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Kodiak Alaska Military History



The official web site of the Kodiak Military History Museum


VS-70


Tom Moore, Kodiak 1943

North To Alaska
by Mr. Thomas W. Moore


Bill Alberts & Tom Moore, Palm Springs, 1999
Photos courtesy of the World War II Scouting Squadrons Association


In the 1920's the Navy ROTC program at the University of Washington included flight training at NAS Sand Point, Wash., near Seattle. LCDR Robert E. Ellis, USNR, learned to fly there and took his aviation skills to southeastern Alaska, a land whose weather seemed unfit for flying. But Alaska's vast distances, total lack of interconnecting roads and slow water-surface travel showed promise to Bob when granted airline permit No. 5. He opened Ellis Airline in Ketchikan, Alaska. Running between most of the larger towns in southeastern Alaska, his modest floatplane line was most successful. For four years the line grew, and the Ellis bush pilots flew thousands of miles in the aviation-hostile shore islands.

However, in early 1941 he received orders: Report to active duty in 24 hours. Already a legendary bush pilot, LCDR Ellis was ordered to establish a scouting squadron in Sitka, Alaska, using the planes already deployed there. Those planes turned out to be one Grumman JRF Goose and one brand-new OS2U Kingfisher.

The Navy simply wanted Bob to close his airline and sell the planes to it. Four of his planes were eventually commandeered, and Bob and the other pilots flew patrols from Sitka as far north as Cape Decision, using his company's Waco. The plane was armed with a Springfield rifle, and there was a hole in the bottom of the fuselage through which he could drop a 100-pound bomb, sighting the target out the window and guessing. It was crude, but it was the outfit from which VS-70 grew.


Enter the Kingfisher. The OS2U was designed by Rex B. Beisel of Chance Vought. It was unique in several ways and was the Navy's first catapult scouting monoplane. The design was directed toward catapult launching from battleships and cruisers. To withstand the rigors of the assignment, Beisel turned to spot welding for the first time in aviation manufacturing in order to create a non-buckling fuselage structure. This resulted in a sturdiness not known before. Spot welding sped production, reduced maintenance and extended the service life of the aircraft.

The XOS2U-1 prototype was first flown by test pilot Paul S. Baker on 1 March 1938, in East Hartford, Conn., and then flown to NAS Anacostia for service trials in August. After initial trials, 54 production OS2U-1's were ordered in May 1939. First fleet deliveries were to USS Colorado (BB-45) in August 1940. By early 1941, OS2Us operated from 15 battleships and a handful of naval air stations. Ultimately, Vought manufactured 1,219 Kingfishers, and the naval Aircraft Factory produced another 300. The Kingfisher was in service at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack and was aboard the USS Missouri (BB-63) for the signing of the official Japanese surrender.

Thomas E. Doll, aviation historian and writer, said, "In its time of war, the Kingfisher performed so well that men are alive today because of its rugged versatility and the dedication of the virtually unsung airmen who plied their trade from the fantail of battleships, the midsection of cruisers and from shore bases."


By the end of 1941 there were enough Kingfishers so that planes were being sent to all the inshore patrol squadrons, including Bob Ellis' VS-70. The squadron was moved to NAS Kodiak, Alaska, and Bob was made its C.O. Before leaving Sitka, Bob was ordered to build a veritable "land carrier" alongside the inlet to the air station.

The strategists feared that we would need fighter facilities should Japan take a jab at North America through southeast Alaska as many thought they would. Engineers and workmen were moved in, and they built a short runway complete with catapult and arresting gear. The floats were taken off an OS2U, and the plane was equipped with its fixed land-plane wheels and a welded tailhook for the purpose of testing the land carrier. The catapult takeoff went well, but the trap was a disaster. The tailhook worked. It grabbed the cable, but it was far too taut. All the gear in the plane that was not nailed down flew out the front end, scattering navigation books, rubber rafts, thermos bottles and even the loop direction-finder antenna down the runway. The pilot and radioman received a few stitches and a week in sick bay, but they recovered. (The vegetation-overgrown runway is still in place against the hill at Sitka, but to this day that Kingfisher test is the only takeoff and landing ever made there.)

Another idea of the 13th Naval District was to bury 50 gallons of aviation gas in steel drums with crank pumps at 80 locations throughout the inland waters of southeastern Alaska. Ellis hired a boat owner and set the plan in motion. Secret maps of the fuel locations were put in every plane operating in the area. There was a request at the bottom of the map to notify NAS Sitka of any fuel used so that the stash could be replenished. No notification was ever given. Jokingly, Ellis wondered aloud whether, after the war ended, he should sell the maps or search out the gasoline for his bush airline, to which he fully intended to return.


