Sunday, January 06, 2013

Aleutian Weather - Shell Should Have Known

With Shell's regular mention of the terrible weather when they talk about the Kulluk's problems, it seems appropriate to dip once more into Brian Garfield's Thousand Mile War where he discusses the weather conditions during WW II when the Japanese and Americans fought in the Aleutians. The Americans (and the Japanese) lost far more planes and pilots and ships to the weather and terrain than they lost to enemy fire.

"It was dreary but seldom calm, Corporal Dashiell Hammett wrote:  "There was a guage to measure the wind, but it only measured up to 110 miles and hour, and that was not always enough."

At Cold Bay, soldiers for the 260th Transportation Battalion built a hut for their day room (with 6X6 studs and joists stolen on a moonlight requisitioning sortie from Navy ships).  Wind rolled the building away.  The soldiers set it right-side-up and anchored it down with steel cables imbedded in concrete.  After that the hut stayed put, but it was the only permanent above-ground structure in the area.  Throughout the Aleutians in the next two years, the rule was dugout architecture. . .

The weather, "Made in Japan,"  lent truth to standard jokes:  "It's too thick to fly if you can't see your co-pilot."
"Stick your hand out.  If it touches a ship's mast, you're flying too low."
One pilot claimed he followed a duck because he knew it wouldn't fly into a cliff.  Unmak used "a 500 pound bomb for a windsock."  A PBY pilot claimed a seagull landed on his wing;  convinced that weather too thick for Hannibal the Hitch-Hiking Gull was too thick for a PBY, the pilot landed his seaplane on the water, and watched the gull jump off and go away - swimming.  (p. 125)
The stories were not always apocryphal.  It wasn't unusual for flights of B-17s to fly at 25-foot altitudes, so that pilots could follow the sea wake of the airblast from the leading plane's propellers.  On a socked in July day, three bombers landed at Cold Bay at six-minute intervals:  the first found the runway fogged in, the second found a clear 5000 foot ceiling and landed easily, and the third couldn't find the field in the fog.  "The weather," wrote Wheeler, "goes up and down like a whore's drawers."  (pp. 125-126)

Headwinds sometimes made it six hours to target and two hours back.  The noisy wind often blew west at one end of the runway and east at the other.  In a signle cloud front, a bomber could pick up a ton of ice.

At Umnak, PFC Edward O. Stephens invented a wind-driven washing machine.  Others boiled their laundry in discarded metal drums.  When they hung clothes out, they took three days or more to dry. . .

From Cold Bay and Umnak the air warriors saddled the weather and rode it out to Kiska and, usually, back home.  It was a hell unlike any other. Constant turbulence tossed airplanes like kites.  Ground crew mechanics learned to hate the unstable Aleutian air.  It twisted airframes, wrecked fuselages, stretched and loosened rivets, bent wings.  It shook up cockpit instruments and threw them out of whack.  It clogged carburetors.  It loosened window seals, rusted landing-gear oleos, ruined fuel lines, shook engine mounts loose, gummed guns, froze bomb-bay rack releases, and fouled hydraulic systems.  It killed.
The groundling grease monkeys seemed to keep the planes flying with nothing but skyhooks, rolling their own spare parts with hand-bellows forges and hammers, maintaining aircraft outdoors in williwawas with only flashlights  and truck headlamps for illumination.  The chief stockpile of repair parts was wrecked planes.  There were no inspectors, but the ground crews never failed to make a repairable plane airworthy within twenty-four hours.  It sometimes took four back-breaking hours in gale winds to refuel a B-17 by hand, pouring gas through a chamois filter.  Colonel Everett S. Davis wrote to Hap Arnold, "Don't figure on getting any serviceable planes back from us.  We have been hard on them." (p. 126)
The kind of weather the Kulluk encountered is nothing out of the ordinary.    It's nothing that Shell's contingency plans shouldn't have planned for.

And the book's description of the war is in sharp contrast to the heroic and nationalistic tone of this Academy Award winning 1943 documentary about the airbase in Adak that bombed the Japanese base in Kiska daily.  The end of the film shows an actual bombing raid from Adak to Kiska.

This original comes from the internet archives which has this description:
Director John Huston, while a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1943, creates an Academy Award winning documentary, which he narrates with assistance from his actor father Walter, treating of the Armed Forces' successful effort to prevent the fall of the Aleutian Islands to advancing Japanese troops who had captured several islets. Although no claim can be reasonably made that this location was of major strategic importance during the War, it presented enormous tactical and logistic difficulty for those assigned there, and Huston's color film demonstrates the determined ensemble work upon the outpost of Adak by a wide range of military specialists who combat loneliness and boredom along with notably severe weather conditions. The work was made over a six month period, and is climaxed by the preparations for, followed by an actual filming of, a bombing run over Japanese-occupied Kiska, wherein Huston nearly lost his life, and which is significant for its combat footage and for the atmosphere of suspense present in the viewer who wonders if all will return safely.
It's very much a war propaganda movie making this sound much better than they were, as this comment reflects:
Reviewer: jimelena - 3.00 out of 5 stars - December 2, 2005 Subject: Progadanda. My dad was in the Aleutians during WWII so I watched this. This is a propaganda film. It does not begin to relate the huge mistakes made, the tragedy upon tragedy, or the reasons why it is known as "the forgotton war". Maybe someday the truth will come out but even 60 years after it is still too sad, too horrible, to be remembered for what it was.
  The Shell announcements about the Kulluk have the same flavor as the movie. They acknowledge problems (the movie even showed a burial of a pilot) but everyone is a hero, cooperating 100%, to achieve the goal. The book tells a very different story. 

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