On October 30,
1942 I was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant, rated a
pilot and married; all in three hours. Still married
to that same sweet girl. I flew P-38s with the 54th
Fighter Squadron out of Amchitka. There were two
airfields on Amchitka; a short fighter strip at sea
level in Constantine Harbor and a long bomber strip up
on the hill south and east of the harbor. The 'hill'
was about 400 feet high. After driving the Japanese
out of the Aleutians I went home to Southern
California where I instructed in P-38's and flew early
jet fighters. After the war I went to college on the
GI Bill, then went to work for Boeing in aerodynamics,
retired in '82. Still ride a bike, ski and fly. I also
have what is probably the best total roster of people
in the outfit from 1942-1945. Get in touch if I can be
of any help!
[Note: Some of you may recognize Harry from his recent appearance on "The History Channel" presentation of "The Bloody Aleutians."]
[UPDATE: Harry Clark Higgins passed away on the 30th of April, 2009. He will be missed.]
BIG ATTU AIR BATTLE
Sixteen Mitsubishi 01 Betty bombers attacked Attu on May 22, 1943, the first such raid of the war. The weather prevented any damage. The next day, May 23 (May 22 Japan time) six of us flew P-38's 250 miles from Amchitka to Attu, flying formation on our B-24 navigational escort.
Lt. Col. James Watt, visiting from Fighter Command Headquarters in Anchorage, Led the flight. First Lt. Marshall Hyde had engine trouble and fell out of formation. The other four pilots were Second Lts.; Fred Moore, Warren Banks, John Geddes and your correspondent, Harry Higgins.
We were not completely surprised when the command post aboard the USS Pennsylvania gave us vectors on incoming bandits upon our arrival over Attu.
It was a fine spring day in the Aleutians with nearly a solid overcast at 5,000 feet around Attu, which became broken to scattered as we flew west of the island. I knew something was up when the drop tanks fell and Watt went to fill stink, pulling his nose up into a steep climb. I learned all the details of the engagement after landing back at Amchitka - my radio was on the blink and I heard none of the exciting conversations for the next half hour.
The use of full throttles tended to break up what had been a tight formation. Climbing through the broken clouds I spied the 16 Betty's in close line-abreast formation high above. Having seen us, they had abandoned their attack on Attu and were headed back to Paramushiro, 750 miles west. While climbing I saw the amazing sight of their jettisoned bomb load exploding on the surface of the ocean.
Pulling abreast of the Japanese formation, I test fired my guns and was dismayed to find my 20mm cannon inoperative. Its high explosive head was much more effective than the lead 50 caliber slugs. We had been briefed that the Japanese had 20mm in their tail turrets. I have learned recently that they may have had a second 20mm in the waist turret.
On my first pass I learned why they were flying line-abreast. As I sucked in behind their tails in my curve-of-pursuit I was facing sixteen 20mm cannons, all firing huge tracers at my fragile body.
It was pretty exciting and my memory isn't clear about all the passes I made except the first and the last. I do recall seeing a P-38 in a big barrel-roll during the heat of the battle and I thought, "This guy is enjoying himself too much!"
It was probably Warren Banks.
The Japanese were slowly descending and taking advantage of any clouds on the path. I recall seeing one of the bombers in a slow spiral with dense smoke trailing one nacelle.
My last pass was spectacular. The fight had moved far to the west into nearly clear air with a few fair weather cumulus clouds here and there. As I tried to work forward for a high side attack the formation disappeared into a cloud. Continuing to climb, I entered the cloud behind them. When we all emerged I found myself directly above the bombers. I rolled over and dove on the leader, getting a long burst into him. I then found myself in a screaming dive with the North Pacific looking awfully close.
After recovering, I looked around and saw 12 Betty's and no P-38's. At this point I was feeling pretty lonesome and far from home. I was 350 miles from the nearest landing field and had been on full throttle for more than half an hour.
I waved goodbye to my new acquaintances in the Betty's and headed east. Below the clouds the horizon was blue water in all directions. I tuned my Detrola set (a low frequency radio range receiver) hoping to pick up the Attu range station. Nothing. I later learned that all the navigational radios were off the air to prevent the Japanese using them.
I recalled the sun had been on my left wing leaving Attu so I put it on my right wing, throttled back to best cruise and leaned the engines.
My precision navigation paid off when Aggatu (30 miles south of Attu) hove up over the eastern horizon. It was an easy shot to Massacre Bay on Attu our Liberator was circling. Feeling pretty good about not being lost anymore, I did a big victory roll in front of the Lib and headed east for Amchitka.
I had my lunch laid out on my lap when I did this roll and the pumpkin pie and canteen of lemonade went flying around the cockpit making a big mess and adding a little slapstick humor.
I flew back to Amchitka alone, leaning the engines a little more every now and then. The fuel lasted to get me home. There I learned that Watt was missing and Geddes had been shot down but was able to belly in at Massacre Bay on Attu and was saved by the USN.
SOME THINGS I HAVE
Last Updated: 04 January 2013 12:01
Originally published 30 June 2001