The Aleutians -- A Battle Against Weather
1. A RACE FOR ISLANDS
IT IS FARTHER from the southeastern tip of the Alaskan Panhandle to Attu, westernmost of the Aleutians, than from Savannah to Los Angeles. Nearly half the distance is covered by the arc of the Aleutians, more than 100 small, rocky, desolate islands which form the shortest land route between the American mainland and the Japanese Empire. Attu, nearly 1,000 miles from the Alaskan mainland, is only 650 miles from the northernmost of the Kurile Islands, where the Japanese had a large naval base at Paramushiru.
Aleutian weather, particularly toward the western part of the chain, is the worst in the world. Nowhere else are storms so numerous and so intense. Squalls known as "williwaws" sweep down from the mountains with terrifying speed, building up to gale proportions in half an hour. Winds of 100 knots are not uncommon. The accompanying heavy seas, with strong currents running through the passes and channels, the jagged shorelines and submerged rock formations, make navigation extremely hazardous. In the western islands, when it is not raining, there is usually fog, and it is a peculiarity of the Aleutians that fog and wind may persist together for many days at a time.
Coordinated with their massive and futile assault on Midway, the Japanese made two damaging but inconclusive attacks on our naval base at Dutch Harbor on the island of Unalaska on June 3 and 4, 1942. Weather caused many enemy planes to miss their carriers and fall into the sea. It also prevented our planes, flying from Cold Bay and Umnak, from making effective attacks on the enemy carrier force.
The raids on Dutch Harbor were the enemy's only strikes at the central and eastern Aleutians. Possibly his defeat at Midway and his discovery
that we had an airbase at Umnak, 100 miles west of Dutch Harbor, caused the cancellation of more ambitious plans. To the westward, however, a race for islands quickly developed. On June 6, under cover of fog, the enemy began the occupation of Attu and Kiska, where our only installations were small meteorological outposts. Reports from these stations ceased on the 7th, but it was not until the 10th that the weather cleared sufficiently for our patrol planes to confirm the fact that the enemy had landed substantial forces on both islands.
With the greater part of our available forces committed to the impending campaign in the Solomons, no immediate major countermove was possible. Navy Catalinas and Army bombers of the 11th Air Force bombed and strafed Attu and Kiska when weather permitted; submarines attacked enemy shipping, and on August 7 our heavy cruisers Indianapolis and Louisville, with the light cruisers Honolulu, St. Louis, and Nashville, and nine destroyer types, shelled Kiska Harbor.
Army Forces occupied Adak, 200 miles east of Kiska, on August 30 without opposition. Once ashore, the Army performed a miraculous feat of engineering, building an airstrip in 12 days. Thereafter, whenever it was possible to fly, our planes bombed Kiska and Attu. The planes could not drive the Japanese from the islands, but, with our submarines, they kept the enemy from building up his bases to the point where he would be able to undertake further offensive action.
On December 17, American reconnaissance parties surveyed Amchitka Island, only 70 miles east of Kiska, and found that the Japanese had already been there, digging test holes for possible airfield sites. On January 12 Army forces made unopposed landings at Constantine Harbor, on the eastern end of Amchitka. Twelve days later the enemy began a series of minor air attacks on Amchitka, but by February 16 a new fighter strip was placed in operation on the island, and the enemy bombings ceased. The occupation of Amchitka further accelerated the bombing schedule of the 11th Air Force and proportionately increased the enemy's supply problems.
2. MTB DIVISION 1
On July 28, 1942, 13 days after Hilo left Pearl Harbor for Palmyra with PT's 21, 23, 25, and 26, four other boats of Squadron 1 were loaded on SS Irvin MacDowell at Pearl Harbor. These boats, PT's 22, 24, 27, and 28,
were designated Motor Torpedo Boat Division 1, under command of the squadron commander, Lt. Clinton McKellar, Jr. Irvin MacDowell sailed from Pearl Harbor on July 3 and arrived at Seattle on August 11.
After overhaul and installation of 20mm. guns at the Olson-Winge Marine Works in Seattle, the boats got underway on August 20, following the British Columbia and Alaskan Panhandle coast northward into the Gulf of Alaska, and then heading southwestward down the Alaska Peninsula to Dutch Harbor. They stopped at Vancouver, Prince Rupert, Ketchikan, Juneau, Yakutat, Seward, and Kodiak, covering more than 2,500 miles and arriving at Dutch Harbor on September 1.
