Article by Rich Thistle ©
Flying conditions were rarely ideal in the Aleutian Islands. In fact, this part of the world could lay claim to some of the worst weather conditions anywhere. Dense fogs, high winds and intense winter cold could make flying a real adventure. The weather, the omnipresent mud, the long distances between rudimentary air bases and the general lack of first-line equipment and support suffered by those in low-priority areas made the Aleutians one of the most depressing theaters of World War II. When an operation went ahead without a hitch, it did so against all odds.
Early in June, 1942, the Japanese had gained their only toehold in North American through landings on Attu and Kiska, the two most westerly islands in the American archipelago which hooks its way like the vertebrae of an extinct sea monster through the north Pacific toward Russia and Japan. It was on June 3 that the major assault took place at Dutch Harbor, an American outpost on Unalaska Island, barely one hundred miles off the Alaska Peninsula. This battle left 43 Americans killed and numerous American aircraft destroyed.
On September 25, the Japanese grip on Kiska was to be tested in yet another of the ongoing American raids which had been mounted to harass the invaders. This operation would include 9 Consolidated B-24 Liberators, 12 Bell P-39 Airacobras and 20 Curtiss P-40 Warhawks. Four of the P-40s were to be piloted by Canadians, under Squadron Leader K. A. (Ken) Boomer. He and three of his pilots from 111 (Fighter) Squadron, Western Air Command (WAC), Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), would fly close and high cover in company with P-40s of 11th Fighter Squadron. This squadron was a unit of the newly constituted 343rd Fighter Group, United States Army Air Force (USAAF), commanded by Major John S. Chennault, the son of Major General Claire Chennault, leader of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) in China - the famous Flying Tigers.
On this day Canadian and American P-40's would fly in the same formations against a common foe. Just before noon, the B-24s and their covering fighters took off from their forward airstrip of perforated steel planking on Adak Island and headed west toward Kiska, just over 200 miles away. In little more than an hour, the fighters were following up the bombers with a low strafing attack on gun positions, naval targets, radar installations and the main Japanese camp area.
Turning back for a second pass they were challenged by two Nakajima A6M2-N "Rufes", the relatively fast and surprisingly agile float seaplane version of the Zero fighter, which had taken off to meet the attackers. As the lead Rufe lined up one of the American P40s, he did not escape the notice of S/L Boomer. "I climbed to a stall practically, pulled up right under him. I just poured it into him from underneath. He flamed up and went down." The Japanese pilot jumped from his aircraft, almost certainly to a watery grave, just before it hit the water. The RCAF had its first and only "home" victory, and its only victory of the War over the Japanese air force. A moment later the other Rufe was downed by Major Chennault. After expending remaining 0.50 in. machine gun ammunition -with no confirmed result- on a Japanese submarine, the fighters headed for home, such as it was, on Adak.
The occupation of the Aleutian chain had formed part of Japan's grand scheme for their expanding empire in the Pacific. In order to establish a defensive perimeter around their newly-conquered areas of the Pacific surrounding Japan, and to force a decisive engagement with the American fleet, they planned to seize Midway Island, islands on the Hawaii-Australian supply line, like the Marshall Islands, and strategic positions in the Aleutians. From these points, American forays from Pearl Harbor could be detected and intercepted. In addition to diverting Allied attention from the central Pacific, the Aleutian occupation would prevent the United States from launching an offensive from the north Pacific and would also throw a wrench into American-Russian collaboration along the natural pathway of the Aleutian Islands. Japanese patrol planes from these islands would be able to detect any force setting out to raid Japan's inner defenses.
Obviously, the attack on Pearl Harbor sent a strong wake-up call to Washington, but alarm bells also rang loudly in Ottawa, Canada's capitol, which had already been at war with Germany for over two years. So far, Canada had been focused on the European theater, but now there was real danger at her own back door. The unexpected damage done to the U.S. Pacific fleet meant that Canadians might no longer simply count on a strong and effective American force to provide a buffer between the Japanese and whatever Canadian forces were available in Canada's most westerly province, British Columbia. In fact, it did not seem beyond the realm of possibility that the Japanese might actually be able to mount a full-scale action on North America and that attack might logically fall on the Canadian Pacific coast.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had already asked that Canada take a stronger role in Pacific defense. By April of 1942, the Permanent Joint Board on Defense had agreed that Alaska would require more air power from both countries. RCAF units, including No. 111 (Fighter) Squadron, flying P-40 Ks, and No. 8 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Squadron, in obsolescent, twin-engine Bolingbrokes, a Canadian-built version of the Bristol Blenheim, began to move to American bases. Of the 16 squadrons comprising Canadian Western Air Command, four were detached to Alaskan operations for the duration of the Aleutian campaign.
