Valor: Eareckson of the Aleutians

June 1, 1991

There were no aces in the Aleutian Islands campaign of World War II. This is not to say there were no heroes. Anyone who endured life in so inhospitable a region had some claim to that distinction, especially the aircrews, who faced the worst flying weather in the world. Forty-one AAF planes fell in combat, about half to flak, but 184 were lost to other causes, largely weather-related.

During the 15 months of that campaign, six men were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The first was Col. William O. Eareckson, who had tenaciously followed a tortuous path to pilot wings and command. At 17, he enlisted in the Army, two months before the US entered World War I. He was wounded in France, then reenlisted in the hope of entering West Point, which he did through a presidential appointment in 1920. His goal was to be an Army pilot, but a year after graduation from the Academy, he washed out, went to balloon school, and became one of the Army’s top balloon pilots. In 1928, he and Maj. William Kepner, captain of the US balloon team, won the most prestigious of all ballooning events, the Gordon Bennett International Balloon Race. Two years later, at the advanced age of 30, Eareckson won his airplane pilot wings, and in 1939 he was given command of the 36th Bombardment Squadron. In the spring of 1941, Eareckson led his squadron to Alaska, only then beginning to gird for a probable Japanese attack. As more and newer bombers replaced Eareckson’s obsolete B-18s, he was named head of Eleventh Air Force Bomber Command.

On June 3, 1942, Japanese carrier planes hit ill-prepared Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island. The Aleutian war was on. Colonel Eareckson led a flight of B-26s through impossible weather in an attempt to find and attack the Japanese fleet with torpedoes, which he had scrounged from the Navy. After two relatively unsuccessful attacks, the enemy fleet withdrew and occupied Attu and Kiska Islands at the western end of the long, treeless Aleutian chain. Eareckson’s bombers first had to find the enemy. Then they attacked enemy island bases and shipping whenever fog and gale-force winds permitted. Colonel Eareckson earned the respect and devotion of his men by flying in every position–from left-seater to tailgunner.

Eareckson led most of the toughest missions, to the displeasure of Maj. Gen. William Butler, commander of Eleventh Air Force. The cautious, unimaginative Butler believed a commander should be primarily an administrator, using his forces according to accepted doctrine. Eareckson believed that a leader should lead and a tactician should devise better tactics, no matter what the book said.

Because traditional high-altitude bombing produced poor results at Attu and Kiska, Eareckson turned to unprecedented low-level attacks with heavy bombers, leading the first missions himself to convince his crews that they would live to bomb another day. Butler, unhappy with his unconventional bomber commander, reassigned Eareckson to the mainland in January 1943. Army Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, an unconventional warrior himself and head of Alaska Defense Command, thought Eareckson too valuable an asset to lose and assigned him to the ADC staff, sending him to San Diego to help plan the invasion of Attu, which took place in May 1943.

In terms of the ratio of casualties to combatants, Attu was, second to Iwo Jima, the bloodiest battle of World War II. Colonel Eareckson, as air liaison officer, in effect called the shots for Eleventh Air Force. Using a single-engine Kingfisher float plane borrowed from the Navy, Eareckson flew up and down the fog-enshrouded passes of that mountainous island, calling in targets to the Air Force and Navy and assessing bomb damage. So often was his little plane hit that on every mission he carried plugs to seal the pontoons on landing. In the final days of the battle, Eareckson went to the front lines, borrowed a rifle from an infantryman, and entered the fray. Before the day was over, he was wounded by a Japanese sniper.

When the Aleutian campaign ended with the Japanese evacuation of Kiska in August 1943, Adm. Chester Nimitz presented the Navy Cross to Colonel Eareckson to complement his DSC, Silver Star, and lesser combat decorations earned in the Aleutians. Always a maverick–caustic, outspoken, and contemptuous of red tape–Eareckson was regularly passed over for promotion to brigadier general. He retired in 1954 and died in October 1966, loved and respected by the men who served with him, but, for his superiors, too hot to handle.

Published June 1991. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.