THE LAST FLIGHT OF BOMBER 31

Harrowing Tales of American and Japanese Pilots
Who Fought in World War II's Artic Air Campaign


Publishers Weekly

According to an old U.S. Coast Guard saying, the American-controlled Aleutian island of Attu is "not the end of the earth,but you can see it from there." Attu was attacked and briefly occupied by the Japanese during World War II, and the battle to win it back marked the beginning of the end for the seven-man crew of Bomber 31. Former Air Force Colonel Wetterhahn, a certified aircraft investigator and author (The Last Battle: The Mayaguez Incident and the End of the Vietnam War), joined a forensics team in 2000, journeying to Kamchatka in the Russian tundra to investigate the crash site. Wetterhahn unravels the mystery of the crash while giving a full account of the air war in the Aleutians. He describes the various air battles with enough detail and enthusiasm to satisfy military aficionados, and his interviews with American and Japanese airmen give the story emotional weight. Many of the interviewees wound up in Russian POW camps as both air forces found it difficult to stay in the neutral territory mapped out by the 1941 Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact. The stark recollections of the pilots who navigated above the fog, volcanoes and icy waters, and who encountered Soviet prisoners on their way to the gulags, are revealing and will fill readers with admiration for the pilots on both sides. As one B-25 copilot remembers, "Every time I looked at the water, I swallowed to keep my heart down. The water was just whipped to a froth by machine gun bullets, shell fragments, 20-mm slugs, and big stuff that was throwing up geysers." These vivid recollections, combined with Wetterhahn's efficient writing and rigorous research, make this a gripping war chronicle. 85 photos.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Reviews

Military historian Wetterhahn (Shadowmakers, 2002, etc.) travels into the Far North to investigate a long-ago air crash and turns in a well-told study of a nearly forgotten campaign. The Aleutians were never more than a sideshow in the larger Pacific War, but what a sideshow they were: as Wetterhahn notes, the presence of a few thousand Japanese invaders tied up nearly 150,000 American and Canadian troops in the early years of WWII, while toward the end "the roles were reversed as a small number of planes flown by U.S. Navy crews forced a large number of Japanese troops to be stationed in the Kuriles"-troops that otherwise would have been put to use against MacArthur's island-hopping armies farther south. Wetterhahn's account of the discovery of a downed, bomb-laden American plane in Russia's Kamchatka region provides a peg on which to hang a larger narrative of the struggle to control the Bering Sea, a battle fought mostly in the air under difficult conditions, with heavy snows, winds that "could be blowing at a hundred miles an hour from every direction at the same time," and over-extended supply lines complicating an already dangerous business. Adding to this, for both American and Japanese crews, was the odd fact that the Soviet Union was officially neutral until the end of the war, so that American crews that crossed into Russian airspace were in danger of being shot down. So were the Japanese, 600,000 of whom were packed off to the Gulag when the Red Army finally took to the field against them. Aviation and military-history buffs will find all this fascinating, and would-be treasure hunters will be especially interested in Wetterhahn's account of the whereabouts of a downed PV-1Ventura, the rarest of period aircraft-though, he warns, the wreck is considered government property and technically off-limits to salvagers. A well-illustrated and capably written glimpse into a slice of WWII history.

Agent: Nancy Ellis-Bell

Booklist

Professional crash investigator^B Wetterhahn relates his investigation of two missing American bombers from World War II that were found on Russian soil. It is a story of forensic archaeology conducted in vile weather under the auspices of a ramshackle Russian bureaucracy and dependent on even more ramshackle Russian helicopters. It frames an excellent history of the WWII Aleutians campaign and the subsequent Empire Express air campaign against Japanese bases in the Kuril Islands. That campaign tied down substantial Japanese resources, but the weather in the region made it one of the most grueling campaigns of the war for both attackers and defenders, and losses were great. Interned American aircrews were kept under austere conditions and eventually had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union to avoid offending the Japanese. A smooth and accessible narrative.

Roland Green
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Checkpoints

Wetterhahn's research of military archives with American and Japanese veterans of the Arctic campaigns, his use of secondary sources, and experience as a pilot and aircraft crash investigator provides depth and detail rarely seen in a popular history.... (he) tells the history of the Aleutian campaigns with special emphasis to recognize the many American and Japanese servicemen who served their country gallantly, often giving the greatest sacrifice. Wetterhahn's carefully crafted book is a must read for enthusiasts of airpower history, World War II history, and MIA accounts.

Kenneth Underwood, Department of History, USAF Academy

   

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