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On flying those Aleutian skies.

Byline: Albert B. Southwick


A TV news clip about the hazards of flying over Alaska brought me back almost 70 years. In early 1945 our squadron of PB4Y Privateer patrol bombers landed on Shemya Island, a dot in the ocean in the far western Aleutians. We landed in a driving storm, plane propellers weaving lacy patterns in the mist. North, south, east and west stretched the angry ocean, white spume ripping off the waves.

We were a long way from sunny Florida.

Our mission was to give air cover to the north Pacific fleet and to bomb the big Japanese base at Paramushiro, 800 miles southeast. The fleet felt vulnerable ever since its carriers had headed south for the coming invasion of Japan. So we patrolled overhead, sometimes under cloud ceilings as low as 200 or 300 feet.

I enlisted in the Navy right after Pearl Harbor, along with a million or so others. The Navy, like the Army, was swamped with recruits and no realistic strategic plan. After boot camp at Newport, I spent weeks in aviation radioman training, more weeks in radar training and then I was assigned to a commando training unit. We were being readied to accompany the Marines on one of their assaults in the far Pacific.

I had originally tried to get into pilot training but had been turned down three times because of low blood pressure. But three days before our commando unit shipped out from San Francisco, my flight papers came through.

I went through the whole Navy aviation syllabus - pre-flight school, primary flight instruction, advanced flight training at air bases at Pensacola, Florida, and finally, instruction in PBY sea planes. The PBY was the workhorse patrol plane of several national air fleets, including the United States. I got my wings at Pensacola and was assigned to the naval air base at Jacksonville, where we spent innumerable hours over the Atlantic searching for German U-boats.

But by the spring of 1944, the U-boats had been eliminated as a threat. So a group of us seaplane pilots was sent to Hutchinson, Kansas, for training in B-24s, land-based four-engine bombers that had been developed by the Army Air Force for the massive bombing raids in Europe. We spent the next few weeks flying over the Kansas plain.

We had one scary moment over Kansas when we accidentally flew straight into a thunderhead. Normally we carefully avoided those towering cloud castles of violent turbulence, but that one was masked in some cirrus clouds. In seconds we were being tossed about like a shuttlecock in badminton. At one point, our 20-ton plane was spun onto its back, a position it was not stressed for. When we finally wrestled free of the powerful up and down drafts, we were sweating.

After Kansas we were shipped off to Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, for training in the new Navy patrol bomber, the PB4Y-2. Privateer, sometimes described as the Navy version of the B-24, but much different. It had four engines but no turbo. It was designed as a low-altitude patrol bomber and we usually flew under 5,000 feet. (The B-24s, turbo-charged, flew at 33,000 feet).

Early in 1945 our squadron took off for Alaska. Our plane had one bad moment. Cruising at 10,000 feet, we noticed that one engine after another lost power, even at full throttle. Only after we had dropped to 5,000 feet did we recognize carburetor icing, something we never had to worry about in Florida. We flipped on the de-icing switch and breathed sighs of relief when the engines responded with throaty roars.

We spent a few days in Anchorage, a wild West kind of town with about 20,000 people. It now has almost 300,000. Then we headed west for a thousand miles or so along the Aleutian chain until we landed at Shemya, an island four miles long and two miles wide with a 10,000-foot runway. As we were coming in to land I noticed the carcass of a wrecked plane on an island. No one knows how many others had crashed in that windy, fog-bound place over the previous four years.

The next few months were the riskiest of my career. We had been trained in celestial navigation - plotting our courses by star fixes - and we also were familiar with dead reckoning, in which we tried to estimate our position by watching the ground below, but what do you do when you're in the soup and can see nothing either up or down?

Fortunately for us, the Soviet Union had just permitted the U.S. to set up a LORAN (long range navigation station) on the Siberian coast. We could pick its signals up on our radios and it saved our necks more than once.

But even LORAN couldn't help us when we were coming in through the soup with maybe a 100-foot ceiling over the runway. That's when we relied on GCA (ground control approach), during which controllers on the ground talked us in by watching us on their radar screens. Radar was a new thing in those days, and we usually wondered if the controllers really had us on their tiny six-inch screens as they sent commands - "Lower flaps, cut RPMs, etc." White-knuckle time for sure.

But I can't complain. While we were battling storms, wind and fog, our sister squadron a thousand miles south was being mauled over Okinawa. They lost a third of their planes and a third of their men in that ferocious battle. I knew many of them.

As I have written before, on August 14, 1945, I was in the cockpit headed for Paramushiro with a load of 500-pound bombs when the radioman announced "The Japs have surrendered."

Seldom have I heard such thrilling words.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:May 10, 2012
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