Frosty battlefield

American General Billy Mitchell told

Congress in 1935: “I believe that in the future,

whoever holds Alaska will hold the world.

I think it is the most important strategic place

in the world.” Because the Kuril Islands could

be invaded by Soviet troops with American

support, the Japanese command wanted

to make cooperation between the U.S. and

the USSR as difficult as possible if Stalin

entered the war against Japan. Therefore,

the Japanese command focused on the

Aleutian Islands, some of which they wanted

to conquer, to establish bases on, and then

attack American supply and military vessels.

The attack on the Aleutians and the landings

on Attu and Kiska in June 1942 were not an

action to divert attention from the attack on

Midway, as it is sometimes stated. It was

a strategically equivalent part of an invasion

operation that had northern and southern

objectives, with reserve forces operating

roughly halfway between the Aleutians and


After the Japanese carriers sailed from the

Aleutians, the Tōkō Kōkūtai was tasked with

fighter cover for the invasion force. Among

other seaplanes it operated A6M2-N Rufe

fighters. The fighter unit began operations

in early July 1942, and was later detached to

form the 5th Kōkūtai, redesignated Kōkūtai

452 towards the end of the year.

The weather in the Aleutians is cool

and very changeable even in summer,

characterized by low clouds. American flying

boats and two- and four-engine bombers


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soon began attacking Japanese forces.

Because of the low altitude, their raids

were not only covered by fighter escorts,

but were preceded within minutes by fighter

attacks against air defense positions. These

operations involved pilots of Lightnings,

Airacobras and also Curtiss P-40s of both the

US and Royal Canadian Air Forces.

Rufes were initially moored in the shallows

and maintenance was done in largely

improvised conditions on shore. A hangar

was later built on Kiska Island, but the Allies

meanwhile quickly built new airfields on the

Aleutians. While defending their bases, Rufe

pilots often fought against superior numbers,

but were also tasked with anti-submarine

patrols and attacks on Allied airfields. The

Rufe unit shot down fifteen aircraft certainly

and five probably from the summer of 1942

to March 1943. In less than eight months of

its combat deployment, it operated against

the enemy during sixty days, in many cases

conducting multiple actions in a single day.

Twelve Rufes and ten pilots were lost in aerial

combat. Another 23 Rufes in the Aleutians

were written off because of malfunctions and


Among their opponents were P-40 pilots

from the 11th FS, 343rd FG. In 1942, they

operated out of Fort Glenn on Umnak Island

and 11th FS was one of the units that faced

a raid by Japanese carrier planes during

the attack on Dutch Harbor. Initially, 11th FS

was armed with Curtiss P-40Es, which are

listed in its reports until August 1943. From

Text: Jan Bobek

Illustration: Marek Ryś

September 1942, it also used P-40Ks, and

after August 1943 unit´s airmen were flying

P-40Ns. While operating in extremely difficult

conditions, 11th FS airmen scored six victories

and eleven of them did not return from

combat. During World War II, nearly 100 more

11th FS aircraft were damaged or destroyed

due to accidents. In 1942, 11th FS was led by

Lt/Col John Stephen Chennault, son of the

legendary Flying Tigers commander. And

because the apple didn't fall far from the tree,

tiger-inspired paintings also appeared on the

noses of 11th FS Curtisses, but they were

more prominent than those of his father's

American Volunteer Group.

John S. Chennault, like his opponents, faced

extremely adverse conditions for combat. He

scored one Rufe seaplane on September 25,

1942. Both sides took pride in their ability to

accomplish combat missions in the Aleutian

area. After the war, Chennault commented in

a unit history, “As long as I live, there'll never

be another like the “We'll Be There” Squadron.

We went through so much and were so ill

prepared in everything but morale, but we

had that. The hardships the men had to put

up with and the manner which they accepted

them made you proud to be an American.”

John S. Chennault, who later served in the

Korean War, is buried next to his father in

Arlington Cemetery.

For more details on the Rufe and its

deployment to the Aleutian area, see the

April 2023 issue of INFO Eduard magazine.

July 2023