshi Koga lowered his landing gear and proceeded to attempt to save his aircraft. As he was in posession of a parachute it could be assumed he had thoughts of flying it back out. What he did not know was that the grass field was actually a water logged bog. As his plane landed, the gear dug into the soggy tundra and flipped the aircraft over, either breaking his neck or knocking him out. In any event, he was later found, head and shoulders in the water. The cause of his death never really determined. His wing mates had standing orders to strafe and destroy any downed aircraft to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. They could not bring themselves to do this for fear that Koga was only wounded and may still be rescued. Low on fuel they returned to their carrier the Ryujo.
July 9th 1942. Bill and his crew were returning from an all night patrol in the Artic twilight and were temporarily lost. Bill related the following.
"To say we were a bit of course was putting it mildly. We had been out for 16 hours and used the weather man's predicted wind of 40 knots from the North East. As it turned out, it was 80 knots all night from the west. Our radar still had not picked up the chain of islands when we were getting low on fuel, so we set down in the open sea to gather our wits. Thank God for the 80 knot wind which made our landing speed 10 knots! The sun peaked through the fog just long enough to get a sextant site which showed we were 60 miles south of the chain but had no idea of the longitude. So guessing we had crabbed the wrong way all night, we headed west and when we hit land, started trying to identify the islands. That's why we were lucky enough to be flying over Akutan where the Zero was (35 miles East of Dutch Harbor)." As the day was clear Bill and his crew decided to over fly the islands on the chain, something normally not done due to visibility concerns as more than one PBY and other aircraft had flown into mountains. His co-pilot, George Raptist had become airsick and went back to the port waist blister position to vomit. He looked down and saw Koga's Zero as they flew over.
Another member of the crew, Al Knack still lives as of this update in California. He was, for most of the time, Bills flight engineer. He was scanning the ground of Akutan Island with binoculars, looking for
red fox, and believes that he was the one who first saw the Zero. Bob Larson navigator tends to agree with Al. Regardless of who saw it first ,the discovery was one of great importance.
Bill had difficulty at first convincing his Commanding Officer to sent a team to the island to recover the aircraft which from the air appeared relativly intact. There were still plenty of Japanese around and an acute shortage of men and aircraft. Up to this time the Zero was a great mystery and had swept the skies of all opposition where ever it went. It, and more importantly its highly trained and in some cases battle experienced pilots were the main reason for Japans sustained advance in the first 6 months of the war. Capturing one intact could help unravel it's secrets and afford the American pilots in the F4F Wildcats, P-40 Warhawks and P-39 Aircobras a chance to survive when meeting them in combat.
Bill went with the team that recovered the the aircraft. He is pictured in the center of the photograph above in the light shirt. When asked who had to crawl under and release the pilots body, Bill stated, "Nobody crawled under the Zero. We did more damage to it than the crash because we cut away the side of the fuselage adjacent to the cockpit." The pilot Koga was then released from his straps and with the tail lifted by several of the men pulled clear as he fell free. He was later buried on a small hill close to the crash. (The author of Kogas Zero, Jim Rearden excavated the site on the behalf of the Japanese in 1988 and found the small wooden cross that had marked the grave in the 40's. Koga had long since been moved to one of the cemetaries for Japanese war dead after the conflict had passed the Aleutians by and was lost when these remains were repatriated to Japan in the late 40's. It is though they are part of the unidentified remains at a shrine for war dead in Tokyo close to the Imperial Palace) The aircraft was recovered and rebuilt at the North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego beginning on August 12th. It was tested against all current U.S aircraft then at the front and also the new models comming off the assembly lines. Though the early U.S. aircraft were no match for the Zero, the discovery of the it's flight characteristics, the fact that at high speeds aileron control stiffened such that the Zero could roll faster to the left then to the right, also in a push over to a dive the Zeros engine would cut out temporarily due to negative gravitys effect on it's fuel system were important revealations. The knowledge of these facts, quickly transmitted to the front line units gave U.S. pilots life saving information. Naval and Marine pilots used this intelligence when confronted with a Zero on their tails. Many quoted this knowledge directly as the factor that saved their lives in combat.
There was another Zero captured during just before Pearl Harbor by the Chinese on Hianan Island, off the Chinese coast. This was behind Japanese lines and the aircraft was smuggled out to the Chinese mainland. It did not reach the United States until long after the Aleutian Zero was repaired and flying, but it too contributed to the technical knowledge that saved American lives. Hainan Zero Link Click here
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