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 www.rcaf111fsquadron.com.

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


  1. Fascinating and totally new to me. A terrific accoun!
    Walt Boyne

    1. Walter, thanks for stopping by to read a little bit of some widely unknown, yet important history! I am glad you learned something new. Keep checking back as I try to add stories every couple of weeks!