Kuriles photo missions and Nishizawa’s lost battle

(Short version of this article was published in February and March 2017 issues of the Air Classics magazine)


May 29, 1943. The one-year-long Japanese occupation of the U.S. Aleutian Island of Attu ended when Colonel Yasuo Yamasaki, the commander of the Japanese garrison, led the last "banzai charge" of his remaining 800 soldiers. Fighting their way deep into the U.S. position, they blew themselves up with grenades. Yamasaki died with a samurai sword in hand. On July 28, 1943, five thousand men of Japanese Kiska garrison were successfully evacuated under the fog cover to the Kurile Islands of Shimushu and Paramushiro (1), ending the Japanese presence in the Aleutian Islands. The first line of Japanese defense at the Northeast has irrevocably  shifted to the Kuriles.

1. Modern spelling is “Shumshu” and “Paramushir”.  Throughout the text, the toponyms are spelled as of 1944 standards, and the modern version of spelling or current name is provided in footnotes.


Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo naturally expected further American development from the Aleutians. Construction of fortifications and new airfields unfolded on the islands of Shimushu and Paramushiro, and existing infrastructure expanded and updated.


As the result of the Aleutian campaign, by the end of 1943 the U. S. armed forces created a network of naval bases, army bases, airfields, warehouses and repair shops in the Aleutians. Aircraft of Fleet Air Wing Four performed daily patrols of the northern Pacific Ocean from the Komandorskie to the Kurile Islands searching for Japanese submarines and providing safe navigation for the Soviet ships with American Lend-Lease weapons and supplies. Construction of the airfield for extra-long-range  B-29 bombers was initiated at Shemya Island.


The United States contemplated the possibility of capturing the Kuriles as a prelude to attack Japan from the North ever since August 1942. As the Aleutian Campaign ended, General Buckner, the head of Alaska Defense Command, expressed a wish to “walk through the ashes of Tokyo.”  That would require the use of the Kuriles as an invasion route to the main Japanese Islands as well as the use of Soviet bases in the Kamchatka peninsula. Not much was known of the Kuriles at the time. General Buckner ordered his staff to conduct studies of Kamchatka and Kuriles. Washington approved an Eleventh Air Force proposal (2) that two bomber missions shall be flown to collect intelligence on the northern Kuriles in July. 

2. Otis Hays, Jr., Alaska’s Hidden Wars, Secret Campaigns on the North Pacific Rim 


Aerial photographic reconnaissance of the Kuriles began on July 18, 1943, during the first successful bombing of Kataoka (3) naval base on Shimushu and Kashiwabara (4) army base on Paramushiro. Subsequent bombing missions in August and September were executed based on the obtained information. Heavy B-24 bombers and medium B-25s took off from Attu, the westernmost island of the Aleutian chain. Initial flights alerted the  Japanese, who reinforced their air defense by sending in additional fighter units. Islands of Shimushu and Paramushiro were becoming the outer fortress protecting the northern border of Japanese mainland.

3.The Imperial Japanese Navy maintained the Kataoka Naval Base and Airfield on the Southwest side of Shimushu Island. The naval base, considered to be the most important airfield in the northern Kuriles, consisted of a 480 by 150 foot mote with a 320-foot breakwater extension, three 60-foot oil tanks, a barracks complex, light and heavy anti-aircraft positions and many scattered ammunition and supply stores. The naval airfield consisted two crossed runways measuring about 5,000 by 250 feet and 4,000 by 250 feet. The shorter of the two was paved. The airfield consisted of one 130 by 165 foot hangar and  thirteen covered blast shelters and twenty-four uncovered blast shelters and approximately 6,900 feet of taxiways. Both the airfield and the nearby fishing village, renamed Baikovo, have been maintained by the Soviets until the 1990’s, but are abandoned today.

4. Severo-Kurilsk









                                                                                            Click on thumbnails to enlarge images





The September 11, 1943, bombing mission of eight B-24s and twelve B-25s resulted in the most disastrous operation for the 11th Air Force. Japanese fighter planes and antiaircraft gunners were on the alert; only five "Liberators" and five "Mitchells" returned home. One B-24 was forced to land in Petropavlovsk on the way to its target due to engine malfunction, another B-24 and two B-25s were shot down. One B-24 and five B-25s were so badly battered by  Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft gunners that they had to crash-land in neutral territory of the USSR  in Petropavlovsk. 22 men were killed, one taken prisoner and 51 interned in Kamchatka. Two pilots, one copilot and four other crew members of the returned planes were wounded. 


After this failure, the U. S. Army Air Force stopped its offensive operations in the Kuriles for the following six months. The bombings did not cause much damage to the Japanese, but the Americans confirmed the seriousness of the Japanese presence in the North Kuriles. 


The XI Bombardment Command began a strenuous training program, both on the ground and in the air. It now stressed night and instrument flying at high altitudes. Fight crews were sent back to Elmendorf Field near Anchoradge, Alaska,  to attend instrument school at the newly created Eleventh Air Force Instrument Training School (Provisional). 

