Friendly fire in the North Pacific
Friendly fire is an attack by a military force on non-enemy, own, allied or neutral, forces while attempting to attack the enemy, either by misidentifying the target as hostile, or due to errors or inaccuracy. Fire not intended to attack the enemy, such as negligent discharge and deliberate firing on one's own troops for disciplinary reasons, is not called friendly fire. Nor is unintentional harm to non-combatants or structures, which is sometimes referred to as collateral damage.Training accidents and bloodless incidents also do not qualify as friendly fire in terms of casualty reporting.
Use of the term "friendly" in a military context for allied personnel or materiel dates from the First World War, often for shells falling short. The term friendly fire was originally adopted by the United States military. Many North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) militaries refer to these incidents as blue on blue, which derives from military exercises where NATO forces were identified by blue pennants and units representing Warsaw Pact forces by orange pennants. Whereas in classical forms of warfare, including hand-to-hand combat death from a "friendly" was rare, in industrialized warfare, deaths from friendly fire are common. (Wikipedia)
The war in the Northern Pacific theatre was not an exception.
7 June 1942
Russian freighter "Djurma" went under aerial attack in the vicinity of Dutch Harbor. The ship loaded with 10 tons of explosives and detonators, was enroute from Seattle to Vladivostok. On the 3d of June, the captain received a radiogram from Dutch Harbor about the Japanese bombing with warning to all ships not to enter the port. In the morning of 7 June, the permission to enter Dutch Harbor was requested by the captain, and granted by the Navy authorities. However, within 20 miles of the port, the unarmed ship was attacked by the formation of P-38s of the 54th Fighter Squadron, which repeatedly strafed the deck and structures. (The Soviet flag was hoisted on the mast, and clearly painted on the sides). After the fighters disappeared, the formation of 5 bombers flew over, and signaled the ship to stop. The port authorities were notified on the radio about the incident, and the USN corvette soon arrived and collected wounded sailors.
Below is the quote from the letter of Maj. Gen William Butler, Commander, Eleventh Air Force to Gen Henry Arnold, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army Air Forces, 16 Jun 1942
"The (P-38s) flight (of the 54th Fighter squadron) ordered to Otter Point on Umnak Island, accidentally strafed Russian freighter, thinking its flag was Japanese. Fortunately, no one was injured. One of the pilots on landing at Otter Point forgot to safety the gun switch and depressed it on landing, sending a stream of rounds down the runway. The squadron had “been pretty wild for a couple of days and chased friend and foe alike".
In fact, there were 13 injured on board of "Djurma", and many of them received treatment in Dutch Harbor hospital. Analysis of the first photo dated 1944, however, does not show a "clearly visible" painting of USSR flag on the hull of the ship. Possibly, in 1942, the markings were more visible.
17 July 1942
Catalina in Sector 13 sighted a submarine shelling Russian ship (possibly, freighter "Uelen"). Plane attacked submarine with depth bombs. Damage unknown. The submarine submerged as the patrol plane approached. Plane apparently sighted the Russian ship at same time submarine did and attack on submarine was made within five minutes after ship transmitted an "SOS". Coordinates 54-35N, 160-15W.
This one was an example of truly friendly and helpful fire.
The capture of Attu in May 1943 placed Americans within flying distance of the northern Kurile Islands and the Kamchatka Penninsula.
In early June 1943, Lt Oliver Glenn from VP-61decided to fly all the way to Petropavlovsk. He informed his squadron commander, who, although refusing to officially sanction the flight, did give tacit approval by suggesting that a photographer be sent along.
Oliver Glenn and his crew made it to the Russian port city as planned, where for the first time in months they saw trees, houses and streets. Two obsolete I-16 Mosca fighters rose to intercept them. Seeing that the Americans meant no harm, the Russian pilots flew off the wing tips of the PBY as Glenn and his crew proceeded along the coast line, before turning and heading back to Attu.
The Russians apparently never complained of the violation of their airspace, and nothing official was said about the unauthorized flight.
Lt Cmdr Carl Amme, the commander of VP-45, also decided to try his luck with the Russians. On one flight out of Casco Cove, he flew past the north side of the Komandorsky Islands where he observed construction going on. The next day he dispatched Lt Stitzel to make an aerial reconnaissance of the construction site. Stitzel dutifully returned with a number of excellent oblique and vertical photographs. When Commodore Gehres saw them, he blew his top and directed that Amme discipline Stitzel for violating Russian neutrality. Amme did not take any further action, but the episode did alert him to Gehres' feelings about unauthorized flights; so several weeks later... he was reluctant to seek official approval for a rescue effort. (John Haile Cloe, "The Aleutian Warriors")
24 July: Catalina 44V BuNo 04486 of VP-61 in Fox Annex sector three, approximately 5 miles north of Nikolsky Village, Bering Island, developed port engine trouble (oil loss) which required a forced landing in Nikolsky Bay in the vicinity of the village. While attempting to land, a Russian ground position opened fire and seriously damaged the plane, stopping the starboard engine and puncturing the starboard wing tanks. (FAW4 Diary).