There an aircraft radar was mounted on PT 28, as an aid to navigation in the Aleutian fogs, but the 28 went aground and could not leave for Adak with the other boats on September 5. PT's 22, 24, and 27 arrived at Adak on September 9. The 28 joined them 3 weeks later. They were held at Adak as a striking force to be used if the Japanese should attempt to occupy Amchitka. During September they carried out reconnaissance and supply missions for the Army.
On September 21, PT 22 (Lt. John W. Ewell, USNR) and PT 27 (Lt. George A. Matteson, USNR) carried an Army supply party to outposts in Shagak Bay, on the west side of Adak. In the course of this mission an Army skiff capsized, throwing nine men into the icy water. The 22 rescued all of them, but damaged her propellers and bottom and had to be sent back to King Cove, on the Alaska Peninsula, for repairs.
On October 25, PT's 24, 27, and 28 laid mines in Umak Pass and in Kagalaska Strait, to the east of Adak.
As fall turned to winter, life on the boats became less and less comfortable. The only heat came from the two-burner gasoline stove in the galley -- a little alcove off the crew's quarters. Most of the time there was a heavy layer of frost on the inside of the bulkheads. The boats, which were among the first of the Elco 77-footers, had had fairly hard service for over a year, and with the combination of extremely heavy seas and no repair facilities at Adak, soon required extensive overhaul. They arrived at King Cove on December 18.
Repairs to all four boats were completed on January 5, and at 0200 the next day they got underway for Dutch Harbor. During the early morning hours the boats were lashed by hail and snow, they were pounded by a heavy sea from the north, and they became coated with ice 2 to 4 inches thick. In a squall at 0645, PT 24 (Lt. (jg.) Lawrence F. Jones, USNR)
rammed Lieutenant Ewell's PT 22 on the port bow, damaging her own bow, tearing a hole in the side of the 22, ripping off a 4- by 6-foot section of the 22's deck, and carrying away the 22's steering control. One man on the 22, J. C. Rothery, F1c, USNR, suffered a fractured rib.
The 22 rigged emergency collision mats of mattresses, and with the 24 and 28 headed for shelter at Dora Harbor, a little cove on the southeastern end of Unimak Island. During the afternoon the gale increased, and water poured through the gaping side of the 22. The crew formed a bucket brigade, bailing until they reached Dora Harbor at 1745 with water 2 inches over the floorplates in the crew's quarters.
Lieutenant Matteson's PT 27 took Rothery to Seal Cape, 50 miles away at the western end of Unimak, and put him aboard the gunboat Charleston for treatment. Matteson arranged to have the YP 149 bring materials for emergency repairs and then rejoined the other boats at Dora Harbor, anchoring alongside the 22 to shelter the injured boat.
During the next 4 days all of the boats had trouble with dragging anchors as the wind steadily increased. On the 10th the wind was gusting to 80 knots. The 22 and 27, still moored together, had a particularly difficult time that day. Their anchor lines parted several times. Once, in a snow squall, they drifted into a snowbank on an overhanging cliff. Later, after they had anchored in the lee of the cliff, their anchors dragged again and both boats went aground. The 27's struts and propellers were damaged, and her bottom was holed in three places by jagged rocks. The crew patched the holes from the inside, and both boats kedged off on a rising tide. On the same day PT 28 (Lt. Robert A. Williamson, USNR), with Lieutenant McKellar aboard, was swept aground near the southern entrance of the harbor. Williamson managed to back off under his own power, but the boat was leaking badly in the lazarette.
By the 12th, the weather had moderated sufficiently for Jones' PT 24, which had completed temporary repairs, to run to Seal Cape for assistance. The 24 returned early on the morning of the 14th with a YP and YMS. In the meantime the boats at Dora Harbor had more trouble.
Just before midnight on the night of January 12/13, the 22 was set on a reef. The 28, attempting to pull her off, also went hard aground. The 27 tried to move the boats off. First the towlines parted; then, when the lines had been doubled up, the cleats pulled right out of the decks. The receding tide made further attempts useless. The 27 took off the crews of the 22 and 28 and headed for King Cove.
