17 August 2011

Oliver Rasmussen Evades the Japanese for Ten Weeks- *in* Japan

Oliver Rasmussen in the back seat of the Helldiver
The run up for the Allied invasion of the Japanese home islands began on 1 July 1945 when Task Force 38, a powerful US Navy fast carrier armada, weighed anchor and headed out from its forward anchorage in the Philippines. Under the command of Vice Admiral John McCain aboard the Essex-class carrier USS Shangri-La, TF38 was tasked with Phase One of Operation Olympic, the preparatory phase of the invasion of Kyushu planned for November 1945. The aircraft of the task force would establish air superiority by mid-August over Kyushu which would in turn set the stage for Operation Coronet, the invasion of Honshu in 1946. The first strikes would begin on northern Japan on 13 July before moving south to Kyushu. In poor weather than grounded most of the Japanese fighter forces, the aircraft of TF38 struck coastal targets and shipping on Hokkaido, the northernmost of the home islands. Despite the weather, the Japanese managed to put up a spirited defense in the two-day strikes, with the Navy losing 44 aircraft and 26 pilots in crew. 

On the first day over Hokkaido, the Shangri-La's air wing would lose eight Curtiss SB2C Helldivers. One of the Helldivers lost was flown by Lt.(jg) Howard Eagleston, who descended too low under the overcast and struck a mountain in rural Hokkaido. He was killed on impact, but his gunner, 23-year old radioman Oliver Rasmussen, survived. With only the clothes he wore and an empty backpack, Rasmussen knew all too well what the Japanese did to their prisoners and decided he'd chance it in the Hokkaido wilderness. Being part Chippewa Indian from Minnesota, Rasmussen had come from an impoverished family (he referred to them as "the second generation right out of the teepee") but had spent his youth in the great outdoors. Having only a vague idea of his general location, Rasmussen spent seventeen days trekking to the coast, living off the land and avoiding any Japanese residents he came across. On 31 July upon reaching the coast, Rasmussen found his first source of significant food- a farmer's cow near his hideout would provide the sailor fresh milk for nine straight nights- each night he'd creep out to the cow and help himself to the milk and return to his hideout. The farmer never figured out what was going on, eventually turning to cow lose figuring she was longer able to produce any milk. 

Rasmussen then built a small boat and tried to head out to sea, but the breakers on that particular stretch of coastline proved hazardous. He retreated back up into the mountains of Hokkaido and set up quarters in an abandoned railroad shack where he kept himself fed with raw onions, birds' eggs, uncooked rice and frog legs. On 16 August, the day after the Japanese surrender, he was spotting by a Japanese civilian, but not aware the Japan had surrendered, Rasmussen abandoned his hideout and sought new refuge. After several days of exploring, he found a site well-hidden that was within easy reach of five farms. He scavenged some scrap lumber to build a small shelter and helped himself to the produce and milk from the five farms each night. As he hadn't bathed in weeks, one of the farms' dogs got his scent on 5 September and the owners went to investigate. He managed to knock over some of the farmers as he made a narrow escape back into the wilderness. Each day he noted more and more American aircraft flying overhead, but he was unable to get their attention. He did find it odd, though, that they attracted no defensive fire and it didn't appear that they were conducting any offensive strikes.

Frustrated that he wasn't able to attract any passing aircraft and growing weary of being in the wilderness, he opted for the direct approach on 19 September and walked into the port city of Tomakomai and presented himself to the local police station to surrender. To Rasmussen's surprise, the police chief treated him as a guest with his first real meal in ten weeks and a bath. It was then that he found out about Japan's unconditional surrender on 15 August. Rather amusingly, the police chief asked Rasmussen if he knew anything about the rash of milk and produce thefts from local farms over the past several weeks- to which Rasmussen denied any knowledge. After an astonishing sixty-eight days in the Japanese wilderness, he was returned to the USS Shangri-La to a hero's welcome. While the end of the war dominated news headlines in the United States, upon his return stateside some news articles did cover his story and regrettably most were condescending about Rasmussen's experience given his native American heritage. As a result, he told no one else about his story despite remaining with the Navy. 

Donald Norton's book on Oliver Rasmussen's experiences

Postwar, he made a career in the Navy working the Berlin Airlift and flying combat missions over Korea. He retired a chief petty officer in 1962 and settled in California where he got a technical job at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. He passed away in his sleep in 1980 after a year-long battle with cancer with only a few people aware of his story. In the 1960s, though, a family friend made numerous recordings of Rasmussen's ten-week experience in Japan for a planned book. That family friend, however, died a year after interviewing Rasmussen and Rasmussen's wife put the tapes into storage. There they remained until nearly 20 years later, when one of Rasmussen's subordinates in the Navy from the 1950s, Donald Norton, set out to document Rasmussen's story for his own book project. Finding out that Rasmussen had died in 1980, his widow passed on the recordings to Norton, which became the basis for the book Chippewa Chief in World War II: The Survival Story of Oliver Rasmussen in Japan which was published in 2001.