At first, the Canadian squadrons were seen as a convenient rear-area security force. Some disappointment and concern was voiced on the part of Canadian air crew members who felt they might miss the whole show, if in fact there was even to be one. But these fears were soon laid to rest on June 3, 1942, at Dutch Harbor. Launched from two carriers, the Junyo and the Ryujo, Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters, 24 dive-bombers and 20 torpedo bombers inflicted serious damage, leaving 43 Americans dead and numerous US aircraft destroyed. USAAF P-40's claimed five kills. One of these, an A6M, force-landed on Akutan, a small island northeast of Unalaska, and was the first such aircraft to fall into American hands in a repairable state. The recovery of this A6M Zero fighter provided the USAAF with some important answers to the riddle of this, the most dangerous of Japanese fighters. Then, on June 6-7, despite their crushing defeat two days earlier at Midway - which to a more logical way of thinking, precluded any need for further advances - the Japanese went ahead with their Aleutian operation, and occupied Kiska and Attu, on the far tip of the archipelago.
At first, they saw their presence as temporary, and were prepared to withdraw before winter. Without Midway, the Aleutians seemed to have little value for the Japanese. But, to help boost Japanese morale and perhaps to provide a largely nuisance value, by the end of the month they had decided to stay. By early July, to give Canadians a more active role in offensive operations, all of RCAF No.111 Squadron's pilots, and half their ground crew, were moved to the most forward American base at that time, Fort Glenn on Umnak Island, where they relieved an equivalent number of personnel from the 11th Fighter Squadron USAAF, also equipped with P-40s. This move forward reinforced the real dangers of flying in Alaska. Five of the first flight of six Canadian P-40s were lost flying into unpredicted bad weather. On being ordered to turn back, they blundered into a fog-shrouded cliff. This would be the worst tragedy sustained by the RCAF in the Aleutian campaign.
By August, Canadian pilots and ground crew, sharing the primitive living and operational conditions of Fort Glenn with their remaining American counterparts, had virtually merged with the USAAF unit. Although a few RCAF P-40Fs had been ferried in, the Canadians received nine new American P-40 Ks. Operational formations varied, composed of a mixture of machines and men of both nations. This was possibly a unique collaboration during the war, and it was one of the unusual features which first focused my attention as an artist, on this campaign. The fact that my painting "Victory over Kiska" would involve the aircraft of three nations, Canada, the United States and Japan, excited me.
I began to formulate my interpretation of the event. One question concerning the markings of the new American P-40's that were transferred to the Canadians was answered when I found a photograph of ground crew painting British-style roundels and codes on the aircraft. I was also relieved to find two reliable side-view renderings of an American P-40 of the 11th Fighter Squadron in its olive drab and neutral gray scheme, with white unit stripes and spinner. A bonus for me was the extraordinary nose marking. It was a large and very striking tiger head with a smaller version of the typical P-40 sharp-toothed jaw, in tribute to the commander's father and his Flying Tigers.
Finally, I was happy to be able to paint a rather obscure, and very rare Japanese warplane, the A6M2-N, Nakajima's contribution to the program of improvements and updated versions of the Zero fighter. Unquestionably, the float seaplane version, although filling a niche, proved to be one of the least successful of all Japanese combat aircraft. Of the 327 built, few enjoyed combat success, especially against land-based fighters.
As a Canadian artist I am very often focused on the exploits and achievements of our own airmen. I was intrigued by the part played in this incident by Ken Boomer, and I decided to make this painting a part of my ongoing series on the contributions and special accomplishments of Canadians in the air war. Each original acrylic painting in this series has a companion piece, a graphite portrait of the pilot, often montaged with drawings of other pertinent memorabilia, or a special mat painting.
