John Andrews was interviewed by John Haile Cloe on October, 13, 1982 in Anchorage, Alaska. In this interview, John discusses the conditions in the Aleutians during World War II, what it was like to fly there, and specifically talks about the crash of the B-24D airplane on Atka Island and their subsequent rescue.The Anchorage Daily News newspaper published an article about the B-24D airplane crash on December 28, 2008.
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John comes to Alaska with the 404th Bomber Squadron
Arriving in the Aleutians
Flying weather patrol missions
The difficulty of flying in the Aleutians
Radar doesn't work in bad weather
A forced landing
The crew's journey back to Adak after the forced landing
The bad weather around Adak Island
The end of the fighting
The B17's and B24's
John's post-war occupation
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JOHN CLOE: Could you just state your full name and when you came up?
JOHN ANDREWS: John Andrews. I was an officer in the 404th Bomber Squadron, having joined it at Barksdale Field. Previously I had been an instructor in intermediate training school, basic training it was called.
From there I went to B-17 four-engine school, and then transferred to the 404th which was B-24s, so I had to go through B-24 training there. We then went from Barksdale to Hill Field at Ogden, Utah, where we picked up the new airplanes, which were then painted a desert red because had been destined for North Africa. And then a change was made that they go to Alaska.
JOHN CLOE: The change a last minute one?
JOHN ANDREWS: The change was a last minute one, yes. And we also, there, had assembled much of our gear for ourselves and for the planes. Some of it we took with us, and some was shipped by sea.
We went from Ogden to Edmonton, stayed there a couple of days, and then flew from Edmonton to Fairbanks where we stayed for a bit, not very long. And then went to Nome where we flew patrols out over the Bering Sea. All the summer of 1942, I guess. I hate when my dates get mixed up, and I'm --
JOHN CLOE: I believe the 404th came up right after Dutch Harbor.
JOHN ANDREWS: Yeah, so it's during the summer of '42.
JOHN CLOE: Yeah, then you were stationed at Nome you were patrolling the Bering Sea, and northern part of the Pacific.
JOHN ANDREWS: That's right. We would go out of Nome and patrol St. Lawrence Island and the other islands around there. We would go out over the sea and come back, usually on about an eight or ten hour patrol. And did that during the summer. When it began to get cold, of course the sea began to freeze, then we were transferred to the Aleutians, by way of Elmendorf.
JOHN CLOE: What were the conditions like in the Aleutians at the time that you were there, when you first arrived?
JOHN ANDREWS: Primitive. We first went to Umnak, Adak at the time didn't exist, and we lived in tents there. In fact, we lived in tents for just about all of the time I was in the Aleutians until just a few months before I was rotated back to the states at that time we got a sort of oval shaped, insulated hut which was a large improvement over a dark gray tent.
JOHN CLOE: Yeah, these were Pacific huts. They were like Quonset huts except they were made of plywood instead of metal.
JOHN ANDREWS: Well, these were made of fabric. JOHN CLOE: Fabric?
JOHN ANDREWS: Yeah. Yeah. They were an insulated fabric stretched over a hoop frame.
JOHN CLOE: Like the Jamesway tents?
JOHN ANDREWS: I think so, I have forgotten the name of them now. But that was, I say, only during the last months that I was here that we had any -- any such quarters as that. Otherwise, everything was tents. The -- for officer's men mess hall, anything else you can think of was tents.
JOHN CLOE: So you were involved in the B-24D that had to force landing at Atka Island. Can you explain some of the circumstances leading up to it?
JOHN ANDREWS: Yes. We flew weather patrol out of Umnak, and then we moved to Adak and continued flying the weather patrol. The 404th flew most of those weather patrols. The idea was to rotate them through the two squadrons there, but we, in fact, flew most of them, in part because we volunteered for them, and there was a certain selfishness on my part and the part of my crew in volunteering because it was the question of building up missions. Click here to view film of operations on Adak.
And we figured the sooner we built up missions, the sooner we could leave. Which was -- turned out to be the case in fact. And it was better to fly missions than sit around in the tent waiting to go on a bombing mission because weather didn't permit bombing missions everyday, by any means. So, it got pretty boring sitting around in the tent and at least flying the missions gave a little bit of change, a little bit of something to do, as well as a little excitement.
JOHN CLOE: Did you fly over Kiska and Attu and come back? Click here to view film of B24s at Kiska.
