Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Jack Kotlovker

I can not emphasize enough to everyone that you just never know who has family members who served in   the Aleutian Islands in WW2.  About a month ago, I was in my daughters fourth grade classroom discussing the blog with the greatest teacher on earth, Mr. Leduc (he made me say that), when the maintenance man who had entered only a few minutes earlier, overheard us and suddenly exclaimed "My Father was stationed in Alaska in WW2!"  What an incredible coincidence or another case of, as I like to call it, Divine timing.  That started an enthusiastic discussion about the the war in Alaska.  Like so many other family members, Marc knew very little about his fathers WW2 history and even less about what went on way up north. But what he did know, he was kind enough to share with me.  

Jack Kotlovker in Kodiak, Alaska, 1942

Sgt. Jack Kotlovker was born on August 20th, 1922 in Asbury Park, New Jersey.    He entered the army in 1942 in the area of telecommunications, and morse code.  He served until 1945.   After the war, 1950, he opened a fabric and sewing machine store which is still in business today and is run by his daughter. During his time in there, Jack fell in love with Alaska and all of it's beauty and one day dreamed of going back.  He even became attached to an Alaskan dog, a cocker spaniel he named Pogie, which he brought home with him to Lakewood, New Jersey where he lived 15 happy years as the Kotlovker family dog.  Sgt. Kotlovker passed away in 1994.  
Jack was an avid leisure photographer and had many photos of his war time in Alaska. Below are just a small sampling of what his life was like in Alaska in WW2. More to come...

I have such gratitude to be in this position of honor, to tell the stories for the family members of these brave war veterans.  Thank you Marc for speaking up and sharing with me, a piece of your family's history.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Made the ABC-7 News!

Today my grandfather is looking down on me with pride. I conquered my fear of being on camera and completed, quite painlessly, the first of many (I hope) television interviews regarding the site. Thanks to John McQuiston of ABC-7 News for giving me the opportunity to share my story with so many. This aired today at 5:00pm and already John has received a phone call from a lady, Dorothy, who requested to speak with me because her late husband, Everette fought in Alaska and she has his story to share. How wonderful.

P-40 In My Backyard

Many days on this journey so far have been filled the most wonderful and amazing encounters. My belief has always been that every person you meet has a reason for crossing your path, divine timing, I like to call it.  And this journey has, time and time again, been a prime example of that.

For weeks, I had been thinking about and had begun researching where I can find an actual, rebuilt P-40, like the one my grandfather, and so many other brave fighter pilots flew.  Well ask and you shall receive.   Here, in my neck of the woods was a man, Chris Kirchner, who was in the final process of rebuilding a WW2, P-40 Warhawk.  But this P-40 was particularly special because it was a WW2 wreck that had been recovered from the Aleutian Islands.  Yes, just two hours North is a plane that my grandfather would have flown 70 years ago.  Without hesitation, I immediately contacted Chris to see if he would allow me to come and see it.

Chris and his wife Gail, both pilots, were thrilled at my phone call and were happy to receive us at their Ocala Air Ranch, an aviation community where all houses come with their own hangers.  

Greeted with a 14th AAF Col. Chennault Flying Tiger.

Backside of the hanger. In view- his rebuilt T-6 (Harvard) WW2 trainer,
 which my grandfather also flew.

The runway.  Mini Harvard wind sock.

Chris bought the wreck in 2004 and began the process of rebuilding the veteran P-40 back to it's rugged glory.    Prior to seeing action in the Aleutians, the plane had seen action in China as well.  Ultimately, the plane was flown by Capt. Ernest  Hickox of the 11th AF, 343 Fighter Group.  He was escorting a Navy amphibian to an earlier crash site when he went down near Unalaska Island on July 25th, 1945.

Capt. Ernst Hickox, 11th AAF, 343 Fighter Group

Chris and Gail have had the pleasure of connecting with the daughter of the fallen pilot, Kay Henning, who supplied them with the photo above.  Kay found them while doing an internet search of her father, when the article about Chris's work, repairing Captain Hickox salvaged Warhawk, came up.  That to me was the most spectacular part of the story, that the family of the lost pilot from 70 years ago could now go and see the plane that he flew!  In a sense,  it is a way that part of him can still live on in that plane.  I am not sure if Chris is truly aware of this gift he has provided the family with but I do know that he is grateful to know them.

My daughter Alexandra, in the cockpit of the Curtiss P-40

Chris and Alexandra

Chris Kirchner standing next to his near completed P-40 Warhawk

Chris is nearing completion of the P-40. I just saw updated pictures on his site.  He now has the nose and prop on.  It is looking good.  Not sure  how many of you know this but the cost to undertake such a project is immense. Once completed, this piece of history will be for sale, so ears open out there.  It would be nice to find this P-40 with a story a permanent home.  

Papa in one of his planes- Kittyhawk (P-40) AK-905
 Elmendorf Field, Anchorage, Alaska June 1942

Boy, what I would do to see my grandfathers plane,"Snookums"a pet name for his wife Eileen. So the search for his plane- P-40K1 #42-45004, the one that he flew out of Adak to Kiska, begins now...but of course. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Update F/O Louis Cochand

An interesting thing about how the story of F/O Louis Cochand unfolded was by the way in which it came to me.  About a month after communicating with the daughter of RCAF S/L Hal Gooding, who flew with my grandfather in the 111(F), I received an email from a man named Chas Cochand.  

