WWII wreck part of new national monument

Bomber is visible reminder of treacherous Aleutian campaign

December 28, 2008 

In World War II, a year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a Consolidated B-24D Liberator was on a weather-reporting mission in the Aleutians when the weather it was tracking went from bad to beastly as five separate fronts closed in.

The notorious Aleutian climate had been grounding warplanes more than upper management liked, according to Louis Blau, 93, who co-piloted the bomber that day. So some brass came from Washington intending to get to the bottom of it.

"This general had the idea that the weather was not that bad," Blau recalled by phone from his home in Los Angeles. "I suggested we take him out on the weather ship that morning and just show him what it was like.

"The weather happened to be terrible that day, and we had nothing to do with it."

The base on Adak was socked in tight when the bomber returned from the mission. Pilot John Andrews and co-pilot Blau flew up and down the chain, searching for another place to land.

Nothing.

"We couldn't see anything," Blau said. "All this time the general was standing behind us observing the weather -- without comment."

As the plane droned on, the situation became desperate. They were running out of light, fuel and options. They had to put down somewhere.

Further down the chain on Atka Island, through a hole in the soup, they glimpsed a narrow and sketchy opening at Bechevin Bay. The pilots called the crew up to the flight deck, the strongest part of the plane, told them to lie down and cover themselves with whatever they could find for cushioning.

As they circled down into that hole in the fog, what they thought was a beach turned out to be a bluff. Too late. They were committed.

Flying low over icy waters, barely able to see what lay ahead, they aimed for the bench above the bluff and braced themselves. The belly of the bomber hit frozen tundra in an explosive racket and skidded several hundred feet. Then silence.

It's been 66 years but Blau still remembers that silence. It was a beautiful thing.

All 11 on board survived that crash landing on Dec. 9, 1942. And the bomber, its nose buckled and fuselage barely attached, is still there.

"It's a great story," Blau said. "It's a great story because I'm here to tell it.

"We were very, very lucky."

SAVING THE PAST

The wreckage of that B-24, on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979, gained a new layer of protection earlier this month. It's one of nine sites to become part of the new Valor of the Pacific National Monument created by the Bush Administration in time for the 67th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

In addition to the bomber, there are two other Valor designations in the Aleutians -- the Japanese occupation sites on Kiska Island and battlegrounds on Attu. There are also five in Hawaii and one in California -- the Tule Lake Segregation Center where Japanese-Americans were interned during the war.

It's probably safe to say more caribou than people have visited the B-24 crash site. But those who have seen it, even just from the air, have to wonder how it got there.

"I've always been impressed by this story," said Ted Spencer, founder of the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum, who's among the few to have visited the site. "It's dark, you can't see, you're running out of fuel, the bases are socked in. To find this little tiny spot and plop the plane down in there. ...

"There are so many stories where planes just disappeared; they went into the water. In this case, they lived to be old men."

RARE BIRD

Although there are earlier and later models out there, the Atka B-24D is one of only three of its kind left in the world, according to Spencer. One is on display at the U.S. Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio. The other, an assortment of its parts anyway, sits on a military base in Libya.

That one, the "Lady Be Good," disappeared on its way home from a mission over Italy in 1943. It wasn't until 15 years later that an oil exploration team discovered its wreckage from the air deep in the Libyan Desert.

A recovery crew returned the following year to find arrow markers still in place pointing the way for the rescue team that never came, markers made of boots and parachutes weighed down with stones. With midday temperatures reaching 130 degrees, the survivors tried to walk back to base, not knowing they had 400 miles to go.

One of them kept a brief diary of their final days:

"Saturday, Apr. 10, 1943

Still having prayer meetings for help. No sign of anything, a couple of birds; good wind from N. -Really weak now, cant walk pains all over, still all want to die. Nites very cold no sleep."

The bodies of eight of the nine crew members were recovered in 1960. Nearly 35 years later, the Libyan government brought in the remains of the plane, which by then was stripped to the frame by salvagers and souvenir hunters.

Spencer first heard of the Atka B-24 in 1976, when he got his hands on a copy of an Army Corps of Engineers' WWII clean-up report that mentioned a bomber at Bechevin Bay in good condition.

"So I got a hankering to go there," he said.

He volunteered to do a historic survey as part of the effort to get the plane listed on the national register in 1979.

In 1982, on the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Dutch Harbor, the Alaskan Historical Aircraft Society presented an exhibit on the Aleutian Campaign at the Anchorage museum. And the strangest thing happened.

Spencer was watching people walking through it when he noticed a woman from a tour group stop in front of a photo of the bomber.

"She pointed to the picture and said, 'That was my brother's plane.' "

That's how Spencer found the pilot, John Andrews, who was alive and well in Massachusetts. Andrews was on a business trip to Indonesia and stopping in Anchorage on his flight home.

They met up and Andrews regaled Spencer for hours with stories of flying in the Aleutians. Andrews had kept in touch with Blau. Spencer arranged for an Aleutian reunion the following year.

In 1983, the three of them returned with a film crew as part of a documentary Spencer was making called "The Forgotten Front: Veterans Remember."

Space was limited so Blau and his wife took a commercial flight to Adak. Spencer, Andrews and the film crew landed in Bechevin Bay in a Grumman Widgeon.

It was a day as rare as the bomber itself.

"There were no clouds, no wind and it was 70 degrees," Spencer said. "A pilot who'd been flying out there 30 years said he'd never seen Atka from one end to the other until that day. It was almost providence we got that kind of weather."

On the beach at Bechevin Bay, Andrews climbed out of the Widgeon, lit up a cigarette then walked the quarter mile up to the crash site.

"You could tell it had an impact, coming back to the bones of that experience," Spencer said. "They were all facing their maker that day and he pulled them out of it."

The plan was to return the next day with Blau to do more filming. But by then the Aleutian weather was back to its old ways. It pounced and pinned them down for days, until they ran out of time.

LIFT IT OR LEAVE IT?

Debbie Corbett, regional archeologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees these historical Aleutian areas, said the sites chosen for new national monument designation will help illustrate the overall story of the war in the Aleutians. And for pushing 70 years of exposure to the elements, she thinks the Atka B-24 is in relatively good shape.

Spencer, who'd like more than anything to see the plane brought in and restored, doesn't agree.

"It's really beginning to suffer," he said.

The muskeg is slowly swallowing the wreck. High winds have blown away parts and pieces. And then there are the souvenir hunters.

The late Kevin Bell, captain of the 120-foot Fish and Wildlife research vessel, the Tiglax, visited the crash site a couple of years ago and sent Spencer a series of photographs documenting its condition.

"I was shocked at the amount of looting that had taken place on the airplane," Spencer said. "They've chopped away the trailing edge of both wings. The propeller blade was extracted from one of (the) propeller hubs. Somebody also chopped off the left wing tip with a hatchet."

There's more, but you get the picture.

"Over the years I've watched this plane, there have been a number of attempts by people to salvage it," Spencer said. "There are a lot of dreamers out there in the war bird business. But it's a huge task dismantling it, taking (it) out, reassembling it, restoring it. It's a gigantic project that takes a lot of vision and a lot of money."

In the meantime, he's hopeful this new Valor of the Pacific National Monument designation will help protect the aging bomber.

"Even though it's been recognized as a historical object for three decades, I don't think any resources have been dedicated to preserving it. This really puts icing on its historical importance and hopefully resulting in some resources and action."

Find Debra McKinney online at adn.com/contact/dmckinney or call 257-4465.

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