The Airmen's Stories - F/O J W Kerwin
John William “Johnny” Kerwin was born in Toronto on 7th May 1918 and passed most of his adolescence there until proceeding to the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario in 1935. He was not at RMC for long as he left the next year before completing his studies, citing financial reasons for his departure.
He next applied for a commission in the Royal Canadian Air Force in November 1937. Kerwin had already obtained a private pilot's license and thus made a particularly attractive pilot applicant. For reasons unknown he did not actually begin his service until early 1939, but this is probably best explained away by military bureaucracy!
Following his initial training, he was awarded his wings on 2nd September 1939, the day after Germany invaded Poland. Posted to No.1 (Fighter) Squadron, RCAF (flying Hurricanes), Kerwin proceeded overseas to England in June 1940. No.1 was the only RCAF fighter squadron engaged during the Battle of Britain (though many Canadian pilots served in other squadrons, notably No. 242 commanded by Douglas Bader). During the battle Kerwin was credited with 3 victories (some sources cite 2 ½) - these were a Dornier 215* on August 31st and a Bf 110 and another Dornier 215 on September 1st. His exploits during the battle are recorded in several books on the topic; he gets a nice mention in “The Splendid Hundred” by Arthur Bishop (p.54):
“Ed Reyno, Bev Christmas and Tommy Little shared in the damage of another bomber, and Otto Peterson also claimed a damaged. But Johnny Kerwin turned in the star performance. In the mass head-on attack, he fired seventy rounds into one of the enemy machines that sent it spinning into the ground. Then he spotted eight Messerschmitt 110s chasing two Hurricanes and gave chase. Singling out the rear German fighter, he fired what was the last of his ammunition into it. At that moment cannon-fire pierced his auxiliary fuel tank causing a fire in the cockpit. Kerwin wasted no time jumping over the side and parachuted into a farmer’s field near Maidstone. Except for hand and face burns he escaped serious injury”
His Hurricane, P3963, came down at Shipbourne, north of Tonbridge, Kent.
Kerwin’s wounds were serious enough to have him posted as non-effective. He was repatriated to Canada where he served as an instructor with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, in Brandon Manitoba. In mid-1942 he was posted to No. 111 (F) squadron flying P-40 Kittyhawks in British Columbia. With the Japanese threat looming in the North-West, this squadron was soon sent up to Alaska to help defend the area along with the American forces already posted there.
The Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands prompted the US Command to request Canadian squadrons moved to forward bases to assist in the defence of the island chain. Newly-promoted to Squadron Leader and C.O. of No. 111 Squadron, Kerwin set off with 6 other Kittyhawks for Umnak Island from their base in Anchorage on 16th July 1942. The Aleutians have the dubious reputation as having some of the most inhospitable weather for flying due to dense fog which can quickly shroud the rugged and mountainous terrain. During the flight, the pilots became lost in dense fog and 5 of them crashed, including Squadron Leader Kerwin. His body was recovered and buried with full military honours at Fort Glenn, Umnak Island. It was later exhumed and reburied at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
A tragic end for a brave pilot, who survived the Battle of Britain, only to die at the hands of the elements.
*It was very common at this time for RAF pilots to identify Dorniers as a model 215, in fact these were rare reconnaisance versions with inline engines. The more numerous bomber version was the radial-engined Dornier 17.
Above photograph courtesy of Virginia M. Walker, Director Fort Richardson & Sitka National Cemeteries (it is due for replacement in May 2009, the new stone will show his correct rank of Squadron leader)
(Above: Kerwin's Canadian Memorial Cross, suspended from a 'sweetheart' badge)
With acknowledgment and thanks to Adam J. Haslett for the majority of the text and all photographs except that of the grave at Fort Richardson.
The following is taken from 'THE ALEUTIAN CAMPAIGN' by Flight Lieutenant F J Hatch, Air Historical Section and published in the RCAF magazine 'Roundel', issues May 1963, Vol. 15, No. 4 and June 1963, Vol. 15, No. 5
THE Aleutian campaign of 1942-43 marks the first time that units of the RCAF served under
American operational command. This alone would make it worthy of our attention but there are,
of course, other reasons for taking a backward glance at this rather obscure campaign which was conducted in an obscure part of the world.