JOHN ANDREWS: Yes, we'd fly to Kiska and Attu and Agattu usually, and it was a two-fold purpose. One was of course to weather back -- radio back, rather, weather conditions all the time, and the other and just as important, was to get a look at Kiska and Kiska Harbor, and the other islands to see what was happening and see what was happening in the way of the number of ships in the harbors, what changes there had been, whether there were new arrivals, whether there were departures, so forth.
So we had a -- a dual mission all the time. And those missions up at Adak would start about six o'clock in the morning or thereabouts, so that we could get to Kiska right after light, so that if the weather conditions were okay, the bombers and crews would have time enough to get out and do something about it. And the missions lasted anywhere from eight to twelve hours, usually around ten.
JOHN CLOE: Single-ship mission?
JOHN ANDREWS: Single-ship, yes. All the time single-ship. And some of the -- the planes were rigged with extra fuel tanks so we could stay out longer than with just the regular tanks in the ships. And in fact, we had one at one time that had four extra fuel tanks in the bomb bays. Most of the time we had two, with some bombs in the other bays, but sometimes we had four.
On the particular day that we went down, we made the usual early morning departure, and did whatever we were supposed to do. We were getting weather reports ourselves of how the weather was along the chain, which we did all the time.
And the weather was not good that day at all anywhere. And when we came back, we got word that Atka was closed in, I'm sorry, Adak, Umnak was, everywhere along the chain was closed, even up beyond Cold Harbor. So we had nowhere to go. We got back to Adak, circled for awhile, the field was closed. Adak is a difficult place to get into when the weather is closed like that because there were a few high hills around there, to say the least.
JOHN CLOE: It still is a difficult place to get into.
JOHN ANDREWS: And there were really no radio aids, if there were they were they were only turned on briefly. And the beacon at Adak was not reliable because of the -- all of the mountains around there. We had radar on that particular plane, but the radar was -- never worked very well. We couldn't put any trust in it.
When it did work, we weren't sure it was working properly. So it was a machine that you could use in clear weather and if you could see what the radar was seeing, you could say okay, its working okay but if you couldn't see what the radar was looking at you were never sure.
And in fact, that day it wasn't working well at all. We circled in a hole, north of Adak, and pretty soon a PBY showed up in the same hole, circling. We got in radio contact with him, asked him how his radar was working and he thought it was working fine, so he said ok, give us a try on leading us in. Click here to view film of PBY at Adak.
The PBY flies about 80 or 90 mph. And by that time, we had used up just about all of our fuel, so we had to put down landing gear, flaps, hang our hands out the window and everything possible to keep the B-24 slow enough to fly formation with the PBY. He made one pass and -- through a few holes in the -- in the clouds. And we were then at low altitude and we could see some stones flying by, and the PBY pilot liked what he saw, and I sure didn't, so he said, "I'm gonna turn off" which -- turn around -- which he did and we followed him back.
Circling in the hole for awhile until we both screwed up our courage and agreed we'd make another pass. And the same thing happened. Back to reinforce our courage a little bit for a third try, and the same thing happened. In the meantime, we knew that we didn't have much light left, because then there was about, oh perhaps three quarters of an hour of light left, and about the same amount of fuel.
All the other stations were reporting 0/0 except that Atka seemed to have some bit of weather than the other island along the chain.
JOHN CLOE: How did you know the weather conditions at Atka, did they have a weather station there?
JOHN ANDREWS: I think there was some Navy people there. There was -- there was a PBY base there. And I have forgotten now just how we did know, but we did. So we flew to Atka, and sure enough on the north side, along some of the bays, it was reasonably clear. We could see where we were, and we could see a part of the island.
Of course all of the mountain tops were in the soup. As I said, we were running low on fuel and running out of light, so we decided that we had better set down. The question was whether to set down in the water in one of the bays or -- or ditch it on the land. I was all for putting it on the land because the water is too damn cold, we wouldn't last very long, we'd have a hell of job getting out of the airplane, and after that getting ashore.
JOHN CLOE: The life expectancy is about 15 minutes --
JOHN ANDREWS: That's right, and we knew that. Then the question was should we put it right on the shore on the flat tundra or kind of slide it up one of the hills, as General (Brig Gen William) Lynd, who was aboard, suggested. I don't know whether I had more physics in college than he did or not, but I didn't think the vector forces on landing uphill were very good, and said so. So we agreed that the best thing to do was to come off the water and onto the land, ditch it on the land.
It also gave us the chance should we decide to change our mind at the last minute, we did have room enough to pull up and hopefully circle around for another try. So we came in low over the water, having rehearsed what we were gonna do. I decided that everyone in the plane -- I and I think there was twelve or thirteen of us -- should be on the flight deck because I figured that the tail would -- tail-end would get kind of worn-out during the landing.