On the 14th, the YMS 125 freed the 22 from the reef and pumped her dry. The 22 was then towed to King Cove by the cannery tender Virginia E. When the 22 was safely in tow, the YMS 125 pulled the 28 off. The towline broke and the 28 started to drift back toward the reef. The 24 got her in tow and took her alongside the YMS. The 28 again broke away, and again the 24 took her alongside the YMS, but in clearing the side the towline fouled the 24's screws. The 28 drifted away, and this time the 24, herself disabled, could do nothing for the 28. The 24 managed to put over a mooring line to the YP 575, but the 28 washed up on the rocks on the northwest shore of the harbor. All further attempts at salvage failed. The 24 was towed back to King Cove, but the 28 was abandoned and later broke up on the rocks.
The damage to PT's 24 and 27 could be repaired in Alaska; that to the 22 could not. The ill-fated 22 was written off as a complete loss when it was dropped from a crane while being loaded on a Liberty ship for return to the United States.
3. SQUADRON 13
Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 13, the first squadron of Higgins PT's, was commissioned on September 18, 1942, in New Orleans, with Lt. James B. Denny as squadron commander. The first boats were far from satisfactory, particularly in the matter of speed. Lieutenant Denny, working closely with Lt. Richard J. Dressling, officer in charge of the PT Commissioning Detail at New Orleans, made many recommendations for removal of excess weight, and redesign and relocation of items of equipment. The recommendations were approved by the Bureau of Ships, and thereafter were incorporated into the standard design of the Higgins boats. The necessity for alterations meant that the first six boats did not leave New Orleans until November 30, and the second six did not leave until December 17.
Squadron 13 was the first squadron to run on its own bottoms to Taboga. The boats proceeded by way of Pensacola, Tampa, and Key West, Fla.; La Fe, Cuba; Grand Cayman Island; Portland Bight, Jamaica; Barranquilla, Colombia; and Coco Solo, C.Z., a distance of nearly 2,500 miles. The trip demonstrated both the strength and a fault of the Higgins PT's. The boats were sturdy -- they stood up well in heavy seas -- but they had a tendency to nose under at low speeds, drenching the crews. Lieutenant Denny, after
completing the Pensacola-to-Tampa leg, wrote to his executive officer, Lt. James A. Danver, USNR, who was still in New Orleans, "I am surprised and pleased. These little ships ride like destroyers. However, most of this run we made at periscope depth."
The first division reached Taboga on December 20 and the second on January 16. The voyage had been so successful that thereafter all Higgins' squadrons assigned to the Pacific and, later, Elco squadrons as well, ran under their own power to Taboga.
The squadron had several weeks of training at Taboga and then was
Unloading a Squadron 13 boat from a merchant ship at Seattle. The boats were shipped to Seattle and ran from there to the Aleutians on their own bottoms.
PT's of Squadron 13 proceed northward through the inland passage.
shipped to Seattle. The first boats left Panama on January 26, and the last arrived in Seattle early in April. Denny, promoted to lieutenant commander, left Seattle on February 28 with PT's 73, 74, 75, and 76, and took the boats under their own power to Adak, via Hardy Bay, Bella Bella, Ketchikan, Juneau, Yakutat, Cordova, Kodiak, Sand Point, King Cove, Dutch Harbor, and Atka, arriving at Adak on March 31. Lieutenant Danver followed with PT's 77, 78, 79, and 80, leaving Seattle on March 21 and arriving at Adak on May 1. Lt. Charles A. Mills, Jr., USNR, left Seattle on May 10 with PT's 81, 82, 83, and 84, and arrived at Adak on the 27th.
PT's 75 and 79 acquired aircraft radar sets at Dutch Harbor, as the 28 had done the preceding September. While Danver's division was at Dutch Harbor, Lieutenant McKellar, who had been ordered back to the United States, turned over to him PT's 24 and 27, repaired again after their damage at Dora Harbor.
Messhall at Adak PT base.
Before the division left Dutch Harbor, however, the 24 damaged a propeller on a submerged rock. "We thought the shaft would be all right after we changed the propeller," Danver said, "but on trial she vibrated so badly we could not keep the bolts in that held the strut. The bolts would break, the water would fountain in, and of course it was necessary to secure the engine. Anyway, both PT's 24 and 27 were so old and had seen so much service that they actually weaved as they went through the water, opening seams in their decks and allowing water to pour through. I reported . . . that they could not keep up with the newer PT's and I did not consider it safe to take them along. We frankly advised that both boats have their nice new engines removed and the boats be put out of service as PT's. The hull officer of the Commander Alaskan Sector was called in to the conference and said he could fix the 24. We took the 27 with us."