Approximately 500 RCAF personnel served in the Aleutian theatre, 11 of whom received the
United States Air Force Medal, one the OBE, one the DFC, four the AFC and two were
mentioned in despatches. Eight others lie buried in the U.S. cemetery in Kiska, while the names
of four who have no known graves are inscribed on the Commonwealth Air Memorial on Green
Island in Ottawa.
Although such strange-sounding names as Naknek, Umnak, Adak or Amchitka may hold little
meaning for most of us, for the members of the RCAF Aleutian expedition they will
undoubtedly conjure up memories of the worst flying weather in the world, of a war that came in
fits and starts, and of unfulfilled ambitions to meet Japanese Zeroes in air combat.
The story of the Aleutian campaign begins early in May 1942 when the tide of war was running
strongly in Japan's favour. The Japanese High Command, having decided to "go for broke" in the
North Pacific, assembled a tremendous striking force which, according to Mastake Okumiya and
Jiro Horikoshi (co-authors of the book entitled "Zero"), included "350 vessels of all types, more
than 1000 war planes, and more than 100,000 officers and men". Their double objective was to
oust the Americans from Midway Island and then to strengthen Japan's position by establishing
strong perimeter bases in the Aleutian Islands, which extend like the links of a giant chain about
1,200 miles westward from the Alaskan peninsula.
Unfortunately, from the Japanese point of view, before this formidable armada left its home
waters American intelligence sources had alerted Washington as to its probable purpose and
destination. Ottawa, too, was kept informed and it was at this point that the RCAF came into the
picture. The US War Department had to bolster its Alaskan air defences immediately and
suggested that Canada make plans to lend air assistance to the American forces in Alaska. This
proposal did not come as a surprise because it had already been agreed that the defence of the
northern United States, British Columbia and Alaska was a task in which both countries must
share. To supply the required help fell within the scope of responsibility of Western Air
Command. The Air Officer Commanding, Air Vice Marshal L F Stevenson, was juggling his meagre
forces to see how this could be done without unduly weakening the air defences on Canada's
west coast when, on 27 May, Major General S B Buckner, commanding the Alaska Defence
Command, sent him an urgent message requesting that one bomber squadron and one fighter
squadron proceed immediately to Yakutat at the north end of the Alaskan panhandle.
As it happened, AVM Stevenson had already selected No. 8 (BR) Squadron., working out of RCAF
Station Sea Island and No. 111 (F) Squadron., stationed at Patricia Bay, for possible service in
Alaska and on 28 May they were warned for movement. At this time no one in No. 8 Sqdn.
was acquainted with the route to Alaska nor had any of its members even so much as seen an
air navigation map of the area north of Prince Rupert. However, maps were soon found; on 2
June, 12 of the squadron's Bolingbrokes, led by S/Ldr C A Willis, took off from Sea Island on the
1,000-mile flight north to Yakutat, staging through Annette Island and Juneau. They arrived at
their destination the next day and on 4 June were joined by No. 111 Squadron, whose pilots had
flown their Kittyhawks up the interior route through Prince George and White-horse.Some
of the ground crews arrived by Stranraer aircraft the same day, while the main party followed by boat
and rail. At this time No. 111 was under the command of S/Ldr. A D Nesbitt. On 13 June Nesbitt was appointed to command a two-squadron RCAF 0
wing temporarily established at Annette Island, Alaska, to guard the approaches to Prince Rupert, B.C. Nesbitt was succeeded by S/Ldr. J
A Kerwin, who like Nesbitt had flown in the Battle of Britain.
