Military historian Wetterhahn (Shadowmakers, 2002, etc.) travels into the Far North to investigate a long-ago air crash and turns in a well-told study of a nearly forgotten campaign.
The Aleutians were never more than a sideshow in the larger Pacific War, but what a sideshow they were: as Wetterhahn notes, the presence of a few thousand Japanese invaders tied up nearly 150,000 American and Canadian troops in the early years of WWII, while toward the end “the roles were reversed as a small number of planes flown by U.S. Navy crews forced a large number of Japanese troops to be stationed in the Kuriles”—troops that otherwise would have been put to use against MacArthur’s island-hopping armies farther south. Wetterhahn’s account of the discovery of a downed, bomb-laden American plane in Russia’s Kamchatka region provides a peg on which to hang a larger narrative of the struggle to control the Bering Sea, a battle fought mostly in the air under difficult conditions, with heavy snows, winds that “could be blowing at a hundred miles an hour from every direction at the same time,” and over-extended supply lines complicating an already dangerous business. Adding to this, for both American and Japanese crews, was the odd fact that the Soviet Union was officially neutral until the end of the war, so that American crews that crossed into Russian airspace were in danger of being shot down. So were the Japanese, 600,000 of whom were packed off to the Gulag when the Red Army finally took to the field against them. Aviation and military-history buffs will find all this fascinating, and would-be treasure hunters will be especially interested in Wetterhahn’s account of the whereabouts of a downed PV-1 Ventura, the rarest of period aircraft—though, he warns, the wreck is considered government property and technically off-limits to salvagers.
A well-illustrated and capably written glimpse into a slice of WWII history.