By early May 1943, the seasoned pilots were joined by a new group from VS-50, who had spent the past fall and winter looking for Japanese I-400 class submarines that had surfaced and shelled the coasts of Santa Barbara, Calif., and Seaside, Ore. One of the subs, I-35, was rigged with a hangar deck and a single-engine floatplane. On 9 September 1942, the plane dropped incendiary bombs in the forest just outside Brookings, Ore. The damage was minimal. Japanese intelligence had selected dates indicating that the forest would have been dry, but fortunately the rains had started early that fall. The area of the forest fire was only a few hundred feet across. Today there is a bronze marker at the site of the fire.

After five months of patrols, it was accurately concluded that the I-class submarines had withdrawn to other Pacific areas. About 20 pilots from VS-50 were sent to Kodiak to join VS-70, and I was in that group.

None of us knew what we faced in Kodiak. At VS-50 we enjoyed the talented leadership of LCDR William Leonard, a tough, by-the-rules leader. He did not receive orders to Alaska with us but went into carrier training instead. Bill had a successful career and received the Navy Cross for his persistent raids into Japan.

The group of pilots from VS-50 had about 800 to 1,000 hours of flying time, two-thirds of it in the OS2U. The tales of the exploits of the bush pilot who was to be our skipper at VS-70 had seeped down stateside. Our operations at Sand Point and on the Oregon coast had been quite safe. The weather there was far from ideal, and most of us thought we had little to learn.


We landed at Kodiak on 26 September 1943, and were surprised when we were met by our new skipper. We piled into a bunch of jeeps and station wagons and proceeded five minutes to the BOQ, another surprise. It was much like a fraternity house with a great room, recreation room and dining room. There were plenty of large bedrooms, accommodating two to a room, for the entire officer contingent. The squadron planned a welcoming dinner, and that first evening we were given a most informal but solid overview of what VS-70 was all about. All of our flying experience and our understanding of Navy procedure were to be supplemented by the special knowledge of navy bush pilot Bob Ellis. In fact, VS-70 became a Navy bush squadron.

The assumption was that we were now at the heart of the worst flying weather in North America. The Navy's regulations, rules, procedures and standards were all solid, but to fly in Alaska we had to recognize there were extensions, reductions, adaptations and ad hoc decisions not in the manuals.

We got the message from Ellis: The Japanese were not our enemy; the Alaskan weather was. We were not going to be killed by the Japanese. If we died, it would be our own fault. The weather forecasts were inadequate at best. The charts were filled with errors. The planes had prewar instruments and radio equipment -- no new features such as Loran and radar. the Kingfisher had no de-icing gear. We operated on wheels in the winter and floats in the summer, and each dry or wet configuration had its own problems. Tides of 24 feet were not uncommon, and the wind velocity could be deceptive, limitless and devastating. But the worst ogre of all was the fog, for it served no notice. It could form, descend, and blow in or out all within a matter of minutes. We soon learned that the threat of Aleutian weather had been understated.


We were amazed at the squadron's mechanical sophistication. There was a plethora of OS2U parts, engines, wheels, floats and instruments as well as numerous machinists, radiomen and technicians. Because of his airline experience, Bob Ellis brought plans and built two platforms in the hangar. They were engineered so that the Kingfisher could enter the center of the cut-out area. The engine and mainframe were accessible to all the workers at the exact height. Overhead cables and pulleys enabled parts or an entire engine to be lowered into place. We were advised that the crews could change an engine starting from scratch through engine run-up in four hours. They boasted that they could change an OS2U from dry to wet (wheels to floats) in an hour and reverse it in less than two. Those claims were proved a few days later.

The office and duty-officer area were equally efficient. The files, Teletype, logs, radio and telephones were within an arm's length. Bob boasted that things were so perfectly arranged that duty officers could stand a four-hour watch in three hours. The walls were covered with charts and bulletins. All incoming and outgoing informational notices had to be initialed by every pilot, every day. One chart noted each day the flight schedule of the entire squadron as well as the weather conditions. It confirmed the awful flying conditions but showed that the planes flew even on questionable days.


The picture became clear. VS-70 was a strict, buttoned-down, well-organized squadron operation with an extra set of bush-pilot rules. During off-duty times, VS-70 was a loose, relaxed group that might have displeased hard-line Navy discipline masters. Bob set the standard for the blending of the two seemingly conflicting philosophies. Whether he was right or wrong, he had a large, happy group. The officers and enlisted men held together with pride and high morale. To us newcomers, it was obvious that we were heading into an exciting experience. Our dread disappeared.