Since January 1944, a new player joined the U. S. Kurile operations. It was Navy patrol bomber Lockheed PV-1 “Ventura.” Pilots of Patrol Bombing Squadron VB-139 just recently switched to this new aircraft from the much slower PBY "Catalina". Equipped with good defensive armament, radar, and later-LORAN navigational system,  “Ventura” also sported two powerful engines: P&W R-2800.  Those enabled PV-1s to hold at equal speed with Japanese fighters and sometimes even outperform them in battle.

















Technological advances of the aircraft, however, did not eliminate the influence of the harsh operational conditions of the region. Often, an entire nine-hour trip to the northern Kurile Islands and back was flown "blindly," relying only on navigational equipment, fighting variable winds, snow squalls, fog and rain. Prior to the Kurile missions, Venturas with a maximum takeoff weight of 31,000 pounds were routinely overloaded up to 34,000 pounds or even more, mainly at the   expense of additional fuel. This means, if one engine would quit during the take-off, the plane would stall in the air and crash. Three aircraft were lost during such take-offs (5). Despite extra fuel on board, the aircraft often returned to the base with nearly dry tanks. In the event of mechanical failure or combat damage, the only alternative to landing in the ocean was Soviet Kamchatka, which meant internment for aircraft crews until the end of the war, in accordance with the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact. Thus, each sortie to the Kurile Islands was a serious endurance test for both aviators and their planes. Soon after the first raids from the Aleutians, the naval air crews came up with the nickname "Empire Express" for their Kurile missions.

5. 3/25/44, Lt. James P. Moore, 5/18/44 Lt. Lowe, both VB-139, and 5/23/44, Lt. (jg) Carl E. Clark of VB-135 

In view of the tragic experience of September 1943, initial photo-reconnaissance missions to the Kuriles were conducted at night. Four 100-pound magnesium flash bombs were carried for night photography. The bombs were thrown manually by the crew.  A flash bomb explosion triggered photocell which was synchronized with the shutter of the night aerial camera Fairchild K-19A. The camera was mounted in the nose of the aircraft. On approach to the target, the cover of the camera hatch in the floor was removed manually, chilling the cockpit to the freezing outside temperature. This further complicated the work conditions of the crews. (6) Despite the use of highly sophisticated cameras, sometimes all of the negatives turned out to be overexposed. Japanese searchlights often triggered photocells prematurely. It soon became clear that a single flare bomb explosion would rarely allow to produce more than one usable photograph. In general, the results of night photography, though not a complete failure, were clearly not enough to provide detailed intelligence information about Japanese presence on the Kurile Islands. 

6. Personal communication with VB-139 veterans Thomas “Bob” McKelvey and Don Anderson.



















From mid-April of 1944 a secret operation, codenamed "Wedlock" was carried out. It was a massive release of radio disinformation, designed to convince the Japanese that the preparation of large-scale attacks of the Northern Kuriles in the near future is in full swing, and thus would tie up their resources in the Kuriles which were needed at other fronts. Photoreconnaissance of the Kuriles thus becomes especially important for strategic planning.


Operation “Keelblocks" was a plan to seize the Northern Kuriles  in the event that the Soviets entered the Pacific War. Drafted by the Joint Chiefs in May 1944, it required clear access to the Soviet Far East ports and called for Admiral Frank J. Fletcher's Northern Pacific forces to protect Kamchatka and the Komandorskie Islands. Subsequent discussion of the plan revealed highly diverged views among high Naval and Army authorities. Commander of the Western Defense Sector, Lt. Gen. John DeWitt wanted to begin operation as soon as possible, in the spring or summer of 1944. His plan included occupation of the Kurile Islands as well as the establishment of bases there for further attacks on Hokkaido and Honshu. Alaskan Army commanders supported the strategy. Admirals Ernest J. King and Chester W. Nimitz expressed concerns about the feasibility of diverting troops and resources from the central and southwestern operational areas in the Pacific Ocean. The admirals doubted that the Soviet Union will violate the terms of the neutrality pact with Japan and allow the Americans to use its bases in Kamchatka and Primorye (Maritime Province near Vladivostok) which would be required for an operation of such magnitude. Difficult weather conditions of the region were also used as an  argument by the critics of the attacks from the North. The Navy authorities, however, supported the use of long-range B-29 bombers from bases in the western Aleutian  Islands, considering that strategic bombing would exclude the need for invasion. 


Plans for the operation "Keelblocks" were finalized by the end of May 1944. They required an extensive use of Soviet air and naval bases. The Soviet leadership, however, did not want to open the second front by breaking neutrality with Japan, and refused to give permission to use their bases. The Americans sent repeated requests to Moscow and continued to gather intelligence on Japanese forces in the Kuriles.


In May 1944, the VB-139 Patrol Bombing Squadron on Attu was replaced by the VB-135. It was the first squadron in the US Navy that mastered PV-1 "Ventura" aircraft.  Many squadron pilots already gained invaluable experience of flying in a harsh Aleutian conditions from May to November 1943 during recapturing of Attu. The training syllabus for the new tour stressed  navigation, bombing, instrument and night flying. Another important aspect of the syllabus was training in photo work with the use of photo flash bombs. Additional training in instrument flying was supervised by the deputy squadron commander, Lieutenant Marion A. "Butch" Mason.(7) “Butch" Mason was rightfully considered an expert in blind navigation; he learned it from the American pioneer of instrumental flights, Jack Thornburg, who was the chief pilot of TWA. On the way to Attu from training base at Whidbey Island, WA, the squadron made a two-and a half-week stop in Adak to study LORAN navigation. 

