The first Army Air Corps personnel to be assigned to Alaska, Major Dale Gaffney and 17 others, arrived at Fairbanks in April 1940 as the advance party of the Cold Weather Test Detachment for Ladd Field. Preliminary construction had started at nearby Ladd Field the previous year and major construction began in April 1940.
Construction on Elmendorf Field, the major operational air base in Alaska began on 8 June 1940, in response to the growing Japanese threat in the Pacific and the need to provide for the air defense of the territory. The first Air Corps personnel to be assigned to Elmendorf Field, Maj Everett S. Davis, Staff Sergeant Joseph A. Grady and Corporal Edward D. Smith arrived 12 August 1940.
The first air unit, the 18th Pursuit (later fighter) Squadron arrived at Elmendorf AFB on 21 February. Commanded by Capt Norman D. Sillin, it was equipped with 20 P-36 aircraft. The squadron was followed by two B-18 bomber squadrons, the 36th Bombardment and the 73rd Bombardment Squadron. The 36th was commanded by Maj William O. Eareckson who was to achieve fame during the Aleutian Campaign.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941, reinforcements were rushed to Alaska and the older aircraft replaced with newer models. The 11th Fighter Squadron, commanded by Maj Jack Chennault and equipped with P-40s, arrived in January as did the 77th Bombardment Squadron under the command of Maj Robert O. Cork. The 77th was equipped with the new and unproven B-26. The 36th Bombardment Squadron retained its B-18s until late May 1942, when it was reequipped with B-17s.
To manage the buildup of forces, Alaskan Air Force was activated 15 January 1942 under the command of Colonel Davis. It was redesignated the Eleventh Air Force on 5 February. Brigadier General William O. Butler arrived shortly afterwards to assume command from Colonel Davis.
As part of their plan to expand their empire in the Pacific farther eastward, the Japanese initiated the Midway-Aleutian operations by conducting a carrier strike against the U.S. Navy base at Dutch Harbor as a diversion to the main offensive against Midway Island. The raids, carried out 3-4 June from the aircraft carriers Juyno and Ryujo, were the only major air attacks conducted against North American soil during World War II.
The attacks by dive and horizontal bombers and Zero fighters inflicted minimum damage. Eighty-six Army and Navy personnel were killed and eleven aircraft were destroyed. A number of buildings and fuel tanks were also demolished and a barracks ship, the Northwestern, was damaged. In return, 11th Fighter Squadron fighters based at Otter Point, an airfield built in secret near Dutch Harbor on the east end of Umnak Island, intercepted and shot down five Japanese aircraft.
A slightly damaged Zero fighter was later found on nearby Akutan Island. It was restored to flyable condition and flown against other American fighters to determine its strengths and weaknesses so that more effective tactics could be developed to counter it.
Following the Dutch Harbor attack, the Japanese landed forces on the western Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska. Additional reinforcements consisting of the 21st and 404th Bombardment Squadrons, equipped with B-24s; the 406th Bombardment Squadron, A-29s; the 54th Fighter Group, P-39s; and 54th Fighter Squadron, P-38s were sent to Alaska. The Eleventh Air Force launched an air offensive against the Japanese on the two islands.
Since the major Japanese force was located on Kiska, most of the effort was concentrated against that island. Initially the missions were flown from Cape Field on Otter Point. However, the twelve-hundred-mile round trip limited the effectiveness of the B-17s and B-24s and prevented the employment of the medium bombers and the fighters. On 30 August, troops went ashore at Kuluk Bay, Adak, and within ten days constructed an airfield that was located 250 miles from the Japanese bastion on Kiska.
The first major attack from the new field was launched on 14 September. From then on the number and intensity of the raids increased. A typical bombing mission in the Aleutians, however, seldom exceeded ten bombers and a like number of fighters. Weather, rather then the Japanese, proved the greatest enemy.
The P-39s of the 54th Fighter Group proved unsuitable to the Aleutian conditions and the group was withdrawn in December 1942. This left one bombardment group, the 28th, consisting of three heavy and three medium bombardment squadrons, and one fighter group, the 343rd, composed of four squadrons. The latter included the 344th Fighter Squadron, which had been formed from the transfer of personnel from the other three squadrons. Two Troop Carrier Squadrons, the 42nd and 54th, provided passenger and high priority cargo support.
The Royal Canadian Air Force also contributed a significant force. A bomber reconnaissance squadron was sent to Nome and two P-40 squadrons, Numbers 14 and 111 Fighter Squadrons were committed to the Aleutians. Three other squadrons were based on Annette Island in southeastern Alaska.