Each new pilot, with Bob in the rear seat, took a grand tour of the immediate area in the OS2U. His was a running dialogue, pointing out landmarks and always naming every island, river and mountain peak. What I did not realize was that he was observing our flying ability. He watched every takeoff and landing. There was no notetaking, but he was making a mental flight jacket on each of us.

Ellis would call attention to the differences between flying in Alaska and to what we had been accustomed. We used dead reckoning; our only external aids were the radio range and a weak radio station. Constant tracking of heading, wind and time was necessary. Frequent radio checks were made not only to reaffirm the location but also to keep the radioman in the rear seat at peak performance. One of our early patrols had transmitted an expected time of arrival back at base, but in reality the pair of planes was more than an hour late. This meant that the lead pilot had been blown farther south than had expected. That was typical; the surface winds were weaker than those at cruising altitudes. Dinner conversation was almost entirely about how to judge cross winds from the Bering Sea. The higher the landmass north of us meant the greater the differential between surface winds and winds aloft.

Most of our early patrols were with two planes in loose-stepped formation. The pilots learned to compare wind velocities by hand checks. Most of the time the fog moved in from the north, and the base could spot the approaching threat. A return-to-base order set off a race. Our procedure called for us to fly low, keeping contact with the water while trying to get a radio fix as quickly as possible and report our position every 10 minutes. In turn we received a weather update. When we flew wet, there was always the option to land on the water and wait it out.

One of the most threatening features of the Aleutians is the temperature of the water in both the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea. With water temperatures between 26 and 34 degrees year-round, death results after 10 to 20 minutes of exposure in the water. During my tour of duty, we never failed to get the plane and crews home. There were several overnight campouts, but the planes eventually got back to base.

By Thanksgiving, Bob had skillfully pulled the entire squadron together. None of us had been aware of how well we were being acclimated to the Alaskan conditions. At no time did we feel we were being turned into bush pilots, but we were. Had he made us far more confident and, at the same time, far more alert to the perils of the area.


A few glitches began to show up in the Kingfisher. When the floatplane was converted to wheels, there was a tendency to ground loop. The wheels were close together, and the center of gravity was high above the ground-wheel contact. In strong, variable wind conditions, we had several of those loops while operating on the runways. As winter went on, we became much more alert while landing the OS2U, and by spring we were having no more problems.

The Kingfisher was started by inserting a shotgun shell into a chamber on the engine. The shell was set off with a cockpit switch, and the explosion turned the propeller two or three times. By manipulating the throttle, it was hoped that the engine would catch and start. The invention had its faults, and we had trouble with this device. The starter clogged easily. We did back up the shotgun starter with bungee cords and a leather boot that fit over the tip of the propeller. Two men would pull the cord tight, and a third man let go of the prop just as the tension was at a maximum. It usually worked but could not be used on a floatplane.

The only backup for starting the floatplane in the water was to revert to pulling the propeller by hand while standing behind it on the float and holding onto the cowling. The dialogue between the brave "yanker" of the prop and the cockpit was the same used in World War I aviation: "All clear." "All clear." "Switch on." "Switch on." "Contact." "Contact."

In Cold Bay when the temperature was below zero, we had to erect a canvas tent around the engine, place a kerosene heater in the tent and warm the engine until the prop could be turned by hand.


The tides were especially annoying. Almost every seaplane pilot has tied his aircraft tightly to a dolphin only to awaken the next morning to see the plane hanging completely out of the water, suddenly realizing what an outgoing 24-foot tide can do. In water landings and takeoffs there are conflicting forces on the plane. The rush of the tide, river streams and gusty wind directions required experience and intense attention. While in Kodiak with the planes on floats, we made takeoffs and landings on a body of water called [Womens Bay]. The area was particularly susceptible to willawaws, a bush term applied to what is now called wind sheer. Since the OS2U had no de-icing gear, our only defense was to fly up or down -- fast. Inevitably, we dived to a lower level until the ice quit forming.

Another problem with the Kingfisher was a quick imbalance that occurred on water when anyone walked out on a wing. The wing float would go under, capsizing the plane unless the person dived into the water in time. To go out on one wing, another person had to balance by going out the same distance on the other wing.

Once in a while our pilots would ride in the rear seat with Bob. It was a pleasure to watch [him] at the controls of his takeoff and landing. It was as if he had a computer. The Kingfisher became an extension of his nervous system. Bob and the plane merged into a cooperative and efficient pair.

Routine patrols, weather permitting, were about three to four hours long, morning and evening. It was our task to identify all shipping by comparing their call letters with a code that changed weekly. The ship would run up the signal flag with its four call letters and a letter-number-letter code next to it that had to match. Returning to base, we would fill out a report giving its time, location, call letters, size, etc., and encode it for forwarding to the 13th Naval District. In Alaska we never saw more than one or two ships on patrol.

