Kamchatka Remembers: How to Assemble a Living History from Aircraft Wrecks

Обломки самолётов прячутся в труднодоступных местах полуострова. Фото: Андрей Дмитриев
Обломки самолётов прячутся в труднодоступных местах полуострова. Фото: Андрей Дмитриев

Five American aircraft from the Second World War were discovered and partially identified in Kamchatka by the members of the joint expedition of the Russian Geographical Society and the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. It ended on June 29th. The details of the work were reported by one of the expedition members – the head of research projects of the Center for Contemporary History (CCH) Sergey Katkov.

The origin of the expedition can be considered a meeting of the Russian-American Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Office. In 2018, Western partners asked the Russian Ministry of Defense to help clarify information about the deaths of US military aircraft that participated in the war with Japan in the Kamchatka region. Earlier, the Kamchatka media reported more than once that local search specialists found wreckage of American aircraft in the area of ​​the Vestnik Bay on the southeastern tip of the peninsula. Even the names of the crew members were given. However, this information required confirmation. It was necessary not only to find the wreckage itself, but also to identify it.


Крыло бомбардировщика Lokheed PV-1 Ventura. Мыс Камбальный. Фото: Центр современной истории/Сергей Катков
Крыло бомбардировщика Lokheed PV-1 Ventura. Мыс Камбальный. Фото: Центр современной истории/Сергей Катков

During the preparation of the expedition, the specialists of the CCH studied documents from the US National Archives and Records Administration. They found materials on the loss of at least 33 US Air Force (USAAF) bombers in the Soviet Far East in 1943-1945, many of which were lost during the Kuril operation. In addition, it became known that at least 14 bombers assigned to the US Navy (USN) were lost in the Kuril operation in 1944-1945.

“During these two years, the Americans were flying combat missions to the islands of Paramushir and Shumshu (these are the northernmost islands of the Kuril Ridge), where Japanese troops and airfields were located; and also searched for enemy naval caravans. After completing combat missions, planes that had been hit often made emergency landings in Soviet Kamchatka. It sometimes ended with the loss of aircraft and the death of people," says Sergey Katkov.

Thus, the members of the expedition have documentary materials about several dozen aircraft lost by the Americans during the last two years of the war in the area. Sergey Katkov emphasizes: the information is reliable, but, possibly, incomplete.


Сергей Катков. Фото: Центр современной истории

In ten days of searching, it was possible to find crash sites and examine the fragments of five aircraft. The next step is to work with archival materials with the aim of the final identification of the aircraft. The next goal is to trace the fate of their crews.

Kamchatka search specialists rendered invaluable assistance to the RGS expedition. They knew where to look and became guides in the hard-to-reach areas of the peninsula.

The expedition's field camp was set up in the area of ​​the Vestnik Bay. All organizational work, including the transportation of the group by helicopters and managing day-to-day issues, was undertaken by the military personnel of the Kamchatka Flotilla of the Pacific Fleet.

Below is a list of five American aircraft, the wreckages of which were found and examined during the current expedition of the Russian Geographical Society.

1. The "Liberator"

The wreckage of a long-range bomber B-24 "Liberator" was found in the Vestnik Bay by inspectors of the Kronotsky State Nature Biosphere Reserve. Last year, while on duty, they found an aircraft landing gear sticking out of the ground.


B-24 "Либерейтор".  Фото: wikipedia.org/U.S. Air Force archived photograph
B-24 "Либерейтор". Фото: wikipedia.org/U.S. Air Force archived photograph

The Consolidated B-24 Liberator is an American World War II four-engine heavy bomber developed by the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation. It entered service with the United States Air Force in 1939. It is capable of carrying up to 3.6 tons of bombs. The maximum speed is 470 km/h. Maximum takeoff weight – 29.5 tons. Combat radius – 2850 km. Crew – 7-10 people.

The working theory based on archival materials is that in November 1944, the B-24 was damaged by the explosions of its own bombs when bombing at low altitude. The plane managed to reach Cape Lopatka and made an emergency landing (a “belly landing”).

The so-called "US Air Force serial number" of this aircraft, according to archival data, was 42-40993. As Sergey Katkov notes, the plane was "named" – there was an inscription on the fuselage "Bugs Bunny, What’s Up Doc". Bugs Bunny is the name of the resourceful rabbit, the hero of the popular American animated series of the 1940s.

The Soviet search team found the Americans and took them to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, from where the pilots returned to the United States.


До большинства мест падений самолётов можно добраться только на вертолёте. Фото: Центр современной истории/Сергей Катков
До большинства мест падений самолётов можно добраться только на вертолёте. Фото: Центр современной истории/Сергей Катков

During the search for the aircraft, no major excavations were required. Debris stuck out of the coastal sand, part of it was hidden by thickets of hogweed. Quite a lot of units were found, technical photographic documentation was carried out.