He had sent along to me an article on Louis, but the body of the email was lightly worded, saying only that he had contacted the BBC to get more information on his part in the war. Although I did not know much about him, I did remember reading about the officer and that he was awarded an American Air Medal during the Aleutian Campaign, as well as, that he was in the other RCAF squadron that was not my grandfathers.  So after a little digging, I replied with an email that contained a few additional informative links regarding F/O Cochand and his role in the Aleutian Campaign. 

F/O Louis Cochand, RCAF 14(F) Squadron

He was most grateful for the response.  What I then found out is what makes this journey all the worth while. Chas was the son of F/O Louis Cochand and he had been looking for information on his father's involvement in WW2 outside of Europe.  He had contacted the BBC searching for that but they were not able to help him.   To think that I was able to provide for him, the invaluable pieces to the missing link of their families loved one fills me with a sense of great pride and joy.  It is such an honor to be in this position.  

And yes, I may say that often,  but by golly, I mean it.  

Sunday, October 14, 2012

RCAF F/O Louis Cochand

Along with the RCAF 111(F) Squadron, the RCAF 14(F) Squadron arrived in Umnak, AK in March, 1943 to aide in the war in Alaska.  Louis Cochand was part of that 15 strong P-40 Kittyhawk squadron. 

Flying Officer Cochand was  from St. Marguerite, Quebec.  He joined the RCAF as a fighter pilot at the age of 23 and was stationed with the 14(F) squadron bound for Alaska to help the Americans defend the continent.   His squadron recorded 14 missions comprising a total of 88 individual sorties during the campaign.  He was one of seven men in 14(F) to be awarded an American Air Medal by Major General N.E. Ladd. 

F/O Louis Cochand

"These officers, as pilots of fighter planes, participated in numerous attacks on enemy installations in the Aleutian Islands which were pressed home despite very heavy anti-aircraft fire and often under adverse weather conditions. All flights were made from advanced bases and required skillful airmenship for a successful execution of the mission.  The courage and devotion to duty of these officers reflect great credit upon themselves and the organization they are a part of. "
AAF, Major General Ladd

After the Aleutian campaign the squadron was re-designated as the 442(F) Squadron and headed off to fly spitfires in England and then Mustangs right into the heartland of Germany. For his efforts there he was decorated with the distinguished Croix de Guerre.  The recommendation said:

"This officer has completed 158 sorties over enemy territory, many of them against heavily defended ground targets, and he at all times has proven himself as exceptionally keen and aggressive.  On August 18th and 19th, Flying Officer Cochand destroyed and damaged 21 enemy vehicles bringing his total to 62 destroyed or damaged enemy vehicles since the invasion of the Continent.  The officer's courageous and determined low level attacks in the face of very intense flak have obtained many fine results and he has gained the greatest admiration and respect of all."

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Unalaska Plane Wrecks- Mission of Honor

On July 16th, 1942,  12 RCAF Kittyhawks, 21 pilots and 60 ground crew were sent to the most forward base at that time on Umnak Island in the Aleutian chain.  They were to relieve the equivalent number of of personnel in the AAF No.11 Pursuit Squadron.  Their route of 1100 miles, consisted of fueling stops in Naknek and Cold Bay.  It was during the last leg of their trip that the first major RCAF air tragedy took place.  En route from Cold Bay to Umnak, 7 Kittyhawk pilots, and 3-DC-3 US Transports (carrying 9 more RCAF pilots and 60 ground crew), encountered the famous and lethal Aleutian fog somewhere over Dutch Harbor.   The squadrons Wing Commander, G. McGregor O.B.E. D.F.C., ordered the planes to turn around. Tragically, due to the sketchy at best, radio function, the others were not able to understand the orders and did not change course4 Kittyhawks crashed into a cliff on Unalaska Island and 1 into the Bering Sea. 

Miraculously for our family, just one day earlier, my grandfather, while flying with that formation of seven, landed for their first refueling stop in NakNek, and crash landing his P-40, AK875.  The plane was not serviceable and was forced to become a passenger on board one of the DC-3's, piloted by AAF Captain Fillmore, for the rest of the journey.   Fortunately, two of the three DC-3's made it safely to Umnak along with P/O O.J. Eskil, and W/C McGregor and their ships.

Lost that day were RCAF pilots S/L J.W. Kerwin, P/O Dean Whiteside, F/S "Pop" Lennon, F/S Gordon Baird and Sgt. Stan Maxmen. Plus on board the downed transport: P/O Bennetto, F/S Di Persio, Sgt. Kerr, P/O Ollen-Bittle, an observer-Mr. Price, Lt. Aircraftmen Redner, Warrant Officer Williamson and Leading Aircraftman Wright. 

