History of the Eleventh Air Force

(Published by the 11th Air Force Headquarters in the Fall of 1945)

The History of the Eleventh Air Force follows closely the history of military aviation in Alaska. Early in 1940, the question of air defense of the northern Territory came into the limelight when the late President Roosevelt pointed out in his message to Congress requesting funds for fortification of Guam and Wake Islands and other strategic points in the Pacific that airfields were needed in Alaska. The original request for $12,000,000 to be appropriated for the construction of Alaskan defenses was cut to $600,000, but still was sufficient to begin the construction of an air base at Anchorage, Alaska. Thus was begun the construction of Elmendorf Field, primary fourth-echelon base for all future Eleventh Air Force operations.

The first "troops" of the Eleventh Air Force's advance echelon to arrive in Alaska included a six year-old Martin B-10, Major Everett Stanford Davis and 2 enlisted men. They were there to implement the plans laid down in the Twenties and Thirties after reconnaissance flights by one Captain St. Claire Streett and one Lieutenant Colonel Henry H. Arnold.

Arriving on 12 August 1940, Major Davis was named Chief of Aviation, Alaskan Defense Force by an infantry colonel, Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., commander of army garrison in Alaska.

The first months of the new air unit commander's service in Alaska were spent in further reconnaissance work, in which he was mightily aided by Buckner, a prophetically air-minded infantry officer.

The original defense plans for Alaska called for a rim of defense bases. The hub of this defense "wheel" was to be at Anchorage, with Ladd Field at Fairbanks as a secondary major base.

Davis' secondary problem was the training of personnel and the preparing of equipment for operation in the cold Alaskan climate. Mechanical things showed queer behavior at 40 degrees below zero. Oil became almost solid, metal and rubber brittle and fractured easily. At the same time, Texas-trained pilots had to learn to fly in a country where sudden fogs could close out airports in less than 10 minutes and high-velocity "williwaws" could tear the wings off combat planes.

By mid-1941, there were 2 combat squadrons in Alaska, the 18th Fighter Squadron flying P-36's, (now with nearly 5 years of overseas service), and the 73rd Bombardment Squadron (M), flying B-18's. During the 20 hours of daylight which prevails at Anchorage in summer, Davis literally had his crews fly the wings off his small force of aircraft. Two shifts flew, one from 0700 to 1300 and another from 1400 to 2200.

In the meantime, plans for the establishment of bases were moving slowly. Certain planned fields had to be constructed in summer, because the severe Alaskan frost in winter made digging impossible, but equipment for the construction of fields north of Nome and around Anchorage failed to arrive, and construction was postponed until the following summer. Construction had been completed, however, on two important coastal fields in Southeastern Alaska at Annette Island and at Yakutat, and the first direct all-weather route to Alaska was open.

Buckner, by this time a Major General and Davis, now a Lieutenant Colonel, saw clearly that air-strength was the key to the defense of Alaska. In a territory almost one-third the size of the Continental United States, without roads or railways, General Buckner pointed out that "one squadron of heavy bombers is of more use to me than a division of ground troops." He pleaded with the War Department for more aircraft but in view of the small size of the Air Corps and the necessity of defending a large number of bases, his requests had to go unanswered.

But an extremely fortunate accident took place in October of 1941, which possibly changed the whole course of the war in Alaska. Equipment for the construction of a CAA-DLA (Civil Aeronautics Authority-Defense Land Appropriation) airfield at McGrath, on the mainland, arrived too late to begin construction of the field, since the ground already had frozen up, and General Buckner requested and received permission to divert the equipment and men to Cold Bay on the Alaskan Peninsula and Otter Point on Umnak Island, to build 2 fields for the defense of the Naval Base at Dutch Harbor.

Thus began the "secret air bases" which foiled the Japanese attack on Dutch Harbor. To conceal their purpose, both fields were organized as ostensible business enterprises concerned with fishing and canning. The two cover names were: "Blair Packing Company" and "Saxton & Company", whose peculiar canning equipment consisted of bull-dozers, power shovels and similar construction equipment. The top holding-company for these enterprises was the "Consolidated Packing Company" of Anchorage, known in military circles as the Alaskan Defense Command! Security was complete. Japanese intelligence never learned of the existence of these airfields and the Jap tactical decisions were based on the assumption that their attack on Dutch Harbor would not be opposed by land based aircraft.