"So far, the ‘serial number’ on the remains of the aircraft has not been found,” says Sergey Katkov. “But another number was found, ‘2070’, stenciled on the air intake of one of the engines. Perhaps this number will help us. The fact is that the vehicle leaving the factory had one number – the manufacturer’s serial number (MSN). And when it was accepted by the Air Force/Navy, it was assigned others – the USAAF Serial Number (USAAF No.) or the bureau number (Bu.No.).

2. The "Ventura"

The marine attack aircraft PV-1 "Ventura". Found near Cape Lopatka in the Kambalny Bay area. The members of the RGS expedition learned about the place of its crash from the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky search specialists.


PV-1 "Вентура". Фото: wikipedia.org/U.S. Navy  A U.S. Navy Lockheed PV-1 Ventura patrol bomber in flight, circa 1943
PV-1 "Вентура". Фото: wikipedia.org/U.S. Navy A U.S. Navy Lockheed PV-1 Ventura patrol bomber in flight, circa 1943

The Lockheed PV-1 Ventura is a naval patrol aircraft, reconnaissance aircraft and bomber. Military version of the Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar passenger aircraft. Twin-engine all-metal monoplane with two-fin tail. In service with the US Army since December 1941, the US Navy since October 1942. It could carry 2.27 tons of bombs. The maximum speed is 518 km/h. Maximum takeoff weight – 15.4 tons. Combat radius – 2670 km. Crew – 4-5 people.

“The plane was found in the bushes of dwarf pine,” says Sergey Katkov. “The thickets are so dense that from a distance of five meters the side is no longer visible. Part of the fuselage with the tail unit, two wings, both engines were preserved. The fuselage itself was completely burned out. Unfortunately, it will not be possible to discern the bureau number on the tail unit where it was usually painted. This part is burned out in the sun, not even a trace remains. However, the number ‘30’ is displayed on the vertical stabilizer in white paint. Most likely, this is the factory mark. It does not correspond to the tail number in the combat units. On three parts – two boxes for machine-gun ammunition and on the rear wheel flap – the number ‘12’ was found. Perhaps this is the tail number. But to say for sure, you need to work with the documents. There is a certain difficulty in this. For aircraft assigned to the Navy, the documentation is much less detailed than in the Air Force. Often only the aircraft number was indicated. Even engine numbers do not appear in the reports."

The plane, presumably, was hit by Japanese anti-aircraft artillery during the attack, and when retreating from the target, it was also attacked by three fighters, but managed to reach Kamchatka.

It is assumed that the crew of this "Ventura" survived, was taken to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and immediately transported to the United States.

3. The "Mitchell"

The crash site of the third B-25 “Mitchell” aircraft had already been known earlier. It was found in the area of ​​Cape Lopatka by the search speciaists from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Moreover, a Russian-American group reached it in 2014. The three-bladed propeller was a kind of sign and reference point, but now it has disappeared. As a result, it took the members of the expedition several attempts to find the place.


В-25 "Митчелл". Фото: wikipedia.org/USGOV-PD
В-25 "Митчелл". Фото: wikipedia.org/USGOV-PD

The North American B-25 Mitchell is a twin-engine, high-wing, all-metal bomber. It entered service in 1941. Unlike its counterparts, it was operated for many years after the Second World War. Maximum takeoff weight – 19 tons. Combat radius – 2170 km. Bomb load – 2.8 tons. Maximum speed – 442 km/h. Crew – 6 people.

“The place itself is very burned – there are no large debris,” says Sergey Katkov. “Under the turf, we found many ingots of aluminum – these are the fragments of burnt out gas tanks and cylinder heads. In the coastal zone, we found two air-cooled engines. They were poorly preserved, but on the working surface of one of the pistons, despite deep corrosion, we managed to read the rest of the numbers. We hope that this is the serial number of the engine. Finding a reference to the serial number will not be easy. Factory documents are already private property. I hope our materials will be of interest to American government agencies, and they, in turn, will ask questions to the manufacturing company."

The working theory of the expedition members of the Russian Geographical Society is that these are the parts of the plane, the commander of which was Lieutenant Irving. The Americans lost this plane in the spring of 1945. Paradoxical as it may sound, Soviet anti-aircraft gunners shot it down.