7. Before the war, Lieutenant Mason was an engineer with the General Electric. While serving with VB-135, he redesigned the intercom system of the PV-1 aircraft, which greatly improved its efficiency.  


The primary mission of the squadron was photographic reconnaissance of northern Kuriles.  Aircraft were modified for such missions at the Lockheed factory. They all had brackets for the installation of aerial cameras, additional fuel tanks in the bomb bay and racks for the flare bombs. Aerial photo cameras now were mounted over transparent panels, which allowed to take photographs from the warm cockpit by using remote controls. All planes also had an improved fuel system with automatic transfer pump which balanced the amount of gasoline between the right and left wing tanks.(8)

8. The “ultimate” fuel system with automatically adjusted delivery of gasoline from all fuel tanks, was introduced only in the latest PV-1 series. This innovation made the co-pilot’s life significantly easier: in early “Venturas” one of his major tasks was to monitor the fuel consumption by voracious engines, and to not forget to switch off the emptying tanks manually.


Until the beginning of June, the work of the squadron did not differ much from the one of VB-139:  night photography and bombing by radar. In May, the U.S. intelligence captured some Japanese data which indicated that there was previously unknown airfield on Shimushu, named Miyoshino (9). The search for the new airfield became a priority. After analyzing its possible location and a series of night photo missions, the mysterious airfield still was not found.

9. The Imperial Japanese Army maintained the Miyoshino Airfield, located in the low, marshy interior of Shimushu four and a half miles east of Kataoka. The single 3,800 by 180 foot runway with a 120 by 300 foot parking area had been constructed in 1944. It was capable of accommodating 40 fighters and 30 twin-engine bombers. The airfield facilities consisted of eight buildings that included seven barracks.  A six gun anti-aircraft battery was located 1,600 yards of the North end of the airfield and a four gun battery supported by four machine guns 1,000 yards northeast of the North end of the airfield.

Then along came two missions which changed the tactics of further Kurile air operations in their entirety. 


Prior to each night operation it was the practice to send a single PV-1 toward the Kuriles in the daytime, with a turning point of about 100 miles short of the target. In 1944, it was the only way to obtain a real time weather report in the target area. On June 10, a weather reconnaissance  sortie was flown by Lieutenant John P. Vivian. Soon after takeoff, the crew had been told that the weather at Attu was getting progressively worse and instructed to stay on the circuit for a possible recall. However, the further they flew from the base, the better the weather became. Vivian later recalled in his diary: “About 200 miles from the target I found this going through my head: Why not dash in and get a picture of that airfield?  One plane could probably get in and out before the fighter could be alerted and up on altitude. I voiced this to the crew and found them willing to a man. I put my request on the circuit and received a flat “no” from the base. I reworded the request stating that I had a camera aboard and wished to continue to the target. Before we received our answer we arrived at our turning point.  We elected to continue” (10).

10 and 11, John Vivian’s diary, via L. A. Patteson


Shimushu Island was below them, visibility unlimited in all directions. The base started calling, but the crew kept silent. Soon they found the new airfield in the southern part of the   island. Vivian descended to 7,000 feet: “High enough for several good pictures and high enough to stay out of small gunfire” (11). They flew directly over the brand new concrete runway, and took a series of photos before turning in the direction of Attu. Only then radioman Frank Virant  answered the call from base, which, as it turned out, gave "OK" for the photographic flyover.


Photos revealed 22 Japanese twin-engined bombers parked on both sides of the  runway, which escaped Vivian’s crew attention. They were Ki-49 “Helen” type of Japanese Army 74th (or, possibly, 95th) Sentai. Despite the fact that pictures were taken with a smaller, hand-held K-20 camera, they were so much more informative than photos taken at night that the command decided to approve another daylight photo mission to the northern and central Kuriles.


F-7A, the photo-reconnaissance version of B-24 heavy bomber, was the only photo aircraft with enough range to conduct the reconnaissance of the central Kuriles. Painted in sky-blue color, these planes were called "Blue Geese" by the airmen. 15 June four F-7A’s from the 2nd Photographic Charting Squadron took off from the Shemya airfield. The group split near Matsuwa Island (12). Lieutenant Colt headed south to photograph the southern half of the Central Kurils while Captain Houston with Lieutenants Geren and Gauger headed north.


12. Matua







Two hours later, seven PV-1s of VB-135 departed for the northern Kurile Islands from Casco Cove airfield on Attu. Six Venturas were to bomb Miyoshino airfield and act as decoy for the Japanese fighters. The seventh PV-1 was rigged with seven aerial photo cameras, specifically for this mission. Five cameras were mounted in hard points, four of them were operated automatically. Three stationary F-56 cameras, one for vertical and two for oblique photography, while turned on simultaneously covered a surface area of up to 9 miles wide. Another F-56 camera was placed in the bracket by the porthole on the starboard of the aircraft and was manually operated.  A massive K-17 camera mounted in the bow of the aircraft allowed to take high resolution vertical pictures (13). The other two cameras were portable K-20’s kept in the cockpit for accidental photos. Photo plane was piloted by Lieutenant (junior grade) Lewis A. "Pat" Patteson, a veteran of the VB-135 first  Aleutian tour. To increase the chances of success of the mission, a Photographer’s Mate was added to the crew of seven. Patteson recalls, “I learned later that my crew had  threatened the photographer's mate (who was) in charge of the cameras with mayhem if any of the cameras should fail.” 