PT 24 eventually was sent to Adak. Lieutenant Commander Denny joined in recommending that the two old 77-footers were no longer useful for service in the Aleutians, but it was not until June that the boats were ordered out of the area. Lt. (jg.) Charles R. White, Jr., USNR, took them under their own power to Seattle, where they were rebuilt. Later they were shipped back to Pearl Harbor to rejoin the remaining four boats of Squadron 1.
Although no PT's were well suited for Aleutian operations, the boats of Squadron 13 were far better than those of Division 1. They were new boats, of sturdier construction, and they were fitted with motor-driven hot air heaters. A defect in the heater design, which permitted exhaust fumes from the motor to mingle with the hot air being circulated through the boat, gave trouble at first, knocking the entire crew of PT 80 (Lt. (jg.) William G. Jens, USNR) into a stupor. Once discovered, this defect was quickly corrected, and the heaters greatly improved the habitability of the boats.
PT base at Adak. In background is USS Tatoosh, which served as tender during building of base.
PT Base 5 was moved into Finger Bay soon after the arrival of the first Squadron 13 boats at Adak. While the base was being constructed the boats had the district craft, USS Tatoosh, as a tender. Although its facilities were limited, it did have good food, hot showers, and motion pictures every night.
The boats made a few uneventful patrols out of Adak soon after their arrival there but, for most of the time, Adak was regarded as a rear base, used primarily for repair and training.
For the invasion of Attu, scheduled for May 11, the PT's were assigned the task of protecting Amchitka against possible counterthrusts by the enemy, and of patrolling to keep the enemy from sending reinforcements to Kiska. Lieutenant Commander Denny took PT's 79, 74, 75, and 76 to Constantine Harbor, Amchitka, on May 3 to start an operating base with personnel and equipment from PT Base 5. Lieutenant Danver joined him there on May 14 with PT's 73 and 80. The boats patrolled Oglala Pass and Rat Island Pass, logical approaches to Kiska Harbor, but had no contacts with the enemy.
The Army landings on Attu were made on schedule. Despite fierce resistance the island was secured by the end of May. Lieutenant Commander Denny left Constantine Harbor on June 3 with PT's 79, 75, 77, and 82 for Casco Cove in Massacre Bay, Attu, where PT Base 13 was already being installed. Patrols from Attu were entirely negative, as the Japanese never again attempted to send ships there. The boats were used principally for escorting ships through the thick fog from Massacre Bay to Shemya Island, where an airstrip was being constructed, and for transportation of highranking officers between Massacre Bay and Shemya, and to Holtz Bay, on the northern side of Attu. With only two boats, the 75 and 79, fitted with radar, it was remarkable how accurately the boats were able to find their way through the fog. The boats returned to Adak in September, when they were relieved by PT's 219 to 224, of Squadron 16, under Lt. Almer P. Colvin.
The boats of Squadron 16 saw no more action than their predecessors, but took a worse beating from the weather. On the morning of September 14, PT 219 (Ens. Harold F. Grove, USNR) was moored to a buoy in Casco Cove, 350 yards from shore. The wind velocity was 40 knots, with gusts to 55 knots. One gust parted the cable between anchor and buoy, and though the 219 lighted off her engines within a minute, the boat was already aground on a rocky spit. Five hours later the seaplane tender Casco pulled
A PT breaks through leading boat's wake off coast of Attu.
The 219 off the rocks and started to bring her alongside. The bottom had been badly holed, and as Casco hauled the PT toward her, water rushed into the hull and built up air pressure until the engineroom vent covers blew off. The engineroom immediately filled with water and the boat sank by the stern, leaving the forecastle deck awash. The Casco got her alongside and tried to pump her out. After 2 hours with no improvement, the Casco cast off the 219, and the boat sank in 25 feet. Four days later the weather moderated sufficiently to send down a diver. The seaplane wrecking derrick YSD 26 raised the 219 on the 20th, and pumped out enough water to put the boat in drydock. Later a heavy wind swept the drydock ashore. The boat was eventually scrapped.