Lt. Wilbur J. Wehmeyer turned the PBY to the sea, where bombs and all excess gear were jettisoned. With only eight gallons of oil left, he succeeded in landing in Sarana Lake on Bering Island, a few miles inland from Nikolski Village, after radioing his position to the base. At 1454 Lt. (jg) Roy Evans from VP-45 in Catalina 73V on command by Lt Cmdr Carl Amme, departed Attu to rescue Lt Wehmeyer and crew. Amme cautioned Evans not to use his radio during the rescue operation. To further make sure that higher headquarters did not find out what was going on, Amme directed his communication officer to fake a communication outage.
This mission was successful. Evans arrived at the lake just ahead of a Russian patrol. All confidential material in 44V was jettisoned at sea before landing with the exception of a portion of the aircraft code retained and returned by the pilot. (John Haile Cloe, "The Aleutian Warriors")
44V was sunk by gunfire from 73V, which returned to base at 2125W. Lt Wehmeyer stated he took this action to avoid international complications and because he feared the Japanese might be in possession of the island (FAW4 Diary).
Catalina 64V searching Fox Annex Twenty-four was also fired on by Russians at the Komandorski Islands. In view of these incidents, the Wing Commander Gehres warned the pilots that the Russians fire on belligerent planes and directed that they keep clear of Soviet territory.
The Eleventh Air Force suffered a series of embarrassments during the month. One mission of B-24s following a Fleet Air Wing radar equipped PV-1 turned back with it despite the fact that the visibility over North Head was clear. One crew from the 404th Bombardment Squadron challenged a friendly destroyer and got the wrong response. The crew learned later that they had the outdated recognition codes. Another B-24 on a weather reconnaissance attacked what it thought was a small Japanese vessel. It turned out to be a Navy PT boat. As a result, the crew was ordered to visit the PT boat crew in Constantine Harbor and apologize. (Pitt, Wide Open on Top, p. 227.)
9 July 1943
Submarine Permit (SS-178), believing her quarry to be a Japanese trawler, shells Soviet oceanographic vessel Seiner No.20 27 miles off Kaiba To. Once the mistake is realized, Permit comes alongside the blazing vessel and rescues the survivors before the Russian craft sinks. The Soviet sailors are taken to Akutan, Alaska.
1st October 1943 (William time zone, Aleutians)
Catalina 76V of VP-45 piloted by Lt (jg) Carpenter, made contact with fishing vessel on the high seas at Lat.54*32' N., Long. 163* 25' E. The vessel opened fire on the plane. The Catalina strafed it well, driving all personnel below deck and then approached close enough to observe that it was flying a flag bearing a red hammer and cickle on a white flag. After the strafing the vessel ran up an identifying flag hoist.
PBY 44V BuNo 04486 of VP-61 was shot upon from "possibly Russian" freighter at 53-08N, 177-40E. Lt Wehmeyer returned to base before the bombers arrival due to lack of fuel.
4 February 1944, "Close call"
Lt. (jg) Dryden of V-62 in PBY-5A 47V mistook the entrance to Avacha Bay as Lopatka Strait, and made his first landfall on the Cape Mayachny light at the entrance to Avacha Bay, Kamchatka, at 1145. After running south along the Kamchatka coast until 1320, he thought that Cape Zhelty was his target area of Kurabu Zaki. Before dropping any explosives, however, he obtained indications of more land farther to the south and continued on southerly course, and at 1345 definitely identified Cape Lopatka, from where he headed for a sweep over Shimushu.
27 August, 1944 (William time zone, Aleutians)
FAW FOUR War Diary: "A 400 ft tanker heading north was attacked off Kamchatka coast, that was believed to be Onekotan To. (76V, Lt. Price). One of the incendiary bombs was observed to seen to explode on the deck of the tanker aft of amidships, starting a fire which could be seen for 30 min during departure. During the attack, Lt. Price saw what he described as a white rectangle with a red circle in the center, painted on the side of the ship, and members of the crew saw two flags flying above the superstructure which were described as "red and yellow stripes" and " white with a red circle in the center".
Later the tanker was found to be Russian "Emba", heading from Vladivostok to the United States. An article about the incident was recently posted here. There were casualties, however: after the "Ventura's" strafing pass, one sailor died, and another one got injured.