Winter in the Aleutians is not severe (sic -- severe) as far as temperature is concerned. The thermometer rarely drops below freezing, and the frost extends only a few inches below the surface. All through the winter, men worked at the construction of these 2 air bases, and by Spring, two 5,000-foot strips were completed, one at Cold Bay, the other at Otter Point on Umnak. Another vital factor in the construction of the Umnak field was the use of pierced-plank steel-matting. No other medium could have been used to build that runway in the time required, since Umnak has no natural construction material. The matting was laid over a graded gash in the tundra and set the pattern for the construction of future Aleutian runways.

Administratively speaking, the Eleventh Air Force also was born in that winter of 1941-42. First conceived as the Air Force, Alaskan Defense Command, it emerged as an integral unit as the Alaskan Air Force on 15 January 1942, and was redesignated the Eleventh Air Force on 5 February. On 8 March, Brigadier General William O. Butler was named commander, and Davis, by this time a full colonel, was made Chief of Staff.

In May of 1942, a field headquarters was established at Kodiak, Alaska and planes were deployed at Cold Bay and Umnak, 8 Bombers were based at Cold Bay.

When the first inklings of a possible Japanese attack on the Aleutians were known, the Eleventh Air Force was in need of air transport to supply advanced bases. Yeoman service was done by airlines planes and pilots commandeered for the purpose of flying supplies down the Chain, and when the Japanese attacked the Aleutians were ready.

Making excellent use of weather cover, the Japanese first raided Dutch Harbor on 3 June 1942. According to Japanese intelligence, the nearest field for land-based American aircraft was at Kodiak, more than 600 miles away, and Dutch Harbor was a sitting duck for the strong Jap fleet, carrying out a coordinated operation with a fleet that was to capture Midway Island.

In the Dutch Harbor attack, the initial Japanese surprise was almost complete, but because of foul weather, the bombing was anything but accurate. Some casualties and damage was inflicted.

The following day, the Japanese got their first knowledge of the 2 secret fields. The "canning companies" went into action. First operations took place early in the morning when 4 Zekes and 4 dive-bombers (Vals) blundered on the Otter Point field while flying through Umnak pass enroute to Dutch Harbor. All 4 dive bombers were shot down and 2 American planes and one pilot were lost. The speedy Zekes escaped. At the same time, the B-26's were attacking the Japanese fleet as they could find it in "bubbles" in the overcast. It was operating under a thick weather front some 250 miles south of Umnak. One B-17 and a B-26 were lost. How much damage was inflicted on the Japanese fleet is unknown. The important fact is that the Japanese were completely surprised by land-based aircraft and were forced to revise their grandiose schemes of advancing up the Alaskan Peninsula to Seattle and San Francisco. They settled for 2 islands in the Western Aleutians, Attu and Kiska.

Then began a race for airfields and bases. It is said that Japanese Naval personnel, disguised as fishermen had been exploring the Aleutians for years in anticipation of an attack on North America. This story is believed to be an old wives' tale, for when they did occupy 2 Aleutian rocks, they took the worst. Kiska, widely advertised in the Sunday Supplements as a "bastion of the Pacific" supported a small U.S. Naval station and a weather post. Attu was the site of a small village of Aleuts and another weather station. But neither island was satisfactory for the hasty construction of airfields by Japanese methods.

The Americans made the first move. On 30 August 1942, in the face of a howling gale, American troops went ashore on Adak Island, some 250 miles east of Kiska. Adak affords a good fleet anchorage, a sheltered harbor and as was revealed later, a superlative site for quick construction of an airfield. A tidal lagoon between Sweeper's Cove and Kuluk Bay was drained, revealing a sandy, substantial floor for the steel matting. Damaged planes returning from attacking Kiska from Umnak, were able to land at Adak by 11 September, and on 14 September, the first coordinated and fighter-supported bombing mission took off from Adak.