13. Typical setup of aerial photo cameras for subsequent PV-1 photo missions was one to three stationary F-56 cameras in the bow and a portable K-20 camera inside the aircraft.











As soon became clear, the airmen’s concerns were not in vain. Two hours before the Venturas reached the target, the formation of three F-7A’s encountered accurate AA fire over the southern tip of Paramushiro Island which damaged the elevator of Lieutenant Geren’s plane nicknamed “Shoot an Scoot”, forcing him to fall behind the other two. Seven "Zeros" of 203rd Air Group (Kokutai) under the command of Captain (Taisa) Atsushi Abe (安倍篤) , took off from Musashi Naval air base (14) on Paramushiro and clashed with the F-7As. Japanese fighter pilots made  multiple passes on the damaged “Shoot an scoot” as Lt. Geren and his crew headed for base. A 20-millimeter cannon round hit the oil cooler of the number one engine, causing immediate loss of oil. With one engine shut down, Lieutenant Geren broke free from the fighters and began jettisoning equipment, including the ball turret. While en route back to Shemya, the”Shoot an scoot” encountered Japanese Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" twin engine medium bomber, which made three passes attempting to shoot down the bomber with its tail-mounted 20-mm cannon (15).

14. The Imperial Japanese Navy Musashi airfield at Kurabu Zaki (Cape Vasilyeva) was the southernmost base on Paramushiro.  It consisted of two crossed surfaced runways, one 4,300 by 260 feet and the other 4,200 by 375 feet supported by 5,200 yards of taxiways connecting the runways with hangars and dispersal areas. There were five hangars in late 1944, four of which were 120 by 160 feet.  Approximately 350 buildings were identified in aerial photographs with additional buildings in outlying  areas. An extensive road network linked the facilities and the airfield with other locations on Paramushiru. It was the most active base on Paramushiru and the one from which the airstrikes were launched in May and October 1943. More than 100 guns and gun positions had been concentrated in the area, making it one of the most heavily defended bases in the northern Kuriles. Known fortifications in late 1944 included five coastal defense gun, nine anti-aircraft guns, twenty-one automatic anti-aircraft guns, twenty-nine  machine gun positions, forty-one covered gun positions, twenty pillboxes, six searchlights and extensive anti-tank trenching. Two radar sites were located there as well as four radio and four radio direction  finding stations.

15. Lieutenant Geren made it back to Shemya on three engines, but "Shoot an scoot," was declared unfit for further Kuril service. (John Haile Cloe, "Mission to Kurils".)

Japanese pilots, radar operators, and linguists at the radio surveillance center on Shimushu were on the highest alert. The airspace above Shimushu and Paramushiro was swarming with patrolling fighters. 


Meanwhile, near the south of Kamchatka, the naval crews broke their formation, and each “Ventura” approached the target on its own course. Lieutenant William T. Clapham was the first one to cross the Shimushu coast line. Approaching Miyoshino he saw 9 to 12 “Zeros” flying above on a collision course from the direction of Paramushiro Strait (16). Japanese fighter pilots did not notice his PV-1. After dropping his bombs over the northeastern part of the airfield and meeting no resistance, Lieutenant Clapham headed for base. It appears that anti-aircraft gun crews used his plane to set their gun sights and rounds for proper burst altitude. Under their heavy fire went the Ventura piloted by Lieutenant Russell P. Bone. Direct hit of an AA projectile brought down one of the engines. Violently maneuvering on maximal power settings, Lieutenant Bone managed to fly his plane out of the anti-aircraft fire zone. However, squeezing the last power out of the overheated remaining engine, he realized that his chances to return to the base are less than slim. Lieutenant Bone made a one-engine emergent landing on Yelizovo airfield in Kamchatka. His PV-1 became the first aircraft of the US Navy, which safely landed in the Soviet Union (17). 

16. Second Kurile Strait, dividing Shumshu and Paramushir

17. 3/25/1944 PV-1 BuNo 34641 piloted by Walt Whitman of VB-139 sustained damage from anti-aircraft fire over Shumshu, attempted to reach Petropavlovsk, but crashed on a slope of Mutnovsky Volcano, approximately 50 miles from Yelizovo airfield in Kamchatka. Detailed reconstruction of that mission was conducted by Col. Ralph Wetterhahn, and described in his book “The Last Flight of Bomber 31"


The following four Venturas appeared over the Miyoshino airfield almost simultaneously, coming in from different directions. Lieutenant Vivian also avoided an encounter with Japanese fighters. Either strategically predicting Japanese tactics, or simply relying on a chance,  Lieutenant Vivian dropped only part of his bomb load (fragmentation bombs) over Miyoshino. Then he immediately headed for Kataoka airfield where he observed 3 flights of 3 fighters each taking off.  All 31 “Zero” fighters of S304 (Sento Hikotai, Squadron) of 203rd Kokutai were airborne, led by Buntaicho (Squadron Leader), Lieutenant (Dai-i) Takashi Oshibuchi (鴛淵孝), (18). None of these planes attempted to close. Lieutenant Vivian dropped his incendiary bombs over the airfield and left the “hot” zone amidst the barrage of anti-aircraft fire from the naval base guns.

