RGS’s Expedition Removes Fragments Of Three American Planes From Kamchatka

Фрагменты самолёта PV-1 "Вентура" лейтенанта Джека Коулеса. Фото: Вера Костамо

In 2022, the specialists of the Russian Geographical Society and the Expeditionary Center of the Russian Ministry of Defense examined the crash sites of American aircraft in Kamchatka and took out the most valuable parts of combat machines for display. The participants of the expedition told how they identified the planes and what difficulties they had to face. Read about the results of the expedition in this article.

During the Second World War, the Pacific Ocean became the main theater of military operations between Japan and the United States. Part of the battles took place on the territory of modern Russia. The Americans bombed Japanese naval bases located on the Kuril Islands. It was from here that on November 26, 1941, the Japanese squadron, which included aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, and submarines, went to Pearl Harbor.

The long distance from the battlefields to military bases, lack of fuel and severe weather conditions often became the causes of crashes or emergency landings of American aircraft on the territory of the Soviet Far East. According to data from the US National Archives and Records Administration, the US Air Force lost at least three dozen bombers here in 1943-1945.

To examine fragments of the aircraft, identify them, and take out artifacts for further use in exhibitions are the main goals of the joint expedition of the RGS and the Expeditionary Center of the Russian Ministry of Defense to study the crash sites of American aircraft during the US Army's military operations against Japan. The expedition started in 2021.


Первозданная природа Камчатки. Фото: Вера Костамо

Kamchatka became the place of exploration. Five years ago, during the work of the international Russian-American commission on prisoners of war and missing persons, Western partners asked the Russian Defense Ministry to clarify information about the fate of US military aircraft that disappeared in the Kamchatka region during the war with Japan. That's how the idea of the expedition appeared, the preparation for which took several years.

In the first expedition season of 2021, the experts found and studied the remains of five American planes in Kamchatka. The main task of the second season is the removal of the discovered wreckage of combat aircraft and the transfer of the artifacts to specialized museums.


Вывоз фрагмента самолёта на внешней подвеске. Фото: Вера Костамо

“In 2022, it was decided to take out the parts of three bombers located in the area of the Vestnik Bay, Cape Khodzhelayka, and Kambalny Bay. We knew the exact coordinates of the aircraft locations thanks to the data received from Kamchatka’s local historians, from archival research, and the results of the field stage of the expedition in 2021," said Anatoly Kalemberg, the head of the expedition. “Using an Mi-8 helicopter with an external sling, we took parts of the wings, tails, engines, and fuselages of aircraft from remote Kamchatka places to Elizovo Airfield, from where they can be delivered to local history and federal museums.”

The first location of the specialists' route was the B-24 “Liberator” heavy bomber of Lieutenant Donald Taylor, whose symbol was the resourceful and brave cartoon rabbit Bugs Bunny. "Bugs Bunny, What's Up Doc," read the inscription on the fuselage of the aircraft, according to archival photos. On November 17, 1944, Donald Taylor’s plane (with factory serial number 40993) crashed at the northern tip of the Vestnik Bay. According to one version, the plane was hit by its own shells when bombing at low altitude. 12 crew members were found by a Soviet search team and returned to their homeland. At the crash site, the expedition members found a wing with a landing gear, fragments of a gunner's lantern, one of the engines, and parts of the tail.


Специалисты готовят детали самолёта к транспортировке. Фото: Вера Костамо

The next location is Cape Khodzhelayka, where large fragments of the PV-1 “Ventura” attack aircraft of Lieutenant John Powers were found among dense shrubbery and steep hills. On February 20, 1945, the plane with tail number 96 took off from the Commander Islands to bomb the Japanese island of Shumshu, but was damaged by fragments of its own bombs and headed to its base. However, in conditions of almost zero visibility, the plane was able to fly only to the southern tip of Kamchatka. Six crew members jumped out of the plane with parachutes. They landed successfully, were rescued by the Soviet military, and sent to the United States through European countries.

From Cape Khodzhelayka, the expedition team took out two engines, a wing, a fragment of the tail fuselage, and a large number of small parts of the “Ventura”.

“We were able to identify the aircraft using the abbreviated factory serial number – 6470 – which was found on three parts. The number was stamped on two fragments of the hood twice and painted on the right side in the tail area," shared Sergey Katkov, head of research projects at the Center for Contemporary History. “Based on the databases that we collected from the documents of the American archives, we were able to establish that the aircraft found was the loss of the VPB-131 squadron of the US Navy. The registration number of the US Navy aircraft is 49654, aircraft number – 96, factory number – 6470.”


Место падения бомбардировщика PV-1 "Вентура" густо заросло стлаником. Фото: Вера Костамо

Having rounded the southern part of Kamchatka, the explorers went to the last planned location – the PV-1 “Ventura” aircraft found at Cape Lopatka in the Kambalny Bay area. Dozens of different numbers were found on the parts of the aircraft. Local residents prompted that in the 1970s, identification plates, which had been photographed, were removed from the aircraft engines. Later, the explorers received photos of the tag with the factory number of the aircraft engine, according to which it was possible to find out that the “Ventura” had the tail number 75 and belonged to Lieutenant Jack Coles.

On August 19, 1944, attack aircraft pilot Jack Coles from the VB-136 squadron flew to bomb the Japanese Kakumabetsu Airfield on Paramushir Island. After completing the combat mission, the aircraft was fired at by anti-aircraft artillery and attacked by three Japanese fighters. The right engine and the left wing were damaged; the machine gun sight was shot down. Jack Coles' plane was flying over the coast of Kamchatka when both engines stopped and the aircraft dropped down like a stone. The crew managed to escape. The American pilots spent almost a week visiting the Soviet military at Cape Lopatka, waiting for a boat to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Subsequently, all five crew members returned safely to the United States.

The expedition participants, using the external sling of the helicopter, delivered two engines, a wing, and a few small fragments of the “Ventura” from Cape Lopatka to Elizovo Airfield.


Бурого медведя в зарослях высокой травы сложно заметить с первого раза. Фото: Сергей Кравцов

“Despite the fact that we knew the exact location of the planes, the harsh conditions of the wild nature changed our plans. Several times we came face to face with bears. In the Vestnik Bay, the seven of us had to spend the night in a four-person mountain module on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. The helicopter was able to pick us up only the next day. The bears were calmly walking on the beach. One curious bear cub wanted to run up to us, but we scared it off with a flare gun," said Sergey Kravtsov, a member of the expedition, a search specialist. “Also, impassable shrubbery grew around the wreckage: cedar, alder. Trees 2-3m high, like a spider web, intertwined with prickly branches and roots. It took a long time to pave the way from the camp to the place of work.”

The expedition to study the crash sites of American aircraft during the US Army's military operations against Japan will continue in 2023. The plans include searches not only in Kamchatka, but also on the Kuril Islands.

To learn how the USSR helped the American military, read the article: "Planes Come First: What Search Specialists of the RGS and Russian Ministry of Defense Want to Find in Kamchatka."

Natalia Sadovskikh