Throughout the winter of 1942-43, the Eleventh Air Force bombed Kiska and Attu whenever possible, although the flyers were extremely handicapped by the almost constant fog which covered the island. At the same time, the bases to the east of Adak were consolidated and built up. In October, the Field Headquarters of the Eleventh Air Force was closed at Kodiak and moved to Adak. A month later, on 28 November, Colonel Davis, Chief of Staff, first commander, and pioneer of the Eleventh Air Force was killed in a plane crash near Naknek.

On 11 January 1943, American troops went ashore on Amchitka Island, barely 75 statute miles from Kiska, and a month later, fighters were flying from a quickly-built air strip. By March, both medium and heavy bombers could make the short hop from Amchitka to Kiska and on good days, rare enough, crews flew as many as 4 and occasionally 6 sorties per day. It was said that the Japanese needed no air warning system on Kiska, because they could hear the Eleventh Air Force bombers warming up on Amchitka, and knew from the sound of the engines when the raids were taking off.

Throughout this period, the striking power of the Eleventh Air Force included only 3 squadrons of medium bombers, 3 squadrons of heavies and 4 squadrons of fighters. An additional squadron of P-39's operated in the Aleutian theater for a short while, but their light landing gear was unsatisfactory for use on the rough fields and they were returned to the States.

Tactically, the Eleventh Air Force was operating under the jurisdiction of the Navy, since Alaska was still in the situation of a "fleet-opposed invasion". The air arm, designated Task Force "X", was commanded by General Butler, and included the Air Striking Group (Eleventh Air Force) and the Air Search Group (Fleet Air Wing Four). Overall command was vested in Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, Commander, North Pacific Force, abbreviated to ComNorPacFor or ComNorPac.

Of course, the primary objective of Aleutian operations was to drive the Japanese from the Chain, and since Kiska was the main Japanese base, it became the primary target and plans were started early in 1943 for the reoccupation of the island.

On 1 April, a plan to by-pass Kiska and capture Attu was presented to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was approved, and on 11 May, American troops went ashore on Attu. In a short and fierce battle, the Japanese garrison was wiped out, and on 29 May, the island was declared secure. The first plane, a hospital C-47, landed on a newly-completed runway on Alexai Point, Attu, on 7 June.

The operation against Attu also included the occupation of the Semichi Islands, an archipelago of 3 tiny bits of land some 35 miles east of Attu. The flattest of these, Shemya, was to be the site of the most important American air base for future operations. Barely 4 miles long and only 2 miles wide, Shemya became, literally, a stationary aircraft carrier. These islands were taken without opposition, on 29 May.

With Kiska cut off by the occupation of Attu, the Japanese made plans to evacuate the Aleutians. Captured documents reveal that the evacuation proceedings were first contemplated on 8 June, but clear weather prevented carrying out the plans. Numerous sorties were made by the Japanese Fifth Fleet, based at Paramushiru, but finally on 28 July, under cover of a thick fog, destroyers were able to enter Kiska Harbor and remove all occupation troops. When American troops went ashore on 15 August, the island was deserted.

Six million pounds of bombs had been dropped on Kiska and Attu in Eleventh Air Force operations. The Japanese had been prevented from building an air field and from bringing in air reinforcements. Fighters, Zekes modified for water operation, later called Rufes, were shot out of the air as soon as they came up to give combat. Our tiny force of Eleventh Air Force fighters and bombers had played an instrumental part in driving Japanese out of the Aleutians.

More than a month before the unopposed landing on Kiska, the Eleventh Air Force began a new phase of operations against the Japanese. On 10 July, 6 Eleventh Air Force Mitchells made the long flight to Paramushiru Island in the Kuriles and made the first direct attack on the Japanese home islands since the famous Doolittle raid in April of 1942.

The planes took off from the newly completed runway on Attu. All returned safely. A week later, Liberators from Attu bombed the Kuriles and secured pictures of the Japanese installations, the first pictures taken of northern home-island defenses.

The next Kurile raid, carried out on 11 August, was a diversionary raid prior to the landings on Kiska. On this mission, the first plane was lost over the Kuriles and Lieutenant James C. Pottenger and his crew made a forced landing in Russia.

These operations led to a joint mission by heavy and medium bombers on 11 September 1943, in which 10 out of 20 attacking planes failed to return. It had proven that the Kurile Islands could be attacked, but new methods had to be devised.

