Flying the Empire Express

By David L. Sears

That same day, 5,000 miles farther west, R. M. Hadow, the British vice consul at Meshed (present-day Mashad), Iran, learned “that Major York and Lieutenant Emmons, U.S. Army, wished to see me. Two individuals were then ushered in looking more like down-at-heel Armenian or Russian lorry drivers than officers. I expressed pleasure at seeing American Army officers in Meshed and asked what we could do for them. They then apologized for their clothes and said they had just come from Russia.”

Attu’s imminent recapture and Hadow’s unanticipated encounter anchor two remarkable episodes in World War II history. The first witnessed the deployment of a quirky dual-engine attack aircraft—the Lockheed PV-1 Ventura. The second, a tale with geopolitical overtones, encompassed the lives of 300 aviators, most, but not all, from the U.S. Navy. After crashing or landing on Soviet soil, the Americans became internees—hospitality both the United States and Russia sought to conceal.

The First Internees

In June 1942, in a sideshow to Japan’s Midway thrusts, troops from its Northern Army occupied Attu and Kiska, also in the Aleutians. It was, according to historian Ronald H. Spector, “the only part of the Midway operations which had gone according to plan.” But as the Japanese learned, Attu and Kiska were forbidding ice- and fog-bound places far removed from supply and communications lines. Accordingly, while U.S. Northern Pacific Army and Navy brass urged an early offensive to retake the islands, the Joint Chiefs of Staff bided their time, focusing instead on priorities in Europe and the South Pacific.

One impetus for Japan’s mid-Pacific overreach was the 18 April 1942 air strike against the country’s heartland, delivered by 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers launched from the carrier Hornet (CV-8). And it was the plight of one of those Doolittle Raid aircrews that set the course for dozens more flying an assortment of bombers: B-25s, B-24s, PV-1s, even B-29s. When Captain Edward J. York, who would later show up in Meshed, couldn’t locate Tokyo, he instead settled for bombing a large factory to the north. York had expected his auxiliary fuel supply to take him all the way to Japan. Instead, he had to switch to main tanks well before making landfall, leaving prospects slim for flying on to Free China.

Early mission planning had explored the possibility that, under Soviet Lend-Lease arrangements, Doolittle B-25s landing in Vladivostok might be considered “aircraft deliveries.” Just before take-off, however, crews learned that was not an option. York now thought he had no choice. After his plane touched down 30 miles from Vladivostok, Soviet officials advised him and his crew they would be interned until “further decisions had been made.” First they were flown by DC-3 500 miles north to Khabarovsk, then taken by Trans-Siberian Express to the village of Okhuna, 300 miles south of Moscow.

A U.S. military attaché visited them there in June, informing them that plans to quietly get them out of Russia had run afoul of persistent American newspaper inquiries, forcing the Soviets to disclose their internment. At the end of July, the five Doolittle Raiders were shipped to Okhansk, a remote mountain village on the edge of Siberia.

In early 1943, as York and his men languished in Okhansk, the Joint Chiefs finally approved Operation Landgrab, an offensive to retake Attu. U.S. Army Major General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. assembled troops, while Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid’s naval forces clamped on a tight blockade. On 11 May, Buckner’s GIs invaded Attu on two fronts: Holtz Bay and Massacre Bay. American troops outnumbered the Japanese nearly five-to-one, but the enemy held the craggy highlands, and GIs were hard put to dislodge them. It took five days to close the pincer. Some Japanese were trapped, but many fled north.

Ten days later, Japanese survivors readied to charge into Massacre Bay. “The last assault is to be carried out,” Tatsoguchi wrote in his final diary entry. “All the patients in the hospital were made to commit suicide. Only 33 years of living and I am to die here. I have no regrets. A Banzai to emperor.” Aided by darkness and fog, the attackers broke through the front line only to run into an improvised perimeter of American rear-echelon troops. By day’s end, all 800 Japanese were dead. With Attu secured, planning kicked off for Operation Cottage, the retaking of Kiska.

From ‘P-Boat’ to Ventura

Although Navy PBY Catalinas conducted reconnaissance, and Navy escort-carrier aircraft contributed aerial firepower to Landgrab, U.S. Aleutian forces depended primarily on Army Air Forces (AAF) four-engine B-24s and twin-engine B-25s. But that began to change with the April arrival of Navy Patrol Bombing Squadron (VPB) 135. The unit was commissioned at Whidbey Island, Washington, in February 1943 using a manpower nucleus from VP-42, a decommissioned PBY patrol squadron. VPB-135’s new mainstay was a swift twin-engine attack aircraft called the PV-1 Ventura.