JOHN CLOE: I understand the B-24s were notorious for breaking in two behind the leading edge, weren't they?
JOHN ANDREWS: Yes, but we didn't know that at the time. No one had ever told us, or if they did, I don't remember it. But that's exactly what happened, it was proven, and the flight deck was -- had a number of feet of airplane underneath so it gave us more protection than the other part of the airplane.
So we came in off the water very low, just high enough to clear the shingle built up by the waves, and landed in the tundra and skidded for I guess 150 yards or so, and came to a crashing halt. As we were skidding, the noise was horrendous, to say the least. And the silence afterwards was really deep until General Lynd tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Let's get out of this damn thing, it might burn."
So we all scrambled out through the cockpit windows which had been broken in the process. And we all got out, the only one injured at all was General Lynd who had his collar bone cracked when the upper turret dropped down during the landing. Everyone else was -- came out with really without a scratch.
JOHN CLOE: He was the inspector general for the Army Air Force wasn't he, up to take a look at what was going on?
JOHN ANDREWS: He was, I forget whether he was the inspector general, he was certainly one of the ranking inspectors general of the force, yes. He was a very pleasant man, a very very good man. I hadn't known him before that at all. When we got out and dusted ourselves off and so forth, he turned to me and said, "Well I didn't want to tell you before, but this is my thirteenth crash."
We then got out what gear we had with us and we usually took some blankets and tarps and stuff like that just in case. We got those out, put the tarps over the wings -- over one of the wings, rather to form sort of a tent and by then it was dark. And chewed up whatever rations we had left and slept the night.
It had snowed during the night. So the next morning, when we got up, we cleaned all of the snow off the airplane so if -- if someone came looking for us they could see us better than a snow-covered airplane. Before we landed we sent a message where we were and what we were going to do. We didn't receive any acknowledgement of that message, so we had no idea whether the message got through or not.
In fact, it later proved that we had, because three or four hours after daylight we saw a B-24 fly offshore from where we were. And we thought that he hadn't seen us, but he had. He had circled around and came in from the ocean right over us, up over the ridge and then back around again. And he was waggling his wings so we knew that he had seen us.
To my knowledge, it was not Colonel (Robert C.) Orth as most of the records say it was one of the others, I think it was one of the guys from the 21st Bomber Squadron. But I'm not positive on that. Orth I think came in the second plane when the news was out as to where we were. Then some planes came over and dropped sleeping bags and supplies to us and that sort of stuff, so we had some food and some cigarettes, and things to make ourselves comfortable.
We went down on the beach and built a fire and practiced smoking cigarettes and waited. Late in the afternoon a PBY showed up and landed in the bay. He sent out a rubber boat and we all ferried in to the PBY. He then tried to take off, but with all of the crew in the plane and ourselves it was too much weight and he couldn't take off.
He tried a couple of times and just couldn't do it, so he anchored and sent a message as to his situation. And late in the night, a -- an old two-stack destroyer tender showed up offshore. He sent some whale boats and took us off the PBY and brought us aboard the ship, which then took us to Adak where we got -- arrived the next day sometime. So that was it.
JOHN CLOE: What -- when did you leave Alaska?
JOHN ANDREWS: Right after the plane crashed, the crew was given home leave. It was late in December. So we all headed back to the states. I don't think any of us got home in time for Christmas,we got there after Christmas. Then returned to the Aleutians -- by boat out of Seattle to Seward and train to Anchorage --
JOHN CLOE: That seemed to be the standard --
JOHN ANDREWS: -- and then by plane back out to Adak. And shortly after that, we made the move to Amchitka. I forget just when that was, but I'm reasonably sure we went back to Adak and then shortly after I returned to Adak, the squadron was moved out to Amchitka.
JOHN CLOE: Late winter or early spring.
JOHN ANDREWS: That's right. One island was practically the same as any other except Amchitka certainly didn't have as many mountains around it as -- or at least where the air base was -- as did Adak or Umnak, so it was a better place to get into under the weather conditions. But living conditions were the same on all of them. The sun almost never shone that particular year.
I think it -- it never really got cold in the winter time, a little below freezing and we'd get some snow then it would turn into rain and fog. And in the summertime I doubt if the temperature got into the 50s at all. A very temperate climate if you will, always wet and foggy and rainy and windy. Summer or winter.
And that was the big problem flying up there. Because the radio aids were, as I said earlier, few and far between, and most of the time not turned on obviously because the Japs could home in on them. So it was rare that one had any -- any radio fixes.