18. Japanese Navy ace pilot with six aerial victories.  He did not return from the air battle with VF-49 "Hellcats" over Bungo Channel 26 July 1945.


Six Japanese fighters attacked Venturas of Lieutenant (junior grade) James T. Mabus and Lieutenant Howard P. Schuette as they were leaving Miyoshino airspace after dropping the bombs. Divided into two groups of three planes each, the Japanese chased the bombers. The high speed capabilities of ​the

PV-1 came in very handy; after each attempt to gain an altitude for the attack, Japanese fighters found themselves behind. Lieutenant Clapham’s crew was looking back witnessing the fighter pursuit.  The “Zeros” finally broke off, about 130 miles away from Shimushu. None of the American crew members were wounded, but both aircraft were  riddled with 7.7 mm machine gun bullets and 20 mm cannon shells of the "Zeros," as well as fragments of anti-aircraft shells. An oil leak developed in Lieutenant Schuette’s right engine. Despite the best efforts of the pilot, his aircraft started losing speed and altitude. In addition to the oil leak, one of the main fuel tanks in Schuette’s plane was punctured. The pilot knew it was impossible to reach Attu on the remaining gasoline. Lieutenant Vivian later wrote in his diary, ”Schuette opened up on his radio and we talked as he limped up the coast. I said I would write to his wife and tell her all that I could. He explained that not a member of his crew was scratched. It was just his engine that was hit.” (19). Lieutenant Schuette landed in Petropavlovsk escorted by Soviet  I-16 fighters (20).

19. John Vivian’s Diary

20. Anecdotally, one of Schuette’s crew members, Fred Michelotti (AMM 2/C), avoided internment because he had come down with mumps just prior to this mission, and was hospitalized in Attu Navy  hospital. He had completed two tours with VB/VPB-135, and at the time of this article’s writing (2016), he resides in California.









As Lieutenant William Lee Sparks came over Shimushu, he saw four enemy fighters heading north above his plane off to his starboard. In an attempt to intercept, three of these planes cut around behind the Ventura and came back across the island well to the north of the bomber. Bombs from Lieutenant Sparks’ plane hit the runway of Miyoshino. It appears that  Japanese pilots spent too much time getting into position for an attack: only one of them made a high side approach, diving from above and ahead, but passed below the Ventura as it left the target. The other three fighters did not close, and Lieutenant Sparks made it safely back to base.


Lieutenant (junior grade) Lewis “Pat” Patteson crossed the Shimushu coastline at a higher altitude, and commenced his photo run on a course to Miyoshino field. As he remembered, (21) “That day, June 14, the weather was perfect with no clouds over the target. By the time we reached the northern end of Shimushu at 11,000 feet, the activity below was a most confused and active encounter. I set power for maximum cruise so we had good speed. We started our photo run from Shimushu just south of Cape Lopatka and began all five cameras (22) as we headed for the first target (Miyoshino). Cameras were turned off when we passed each target to save film. Everybody craned their necks for bogeys”. 

21. Quoted from L. A. Patteson’s record dated January 5, 1974, with his additional comments, based on the review of the VB-135 Aircraft Action Report (July 2016).

22. Two hand-held K-20 cameras were also used for accidental photos.


Six enemy fighters appeared behind the Ventura at about the same altitude, and began to trail the bomber. Three of these later broke off, but three continued to follow the PV-1. Pat’s plane carried no bomb load which allowed him some speed advantage. 


Patteson: “Flying over Kashiwabara (23), my crew shouted that they could see planes taking off below (24). We continued south when two bogeys appeared ahead of us and went by before they apparently knew who we were. Our next target, Daigo Zaki  (Kakumabetsu airfield, 25), was about 40 miles on south. The “Zeros” turned around and gradually began overtaking us. When they got in close I yelled at Jacobsen (26) to fire. They had a very healthy respect for the twin 50s (27) and quickly jinked out of range. After a few minutes they climbed above us to make the typical fighter passes from 4 o’clock or 8 o’clock high. My navigator, Ensign Dick Rice was watching from the navigators dome, and warned me when one began his run. All I had to do was cut into the direction of the fighter’s pass and this shortened the angle so steeply that their fire always went behind us. The “Zeros” were faster and far better maneuverers at this altitude than we were, but our relative speed was the big equalizing factor. By the time we had reached Daigo Zaki, we were untouched and felt we had some kind of edge. Over Daigo Zaki we found several more fighters coming at us from front and sides. These had apparently come up from the big base on Paramushiro’s southern tip, Kurabu Zaki. Much shouting and shooting ensued. Our gunner got a probable there— he certainly had plenty to aim at (28). On one of their passes the fighter took time to gain additional altitude before starting his pass. It went beneath us and pulled up in front and I let loose with the two 50s in the nose. If I caused any damage it was not immediately noticeable”. 