Identification was never a sure thing. Soviet vessels were supposed to have a big USSR painted on each side and to aid in our identification they had our challenge and reply codes. Three B-24 heavy bombers found an AKA (merchant ship) that looked like a Liberty but with no markings or flags of any kind. The aircraft challenged but got no reply. After milling around for awhile they decided to attack with .50 caliber machine guns, setting the vessel on fire. Possibly keeping in mind the stories and pictures of the Japanese beheading allied fliers, they strafed the lifeboats after these were in the water. That was not a good thing to do by any measure, but understandable. The bombers left the scene shortly so we never knew what happened to the ship or crew. In two days we had people from the State Department swarming all over us. There followed stern lectures on identification to protect our "neutral" friends(?) the Russians. We had many more slide sessions and movies of all allied and enemy warships and merchant vessels. This was a welcome break from "Ice Formation on Aircraft" and "Protect Yourself from VD", but we couldn't understand how studying the profiles of German and Italian warships pertained to us. One of our other squadron's pilots damaged a Russian sub that was in the "attack everything" zone at periscope depth. Once again a hue and cry from Washington - a shrug of the shoulders from us.
(Turk Orr, VB-136 and VPB-139 pilot, from the book "How It Was, Reminiscences of a Navy Pilot in the Aleutians")
Many times our patrols encountered freighters headed for Russian ports and we were to challenge and identify them as friendly. Our crews were given a new code signal each day and a ship was to blinker back a coded reply. The first time we challenged an AK we circled and blinked six times before getting a response. Other pilots also complained about the slow or incorrect response. None of us were ever fired upon, but one crew finally fired into the water ahead of the ship and did get a correct and immediate reply. I did not hear about the bombing attack on the tanker. As we said in the Navy 'It wasn't on my watch'.
(Lewis "Pat" Patteson, VB-135, personal communication, 2015).
9 June, 1945 (William time zone, Aleutians)
Eight B-25's of the 77th Bombardment Squadron took of from Attu toward the targets at Araido Island west of Shumushu in order to divert enemy attention while the Navy Task force approached to shell installations on the southern tip of Paramushiro. The first flight of four bombers was led by Capt. Edward Irving. The visibility on the way to the target was so poor that the second flight lost contact with the first one almost immediately. John Tidball, one of the the pilots of the first flight recalls: "We four continued 'on the deck' for the entire trip. I remember vividly at one point maintaining contact with Irving by watching the wake in the water by his props." When Irwing led the flight across Cape Lopatka, Talley broke radio silence to remind Irving that "this is Russia and we don't do this.' Irving's response: "Maintain radio silence and your position."
"It was the most interesting to see the cape from sixty feet," Talley said. It was flat plowed ground and included one old fellow with a wooden plow and one horse. He never looked up." Talley told his crew that there would be no firing toward the ground under any circumstances.
The four B-25 unloaded their bombs over Araito and then made a sweeping turn to head back to Attu. By that time, however, enemy fighters were swarming and chased the flight, led by Irwing, toward the cape again. "The fighters began their attack as we were over the cape," Talley said. A quick glance by Talley revealed that the plowed fieldt hat he had earlier observed, "had opened up. There was a was a deep trench filled with men and equipment. "I was flying on Irving's left wing," he reported. "It was then that I believe I saw tracers from Irving's right waist gun fire toward the ground. I have wondered if Irving ever told his crew that they were crossing Russian territory. A gunner could have seen troops in that trench, and just automatically fired at them."
Why did Irving intrude Soviet territory a second time? "I can only guess, " John Tidball said, "that it was pressure from the Japanese fighters that caused him to lead the flight over the tip of Lopatka again. At any rate, we were being shot at by the Japs from above and the Soviets from below. It was not a good place to be." According to Talley, Irving was under 100 feet altitude when ground fire hit Irving's bomb-bay fuel tank. The explosion shattered the top gun turret, and flames erupted from the cavity. Talley said that he urgently told Irving by radio "to turn left" toward the water, and he thought that Irving was trying to comply. Then Irving's bomber went out of control, dived into a fog bank, crashed, and exploded"
The crew members were buried close to the crash site by the Soviet soldiers. In a few days, Irving's wallet was transferred to the head of the group of the American airmen interned in Petropavlovsk. In the summer of 1949 the bodies were returned to the families in the U.S. via Petropavlovsk, Vladivostok, and Japan.
