Where do I possibly start with a trip that held so much sentiment as this one did for me? At the beginning? Nah... Way to predictable.
View from atop a hill over looking Umnak's two WW2, still functioning, airstrips.
I had held it together until this point. The second last stop of the trip- Umnak Island, Alaska; the most forward base at the onset of the campaign. The first one my grandfather and his squadron were stationed at. Fresh out of flight school- his first combat posting. He was only 24. This unknown mountainous territory totally new to him. To all of them. Even for a modern day pilot who has all the help of GPS, radio systems, satellite, you name it.. still find it hard to fly in Alaska. Imagine a group of green pilots making their way, several thousand miles through the clouds and fog, battling the unpredictable winds, loosing five along the way; nearly more, nearly yourself. Only to arrive at a barren, treeless, village-less land. What must they have been thinking? What Godforsaken place were they?
I had left the group momentarily, climbed alone to the top of this hill over looking both airstrips where my grandfather used to take off and land his P-40 back in summer of 1942. I sat there alone and soaked in the enormity of the moment. I needed to. The four year journey, countless hours, tons of tears, incredible memories and unforgettable people- I had done it. Mission compete. Now what? You see, Umnak was the last stop I needed to complete my journey to visit every base my grandfather was stationed on while in Alaska. And the funny thing is, by no way does this seem like an ending. It actually feels like the beginning of what is yet to come. This blog that started out as a tribute to my grandfather has captured my heart and has morphed into an educational and historical storyboard that brings awareness to those who sacrificed so much of their lives and homeland so we could live comfortably now. So what is next? To be truthful, I am not entirely sure. But I am sure willing to find out. And so it begins...again.
My Papa, recieiving his wings as a Pilot Officer, October 24th, 1941, just four months after starting flight school.
And as I was atop of that hill, the only word that came to mind is blessings. Immeasurable blessing- and it is thanks to them. And so I write...
How fitting as I finish the last post of my first trip to Anchorage on the first day of my second trip....
I left Kodiak the next morning with contentment and excited to one day return, for there are still things left to be done there. As I sat in the airport I wondered where that comforting twelve year old, Kya, was? And who was going to distract me on the flight back to Anchorage? It was looking as though I would have to put on my big girl pants and just suck it up. Well, so I thought... Entering the plane was this ruggedly handsome young man who requested to sit beside me. Apparently, he had been sitting behind me on the way over to Kodiak. Happily, he entertained me the entire trip, but mostly by randomly shrieking "Oh no!", "What is that noise?' and "Uh Oh...". Obviously, he had noticed my previous apprehension and found great pleasure in making light of it. Good thing I don't take things too seriously. It made me smile.
Before I knew it, we were on the tarmac in Anchorage and I was on my way to find my future shipmate Allison. As shipmates go, Allison is top notch. She is always smiling and positive, no fear, politely says what she thinks, is organized and well informed. My kind of human. And while I was busy exploring the history of WW2 in Kodiak, Allison was successfully scouting out Merrill Field, Anchorage's first airport, now commercial airport, for of one of only three airworthy WW2 Japanese Zero fighter planes that temporarily, call this Alaskan air field home.
Looking from my hotel room towards Merrill Field.
There, lined up along the taxi way were two Harvards, one decked out in a showy Canadian color scheme and the other as an American Texan T-6, one of Alaska Airlines very first planes, and an infamous Japanese Zero. We walked circles around the planes drooling.. or maybe that was just me. Probably just me. I couldn't help it, these old warbirds were sitting pretty in pristine condition and proudly basking in the Alaskan sun. After several laps, we finally ventured into the open hanger, where Mike, the flight mechanic, was working on the brakes of yet another Texan. We introduced ourselves and after giving him our spiel, he insisted we go inside the Alaska Airlines plane which we appreciated but didn't dare follow through on. I could just imagine, with my luck- I 'd open the door to this antique plane, and it would rip off in the wind because I did not tie it down or latch it properly. And I was not about to chance destroying such a masterpiece. Instead we returned to the taxi way, looked inside every possible window and continued counting our laps. Mike sensing our uneasiness eventually came to check on us, opened the plane up and insisted we get inside. That Mike- he really rocks.
My opinion of Mike skyrocketed when he asked us if we wanted to climb into the cockpit of the Zero. Hell ya I want to get inside the Zero! Hardly able to control my excitement, I tried to listen carefully to his instructions as to the most graceful way to enter was. Whatever.. who knows what he said.. step on the wing, hold here.. pull yourself up... Before I knew it, I was in, sitting inside a notorious, once almost unbeatable Zero. The same plane that my grandfather would have been dueling with. A tremendous privilege!
Mitsubishi A6M Zero at Merrill Field.