23. The Imperial Japanese Army maintained the Kashiwabara Army Staging Area and nearby Kitanodai airfield on the northern end of Paramushiro as its major base in the northern and central Kuriles. The staging area consisted of approximately 150 buildings that included barracks and warehouses. There were nine piers, one of which was equipped with a fuel pipeline. None were capable of supporting large vessels. The largest pier was 500 by 12 feet and the shortest 100 by 15 feet. Cargo had to be lightened from ship to shore.  A breakwater protected a small boat harbor. The airfield consisted of a single 4,000 by 180-foot surfaced runway with forty revetments and fifty-five hardstands and a 60 by 70 foot hangar    located along a three taxiway systems 6,900 yards long. In June 1944, the 54th Sentai (Air Regiment), equipped with the Nakajima Ki-43-II Hayabusa (“Oscar”) fighters, was stationed there. Twenty-one heavy and light anti-aircraft guns defended the area. 

24.  It is very likely, that the crew watched the fighters taking off from Kataoka airfield, across the narrow Paramushiro Strait from Kashiwabara (see the zoomed photo). 

25. The Imperial Japanese Army Kakumabetsu Airfield, on the Southwest side of Paramushiro, was the only military base located on the West side of Paramushiro Island.  Its 5,200 yard taxiway system resembled a figure eight and it had one single, hard surface 3,800 by 130 foot runway.  The airfield had been constructed during the spring and summer of 1944, was first sighted in late May 1944 and  photographed in June 1944.  No evidence of aircraft were noted in late 1944. Twenty-eight revetments were noted on the eastern side of the runway.  No repair facilities were observed. The Kakumabetsu  аirfield was defended by a five or six gun battery approximately 4,000 yards southeast of the airfield and another four gun battery north of the airfield near Daigo Cape.  Eight automatic anti-aircraft guns were dispersed throughout the area. Six coastal defense gun positions were noted. Anti-tank trenches were located throughout the area. Overall, its defenses appeared less extensive than other parts of the island. Two radar and one radio sites was noted. Kakumabetsu had one of the best harbors and harbor facilities on the island, and included four fisheries. Kakumabetsu area was one of the most common targets for PV-1 “Empire Express” missions.

26. Turret gunner

27. Upper turret Browning 0.50 cal machine guns


28. The turret gunner noted his tracers hit the fighter and it was seen driven off, but without visible damage. (VB-135 Aircraft Action Report #21, 14 June 1944)









The bomber was struck by machine gun fire in the starboard aileron. The fighters then withdrew as the ground batteries at Kurabu Zaki commenced firing. The first bursts were exactly on altitude but trailing. Successive bursts came increasingly closer, but by taking evasive action, Lieutenant Patteson narrowly avoided being hit (29).

29. VB-135 Aircraft Action Report #21, 14 June 1944


Patteson: “Two things were running out, the film magazines were low and our cool was getting warm. I decided to make for the last target only because it was then on our way home. We managed to get a good oblique shot at Kurabu Zaki, but we were essentially blocked by fighters and flaks from continuing south. We were chased out to sea by several “Zeros," and one or two stayed with us for several minutes. I made a shallow dive from about 8,000 feet into the patches of fog over the water and prevented any of them from overtaking us -- they just did not have enough speed. On the deck, I firewalled everything and my gunner had little trouble keeping (the fighters) off our tail--finally they broke off.” 

Lieutenant Patteson’s Ventura encountered the three-plane squad led by Flight Warrant Officer Hiroyoshi Nishizawa  (西澤弘義), a veteran of air battles over the Solomon Islands and Rabaul, today considered by many the highest scoring ace of Japan (30). Today it is impossible to say which fighter was piloted by Nishizawa. The 203rd Kokutai action report reads, “A squad of three Zero fighters from Paramushiro patrolled from 13:40 until 14:50. One B-25 was encountered, but the fighters lost it in the fog at 14:17. Pilots of the squad: Flight Warrant Officer (Hiko Heisocho) Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, Flight Chief Petty Officer (Jotto Hiko Heiso) Nobutaka Kurata (倉田信孝),(31), Flight Leading Seaman (Hiko Heicho) Kichigoro Saga (佐賀喜五郎).” The time and the location of the encounter match the VB-135 Aircraft Action Report. It is known that there were no B-25 missions flown on that date, and there were no other U. S. aircraft in the vicinity of southern Paramushiro. 

30. Nishizawa, without a doubt, was an outstanding “Zero” pilot. However, it is simply impossible to confirm over 100 of aerial victories claimed to be his own. It was the practice of Japanese Naval Air Force not to recognize personal victories, but rather to record all claims to the Air Group account. “These scores are simply unverified claims either made by the pilots or attributed to them. The numerical scores represent a mixture of confirmed, unconfirmed, probable, damaged and imagined victories.” (Henry Sakaida, Imperial Japanese Navy Aces 1937-45) More of Nishizawa's combat achievements is here

31. Chief Petty Officer (Jotto Hiko Heiso) Kurata started his service with an air group of Zuikaku aircraft carrier. He was on board of Zuikaku during the Pearl Harbor raid, but did not fly bomber cover missions himself. Later he was transferred to 252nd, then to 203rd, and finally to 352nd Kokutai. Kurata was killed in action 6 April 1945 over Okinawa.