111 Sqdn. was accompanied to Yakutat by Wing Commander G R McGregor (later President of Trans-Canada Airlines), another veteran of the Battle
of Britain who had been brought back to Canada to assist in the development of fighter
operations in Western Air Command. In view of his record and experience it is not surprising
that he was appointed to head the force sent to Alaska. His small headquarters, which for lack
of a better name was called "X Wing", served as the point of contact between the Alaska
Defence Command and the RCAF. The Canadian government consented to the two squadrons
being placed at the strategic disposal of the 11th American Air Force and taking their operational
orders directly from its commander, Major General W O Butler, on the understanding that
questions of major importance would be cleared beforehand with McGregor. Somewhat
ironically, one of the general's first orders was for the red centres on the top wing roundels of
all RCAF aircraft to be painted out as he considered that there was a confusing similarity to
the red identification disk carried on Japanese planes. Further changes in RCAF
markings were made by painting a blue band 14 inches wide around the tail end of the
On 5 June Nos. 8 and 111 squadrons were ordered to deploy in defence of Elmendorf
Field, near the thriving town of Anchorage. At the outset the two units made up about one
fifth of the air strength of Alaska Defence Command (the air formation under Butler's command consisted of about 11 heavy bombers, 44 medium bombers and 98 fighters. Included in these
figures are 14 Bolingbrokes and 19 Kittyhawks of X-Wing RCAF) and their presence at Anchorage enabled the Americans to move two of their own bomber squadrons and one of their fighter
squadrons to Cold Bay and Omnak at the beginning of the Aleutian chain. The first DRO's
issued by S/Ldr. Willis at Elmendorf Field appeared on a single sheet size 8 x 10 on 9 June.
They outlined the routine to be followed at the American base, confined all ranks to camp,
ordered the carrying of personal weapons and emphasized the need to observe security
regulations. The notice concerning mail, always an important item for those serving far from
home, was probably the most studied item on the historic DRO. During its sojourn in Alaska
the mail from home was to reach its members via APO 942, Seattle, Washington, and for
quick delivery the use of US airmail stamps was advised.
Meanwhile, a task force under Admiral Kakuji Kakuda opened the Aleutians-Midway
offensive with a diversionary attack on the American base at Dutch Harbour which did a limited
amount of damage but fooled no one. The main attack went in against Midway 24 hours later
and in the great battle which followed American air power carried the day, repulsing the enemy
with staggering losses. On 6 June, in a face-saving gesture, a Japanese naval force invaded
uninhabited Kiska at the western end of the Aleutian Islands. A neighbouring island, Attu, was
also occupied the day after and landing parties dug in with the intention of establishing
permanent garrisons on these bleak fringes of American territory. Since Admiral Yamomoto had
failed to take Midway, Kiska and Attu had a very limited strategic value for Japan although their
seizure did allow the Japanese government to conceal from their people the terrible losses at
It is doubtful if the Japanese ever considered using the Aleutians as a passageway to the
mainland of North America. As Maj. Gen. Buckner said, "They might make it, but it would be
their grandchildren who finally got there, and by that time they would all be American citizens
anyway". Nevertheless the presence of the Japanese on far-away Attu and Kiska served to create
in the minds of the Pacific coast inhabitants of Canada and the U.S. the impression that such an
invasion was feasible. To dispel such fears the governments of the two countries had to maintain
sizeable forces at home when they were badly needed elsewhere. Thus the main motive for
clearing the Aleutians was to remove the apparent threat of invasion and thereby relieve more of
the home forces for duty overseas.
No. 8 SQUADRON
After the Battle of Midway, Alaska Defence Command turned rapidly to the offensive. Men
and materiel were pouring in through the Gulf of Alaska to construct a chain of island bases
that would bring the Americans (and Canadians) within striking distance of Kiska and Attu. For
the time being, the command's most vulnerable spot was its supply lines, there being still many
elements of the Japanese Navy lurking about. To help in making the sea lanes safe for the
convoys, No. 8 Sqn. was assigned to patrol a given area in the Gulf of Alaska. Instructions
from the 11th Air Force called for the squadron to have six of its 14 Bolingbrokes at readiness
state at all times. Normally two aircraft, armed with 300-lb. depth charges, took off on routine
patrol every day that weather permitted. In addition, when submarines were reported in the area
a special detachment of two or three Bolingbrokes were temporarily based at Kodiak Island to
supplement the American strike force located there.