Early in WW2 the Zero, which was operated by the Imperial Japanese Navy, was nearly invincible. In one of it's first appearances it shot down ninety nine planes while sustaining not a single loss of their own. It left the air force world puzzled. This plane, that seemed to appear out of nowhere, was lighter, faster, more nimble and had a longer range than any other fighter ever seen before. It was the cream of the crop and in the beginning of the war it controlled the skies. That is until we could come up with a strategy to take it down which started to take shape by 1943.
There several factors that contributed to the fall of the infamous Zero. One of major contributors was the recovery of a downed enemy fighter that crashed in Akutan, Alaska on June 4th, 1942 flown by Tadayshi Koga. The young 19 year old pilot could not recover from the ground fire that severed his main oil line and headed for the safety of what the Japanese had designated as an emergency landing area. This emergency air strip turned out be be a bog and as the plane attempted to land, it flipped over, killed the pilot and was left virtually undamaged.
Under two weeks later, the Navy went back to recover the downed enemy aircraft loading it onto the USS St. Mihiel for San Diego where U.S. Army engineers would repair it back to air worthiness. By September 20th, Lieutenant Commander Eddie R. Sanders took the Akutan Zero for it's first of twenty four test flights. From these tests flights they were able to understand the enemy's strengths and weaknesses and devise an effective air strategy to gain control of the skies once again.
Of course, another valuable source of information was how the allied pilot himself encountered it in the sky. Below is R.C.A.F. Squadron Leader, Kenneth Boomer's debriefing report of how he encountered and shot down a Japanese Rufe over Kiska Harbor on the very first fighter escorted bomber mission over Kiska. For this mission, he plus three other Canadian Airmen were awarded the American Air Medal, my grandfather included. One other Japanese plane was said to be shot down that day by Major Jack Chenneault, son of Major General Claire Chenneault.
AMENDMENT TO DAILY DIARY
The following is the Japanese Zero Fighter
Aircraft tactics. The following
information was gained from an encounter, which took place outside Kiska
Harbour in the Aleutians on the morning of September 25th, 1942.
It is recommended that this information be
circulated and forwarded to Canadian Squadrons in any active theaters in which
they are liable to encounter this type of opposition.
1.When the enemy aircraft were first observed
they were flying at approximately 1000ft, in a loose echelon formation. It would appear they were attempting to
impress their maneuverability on the opposition as they repeatedly did slow
rolls in series while approaching. When
within striking distance they separated slightly although still maintaining
section formation, they wing man apparently acting as cover for the
leader. Unfortunately, the tow became
separated and further section tactics could not be observed. The leader dove straight at the leading P-40
seemingly attempting to bluff him into turning.
When this failed, and at approximately 200 yards he suddenly pulled
straight up, half rolled and came down almost on the ail of the P-40. At the
end of his pull out he was in a straight and level position and it was
at that point that he was hit from two different angles and consequently went
into a steep dive and crashed into the sea.
The pilot jumped out as approximately 100 feet, but was wearing no
parachute of any kind.
2.After that half roll attack the enemy
aircraft appeared to be firing with both heavy and light type armament,
probably 20mm and .25 or .303 machine guns although the number of guns firing
could not be ascertained. The machine
appeared to go to pieces easily with the return fire, indicating either light
construction or very weak armour plating.
3.The second zero attempted either to climb
away from an attack, or else into a favourable position. His rate of climb was exceedingly fast and of
a very steep angle, the aircraft appeared to be literally “hanging on it’s
prop.” At the end of his climb he also
half rolled and after one misjudged attack on a P-40 disappeared from the
a)The zero fighter is extremely manourverable
and can probably turn easily inside a P-40.
b)It has an exceedingly fast rate of climb and
a very short pull out from a half roll.
c)Armament appears to be 20mm cannon plus light
machine gun of an undetermined calibre.
d)The aircraft appears to be either of light
construction of have little or no armour plating.
e)From a consolidated report of Japanese
tactics in this theatre, these tactics appear to be standard and almost
exclusively used. The pilots appear to
be both extremely daring and very well skilled in the handling of their
aircraft. Signed: (K.A. Boomer), Squadron
Leader, Officer Commanding, No. 111 (f ) Squadron, RCAF Fort Glenn, Alaska
Excerpt taken from the Royal Canadian Air Force Operations
C-12242, 111 (F)
My Grandfather, RCAF P/O Robert W. Lynch & P/O Jim Gohl on Adak just after their return from the above mission, September 25th, 1942
In a matter of hours I will be boarding a plane for Adak, Alaska to begin my 2016 WW2 Historical tour through the Aleutian Islands to honor the noble service, not only of my grandfather, but for all who served there to ensure our country was safe. Hard to believe the day is finally here. I hope I do them proud.