Patteson: “On the way back we were jubilant; sent our '300 mile out’ report with ‘mission successful’ and threatened the Photographer Mate with a lynching if his cameras jammed. Fortunately, all cameras worked and we spat out several hundred excellent pics.” 


The exact number on the prize of the mission was 364 photographs of Shimushu and Paramushiro. They revealed in great detail five (out of seven) Japanese airfields in the two islands, and a multitude of other military objects. 318 photographs were taken from Lieutenant Patteson’s aircraft. They played an invaluable role in establishing further U. S. strategical and  tactical military developments in the Kuriles. After 15 June 1944, daylight bombing and reconnaissance missions against northern Kuriles became regular and continued until the end of hostilities. High-altitude vertical photo coverage was obtained from B-24 bombers, while lower altitude and oblique photography remained the routine of Navy’s PV-1 and Army’s B-25 missions.


At the end of June 1944, having analyzed the new intelligence and photo reconnaissance data, Admiral Nimitz concluded a full success of operation Wedlock. In  anticipation of an American invasion,  the Japanese reinforced the northern Kuriles with over 60,000 servicemen and 12 air squadrons with up to 500 aircraft (32). This was the height of Japanese strength in the Kurile Islands in WWII.

32. Number of the aircraft in the Kuriles and Hokkaido according to the Japanese War Department General Staff Air Order data: 567 in May, 538 in June, and 544 in July.


At the same time it was decided not to utilize B-29 bombers in the Aleutians. The airfield on Shemya Island had been used by Army B-24 heavy bombers of 11 Air Force, and later by PB4Y-2 Navy patrol bombers of Fleet Air Wing 4 for bombing, anti-shipping and reconnaissance operations against the Kurile Islands. 


Lieutenant (junior grade) Patteson was awarded with Distinguished Flying Cross, “For his skill and determination during an exceptionally hazardous mission dispatched for the protection of our surface forces," as said by Fleet Air Wing Four Commander Leslie E. Gehres. The crew members were awarded with Air Medals. (Photos #28, 29) Ten days later, 25 June 1944,  Lieutenant Patteson was recommended by Commander Gehres for another DFC, this time for one probable and one downed Japanese fighter (33). In lieu of the second DFC, he received an Air Medal. 

33. Most likely, Ki-43 “Hayabusa” of 54th Air Regiment (Sentai) of Japanese Imperial Army Air Force













During his visit to the Aleutians in August 1944, President Roosevelt suggested that military infrastructure of the islands should be utilized for large scale operation. However, the president's assistant Fleet Admiral William Leahy thought the effort was wasted. Army generals suggested that the Aleutians could be used to stage a large number of troops and supplies for invasion of the Japanese Homeland.


Discussing his thoughts on operation Keelblocks with Nimitz, Admiral Fletcher felt that although seizing of the northern Kuriles would allow to secure the lines of communication with maritime Siberia, workable bases for advance to Hokkaido and Honshu still did not exist.  Fletcher suggested that if the Soviet Union entered the war, it would be much more useful to bypass the northern Kuriles and invade the southern islands. Nimitz's deputy chief of staff, Rear Admiral Forrest Sherman, agreed with Fletcher's assessment.


One of the “Blue Geese” of the Second Photo Charting Squadron, the “Shaknstuff," was lost in landing accident on Shemya on August 19. The remaining two, “Peepin Tom” and “Jazz Me Blue,” flew two more missions to obtain detailed photo coverage of the Northern Kuriles. On August 12, they were part of the largest to date mission of Task Force 90 against Northern Kuriles which also included four B-24s of the 404th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), six B-25s of the 77th BS (Medium), and twelve PV-1s of VB-135 and VB-136. It aimed to overwhelm Japanese defense and permit photo coverage of the northern islands. That day clouds prevented photography of the Northern Kuriles, except for the eastern side of Shimushu and Paramushiro, so the task was completed only during the final mission on September 9, when F-7As were accompanied by five B-24Ds from the 404 B. S. The photographs of military objects on Shimushu and Paramushiro obtained by the “Blue Geese” revealed in more details what already had been known. In addition, they  provided the high resolution photographs of coastal contours and other terrain features needed for making tactical maps and charts.


By the fall of 1944, it became clear that Stalin would not allow the Americans to use Soviet bases in the Far East.  For subsequent American operations in the Kuriles, Nimitz wrote Fletcher, “The offensive use of the forces at your disposal, both air and surface, has kept the enemy worried and confused." He reiterated, "Our strategic concept still includes the possibility of a northern assault in 1945."  A two-phase Operation Keelblocks II would see the U. S. forces help secure Kamchatka, build airfields and assault Paramushiro.  As part of the preparation for American involvement in the region, in the summer of 1945 a weather station manned by the   U. S. crew was built in Petropavlovsk. Nevertheless, dramatic changes in USA--USSR relationship at the end of the war precluded frustrated veterans of the American Kurile campaign from participation in final battle action. 


On August 6, 1945, the Patrol Bombing Squadron VPB-135 departed Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, WA, for its third Aleutian tour. It was also the third Aleutian tour for Lieutenant Lewis A. “Pat” Patteson. Re-armed with brand-new PV-2 “Harpoons," VPB-135 arrived in Attu too late for action. However, Lieutenant Patteson completed three patrol flights from Attu before the squadron was sent back to the continental United States. 