The 54th Fighter Squadron was the only one equipped with the P-38. The others flew the single engine, limited range P-40. Because of its long range, the twin engine P-38 became the fighter of choice. As a result, the 54th suffered the loss of over half of its original complement of thirty pilots.
On 12 January 1943, in preparation for a planned landing assault against Kiska, troops were landed at Constantine Harbor, Amchitka. Within a matter of weeks a fighter strip was carved out. The 18th and 54th Fighter Squadrons deployed forward. They were joined by B-25s from the 73rd and 77th Bombardment Squadrons. The airfield on Amchitka placed the Eleventh Air Force within sixty miles of Kiska.
Headquarters Eleventh Air Force was moved to Adak and the island became the major base of operations for the remainder of the war.
Due to a shortage in shipping and the limited availability of forces, Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, the overall commander in the Aleutians, decided to bypass Kiska and land troops on the lesser defended Attu. It was the first example of “leap frog operations,” the practice of bypassing strongly defended positions, that was to become common practice in the Pacific.
In preparation for the assault planned for early May, he ordered an all out air assault against the two islands. This, coupled with end of winter and the improvement in weather, resulted in a significant increase in mission. A total of 1,175 sorties were flown and 771 tons of bombs were dropped during April, breaking all records.
On 11 May, men from the 7th Infantry Division were landed on Attu and in a hard fought battle that resulted in 549 dead and 1,148 wounded with another 2,100 taken out of action for various other causes, secured the island by the 29th. Of the approximately 2,500 Japanese defending the island, only 29 survived as prisoners of war. The rest either died in battle or committed suicide.
Because of the poor weather, air support was limited to 11 days during the battle. The Eleventh Air Force, however, was able to fly 904 sorties and drop 541 tons of bombs during May. Most of the effort was directed against Attu.
The Eleventh Air Force next turned its full fury against Kiska. During June through 15 August, when a combined force of 33,000 Americans and Canadians landed on the island, the Eleventh Air Force flew 1,775 sorties and dropped 1,405 tons of bombs on the island.
When the troops landed, they found Kiska abandoned. The Japanese had managed to evacuate their garrison of 5,000 from the island on 29 July without being detected.
With the reoccupation of Kiska, the Aleutian Campaign ended. It was the only campaign of the war fought on North American soil. It had been primarily an air war. The Eleventh Air Force flew 297 missions and dropped 3,662.00 tons of bombs. One hundred and fourteen men were killed in action, another forty-two were reported missing in action and forty-six died as a result of accidents.
Thirty-five aircraft were lost to combat and another 150 to operational accidents. It was the highest American combat-to-operational loss ratio of the war. Weather was the prime culprit.
The Eleventh Air Force accounted for approximately 60 Japanese aircraft, one destroyer, one submarine and seven transport ships destroyed by air operations.
Following the occupation of Kiska, the Eleventh Air Force was drastically reduced to one heavy and two medium bombardment squadrons. Many of the support units departed for other duties. The Canadian air units were withdrawn. The four Eleventh Air Force fighter squadrons were retained to provide air defense of the western Aleutians Islands.
From a peak of 16,526 in August, the strength of the Eleventh Air Force declined to 14,975 by the end of 1943. By the end of the war, it had dropped to 6,849.
After helping to drive the Japanese from the Aleutians, the Eleventh Air Force was now committed to flying bombing and reconnaissance missions against Japanese military installations in the northern Kurile Islands.
The first mission, against Japanese military bases on Paramushiro and Shumushu Islands, had been launched on 10 July 1943. Staging out of Alexai Field, Attu, eight B-25s from the 77th Bombardment Squadron, under the command of Capt James L. Hudelson, flew a nine and a half-hour, 1,600-mile round trip mission against Paramushiro. It was the first land-based air attack against the Japanese home islands of the war.
Another mission was flown eight days later by a larger force and a third one was flown on 11 August. The final mission of the year was flown 11 September. By now the Japanese had reinforced their defenses and were on the alert. The Eleventh Air Force lost three B-24s and seven B-25s.
After a five-month break, the Eleventh Air Force resumed the missions against the northern Kuriles and continued to fly them until the end of the war. The 404th Bombardment Squadron operated from Shemya with its B-24s, and the 73rd and 77th Bombardment Squadrons flew from Alexie with B-25s. The three squadrons conducted some of the longest over-water flights of the war under the most adverse weather conditions, and were able to tie down a significant number of Japanese, including ten percent of its air force, who could have been employed to advantage elsewhere.