L-R Pilots-  Sgt. Stan Maxmen,  F/S Gordon Baird, S/L J.W.  Kerwin, F/S  "Pop" Lennon, P/O Dean Whiteside

 Below is a section taken from the official flight report of surviving pilot P/O Eskil:  

"After rounding Makushin Cape (Unalaska Island) and altering course to roughly follow the shoreline - weather became progressively worse. Fog banks and showers continually appeared to the north.  We flew through several areas about 50 feet above the water.  I could hear F/L Kerwin talking to Captain Fillmore (in an American C-53 support aircraft) intermittently but they seemed to be making very poor radio contact. I could not tune either one clearly.... The air seemed clear near the water but visibility was very poor - much impeded by large areas of dense fog and showers.  We were forced very near the water.

... we were forced right along the shore by a dense fogbank about 200 yards offshore.  We were forced  to about 20 feet from the water and I estimate the ceiling at about 50 feet. We were flying with the Wing Commander leading a "VIC" consisting of F/L Kerwin's section (with Maxmen) and Pilot Officer Whiteside's section (with Lennon) on the starboard of the Wing Commander, and my section (with Baird) off the port. Sections were about three to four spans apart and ships in the sections slightly closer.  F/Sgt Baird had overtaken me and slid over abruptly, forcing me to pass through his slipstream.  We were very low and I dropped back slightly while righting my ship. As I was moving up to form on F/Sgt Baird's port wing, the Wing Commander ordered a turn to port.  I was trailing the Wing Commander and Baird by 100 yards when the turn began.  I was too low to drop into proper position for a turn and thus lost sight of all the other ships when I began my turn.  I turned as tight and as low as I dared but sighted an aircraft well ahead of me cutting me off.  Afraid that I would fly into the green beneath me continuing my turn and increasing throttle to about 37 Hg.  My gyro horizon was out so I had trouble in maintaining steep climb and turn.  At about 500 feet freezing mist appeared on my windscreen so I undid my harness and removed my oxygen and radio connections - intending to bail out if I stopped gaining height because of icing.  At 4800 ft I broke through between cloud layers, continued to turn and plugged in my radio... (After being momentarily disoriented by cloud and fog and making a couple of course adjustments) In a few minutes I ended up in what turned out to be the only hole in the area and sighted the Umnak air base... I phoned Captain Fillmore to clear me so I would not be fired on and proceeded to land..."

Excerpt taken from Bill Eull's site, who has done some outstanding research about this squadron, for more information on the crash, check out

To this day the P-40 Kittyhawk wrecks still remain at Manning Point on Unalaska Island.  

A friend of Jeff Dickrell's atop the downed P-40 Kittyhawk (1999) 

I first saw Jeff Dickrell's photo (above) in the book War On Our Doorstop by Brendan Coyle. Jeff is a Dutch Harbor resident who had voyaged to the sites of the downed planes about a decade ago.  It inspired me to make the journey as well, but how?  After many emails, I was able to make contact with Jeff to get information on where exactly Manning Point is (many locals did not even know) and how to get there.  He was very helpful in sharing his experience and wisdom with me. Although, as he advised me- it may be a challenge, this venture has now moved to my 'must do' list,  a 'must do' so that I can pay honor to my grandfathers confidants for that very well could have been him on the mountainside that tragic day. 

Clearly able to find amusement of my pure naivety to the enormity and rawness of Alaskan geography, I thought this journey to see the wrecks would consist of a drive and a hike. Alaskans reading this blog, you are permitted to laugh out loud at that sentence for as I now read it back to myself, I can't help but chuckle at my own unknowingness.  Jeff politely and delicately let me know that this was no "little voyage".   That the trip would consist of a 10 hour one way (in perfect weather) small boat in BIG water cruise that travels along the Northern edge of the island which exposes one to the open water in three directions.  If the weather was perfect one could get out there without too much of a problem….but it is rare that the weather co-operates with a person’s time here. After you arrive, you have to hike, 1200ft above sea level, to get to the planes.  And I am assuming camp overnight or if weather is poor several nights. There are few charters to get there and the cost is in the thousands.  

Many well meaning and kind Alaskans have advised me of how difficult and expensive traveling around Alaska can be.  I appreciate their brute honesty, I need that considering my ignorance of the land.  And as I continue with my research, I can see that now, but does it discourage me, nope.  Not much does when I am determined to do something. My parents can attest to that!

And so the research continues on how I can make this happen.  Any willing volunteers or connections?  In my mind, the ideal situation would be for an adventure seeking Alaskan to take me under their experienced wing and who would accompany me on this mission of honor. They would also own a boat suited for big Bering Sea waters and would be an exceptional photographer.... smile.  YES, I dream BIG. 

Here is a picture of two of the pilots lost that day to the Aleutian weather.  Photos were in my grandfather's collection along with thier obituaries from the local paper.  F/S Baird and his wife were only married 8 months earlier.  The other fellow in pictured in the hammock, P/O Ed Merkely, did not survive the war either.  He died over Northumberland, England in his Spitfire, November of 1943.   

L-R P/O Robert W. Lynch, his wife Eileen (Nana), Mrs. Mona Baird and F/S Gordon Baird. 1941
L-R: P/O Ed Merkley and F/S Robert "Pop" Lennon.  1941