Symbolically, Pat returned home from war piloting his favorite aircraft, a good old PV-1 “Ventura," which had to be transferred from NAS Whidbey to the training base in Abilene, TX.








The Soviet Kurile assault operation was initiated on August 18, 1945, three days after Japan declared its surrender. Battle of Shimushu was the last major battle of the World War Two, with at least three thousand casualties from both sides.


Stalin needed the blood of Soviet soldiers spilled on the battleground in order to justify his claim that the Soviet Union had earned the Kurils—all the Kurils—paid for with the blood of the sons of the motherland. In fact, the bloodshed was a down payment allowing him to take possession of the entire Kurils securely in his hands. (Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan).


Before the war ended, total of twelve PV-1 “Venturas,” twelve B-25 “Mitchells,” and nine B-24 “Liberators” made crash-landings in Kamchatka. All survived 242 of American air crew members, 174 of the Eleventh Air Force and 68 of Fleet Air Wing Four, had been interned by the Soviets in accordance to the terms of Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact. However, due to the secret collaboration between the NKVD and American authorities they made a safe passage back to the United States before the end of war (34). Their aircraft were retained by the Soviets. Many of them were repaired and flown again. It is very likely that ex-USN “Venturas” flew several air cover missions of the Soviet Shimushu landing operation between 18 and 21 August 1945.


The last photo reconnaissance flights over the Kuriles were flown in early September 1945 by PB4Y-2 “Privateers” from VPB-120 squadron based at Shemya. Initially, Moscow approved American flyovers over the Soviet-occupied Kuriles. Nevertheless, 4 September, the formation of Soviet Lend-Lease

P-63s encountered and escorted two American B-24s out of Kurile air space (35). This incident put an end to American air operations in the Kuriles in WWII.

34. The last group of 52 men was flown to Iran on August 24, 1945, without secrecy pledges, since the war was over. (Otis Hays, Jr., Home From Siberia: The Secret Odysseys of Interned American Airmen in World War II) 

35.  4 September 1945 Lieutenants McKinley and Watkins and their crews from 404th Bombardment Squadron encountered fifteen Soviet Bell P-63 King Cobras transferred to the Soviets under the Lend Lease program, which had scrambled from Shimushu. The lead fighter pilot signaled the bomber crews to land, but was ignored. After following the B-24s for a considerable distance, the fighter pilots broke off and returned to their base. 













NARA, Fleet Air Wing Four and VPB-135 War Diaries


Japan Center for Asian Historical Record, National Archives of Japan


Author's communication with Lewis A. Patteson (VB/VPB-135) and Thomas McKelvey (VB-139)


John Vivian’s Diary


Kit C. Carter, Robert Mueller. U.S. Army Air Force in World War II: Combat Chronology 1941-1945, Center for Air Force History, Washington, DC 1991


John Haile Cloe. Mission To Kurils. Todd Communications, 2016


Ikuhiko Hata, Yasuho Izawa, Christopher Shores. Japanese Naval Fighter Aces: 1932-45, Stackpole Military History Series


Tsuyoshi Hasegawa. Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, Belknap Press 2006


Otis Hays Jr. Home from Siberia: The Secret Odysseys of Interned American Airmen in World War II, Williams-Ford Texas A&M University Military History Series, 2000


Otis Hays Jr. Alaska’s Hidden Wars, Secret Campaigns on the North Pacific Rim, University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, AK, 2004


Kevin Don Hutchison. World War II in the North Pacific: Chronology and Fact Book, Greenwood Press, 1994


Henry Sakaida. Imperial Japanese Navy Aces 1937-45, Osprey Publishing, 1998


John J. Stephan. The Kuriles: Russo-Japanese Frontier in the Pacific, Oxford University Press, 1974


Ralph Wetterhahn. The Last Flight of Bomber 31, Carroll & Graf, 2004


The Campaigns of the Pacific War, U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (Pacific), Naval Analysis 

Division, 1946


USAF Tactical Operations. World War II And Korean War, USAF Historical Division Liaison 

Office, 1962


http://www.aviationofjapan.com/ and author's communication with Nicholas Millman


http://www.j-aircraft.com/ and author's communication with Jim Lansdale and Darryl Ford




My late grandfather, who was a veteran of the battle of Shumshu, inspired my interest in the 

history of the war in the North Pacific. 


My father has instilled in me a lifelong fascination with the aviation.


This article could not be completed without invaluable participation of Empire Express veterans, Lewis A. “Pat” Patteson, Thomas “Bob” McKelvey (via Josiah Williams), and Don Anderson. It has been both an honor and a pleasure to correspond with them.


I am deeply grateful to Mr. Tamotsu Imai, Mr. Yoji Hirakata, Mr. Masayoshi Nagashima, and Mr. Mikhail Glazkov, for providing great deal of help working with Japanese archival records.


I very much appreciated the feedback from John Haile Cloe, Darryl Ford, Nicholas Millman, Henry Sakaida and Ralph Wetterhahn, while working on this article.


Most of all, I am thankful to my wife and my daughters, for their outstanding and ongoing 

support of my research endeavors.

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