The possibility of encountering Japanese aircraft in No. 8 Sqn's patrol area was rather remote
but Alaska weather and terrain, characterized by constant dense fog and uncharted mountain
ranges, more than made up for the absence of enemy fighters. Between Anchorage and the Gulf
of Alaska there was a table of unsurveyed peaks rising in some places to 10,000 feet, leaving
but one possible answer to an error in judgment. In his book "First Steps to Tokyo", F/O D F
Griffin gives a graphic account of the hazards of flying in Alaska. He describes the Alaskan fog
as ". . . of the worst kind, rising from the ground up, building itself into thick layers . . . Where
those layers of ground fog stop, the clouds commence." An additional peril was provided by
the sudden squalls known locally as "williwaws" which swept down from the mountains with
great force, sometimes reaching gale proportions within half an hour.
No. 8 Sqn. had its first encounter with Alaskan fog on its move from Yakutat to Anchorage.
Ten Bolingbrokes took off with two U.S. Army transports following with the ground crews.
Only three of the aircraft got through, one of which was flown by S/Ldr. Willis. The others
returned to base or diverted to Seward.
When Japanese submarines penetrated the Bering Sea at the end of June, a detachment of three
Bolingbrokes was ordered to Nome - a town on Alaska's Bering Sea coast which at the
beginning of the century had been the scene of a gold rush but in World War II was important
as a staging point on the route over which pilots of the USSR ferried planes obtained
on lend-lease from the U.S. For the next six months No. 8 Sqn. aircraft and ground personnel
remained at this isolated base keeping watch over Norton Sound. The one good feature
about the field at Nome was that the low rolling tundra around it presented no serious flying
hazard. Otherwise it was a most uninspiring place - gravel runways, no hangars and only canvas
accommodation. Still, social life, if not abundant, was at least not absent. In their off-hours the
Canadians amused themselves by visiting with the local inhabitants, conversing in wild
gesticulations with the Russian flyers or panning the nearby streams for gold. (No strikes were
Although No. 8 Sqn's 14 Bolingbrokes were a valuable addition to the forces of Alaska
Command, they stuck out like a sore thumb when it came to obtaining spare parts. For
example, when the squadron received its first operational instructions from the 11th Air
Force, "All aircraft to be bombed up and stand by. Enemy contacted in position 57°N
170°W", it was discovered that the adapter rings on the Bolingbrokes didn't fit any of the
bombs in use in Alaska. The maintenance crews,withAmerican assistance, immediately took
up the task of modifying the adapter rings until others could be flown in from Western Air
Command. This was the story over and over again. Parts, for the Canadian-built aircraft,
which of course couldn't be obtained from American stores, invariably arrived late, in
insufficient quantity or of the wrong kind. Ground crews were forced to use their skill, training
and ingenuity to the limit to keep the aircraft serviceable. Much of the work had to be done
in the open or under canvas. Major overhauls and engine changes bordered on the impossible
but somehow they were accomplished, though it meant working 18 hours a day, and the
Bolingbrokes were kept flying.
Well before the end of the year the tactical situation in the Aleutians had passed the point
where they were of very much use because Japanese submarines were now operating far
beyond Bolingbroke range. Moreover, long range Liberators (B-24s) were being put at
Butler's command while some of his fighter squadrons had been withdrawn for operations in
the South Pacific. Taking into consideration the maintenance problems of the Bolingbrokes
and the changed fighting conditions in Alaska, the American general asked that Canada replace
No. 8 Sqn. with a fighter unit. As far as the RCAF was concerned the main problem was to
find a fighter squadron properly equipped and trained for action. Again the question was handed
to Western Air Command. After going into the matter thoroughly with Gen. John L. deWitt of U.S. Western Defence Command, A/V/M Stevenson agreed to pull back the Bolingbrokes and
send No. 14 (F) Sqn. to Alaska.