It was after Pearl Harbor that the RCAF began to transfer leaders with operational experience in the European theatre back home, to take over home-defense squadrons. On August 20, 1942, S/L Boomer, accompanied by four replacement pilots, arrived in Alaska to take command of Canadian No.111 (F) Squadron. Boomer was a veteran of the Battle of Northern France, recording an one Messerschmitt Bf 109 damaged and two Junkers Ju 88s destroyed. Within five days, he was to add to his battle honors in this out-of-the-way theater.
It was Boomer who approached Chenault requesting that Canadian pilots participate in the raid on Kiska mounted on September 25. For their part in the successful operation, the Canadians received the American Air Medal, and S/L Boomer also received the British Distinguished Flying Cross for his victory over Kiska. This mission, although serving to whet Canadian appetites for more such work, marked the end of combat, for the moment, for No. 111 personnel They were pulled back to Kodiak Island to defend that island's growing US Navy base.
Subsequently, arrangements were made for 12 Canadian P-40Fs to operate on a rotational basis from a new, more advanced base on Amchitka, 75 miles southeast of Kiska. Two RCAF fighter squadrons took turn-about, No. 111 and No. 14. (After the Aleutian Campaign, both squadrons would be reformed, renumbered and participate in Europe from Normandy to Berlin. No. 111 became No. 440, RCAF, flying Hawker Typhoon IBs, and No. 14 became No.442, going the distance in Supermarine Spitfire Mk IXs and North American Mustang Mk IVs.)
On May 11, 1943, an American invasion force numbering 12,000 troops attacked Attu. The Japanese resisted fanatically in a bloody battle lasting 18 days, losing 2,380 dead and 28 taken prisoner. America lost 552 dead and 1,140 wounded. Based beyond the range of Attu, Canadian aircraft did not participate in this action. However, this costly victory sobered U.S. and Canadian planners who were organizing the joint Canadian-American expedition to retake Kiska.
Heavy naval and air bombardment of Kiska, including "The Battle of the Pips" on July 27, when a U.S. battleship taskforce expended prodigious amounts of ordnance on false radar "ghosts", softened up the often fog-shrouded target. However, when a force of about 34,000 Canadian and American troops finally assaulted the base on Kiska, on August 15, it was found to be abandoned. Under cover of the almost constant fog and rain, Japanese warships had evacuated the 5,000- strong garrison 18 days before. For two and a half weeks, Canadian and American airmen had pounded an uninhabited chunk of rock and tundra. Soon after this anti-climax, RCAF squadrons were withdrawn from Alaska.
Thus ended a campaign unique in the annals of the RCAF. It not only served to solidify and validate the role of Canada's home- defense squadrons but also, in a small but important way, added its own piece to the larger picture of a newly emerging and sovereign nation, forged in the fire of war, which was finally ready to assume an significant place in the world community, independent of Great Britain.
As a somber footnote, S/L Ken Boomer, the only Canadian of the war to be credited with a victory in the Aleutians, soon returned to Europe to begin another tour of operations. On October 22, 1944, he failed to return from a sortie to Munich on which he was seen to destroy his last enemy aircraft. Word was subsequently received that Ken Boomer had been killed.
VICTORY OVER KISKA is a tribute to a skilled pilot, a fine Canadian, and to all those who served and those who died in the Aleutian campaign. The painting is in a private collection. An edited version of this article was published in the American magazine AVIATION HISTORY in the "Art of Flight" section of the Jan. 1995 issue. The image is also on the cover of the book noted below. VICTORY OVER KISKA
BOOK: WAR ON OUR DOORSTEP..The Unknown Campaign on North America's Coast
- limited edition fine-art print available in catalog
Cover art: VICTORY OVER KISKA by Rich Thistle
"Brendan Coyle has done a magnificent job in this comprehensive review of the war on the West Coast. No other single volume has so neatly tied together the myriad stories of how the war affected people in British Columbia, California Oregon, Washington, and Alaska." ~ Jim Delgado, Executive Director, Vancouver Maritime Museum
Published by Heritage House, Canada