Thomas Erickson Remembers the last flight of Bomber 31

One cold, light snowy night at Attu in March 1944 my pilot Grange McKinney and I were playing cards in our Quonset house since we were not on the flight schedule. We heard a loud explosion and saw a flash of light. Fearing that it was a plane crash, we ran to the field operations hut quite close and were told that our fellow squadron pilot Jimmy Moore and his crew had hit a rock in the water just off the end of the runway. Two of seven survived, including Jimmy.

The next squadron mates scheduled to take off for the night’s mission were Walt Whitman and his co-pilot jack Hanlon, with crew. Of course they were delayed. Grange and I stayed around for their take-off. A small group of men standing just off the head of the take-off runway included, we saw, Commodore Leslie Gehres, in charge of all U.S. Navy aviation in the Aleutians. (He was not very popular with my five Quonset hut’s living mates and me because he, on an “inspection tour,” ordered the removal of a great bar we bribed some CB’s into constructing for us.)

The commodore and our skipper Bill Stevens were talking 15-20 feet away from Grange and me (and a couple of others) when, with the plane right there, who walks up to Gehres and Stevens but Walt Whitman! In the dim light we could see his agitated state. We could not hear what was said, but I could see the increasing agitation, Walt’s gyrations, obviously heated conversation. Suddenly Walt fell to his knees, grabbed Steven’s legs. My only thought at that time was that Walt was begging not to go. What else could it be?
I saw Gehres suddenly and strongly point at the plane, of course ordering Walt to take off. Walt got aboard. Soon the plane roared down the runway, disappearing from our sight in a flurry of snow. We could hear that they took off safely.

The next morning, after the time limit (gas supply) for the plane to return had passed, we heard Tokyo Rose say on a radio report “Well, squadron VB139 on Attu, we got Whitman and Hanlon last night. Why don’t the rest of you save yourselves and go home?” Yes, I heard it clearly. How? I don’t know. The only thing we could think of was somehow an information on Attu got through to Tokyo that the plane had not returned. We didn’t think that possible, but why not, if we could hear Tokyo.
Fifty-eight years later – in 2002 – we found out what happened.

The Russians told us that the bullet-ridden plane had been found (in 1992! [Note: the plane was discovered in 1962, but due to the Cold War, not disclosed to the United States until 1992]) on the upslope of a wild, desolate mountain near the southern tip of the Kamchatkan peninsula, probably 50 miles or so north of our outermost Japanese island target – and on a direct line with an isolated Russian airport we had been told to try to reach in an emergency.

My dislike for Commodore Gehres increased.

The discovery became nation-wide news. There were many questions. How could any pilot have landed the plane in that wide area and not demolished the plane and killed everyone? There were survivors, inspection showed. Their fate is gruesome to imagine. And other questions, too numerous to add, are obvious.

A chief investigator, Ralph Wetterhahn, wrote a book about it – “The Last Flight of Bomber 31”. I talked with him twice. Public Broadcasting put an hour-long summary of the event on television – several times.

Jack Hanlon was a special loss to me. He was a three-sport outstanding athlete at Holy Cross, a kind, low-key guy whose intention after the war was to become a Catholic priest. I talked with his sister and other relatives.
In 1960, long after all the above, my wife, my two pre-teen sons and I were driving up east from Atlanta and stopped on the way at a motel in Salisbury, Maryland. At dusk I noticed a man walking across the inner courtyard. I said to my wife “He looks like Commodore Gehres.” I dismissed the thought. The next morning as my sons and I were having breakfast that same man entered the restaurant. I stopped him and asked if, by any chance, his name was Gehres. He said yes. When I told him I had served under him in the Aleutians and had seen him “a couple of times” his eyes literally lit up. He joined us, told us he was the president of an ocean freighter line, inquired about us, then, looking right at the boys, said that war-time flying in the Aleutians was “the most dangerous flying of all,” especially 1500 miles over the ocean, at night, in the winter, in overloaded planes, in usually horrible weather… he went on and on. Both my sons, now in their fifties, remember it well. (There was simply no way I could bring myself to talking about the Whitman matter.)

The chance meeting helped ease my dislike for the commodore over what he ordered that fateful 1944 night. I also have come to realize that he was without doubt under pressure to get every plane into the air. Having lost one already that night (Moore’s) to lose another would be “unacceptable.” He did what he had to do.

War is hell.

A final thought… I have always felt that it had to be Jack Hanlon who piloted that plane at takeoff – and perhaps thereafter. It is obvious from the wreckage that the plane had been hit by ground or air fire, forcing an attempt to get to a Russian air strip. When they couldn’t make it, the landing was made by an expert. I think it was Jack, but maybe, just maybe, it was Walt.

Last updated: January 19, 2018