Rumours, running far ahead of official channels, foretold that No. 8 would be back in Canada for
Christmas. But the squadron remained in Alaska long enough to celebrate an announcement in
the New Year's Honours List that two of its members, P/O W. O. Woods and WO2 T Lindsay,
had been awarded the Air Force Cross for their zeal and determination in carrying out their
patrols, totalling 300 hours, under the very bad weather conditions prevalent in Alaska.
Preparations for the move back to Vancouver began in late January; by early March the entire
squadron was once again at Sea Island. It left behind a record unequalled by any other squadron
in Alaska inasmuch as none of its aircraft had been lost on patrol — a remarkable achievement
when one considers the inadequacy of the existing (or non-existing) meteorological stations and
radio communication facilities.
No. 111 SQUADRON
DURING its first month in Alaska (June 1942) No. 111 Sqn. had been detailed to "fly flag pole" —
in other words, to provide routine defence patrols for the Elmendorf area. This unenviable
assignment came as a result of the Canadians having made the trip north without their
Kittyhawks being equipped with long-range belly tanks, essential for flying between the widely
separated bases along the Aleutian chain. The belly tanks were put on at Anchorage and shortly
thereafter came the welcome announcement that a detachment of 12 RCAF Kitty-hawks, 21 pilots
and 60 ground crew was to be sent to Umnak, the most forward base in the Aleutians, to relieve
an equivalent number of personnel in No. 11 Pursuit Sqn.. USAAF.
Preparations for the 1,000-mile flight to Umnak, routed through Naknek and Cold Bay, were
completed on 10 July but the anxious Canadians remained weatherbound until the 13th when
the first section got away. It consisted of seven Kittyhawks and three U.S. transports
carrying nine more pilots, the ground crew and a medical officer. On the last leg of this flight,
from Cold Bay to Umnak, the RCAF experienced its most tragic mishap in the Aleutians.
What happened might be told in half a dozen words — a thick fog, a hidden cliff. The squadron
commander, S/Ldr. J W Kerwin (a former member of No. 1 (F) Squadron in its Battle of Britain
days) and four other pilots were killed. Only one Kittyhawk, that flown by P/O O J Eskil,
and two transports carrying the nine pilots, 17 ground crew and the medical officer, got
through. W/Cdr. G R McGregor, who had been flying ahead of the formation of six Kittyhawks,
narrowly missed hitting a rocky ledge himself as he circled low on the edge of the fog bank,
calling "all Kittyhawk aircraft". Eskil was the only one of the six who answered. After trying
vainly for half an hour to find the others, McGregor returned to Cold Bay to organize a
The loss of five experienced pilots was a hard blow, not only to the squadron but to the RCAF
as a whole. To find replacements AFHQ had to take men from key positions in Canada. The
overall effect of the accident may be measured by the fact that RCAF Overseas HQ was
asked to "send six experienced pilots to Canada to assist organization and training our fighter
At Umnak the 10 RCAF pilots, using aircraft loaned by the USAAF, were formed in "F" Flight
and worked in close co-operation with the 11th Pursuit Sqn., commanded by Maj. John S.
Chennault, son of Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault of Flying Tiger fame. But Umnak was still 500
miles from Kiska. The return trip was barely within the operational limits of the Kittyhawks and
the pilots once again were committed to a routine of defensive patrols with an occasional stint
of flying control duty thrown in. Fact blended with fiction when Colonel D F Zanuck, the
celebrated motion picture executive, arrived at Umnak to shoot scenes for a production film.
The 111 Sqn. detachment gladly took time out to do an unrehearsed performance.
On 22 August No. 111 Detachment personnel met their new commanding officer, S/Ldr. Kenneth
A Boomer, who arrived from Anchorage in company with W/Cdr. McGregor. Boomer had already
served two years overseas with No. 411 Sqn. (one of Canada's top fighter units in the United
Kingdom) and had two enemy aircraft to his credit. Like everyone else at Umnak, Boomer was
hoping for an opportunity to tangle with the Japanese Zeros. About a month after his arrival
he had the satisfaction of telling his detachment that an air attack was planned for Kiska; he had
volunteered RCAF assistance and he and three other Canadians, F/O R Lynch, F/O J G Gohl
and P/O H O Gooding, were to fly with the American formation.