As the 11th Air Force stepped up its bombing of Kiska, the PT's organized a crashboat service at Amchitka. Two boats were kept on station at Bird Cape, on the western end of the island. When the weather plane returned from its early morning run to Kiska, it would run northward over the PT's if the weather was satisfactory for flying, and to the southward if it was not. If the flight was northward, the PT's moved out to the west, where they could see the enemy's guns firing at our planes over Kiska. As it turned out, boats were required only once for rescue work, but officers of the 11th
Air Force believed their presence contributed to the efficiency of the bombing of Kiska. The bomber crews knew they stood a good chance of rescue if they should be forced down by antiaircraft fire.
Lt. (jg.) Louis R. Fockele, USNR, in PT 76 was on one of these missions on the afternoon of July 11, when an Army Liberator flew over, circled and came back to strafe the boat. The bomber made three more runs, but did not fire during any of them. The 76 answered with a short burst of fire to try to chase the plane away. There was no damage either to boat or bomber. After this exchange all aircraft pilots on the Kiska run were ordered to visit the PT base and inspect the PT's so that they would recognize them when they saw them from the air.
On the evening of the same day the Army asked for a PT to go to the assistance of the crew of a Liberator forced down by lack of fuel near Little Sitkin Island. Guided by a Catalina, which had been unable to make the rescue because the water was too rough for a landing, Lt. (jg.) William R. McQuilkin, in PT 73, ran from Bird Cape to the north coast of Little Sitkin, where he found the bomber crew safe ashore. The pilot had set his plane down in a little cove. It sank quickly, but the crew got ashore in a rubber raft.
In July, PT's from Amchitka covered small Army landings on Rat and Semisopochnoi Islands, to the northwest and northeast of Amchitka. They saw no sign of the enemy.
The Aleutians campaign entered its final phase on August 15, 1943, with the American occupation of Kiska. For a time it appeared that the PT's at last would have some action, since it was estimated that the Japanese had 4,000 to 7,000 troops on the island. While the main landings were being made to the north, five PT's were to join a group of transports in a feint at Vega Point, the southeastern extremity of the island, to draw enemy reserves from the north and prevent concentration of defenses against the main landings. Strips of plywood cut out to resemble the sides of barges surmounted by rows of soldiers' heads were tacked to the gunwales of the PT's, outboard of the torpedo tubes. The camouflage was crude close-to, but at a little distance gave the PT's the appearance of loaded landing craft.
Lieutenant Commander Denny, in PT 81 (Lt. (jg.) Elbert S. Churchill, USNR), with PT 73 (Lt. (jg.) William R. McQuilkin); PT 76 (Lt. (jg.) Louis R. Fockele, USNR); PT 80 (Lt. (jg.) William G. Jens, USNR); and PT 84 (Lt. (ig.) Joseph A. Sheehan, USNR), left Bird Cape at 0330 on August 15 and entered Vega Bay ahead of the transports at 0715 to begin
their demonstration. In a heavy haze the boats closed within 100 yards of shore and intermittently strafed the beach until 1100. In the afternoon they made several strafing runs in Gertrude Cove, to the north. No matter how close to shore they went, they drew no return fire. That night the boats returned to Constantine Harbor. The landings at Kiska, to the surprise of everyone who took part in them, were entirely unopposed. The enemy had evacuated the island, secretly and completely.
After Kiska the boats devoted themselves entirely to operational training. Even these exercises frequently had to be canceled because of high winds and heavy seas. The base at Amchitka was abandoned after a heavy storm in mid-September wrecked the breakwater. In April 1944, the boats at Adak maintained an antisubmarine patrol between Adak Strait and Atka Pass when weather permitted, but had no sightings.
In May 1944, Squadron 13 was withdrawn from Adak and Squadron 16 was withdrawn from Attu. The boats ran under their own power to Seattle
PT's with sides built up to resemble landing barges filled with troops,
ready for diversionary operations in the reoccupation of Kiska.
At Adak base, a tractor hauls a PT up a ramp in a rubber-tired cradle for repairs.
for overhaul and shipment to the Southwest Pacific. Squadron 16B, a group of six boats under Lt. James H. Van Sicklen, USNR, which was to be placed out of separate commission on Joining Squadron 16, came up the Alaskan coast in April as far as Sitka, en route to Attu, when orders were received to return to Seattle to await the arrival of the parent squadron there. The last boats of Squadron 16 arrived at Seattle at the end of May, and those of Squadron 13 in June.
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