The way we navigated was by dead reckoning much of the time, except when the navigator could get a few sun shots to help him with his dead reckoning navigation. And the net result was we flew right on the deck just about all the time until we get to the target then we would climb up to make our runs.
JOHN CLOE: The anti-aircraft at Kiska, was that very strong at this time?
JOHN ANDREWS: Yes, it was very strong and pretty damn accurate also. Of course, we were always going in relatively low. It was a rare day when we could get up to 6,000 or 8,000 feet. We were always below the cloud cover, obviously because we had to see what we were gonna bomb. With the net result that we were sitting ducks not very high in the sky. Click here to view film of airplane damage.
And there was lots of aircraft, anti-aircraft guns all around the -- the harbor and at the high points of the island. So it was -- it was quite well protected, and there were, most of the time there were lots of Zeros. And we took fighter cover with us much of the time.
JOHN CLOE: Did the anti-aircraft remain strong to the very end?
JOHN ANDREWS: Yes it did.
JOHN CLOE: I know the fighters were pretty much wiped out by 19 -- well the early part of '43 .
JOHN ANDREWS: Yes. The fighters were -- were wiped out, pretty much, there were just a few left and the few that were left didn't seem to have much stomach to come up, or maybe they didn't have the fuel, I don't know why but they --
JOHN CLOE: The pilots were probably getting tired too.
JOHN ANDREWS: Yeah, I think the pilots were getting tired as well, because we were over there as much as we possibly could be. But the anti-aircraft fire stayed often heavy all the time.
JOHN CLOE: You know, they had everything from 23mm all the way to 6 inch, you know. Situated around all the fire direction centers. I was talking to one veteran, he said it was the strongest anti-aircraft concentration fire outside of probably Malta.
JOHN ANDREWS: Well, there was -- there was a lot of it. We rarely came back that we didn't have a hole or two. Fortunately, none of my crew was ever -- ever wounded at all. Some of the other guys were. We got a fair number of holes in the airplane, but none in ourselves.
JOHN CLOE: there was one squadron of B17 and the B36, why did they phase the B-17s out?
JOHN ANDREWS: I think, I'm not sure, but I think because the engines on the B-17s weren't very good in that weather. They were Wright engines, as I recall, and the B-24s had Pratt and Whitneys. And the moisture in the weather seemed to affect the engines on the B-17 all the time, it was terribly difficult to get them started. And much of the time there'd be one or two that wouldn't start, so you'd have a squadron going out with only half of the airplanes it should have. And the B-24s, they always started.
JOHN CLOE: Yeah, I thought --I've heard that. I've also heard that the range in the B-24 was much greater than the B-17s.
JOHN ANDREWS: It was somewhat greater. The pilots liked the B-17 better than the B-24. And I guess that's true of myself. However, the D's were damn good airplanes. The later models were not as good. Click here to view film of B17s over Kiska.
JOHN CLOE: Too complicated?
JOHN ANDREWS: Too complicated, too much junk on them.
JOHN CLOE: What did you do after you returned from the Aleutians? Did you stay in the service after the war or --
JOHN ANDREWS: No. I -- we stayed in the Aleutians until after the battles at -- at Attu. I flew the command ship much of the time during that, (Col William 0.) did and I did. My crew left the Aleutians after Attu because we had run up more than enough missions to return. In fact, we were held over for the action at Attu, and after that, we left.
The crew was broken up. I went back to what was then Muroc Air Base, which is now the Army test center. And at the time, it was a B-24 training school. And I stayed there for the rest of the war. I got out of the service early because again I had built up all kinds of points, after VE day there was a point system on who could get out.
And I had points to burn, so, in fact I left before, well really before VJ day when it comes down to it. I was still in uniform, but really not on duty. As soon as that happened I left the Air Force and got a job in Boston. I had made a half-hearted attempt to get a permanent commission, but my heart really wasn't in it.
I decided I didn't really like the military life, and I had already put in five years. And so I went out and became a civilian. I stayed in the reserves for a couple of years, but then didn't have time enough with my work to properly do a good job there, so I finally left it as well.
JOHN CLOE: So you joined at the beginning of the war or shortly thereafter?
JOHN ANDREWS: No, I joined in September of 1940.
JOHN CLOE: That's right, five years.
JOHN ANDREWS: So I joined early and left early.
JOHN CLOE: Did you go to Aviation Cadet School?
JOHN ANDREWS: Yes, in -- first in Tuscaloosa then Maxwell Field.
JOHN CLOE: Well, that's about it, unless you can think of anything that should be added.