The fighters were to take off from Fireplace, a temporary base some 250 miles from Kiska. After
at least two postponements because of the weather the attack went in on 25 September — a red-letter day, for the RCAF scored its only victory against the Japanese Air Force. At 1000 hours
the force of nine Liberators, 12 Airacobras and 20 Kittyhawks arrived over Kiska with fighters
leading the bombers and other fighters providing top cover. The RCAF flyers had been assigned
to take out the anti-aircraft defences and in their enthusiasm for the task flew almost at deck
They had crossed the island on their first run and were returning to strafe the gun positions again
when a flight of three Zero floatplanes rose to meet the American fighters. After a brief display
of aerobatics, an over-confident procedure sometimes indulged in by Japanese pilots, the leader
came in with his cannon and machine guns trained on the tail of an American Kittyhawk. At that
very moment, to quote Boomer's words, "I climbed to a stall practically, pulled up right under
him. I just poured it into him from underneath. He flamed up and went down."
The other Canadians caught a glimpse of the Japanese pilot, who was not wearing a parachute,
leap from his plunging aircraft just before it fell into the sea. In the meantime Maj. Chennault
had downed another Zero. Other Americans were blasting away at a submarine surfaced in the
harbour. The four Canadians joined in the attack but whether or not the submarine was sunk
remained undetermined for the area was becoming too hot for anyone to take time out to assess
the damage. Having expended their ammunition the fighters made rendezvous with the bombers
and returned to base.
The Canadians were looking forward to more such encounters but spirits made jubilant by the
success of the first Kiska mission were soon deflated by the news that the RCAF detachment was
to return to Elmendorf as soon as possible. The reason, not immediately revealed, was in due time
made known. General Butler had been warned that he was to lose three of his fighter squadrons
that were needed in the South Pacific theatre and he wanted No. 111 to replace one of them on
defensive reconnaissance at Kodiak Island to protect the growing naval base there from a sneak
attack. Before the Canadians left Umnak Major Chennault addressed the following letter to the
CO of XI Fighter Command at Seattle:
"It is with great regret that we see the departure of 111 Fighter Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force. Their
entire tour of duty here has been noted for the sincere cordiality, total co-operation and the frank and easy
manner in which they mingled with our personnel stationed here . . . We are proud to be brothers-in-arms
Until August 1943, when it returned to Canada, No. 111 maintained its headquarters at Fort
Greeley on Kodiak Island. On 29 December Canadian morale was raised to a peak by the
news that Boomer,* Lynch, Gohl, and Gooding were awarded the U.S. Air Medal. The New
Year's list brought more honours; Boomer received the DFC for his "unflagging zeal and
devotion to duty" while McGregor, who in the words of General Butler had worked "heart and
soul" to make the Aleutian operation a success, won the OBE.
* Boomer was killed on operations over Germany on 22 October 1944 while serving with No. 418 (Intruder) Squadron.
About the same time, W/Cdr. McGregor was promoted to Group Captain and was transferred to
RCAF Station Patricia Bay as CO. His successor as commander of the Aleutian Wing was W/Cdr. R E E Morrow, DFC, another outstanding flyer who had led No. 402 Sqn. on fighter
operations overseas for almost two years. The new commander was injured in an accident on 6
May which might have been far more serious had it not been for a certain amount of luck intermingled with considerable courage and determination. It happened when Morrow was forced to
jump from a disabled plane just off Umnak Island. The tail plane of the aircraft struck him as he
bailed out, paralyzing his lower limbs and knocking him unconscious. Fortunately the impact
caused the parachute to open and the pilot came to before landing in the water. He managed to
throw off his parachute harness and struggle into the dinghy, only to find that the rubber life
boat stubbornly resisted his attempts to propel it landward. In spite of his injuries he abandoned
the dinghy and swam for shore, encouraged by some American soldiers who had watched his
descent and waded out through the surf to the rescue. Using an improvised stretcher, made from
the perverse dinghy which ironically had drifted in behind Morrow as he swam, they carried him
to a nearby unit where American doctors attended him. The incident did not end Morrow's
Aleutian tour. After spending several weeks in a Vancouver hospital, he returned in July to head
the Canadian Wing during the remaining two months of the campaign. In the meantime, while
Morrow was recuperating in hospital, his place was temporarily taken by W/Cdr. P B Pitcher,
another Battle of Britain pilot whose name added yet more lustre to the gallant band of airmen
that Canada had despatched to the distant Aleutian Islands.
