75 years ago today marks the first joint U.S. and Canadian Operation of the Aleutian Campaign with the first P-40 escorted bomber mission successfully completed. In actuality, this mission was schedule to take place 22 September, only escorting 12 B-24s with 20 P-40's slated to come in from behind and 15 P-39's sent forward. Encountering rain squalls and diminishing ceilings around the half way point, Colonel Eareckson, leading the bombers, scrubbed the mission and turned back unbeknownst to the P-40's who continued flying at under 200 foot ceilings and who then met head on, the returning P-39s! As Major Al Aiken, 18th Fighter Squadron leading the flight of P-40s said,
"It was the maddest scramble for safe airspace I ever
experienced in my life."
He managed to get his flight turned around and up through the clouds avoiding the mess down below only to discover that Lt. John A. Bernston was missing. He had gotten disoriented and spun into the water. Thus, he became the first casualty of the 18th FS in the Aleutian Campaign.
Below is an official 'List of Officers assigned for Mission.' Dated 18 September, 1942
|Because I spent so much time with Lt. Col. Bob Brocklehurst, (18th FS), and
have done so much research, I feel like I know half the people on here:
Gayle, Rex Rynerson, Al Aiken, Saxhaug...
Bob would talk about these people and tell funny stories... And of course,
the Canadian pilots, some of the families of these gentlemen
I am now in contact with.
The morning of 25 September, 1942 Major Jack Chennault, (eldest son of of Claire Chennault) would lead 8 P-40's from the 11th, 7 from the 18th and 4 from 111(F), RCAF, as escort to eleven B-24 bombers, lead by Col. Earekson against Kiksa. Also supported by Major Miller, Commander of the 42nd FS, and his group of 11 P-39s. The mission was a success, with the fighters suppressing the anti-aircraft fire so the bombers could get into position to hit different shipping positions and shore facilities. Several Rufes (A6M Zeros on floats) came up to greet the fighters, one was hot on the tail of Lt. Al Akien in his P-40 over Kiska Harbor when Canadian Squadron leader Kenneth Boomer shot the Rufe down. The second one was downed by American lead, Jack Chennault. The entire mission took 3:35 hours. To read S/L Boomer's debriefing on his encounter with the zero, you can see that in a previous post titled "One Hell of a Layover".
Sadly, Major Miller would be killed several days later on further operations over Kiska when he flew to aid of one of the fighters that was was being attacked. Another air battle ensued but this time, he did not come out on top and his P-39 when down in the water. Al Aiken, who was almost lost during the mission on the 25th recalls,
"I followed him in a more loose formation. I couldn't call him, I couldn't say anything,
I was just helpless as far as he was concerned to communicate. So I just sat there
and watched him helplessly fly right into the water. I feel to this day that he was
either dead since I couldn't see any damage on his airplane, or he could have been
hit and unconscious... I just don't know, but the airplane went in and I never saw it again.
It didn't skip or anything, just went in like a bullet... When I got back to Adak,
I learned that it was Major Miller. "
You can see both of them noted here in my grandfathers logbook.
I love that he logged downed pilots names in his book, there are other examples as well. This was very real for them, these were their buddies. They all knew at any moment, it could be them next. Now, as we honor their legacies, it is important to remember, as Lt. Col (RET) Bob Brocklehurst put it, "... that this was a war and it wasn't all parades and beautiful flying in the skies."
Thank you Lt. John A. Berntson and Major Wilbur G. Miller for you service and sacrifice to our countries.