The more exciting patrols were prompted by some reported problem. There were numerous searches following a report of a possible enemy ship, usually a submarine. It is easy to mistake a fishing vessel for a submarine. The reports ranged from sightings of a single ship to a full-blown invasion. The sightings were usually at times of poor visibility.


Just as the squadron was pulling together as a solid unit, the decision was made to split off a detachment of four planes and six pilots. The detachment was to be stationed at Cold Bay, 400 miles west of Kodiak. Our mission was to patrol the western segment of the area. We joined patrol territory with VS-49 stationed at Dutch Harbor. I was selected as the senior pilot in charge of our detachment. The initial group was made up of William Dau, Lawrence L. Hauke, Vincent Quillen, Richard K. Reckner, James W. Spencer and William M. Alberts. The weather at Cold Bay was far more severe than at Kodiak. Its connection with the Bering Sea was flat, permitting the fog to migrate across our patrol area. However, there was a 40-mile-wide low-lying approach from the Pacific side of the islands, and the radio range was perfectly located for a low-altitude approach without much risk.

The routine at Cold Bay was similar to the one at Kodiak. We were there for the winter months, and the days were short on daylight. We had a hazy sunrise at 1100 and a hazy sunset at 1400. And that was on clear days. Clock time meant little. Mess hours were kept sacred, which meant breakfast and dinner were never held during daylight. The short periods of daylight made for longer sleeping hours, and the weather helped the cause. In checking the log, the longest period with no flights was from 6 February to 17 February 1944. We had a severe snowstorm, and it appeared that it would never end. The storm covered our huts, runways, jeeps and machinery. The wind could not be measured since all our wind instruments were blown away. The poker games ran long. In addition, we were only 25 miles from the Pavlof Volcano, and the eruptions caused constant earthquakes. Unless the earthquake knocked someone down or banged the food off the table, we paid absolutely no attention to the tremors.

The sun came out at last, and just as we resumed patrols, we learned that we were to be rotated back to Kodiak in March. We also learned that Bob Ellis was being replaced as our skipper and sent out as the C.O. of NAS Adak, Alaska. His replacement would be LCDR Jack Egan, a long-time friend from VS-50.


Robert Ellis had taken two dozen aviators and hammered home the message of safety. He showed us how. He made the Kingfisher live up to every expectation. We did have a serious crash in [Womens Bay], but both men survived. We had three ground loops, but repaired all the Kingfishers ourselves. We searched for many downed aircraft and missing airmen, hunted for ships in distress and delivered food and medicine from one end of the Aleutian Islands to the other as well as a pregnant to a hospital for a delivery of her own. We came to Alaska dreading a tour of duty in a dull and dangerous part of the war. Our leader made it anything but dull. He defined our mission from the beginning and showed us how to accomplish it.

In a way, the experience was less about World War II than it was about an opportunity given to a group of Americans who shaped how they thought of themselves and their country. The challenge was met by everyone -- Bob Ellis, the men of VS-70 and those who supplied the Kingfisher.


Mr. Thomas W. Moore was born in Meridian, Miss., in 1918. He attended college at Mississippi State University and the University of Missouri, graduating in 1941. He was then commissioned at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, in August 1942.

Moore served tours of duty in VS-50, subsequently transitioning to PBM-3 Mariners during the formation of VH-1. He left active duty in February 1946.

He later went on to work in the entertainment industry as a CBS executive and then as president of ABC-TV until 1970, after which he founded his own production firm. he retired in 1985.

Mr. Moore was the first president of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation and presently serves as a vice president. He has also served as vice chairman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. During his career in the entertainment industry, Moore was awarded six Emmys and two Peabodys for broadcast excellence.

He currently owns and operates a commercial wine vineyard in St. Helena, Calif.


Reprinted with permission from FOUNDATION magazine, Spring 1998.
CAPT E. Earle Rogers, II USN, (Ret.)
Editor in Chief, "Foundation" Magazine

Copyright Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, namfoffice@naval-air.org

For membership contact namfmember@naval-air.org


For more about OS2U Kingfisher patrols in Kodiak (VS-70), Cold bay(VS-70), Dutch Harbor (VS-49) and Adak (VS-56) see Aleutian Headache.

Names of VS-70 squadron members include William Dau, Lawrence L. Hauke, Thomas W. Moore, Jack Egan, Vincent Quillen, Richard K. Reckner, James W. Spencer, William M. Alberts, Robert E. Ellis, Ray Compton and Peter Klein.


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