No. 14 SQUADRON
"When do we get into action?" These impatient words were recorded in the daily diary of No. 14 (F) Sqn. on 9 January 1943. There were plenty of rumours about an impending move but if the
CO, S/Ldr. B R Walker (veteran of more than 50 fighter sorties with the RCAF Overseas), had
learned anything about his squadron's future during his visits to Western Air Command
Headquarters, he was keeping it a closely guarded secret.
The suspense was finally broken on 5 Feb. when Gp/Capt. McGregor briefed the squadron for their
2,500-mile flight to Umnak. On 11 February 15 Kittyhawks took off from Sea Island and followed the
coastal route to Alaska, encountering the usual bad flying weather that never fails to come to the
Pacific coast in winter. Minor accidents added to their trials and tribulations. At long last on
18 March the 15 aircraft appeared over the aerodrome at Umnak, which was indeed a welcome sight for the ground personnel who had been waiting there since 2 March, having made
the journey to Alaska by boat.
The squadron was disappointed to find that Umnak was still far from the scene of enemy
activity, but to everyone's satisfaction it was soon learned that arrangements had been made for
the two RCAF squadrons to maintain between them a flight of 12 pilots at a more forward base
for operations against Kiska. No. 14 was to have the first go and was to be relieved by No.
111 in about a month's time.
On 31 March S/Ldr. Walker and 11 of his pilots left by American air transport for Adak Island,
about 250 miles from Kiska, where they were briefed on operations for the next day.
Unfortunately bad weather set in and continued for two weeks. By the time it had improved the
American engineers had a base ready at Amchitka, just 75 miles from Japanese-held Kiska.
The Canadian flyers moved forward to Amchitka on 17 April and here they practically merged
with elements of Nos. 11 and 18 Sqns. of the USAAF, procuring their every need from
American stores and flying American aircraft. Each of the American squadrons operated three
flights from Amchitka and the RCAF detachment formed "B" Flight of No. 11 Sqn. Although
as a rule the Canadians flew together as a flight, they volunteered to fill in whenever and
wherever the American units were short of pilots. They attacked aircraft and ships in Kiska
harbour, radar installations, runways, anti-aircraft guns and the general camp area in an effort
to persuade the Japanese that there was little to be gained by remaining in the inhospitable
No. 14 Sqn. made its debut in the Kiska offensive on 18 April when four of its pilots escorted an
American formation of bombers. After the latter had dropped their bombs and had turned
homeward the Kittyhawks, each carrying a 500-pound bomb beneath the fuselage, returned to
dive-bomb enemy gun installations. The squadron diary noted, "All pilots returned safely to base
and enjoyed their mission, looking forward to good times to come."
This time the Canadians were not to be disappointed. For the next four months, with
responsibility alternating between the two squadrons, the RCAF detachment flew on offensive
operations whenever the weather permitted. No. 14 Sqn. completed two tours at Amchitka,
representing almost 400 hours of operational flying. From 17 April to 15 May its detachment
recorded 14 missions comprising a total of 88 individual sorties; from 4 July to 12 August 16
missions (102 sorties) were chalked up. In the interval, from 15 May to 4 July, No. 111 Sqn.
flew 274 hours on Kiska operations.
On 6 May, as No. 14's first tour was coming to an end, the personnel on Amchitka were
thoroughly briefed for the big attack by air, land and sea on the Japanese stronghold at Attu.
Although Canadians were allotted no part in the Attu phase they eagerly awaited the arrival of
the next day. The attack didn't go in until the 11th and although Attu was considered to be the
weaker of the two garrisons, the assault turned into "a thoroughly nasty little campaign" to
quote Col. C. P. Stacey in his "Six Years of War". After a final Banzai charge on 29 May the
Japanese dead numbered 2,300 — almost five times the number of American casualties.