Hitherto, the AAF had monopolized land-based aviation. The lock held until, in need of a facility to manufacture the new Boeing B-29 Superfortress, it eyed the Navy property in Renton, Washington. In exchange for Renton, the AAF pulled objections to land-based Navy aviation, even agreeing to supply suitable aircraft.

The PV-1 (the “V” represented Lockheed’s Ventura Division) descended from the prewar Lockheed Lodestar airliner. Souped up by replacing its two Pratt & Whitney 1,200-horsepower engines with 2,000-horsepower versions, the Ventura’s maximum speed exceeded 300 mph, nearly twice the speed of the PBY. For armament, the PV-1 carried a top-mounted turret with twin .50-caliber machine guns; two fixed, nose-mounted .50s; and after tunnel-mounted twin .30s. A shallow bomb bay held up to six 500-pound bombs or, for long-range reconnaissance, two optional gas tanks. Eventually, nine additional cabin-mounted fuel tanks became standard and wing-mounted drop tanks optional.

As originally configured, the PV-1 cockpit accommodated a lone pilot. For the Navy, however, Lockheed installed a copilot seat and an additional (albeit limited) instrument cluster. In addition to a pilot commander (called a PPC) and copilot, the PV-1 initially was manned by a radio/radar operator (the aircraft came with short-range search radar), a mechanic, and a gunner. To navigate, the PPC or copilot would leave the cockpit to access a navigation table in the cabin.

VPB-135 trained from mid-February through 25 March, making the difficult transition from slow, docile, and forgiving “P-Boats” to the “hot” fast-attack PV-1 Venturas. PBY Aleutian veterans resisted “under the hood” instrument training, preferring instead to “keep the keel next to the water.” Worse, the Ventura training syllabus was truncated. Most aviators qualified after just 60 to 80 hours of cockpit time.

The squadron departed Whidbey on 25 March but, owing to bad weather, didn’t reach Adak—midway along the Aleutian chain—until 12 April. From Adak, crews flew both patrol and photo reconnaissance missions. Lacking proper photographic gear, airmen improvised using hand-held cameras. Bad PBY habits diminished. Instead of making landing approaches just under the overcast, somehow expecting the PV-1 hull to “bounce” off the water, PPCs finally learned to trust instruments.

In May, after sister squadron VPB-136 reached Adak, VPB-135 redeployed to Amchitka, 185 miles farther west. Conditions were spartan: Crews lived in tents and subsisted on field rations, and aircraft operated from crude runways perpetually subject to crosswinds. Specially trained enlisted navigators joined the crew count (now six) as PV-1s began flying Kiska bombing runs, often using radar to “pathfind” for B-24s and B-25s. With an airstrip partially completed on Attu’s Alexi Point, VPB-135 and VPB-136 redeployed in August to what some described as “a fog with an island in the middle.”

Early PV-1 Missions from Attu

On 15 August, Operation Cottage’s hundred-ship armada converged on Kiska. Some 35,000 Army troops were embarked in expectation of confronting several times as many Japanese troops as on Attu. However, the GIs landed unopposed and discovered, after several days spent scouring the island, that the Japanese garrison had been withdrawn several weeks earlier.

With Kiska declared secure on 24 August, Army engineers began constructing an airstrip. Already anticipating possible bombing runs to the Kuriles (1,500 round-trip miles, all over open water), the skipper of Fleet Air Wing Four (FAW-4) “borrowed” a handful of AAF B-24s and ordered half of VPB-136’s crews trained to fly them. The AAF soon squelched the scheme. If there were to be B-24 raids on the Kuriles, AAF crews would fly them. Attu-based VPBs would fly PV-1s exclusively.

As it turned out, the Japanese struck first. Within weeks, a flight of Japanese G4M “Betty” medium bombers flying out of Paramushiro, the outermost Kurile, raided the new U.S. airfield. The bombers caught Attu’s fighter defenses napping. Damage was light, but the Japanese had thrown down the gauntlet.

With Bettys probing east and Venturas probing west, the duel-engine opponents inevitably crossed paths. Once, VPB-136 PPC Lieutenant “Sandy” Dinsmore engaged an east-bound Betty in “a kind of dogfight.” Chasing it west and closing, his Ventura crept within striking distance of the Betty’s powerful 20-mm tail “stinger.” After trading long-range bursts, Dinsmore broke off and returned to Attu.