6 August, 1945
In the morning, PK-7 and PK-10 (ПК-7 and ПК-10) patrol crafts left Avachinskiy Bay and were heading south toward Cape of Lopatka, the southernmost point of Kamchatka Peninsula. PK in Russian stands for "Pogranichniy Kater", Пограничный Катер or "Border Patrol Craft". They had crew of 12, and armament of 2x 12.7mm MG (see the photos below). At 09:32, while passing vicinity of small island of Gavryushkin Kamen, they were attacked by 2 planes. During the straffing, that continued for the next 27 minutes from the mast-top height, 11 sailors died, and another 11 were wounded, including the Commander of PK-7 V. Ovsyannikov. One of the boats sustained engine trouble, and lost the speed. The other craft used the smokescreen, and eventually, towed the damaged vessel back to Petropavlovsk. After the war a monument was erected at the burial place at the territory of the new Border Patrol boat station at Solenoe Lake.
In 1945, my granddad's house was located right next to that boat station (by Medvezhye Lake), and he himself, and his 3 sons (including my then-5-years-old father) became good friends with the crews. That morning, just as always, some of the sailors stopped by the house to say hello before embarking their vessels. As my granddad remembered from talking to the survivors, there was never a doubt, that attacking planes were Japanese. However, some time ago I read online, that the attackers could be the Americans. This prompted me to some archive digging.
What I found was the copy of flight report of Lts M. Noyer and N. Hofheymer of VPB-120, who were on their first mission to the Kuriles. Their newly-formed Squadron VPB-120 was just transferred to Shemya from the training at Whidbey island NAS. With malfunctioning Loran, they first miscalculated their position by about 70 miles, and were spotted and reported by Soviet border guards as violating Kamchatka air space near Utashud island. (I have a copy of that report from the Russian source, where the planes were misidentified as B-24s). Then Lt Noyer in the leading plane (call code 86 Victor, BuNo 59816), thinking they were over Paramushiro coast, failed to make an identifying pass over the Soviet vessels (even though they were briefed to do that), and started a head-on strafing attack. Lt Hofheimer's plane (call code 92 Victor, BuNo 59716) joined him shortly, but on his 2nd pass, the gunner from the top turret noticed the Soviet Navy flags on the boats, and the attack was called off.
Rhodes Arnold, in his book "Foul Weather Front", quotes the August 5 log book entry of Clyde Paul Cunningham, a gunner on the Noyer crew:
My first strike at enemy, poor devils didn’t have a chance. Sank one ship, left the other one badly burning. Burnt my gun barrels up. Remember chunks of wood big as car wheels flying off the deck. First run over ship could not fire cause guns wouldn’t bear on target. Second run sank ship with machine gun fire. Second ship was throwing such heavy AA fire at us two runs was all able to make. Saw men on the deck, some dead, some in cold ice water, and some hiding from our accurate fire. Could see large balls of fire coming from the enemy’s five inch guns. I doubt if the second vessel made shore, because the vessel was aflame all over. Heard suddenly over I.E.S. heavy antiaircraft was firing at us from shore. Got out of there in a hurry. Heavy flak was coming up at us all the time, although we were twenty five feet off the water doing 200 miles an hour. One large shell came so close it knocked water over the port wing. We flew so close to the water prop wash was kicking up waves behind us. Did this to keep fighters off our aircraft. Returned to base.
Not a word about the misidentification but interesting details about number of passes which was officially reported as total of five, as well as Soviet AA gun support from the shore.
Unfortunately, Soviet sailors paid the ultimate price for this mistake.
Seven Soviet freighters and one fishing vessel near Japanese shores perished to American "friendly fire". As a rule, Soviet vessels underwent American torpedo attacks in bad visibility conditions: in fog or at night.
Following is the list of the Soviet vessels that were lost to American submarines:
Angarstroy — May 1, 1942, East China Sea, to the U.S. submarine SS-210 Grenadier
Kola, Ilmen — February 16 and 17, 1943, Pacific Ocean, SS-276 Sawfish
Seiner #20 — July 9, 1943, Sea of Japan, SS-178 Permit
Belorussia — March 3, 1944, Sea of Okhotsk, SS-381 Sand Lance
Ob— July 6, 1944, Sea of Okhotsk, SS-281 Sunfish
Transbalt— June 13, 1945, Sea of Japan, SS-411 Spadefish
145 of crewmembers and passengers perished from the American torpedo attacks.
October 4, 1943: Liberty-class freighter Odessa was torpedoed on approach to Akhomten Bay at 00:22 a.m. board time. Most likely, it was attacked by the U.S. submarine S-44. The submarine itself sank soon thereafter near Paramushir Island. Odessa, with a large hole at the stern, was towed to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Subsequently the vessel was fully repaired at the ship-repair yard constructed before the war. Odessa was last seen in Golden Horn Bay of Vladivostok as late as 2003, before being cut for scrap.