The World War II Aleutian Islands campaign (June 1942–August 1943) pitted the U.S. Navy against the Japanese on a remote chain of rugged islands in the Alaska Territory. These snow-clogged islands were considered strategically important and the push to wrest control of them from the entrenched Japanese took more than a year. Brian Garfield chronicled this “forgotten battle” vividly in his 1969 book The Thousand-Mile War. A small section of that book details the actions of my uncle Leland Lafroy Davis.
Navy Ensign Davis and his crew flew as part of a squadron of PBY-5A Catalinas, a plane known awkwardly as a flying boat because it could land on water. Hardly fighter planes, the Catalinas were designed to transport men and equipment; they nevertheless proved to be valuable assets in the siege of Kiska Harbor. In Garfield’s words, the Catalinas looked like “a brood of huge chicks” as they went into action supplying fuel, oil, parts, ammunition, and bombs to the men on the ground and in the air.
On June 10, 1942, Ensign Davis sighted a Japanese super-submarine off Tanaga and sent down bombs and depth-charges. It was a great start to the squadron’s first day of action, but Davis merely damaged the sub, which turned out to be an I-boat sent to pick up the pilot of a downed Japanese Zero. Returning to base, Davis and the other pilots heard their orders for the next day: Attack Kiska Harbor with everything they had regardless of the weather.
As Garfield points out, the Catalina was never designed for intensive attack runs. It was big and slow and easily sighted from the ground. It was poorly-armored, had primitive bombsights, and “maneuvered like a hippopotamus.” Still, the squadron had its orders.
The next day, following the First Air Force’s bombing attack on Kiska Harbor, the Catalinas set off. Heavily loaded and with poor visibility, the planes began to show the strain of carrying bombs and flying low in arctic temperatures. The crews heard the brittle airframes crack and pop and they watched warily as the wings flapped like a bird’s.
After his first bombing run, Ensign Davis returned with a damaged plane to reload and refuel. He also brought back a dead crewman. Ready to go, he flew back out and joined the blitz, which would continue for the next three days. From the ground, the Japanese kept up a steady steam of fire, watching the low hanging clouds for lumbering Catalinas to descend, easy targets. American crews on the ground and in the air worked for as long as seventy-two hours straight to keep up the siege. “Before long,” writes Garfield, “the patrol wing’s crew had their own name for Kiska, ‘PBY Elimination Center.’”
During one of the raids, Ensign Davis encountered machine gun fire and flak that almost destroyed his plane. He made it back to base, landed on the water, and watched his plane sink in the bay. He found another plane and his crew went out again. Davis and his crew crippled an enemy sub and attempted a dive-bomb attack on a flak crew at Kiska Harbor. The strain of the dive was too much for the plane and Davis and his crew crashed with a loss of all hands on June 14, 1942. Ensign Davis, along with the others, was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Navy Cross.
In 2002, my aunt—Davis’s sister—received a phone call that she thought was a prank. A genealogist was calling to say that Davis’s remains had been found. It seems a Canadian biologist was studying marine rats near Kiska Volcano when he discovered an inflatable life vest, a parachute, two parachute packs, leather boots, a sweater and fragments of boots. In 2003, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command excavated the crash site, unearthing aircraft debris and the remains of seven servicemen. Ensign Davis and his crew crashed not in Kiska Harbor as his family had been told but rather on land.
Today, Elwin Alford, Albert J. Gyorfi, John H. Hathaway, Dee Hall, Robert F. Keller, Robert A. Smith, and Leland L. Davis are interred at Arlington National Cemetery, under a common marker that notes “Aircraft Accident—Alaska, June 14, 1942.”