Several changes took place following the occupation of Kiska. The Eleventh Air Force became a component of Task Force "Y", still under Navy jurisdiction. Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher was named ComNorPac and Major General Davenport Johnson relieved General Butler as commander of the Eleventh Air Force.

One of General Johnson's first acts was the establishment of the Eleventh Air Force Instrument flying school and the promotion of an intensive training program in navigation and instrument flying, as well as the accelerated development of radio and navigation aids in the Aleutians. Old Air Corps men in the Aleutians have the saying that "the weather's gotten better here. It's not like it was when it was 'rough.'" Statistically, this statement is incorrect, but because of the tremendous advances brought about by intensive instrument training and the increased aids to navigation and radio, planes that formerly were grounded by weather, were now flying regular schedules. Troop Carrier and ATC planes were operating in the Aleutians with airline regularity.

During the winter, the burden of operations against the Kuriles was carried by the Catalinas and Venturas of Fleet Air Wing Four. They carried small bomb loads and their primary objective was the securing of night photographs. No daylight missions were scheduled until Spring of 1944.

March of 1944 saw Eleventh Air Force bombers over the Kuriles on daylight armed reconnaissance missions. Not many, but a sufficient number to convince the Japanese that there were aircraft in the Aleutians and that the Kuriles were in constant danger of air attack. During the crucial period, while other United Nations forces were advancing in the South Pacific, the Japanese were forced to keep much-needed aircraft, in the Kuriles and Hokkaido as defense against possible attack from the North.

That was the mission of the Eleventh Air Force, and it was being successfully carried out. Except for July, when the weather was especially bad, each month of 1944 showed a steady increase in operations against the Kuriles.

Each month's record showed planes turned back short of their targets, weather again protecting the Japanese. Often, too, Liberator bomb loads had to be dropped through the undercast by aid of the newly-installed radar bombing equipment, a far cry from the timed runs made on the Kiska main camp area using the Kiska volcano as an initial point when the target was closed in. The record month, June of 1945, for the Eleventh Air Force showed a record number of tons of bombs dropped.

The Mitchells, too were playing their part in operations against the Kuriles. They'd been kept on shipping alert since the abortive 11 September raid, but in May, 2 planes on a gasoline consumption test west of Attu, discovered and sank 2 armed Japanese trawlers. From that time on, the Mitchells, made sweeps against shipping when weather permitted, and by fall were bombing land targets in the Kuriles.

The last half of 1944 also saw a drastic reduction in the personnel of the Eleventh Air Force. Bases east of Adak were reduced to the status of gasoline stations for the Aleutian air transport routes, and were manned by small housekeeping units. The XI Fighter Command and the XI Bomber Command and the XI Air Force Service Command were de-activated.

Kiska was written off as a possible base, although newspaper reports and the Japanese radio commentators spoke of Kiska as the "North Pacific fortress."

By fall, the Eleventh Air Force had been greatly reduced. Air Corps supply and fourth echelon maintenance was carried on at the Alaska Air Depot at anchorage, and the normal paper-work, customarily handled by a Service command, devolved upon the Eleventh Air Force Headquarters.

The pattern of operations established in the Spring and Summer of 1944 was followed throughout the year. The introduction of Ground Controlled Approach systems enhanced the possibility of aircraft returning to base and largely eliminated the danger of aircraft being lost for lack of a place to land. But the weather didn't improve between the Aleutians and the Kuriles, and target areas were still fogged in.

Thus in spite of the increased aids to navigation no continuous increase was possible in effective missions due to target conditions.

The real nature of the Aleutians and their peace time value to America was known but not confirmed until 3 September 1945. On that day, a C-54 piloted by Major G.E.Cain, filed a flight plan at Atsugi Airdrome, near Tokyo, Honshu, Japan. Twelve hours later, he landed at Adak, refueled and took off for Seattle. He landed in Washington after 31 hours of flying time with the first motion pictures of the Japanese surrender. The Aleutian Islands, on the Great Circle route from North America to the Orient may not have fulfilled their hope of becoming the "Northern Highway to Victory," but they certainly are destined to be an aerial highway of peace.


"History of the Eleventh Air Force," The Aleutian's Home Page; accessed 25 June 2008; available at http://www.hlswilliwaw.com/aleutians/11thAirForce/html/11thAF_history.htm.

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