The fall of Attu marked the beginning of the end of Japanese occupation and the people on the
west coast of Canada and the United States slept more easily than they had since June of 1942.
Admiral Kogo's plans for a counter attack were discarded after serious second thoughts and the
Japanese wisely decided to retreat from the Aleutians. By early August it was obvious to the
pilots at Amchitka that the situation at Kiska had changed for the better. Anti-aircraft fire, which
had always been conspicuous (though shockingly inaccurate), was noticeably absent on the third
as the RCAF Kittyhawks plunged through a break in the overcast to bomb the camp. It was a
week before the weather permitted No. 14 to operate over Kiska again and by this time there was
little sign of life below.
It had not been expected that the Japanese would leave their fortification so quietly and for the
past month an invasion force of 34,426 soldiers (5,300 of whom were Canadian) had been
preparing to drive them out. The invasion was scheduled for 15 August. On the evening of the
14th the aircrew at Amchitka gathered in the mess to be briefed for their part in the attack; they
were on alert the next morning at 0500 hours only to find that the weather had closed in. The
invasion was carried out without their assistance, which as it turned out was not needed
anyway. The attackers discovered that the foe had fled 18 days before under cover of a dense
For the Americans the fall of Kiska and Attu was but the signal for the beginning of bombing
offensive against the Kuriles and the undertaking of other arduous tasks in the Pacific; for the
Canadians it meant a return to the war in Europe. Both No. 111 and No. 14 Sqns. were due to
move to the United Kingdom at the end of the year where they were to continue their careers
under new numbers — 440 and 442 respectively. Actually No. 111 had been withdrawn
without replacement on 10 August. After turning all but two of its aircraft over to No. 14 it
ended its tour in the Pacific by embarking for Canada on a boat appropriately named the S.S.
Aleutian. As soon as it was known that the Japanese had been driven out of the Aleutians the
Canadian government indicated that No. 14 was to return to Western Command as soon as
possible. At 1700 hours on 6 Sept. Gen. Butler issued his last order to the squadron when he
instructed that it was to stand down from readiness and prepare to leave for Canada.
The curtain closed on a memorable last scene which is perhaps best described in the words of
"Maj. Gen. N. E. Ladd jumped into his command car and drove to the RCAF field at Umnak. He was carrying
seven U.S. Air Force medals. There was a 'pukka' parade in the best RCAF tradition, with the United States
Army band playing 'The Star Spangled Banner' and 'God Save the King'. He pinned the medals on RCAF
officers. The citations mentioned 'Attacks pressed home in the face of enemy opposition, with a courage,
skill and determination that reflects the highest credit on the force in which they serve'."
As the members of the Canadian air expedition to the Aleutians made their way back to British
Columbia, either along the coast by boat or over the rugged mountains by air, they were
probably too pre-occupied with thoughts of their home-coming to dwell philosophically on
the unique and close relationship that had been established with the American Air Force in
the Aleutians. It is true of course that elsewhere, for example on both the Pacific and Atlantic
seaboards, components of the American and Canadian military forces had worked together in
close collaboration. But in these instances the units involved remained under the immediate direction of their parent commands — in the case of the RCAF this was Eastern Air Command
and Western Air Command. It is also true that the RCAF had a wing of two squadrons based
at Annette Island in Alaska, but again these units were operationally controlled by Western
Air Command as their main function was to provide protection for the growing city of Prince
Only in the Aleutians did the two air forces serve together under one command and nowhere
else did they work together so intimately as in this remote theatre. In spite of the considerable
differences that exist in organization, procedure, custom and tradition between the American
and Canadian services, X-Wing had enjoyed the most satisfactory relations with all branches of
the USAAF. It augured well for the future co-operation of the two forces in the defence of
freedom. Thus the RCAF had done more than lend its support to a military operation; it
had added a new dimension to Canadian-American defence relations. Herein lies the
significance of the RCAF contribution to the Aleutian campaign.