Source: Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan, 1942-1945 by Barrett Tilman. Simon and Schuster, 2011, p199-204.

07 August 2011

RNZAF Squadron Leader Leonard H. Trent and his Victoria Cross Mission

Sqn Ldr Leonard H. Trent
With the drums of war building in Europe in 1939, the Royal Air Force asked Lockheed for a twin-engine bomber to be used for anti-submarine and coastal patrols. Based on the RAF's own experience with the Hudson which was based on the Lockheed 14 Electra airliner, Lockheed offered a bomber version of the Model 18 Lodestar transport as the Ventura. First flying on 31 July 1941, the British were suitably impressed with the Ventura's performance to order 650 of the Ventura I and 487 of the upgraded Ventura II aircraft. Though the bulk of the Venturas were diverted to US forces following Pearl Harbor, a significant number did reach the RAF who needed the Ventura as a replacement for the Bristol Blenheim as a fast, low-level, bomber. Though there were more suitable aircraft for the role, at the time, only the Ventura was available in the numbers needed. In Norfolk, the RAF equipped No. 21 Squadron with the Venturas and co-located were two Commonwealth squadrons also assigned the Ventura- Australian-manned No. 464 Squadron and New Zealander-manned No. 487 Squadron. The three units were tasked with coastal targets in occupied Europe. Despite a high number of accidents and technical issues, the three units pressed ahead in committing the Ventura to combat, being assigned industrial targets primarily in Holland. As the war progressed, the RAF would team up the Ventura units with squadrons flying the faster Mosquito and Douglas Boston (RAF version of the A-20 Havoc) bombers. 

The pilots of No. 487 Sqn and one of their Venturas
On 3 May 1943 the Kiwis of No. 487 Squadron were assigned a diversionary raid against a power station in Amsterdam while an RAF squadron flying Bostons would attack the Royal Dutch Steel Works at low level. Opposition was expected to be heavy but the Venturas despite their poor reliability could absorb a considerable amount of damage and still fly home. The pilots of No. 487 Squadron were encouraged to do what they could to hit the target and complete the mission as a means of boosting the morale of the Dutch population and resistance. Leading the twelve Venturas would be Sqn Ldr Leonard H. Trent. 

As poor luck would have it, that same day the German military governor of Holland would be visiting the area and the Luftwaffe had placed a large number of its fighters on alert. To make matters worse, a squadron of RAF Spitfires assigned to escort No. 487 Squadron arrived at the rendezvous point off the coast half an hour too soon. Not only did this trigger the Luftwaffe alert, but when the Venturas arrived at the rendezvous point, the Spitfires were low on fuel and had to return to base, leaving the Kiwis to hit the power station unescorted in broad daylight. Crossing the Dutch coast at 12,000 feet, the twelve Venturas were in two formations of six and were bounced by seventy Luftwaffe fighters. Trent's second-in-command took hits and had to turn back to return to England- his aircraft would be the only one of the twelve to make it home. As the Venturas fought off the Germans, the fighters savaged the formation, leaving only three aircraft led by Sqn Ldr Trent to complete the mission. Six Venturas were shot down in less than four minutes. As they neared the target, another two Venturas were shot down, leaving Trent and his crew as the only remaining aircraft. Approaching the target and his gunner managing to shoot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109, Trent pressed home his attack and just as his bombs hit the power station, accurate flak destroyed his aircraft with Trent and his navigator being thrown clear of the shattered aircraft. The rest of his crew failed to escape and Trent and his navigator parachuted down and were captured. 

RAF Ventura over its target

After his capture, Trent was sent to the Stalag Luft III POW camp where he participated in the "Great Escape" in March 1944. He avoided getting shot by surrendering right outside of the camp gates. The Gestapo executed fifty escaped prisoners, but Trent only got solitary confinement because of his early capture. On his repatriation did the circumstances of the disastrous Amsterdam raid become known and on 1 March 1946 he was awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military honor, for his leadership on the raid that claimed 11 of the 12 Venturas sent to hit the power plant. The squadron was virtually wiped out after that raid and the RAF questioned the continued use of the Ventura as a daylight attack bomber. King George VI himself and his daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth II, visited No. 487 Squadron at their base only days later to offer their condolences. 

After the war, Trent remained with the Royal Air Force and in January 1956 he became the first commanding officer of No. 214 Squadron at RAF Marham which was the first to become operational with the Vickers Valiant, the first of the RAF V-bombers that formed Britain's nuclear deterrent until the arrival of the Polaris SLBM with the Royal Navy. He retired in 1965 when the Valiant fleet was retired due to wing spar structural failures and returned to New Zealand where he passed away in 1986. His biography, Venturer Courageous, was published in 1984 and authored by James Sanders and Laddie Lucas.

Source: PV Ventura/Harpoon Units of World War 2 (Osprey Combat Aircraft No. 34) by Alan C. Carey. Osprey Publishing, 2002, p17-19. Photos: Royal Air Force, United States Navy.