Eventually, in an effort to push the PV-1 long-range capability envelope, VPB-136 maintenance officer Lieutenant H. K. “Hap” Mantius conducted a trial. Using a combination of rpm, manifold pressure, and manual “leaning” of carburetor settings, Mantius made his point, piloting to within sight of Paramushiro and returning successfully. Nonetheless, squadron aviators understood well that to bomb, fight, and evade over the Kuriles required an additional margin.

VPB-135 and -136 completed their first Aleutian tours late in 1943. VPB-135 departed Attu for Whidbey on 5 November 1943, VPB-136 a little later, both in time for Christmas leave. VPB-135 returned with just four serviceable aircraft; the others had been lost or cannibalized. The initial PV-1 Kurile missions—photo reconnaissance under cover of darkness—fell to VPB-139, a relief squadron equipped with newer birds.

Crash Landing on Kamchatka

In early July 1943, even as the PV-1’s envelope was tested, Attu-based AAF B-24s and B-25s had begun targeting Paramushiro and neighboring Shumushu. There was scant information available on exactly what to target, but this much was certain: Immediately to the north (and within sight) of Paramushiro lay Cape Lopatka, the southern tip of the Soviet Union’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Petropavlovsk, a main Soviet port and military base, lay 175 miles up Kamchatka’s east coast. The Soviet Union, although a U.S. ally and Lend-Lease beneficiary, had its hands full fighting Germany. One of the most reliable Lend-Lease delivery routes was the North Pacific, terminating in Vladivostok. As long as Soviet-flagged cargo vessels didn’t carry war matériel, Japan turned a blind eye. Joseph Stalin was determined to safeguard this vital lifeline while giving Japan no pretext to invade Siberia. For now, the Soviets remained strictly neutral in the fighting with Japan.

On 12 August, after a couple of trial forays, nine unescorted AAF B-24s attacked Paramushiro only to be ambushed by beefed-up Japanese antiaircraft fire and aerial defenders. The Liberator piloted by Second Lieutenant James R. Pottenger made a successful bomb run but lost an engine in the process. Pottenger’s aircraft dropped back while the rest rendezvoused and withdrew. As Japanese fighter aircraft swarmed the limping B-24, the pilot radioed flight leader Major Frank Gash. “Pottenger said that he was unable to feather the prop . . . and that a supercharger was on fire.” Gash directed him to go to an “alternate field.”

Pottenger understood what Gash meant. Prior to the mission, they’d been furnished with locations and radio frequencies for Soviet landing fields on Kamchatka, including Petropavlovsk. “When the [Japanese] fighters turned away,” recalled navigator Second Lieutenant Charles K. Hanner Jr., “we discussed whether to set a new course for the Aleutians. Then we lost the second engine. We headed for a landfall . . . about 25 miles from Petropavlovsk.”

Steadily losing altitude, Pottenger alerted the crew to prepare for crash landing. The B-24 plowed into a swamp, ripping off the bomb-bay doors and dislodging a waist gun before settling in shallow water. One crewman’s hip and pelvis were broken, another sustained substantial internal injury. After inflating a life raft to transport the wounded, the men waded through the marsh. Soon they encountered several Red Army soldiers, none of whom spoke English. Eventually, the two injured men were evacuated to a Petropavlovsk military hospital, while the rest, including Pottenger, began confinement in a log house.

For the historical record, Pottenger’s crew became the first Aleutian-based airmen, Army or Navy, to crash-land on Kamchatka and enter Soviet internment. More, however, soon followed. In an ambitious 11 September mission that mustered 7 B-24s and 12 B-25s, 7 aircraft—2 B-24s and 5 B-25s—were forced to take refuge at or near Petropavlovsk. This effectively ended Army visions of the Aleutians as a major campaign path. Left unresolved were the fates of the interned airmen. There were 51—ten times the handful who had mysteriously appeared in Meshed, Iran, four months before.

VB-135 Takes Over

In April 1944, following an interval for leave, personnel rotation, refit, and retraining, newly designated VB-135 deployed for its second Attu tour with 56 officers and 76 enlisted personnel in 15 new PV-1s. The Venturas included better radio gear, automatic direction finders (ADFs), and upgraded copilot stations. For full-time navigation, a third pilot was added. When the squadron’s planes stopped at Adak, long-range radio navigation receivers also were installed. It was here, during training to test the equipment, that the first squadron aircraft went missing.

