Harry Higgins Amchitka Scrapbook
1943

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Harry Higgins, Amchitka 1943On 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.]

Harry Higgins, 2001

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BIG ATTU AIR BATTLE

P-38 Lightning flown by Harry Higgins. Circa 1943

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 LEARNED ABOUT
THIS RAID IN RECENT YEARS

Lt. Col. WATT

I believe Col. Watt was shot down on his first pass.  There was disagreement about whether he had got a message off after he was shot.  I met Carole Watt Collins, Col. Watts daughter between flights at Seatac Airport in the spring of 1998.  She had been a babe in arms on December 7, 1941 living in Hawaii where her father was a P-40 pilot.  She and her mother were evacuated to the mainland after the Pearl Harbor attack and never saw Col. Watt again.  Her mother was bitter about losing her husband and closed her mind to the wartime experiences. 

In 1998 Carole had been in Alaska searching for stories about her dad.  She picked my phone number up somewhere and when she and her husband flew through Seattle we met and I gave her a copy of my file about the raid and spent an hour talking with her at the airport.  She told me this was the first real information she had ever had about her father.

Second Lieutenants donít pal around with Lt. Cols. (*) and I didnít know Col. Watt personally.  Talking about him after the raid I learned that he had been at Pearl during the big raid and had tried to get a P-40 in the air but was strafed or somehow prevented from flying by the Japanese.  The story was that he was very bitter about this and was most anxious to get at the enemy. 

JOHN GEDDES AND RICHARD GREENE

John was shot down by the Japanese during the raid and landed his damaged P-38 in Massacre Bay, Attu.  A USN OS2U Kingfisher floatplane landed near John and the observer in the rear seat, Richard Greene, climbed down on the float and fished John out of the drink.  I introduced John to Richard on May 23, 1996; 53 years to the day after Richard saved John's life.  This was a very emotional experience.  Richard had a gun shop and firing range back in the woods at the north end of Whidbey Island.  He died in 1998 and he was a great guy.  Frances and I have become good friends with Jackie Greene, Richardís widow.  We see her now and then.

WARREN BANKS

I am pretty sure it was Warren Banks who did that slow roll just to irritate the Japanese in the middle of that big air battle.  In 1998 Bill Duffy, a 54th Fighter Squadron veteran, told me of Warren's last flight.  Late in the afternoon one day in December, 1943 Bill and Warren were scrambled out of Alexai Point on Attu to look for a surface vessel in trouble north of Attu.  They never found the ship but flew a bad heading trying to get home.  In the dark of the night, low on fuel, they finally got their bearings and found Attu.  But the island was under the clouds and they were on top.  Someone on the ground had the bright idea of shining a searchlight vertically over Alexai Point.  Bill spotted the light in the cloud.  He spiraled down but lost Warren in the wild descent.  With a lot of luck, Bill made it ok but Warren was never seen again.

MARSHALL HYDE

Marsh was on the flight that morning but he had engine trouble and never got into the fight.  He is living today near Pensacola, Florida.

FREDERICK MOORE

I have lost Fred's address.  He has not attended any of the squadron reunions.

H. C. Higgins

 


* In 1943 the enlisted men of the Fighting 54th, the 54th Fighter Squadron, had a dog named Rags. He had little to do with officers (I was a second louie flying P-38's against Kiska and Attu back then). Rags made it up to Tech Sgt when a lady (?) dog showed up and he was busted back to Pvt. (Back)

 

Last Updated: 04 January 2013 12:01

Originally published 30 June 2001