Красивая и суровая Камчатка. Фото: Андрей Дмитриев
Красивая и суровая Камчатка. Фото: Андрей Дмитриев

“Yes, we were allies at that moment, but a tragic coincidence occurred,” says Sergey Katkov. “For the operation of allied aircraft in the Kamchatka region, air corridors were designated – there and back. The Americans knew that if they left the corridor, their planes could get hit. This is war;  Japan, an ally of Hitler's Germany, is very close. That day, after the next bombing, 11 bombers popped up at once flying towards Cape Lopatka. And they weren’t going along the coastal strip, where they had a corridor, but in the direction of Petropavlovsk. Our anti-aircraft gunners could not to see the identification marks. Besides, thick fogs often occur here. Finally, there should have been no allied aircraft there... "

Other crews saw the Mitchell's engines first start smoking, then it crashed to the ground and exploded. According to American sources, this place is designated as "8 miles north of Cape Lopatka". And this seems like the place that the search specialists have now explored. The crew was buried near the site of the plane crash. According to specialists from the CCH, in 1947 the American side was interested in the fate of the grave, to which they received the answer that the grave was in a satisfactory condition. However, a lot has changed in 70 years. There is a road nearby, many people have driven by, and the wooden pyramid of the grave on the coastal terrace deteriorates quickly due to natural reasons. Nevertheless, the search for the remains of the crew members may continue in the future.

4. The "Boston"

"Douglas" A-20 "Boston" was discovered by Kamchatka search specialists near the town of Elizovo. During the war, a large air hub with several airfields was located there. This plane, according to the head of the Elizovo youth center “Patriot”, Alexander Belikov, had a Soviet crew, and the plane itself came to the USSR under Lend-Lease.


"Дуглас" А-20 "Бостон" ВВС РККА. Фото: wikipedia.org/Игорь Бубин
"Дуглас" А-20 "Бостон" ВВС РККА. Фото: wikipedia.org/Игорь Бубин

The Douglas A-20 Havoc/DB-7 Boston is a family of aircraft that includes an attack aircraft, a light bomber and a night fighter. During the Second World War, it was in service with the Air Forces of the USA, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and other countries. Normal takeoff weight – 10 tons. Maximum speed – 510 km/h. Practical range – 1320 km. Weaponry – three 12.7 mm machine guns, three (more often one) 7.62 mm machine guns, the maximum could carry 1090 kg of bombs (data for the A-20B modification).

“We could not find the numbers of the bomber,” says Sergey Katkov. “Because the wing of the aircraft and part of the fuselage are hidden under water in a stream. Together with our Kamchatka partners, we cleared what we could by hand. We will have to get the remains of the airplane from the water for further study. It means, we’ll need at least a winch. Apparently, a small deforestation will be required, and this requires administrative approval. The search specialists are planning several visits to the site. It's too early to say why A-20 crashed."


Обнаруженный рукописный номер на фрагменте фюзеляжа А-20 Boston. Фото: Центр современной истории/Сергей Катков
Обнаруженный рукописный номер на фрагменте фюзеляжа А-20 Boston. Фото: Центр современной истории/Сергей Катков

5. Another "Ventura"

The expedition members received information about the last of the five studied aircraft from two sources: from the reserve staff and from Alexander Belikov. Some time ago, a civil aviation pilot, during a flight in the area of ​​Cape Khojelayka, noticed fragments of an aircraft on the ground and even took several photographs. It was decided to perform a reconnaissance mission to the place where the wreckage was found.

“We were warned that it would be difficult to find it, since there were no exact coordinates,” says Sergey Katkov. “There is only a search area. But the helicopter crew showed a very high level of training – in the end we were able to find fragments of the aircraft from the air.“


В отсутствие серийного номера идентифицировать борт иногда приходится методом исключения. Фото: Андрей Дмитриев
В отсутствие серийного номера идентифицировать борт иногда приходится методом исключения. Фото: Андрей Дмитриев

It is impossible to land a group in this place – there are steep hillsides, and very high (three meters and higher) and dense dwarf pine and alder thickets. The head of the search group, Lusegen Khegetov, said that two people had covered 320 meters deep into the thickets in an hour and forty minutes, with visibility in the dwarf pine wood being two to three meters. With great difficulty, they managed to find one of the engines.

“It turned out to be the R-2800 engine, from which we can conclude that this is another ‘Ventura’ naval attack aircraft,” explains Sergey Katkov. “We have archival data to establish which of the aircraft of this brand can be matched with this place. Two aircraft of the US Navy fell into the sea. Four aircraft crashed or made hard landing in the Kamchatka taiga. The rest landed in Elizovo or the surrounding area and were repaired by our technicians. One of the crashed aircraft was found earlier in the Nalychevo area; the other, near Mutnovsky volcano and identified by numbers; the third and fourth were examined as part of this expedition. So, narrowing the search range, we hope to identify this aircraft in the future, confirming, if possible, the versions with identification numbers."

Aivar Valeev