On 4 May, VB-135 reached Casco Field, Attu, to begin relieving VB-139. The very next day, 14 PV-1s—9 from VB-135 and 5 from VB-139 (undertaking its final mission)—flew a night reconnaissance/harassment mission against Shumushu. These missions were routine but hazardous. To accomplish them, each Ventura was bulked up 3,000 pounds above its designed 31,000-pound “gross overload.” Added weight from fuel (including drop tanks) and ordnance was partially offset by removing tunnel guns and armor plate aft. The loading made night takeoffs particularly precarious. (During a 23 May mission, PPC Lieutenant C. E. Clark’s Ventura crashed and burned with all hands killed.)

For night reconnaissance, the aircraft carried bow-mounted, remotely activated wide-lens cameras. Camera shutters were synchronized to the explosion of one-million candle-power flash bombs tossed from the tunnel hatch. The aircraft carried three 500-pound bombs and a cluster of 22-pound incendiary bombs. With enough practice, VB-135 veteran Lewis A. “Pat” Patteson recalled, the “incendiaries could paint a line on the ground 50 yards wide by 150 yards long.” This enhanced photographic illumination but also inflicted destruction. During one mission “many secondary fires resulted among the [G4M] Betties [sic] on the field.”

Smooth take-off didn’t ensure mission success. Outbound on their 5 May inaugural mission, VB-135 aircraft were buffeted by “williwaw” conditions: blasts of cold, dense air propelled across the Bering Sea from Siberian mountains. Owing to bad weather, only 5 of the 14 PV-1s actually reached the Kuriles; those that did encountered heavy flak. The PV-1 piloted by Lieutenant (junior grade) Alpheus A. Wheat failed to return—VB-135’s first (second tour) combat loss. According to navigator Ensign Byron Morgan, the aircraft piloted by Lieutenant Howard Schuette flew beyond “the point of no return” before it turned for home. “We stripped the aircraft of everything we could shove overboard,” reaching Attu “with bare minutes of fuel.”

Missions continued and losses mounted. By early June confirmed casualties totaled three aircraft and 7 crewmen killed; three more aircraft with 21 crewmen were missing. Then, on 12 June, six volunteer crews sortied on a daylight bombing run, the first since the AAF September 1943 disaster. The mission was rated a success: Raiders bombed Paramushiro under clear skies; a single returning aircraft ditched, but with no casualties. Two days later, however, two aircraft, one piloted by Lieutenant Russell Bone, the other by Howard Schuette, went missing.

By now, with VB-135 having lost more than a third of its crews, replacements were arriving at Casco Field. It didn’t take long for the new crews to experience the trials and hazards of what was now called the Empire Express.

Night Mission over Paramshiro

When Navy Bombing Squadron 135 deployed to Attu in 1944, its primary mission was flying night reconnaissance missions over Paramshiro and Shimushu in the Kurile Islands, which Japanese forces were fortifying. The squadron’s aircraft—fast, maneuverable PV-1 Venturas—were specially equipped for the long missions.

PV-1 Ventura, modified for Kurile missions

Type: Patrol bomber

Crew: Three officers, four enlisted men

Length: 51 feet, 9 inches

Wingspan: 65 feet, 6 inches

Max. speed: 312 mph at 13,800 feet

Camera: Bow-mounted K19-A

Weapons load: 4 photo flash bombs, 3 500-lb. bombs, 12 22-lb. fragmentation bombs



CAPT Carl H. Amme, U.S. Navy (Ret.), ed., Aleutian Airdales: Stories of Navy Flyers During World War II, Pat Wing Four Reunion Committee (Plains, MT: Plainsman Publishing, 1987).

Bombing Squadron One Hundred Thirty-Five, War Diary for period from 1 April 1944 to 1 May 1944, Record Group 38, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereafter NARA).

Fleet Air Wing Four History dated 1 January 1945, NARA, accessed through .

Otis Hays Jr., Home from Siberia: The Secret Odysseys of Interned American Airmen in World War II (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1990).

Lockheed Ventura, .

Craig Nelson, The First Heroes: The Extraordinary Story of the Doolittle Raid—America’s First World War II Victory (New York: Penguin, 2002).

Patrol Bombing Squadron One Hundred Thirty-Five (VPB-135) Squadron History, NARA, accessed through .

Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York: Vintage Books, 1985).

Mr. Sears is the author of four books, including Pacific Air: How Fearless Flyboys, Peerless Aircraft, and Fast Flattops Conquered the Skies in the War with Japan (DaCapo, 2011) and Such Men as These: The Story of Navy Pilots Who Flew the Deadly Skies Over Korea (DaCapo, 2010).




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