Man Who Helped Keep Japanese from Retaking Alaskan Island in WWII Turns 100

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U.S. Army 2nd Lt. James Elsner flies a P-40 Warhawk over the Bering Sea near Attu, Alaska in 1944. The P-40 was named Carolyn, after Elsner’s mother. (Courtesy Photo)

In August 1941, war raged in Europe and in China, and it was brewing in the Pacific. The U.S. would soon join the war, and a buildup had begun.

National Guard units around the nation were federalized. And in Hartford, James Elsner, 22, and his older brother were drafted into the Army. For Elsner, the signal corps was his first assignment. But he was interested in flying and took an exam to become an aviation cadet. He passed and soon began flight training.

The U.S. entered World War II in December 1941 after the Japanese attack on the navy base at Pearl Harbor. Those first months of the war in the Pacific were marked by a series of Japanese victories over the U.S. and its allies.

Two bright spots were the Doolittle Raid, in which Army B-25 bombers flew off the aircraft carrier Hornet and bombed targets in Japan on April 18, 1942. That was followed by the epic U.S. victory over the Japanese at the Battle of Midway in early June 1942.

The Japanese plan for Midway included a diversionary attack on the western Aleutian Islands at Attu and Kiska, part of what is now Alaska. The Japanese hoped to draw U.S. forces north so they would not be available at Midway. But Navy codebreakers had figured out Japan’s true intentions, and Adm. Chester Nimitz kept the U.S. forces focused on Midway.

The Japanese forces that landed at Attu and Kiska, at the western edge of the Aleutian island chain, faced no opposition. Their occupation of the islands marked the first time since the war of 1812 that American territory had been seized by a hostile power. But it would not stand.

Less than a year later, in May 1943, about 15,000 American soldiers arrived off Attu to take the island back. The Americans went ashore on May 11. They faced 2,500 Japanese defenders. The fighting was fierce and ended with a massed banzai attack — the first American troops would face in the Pacific — that was turned back by the Americans. Those Japanese soldiers not killed in the banzai attack committed mass suicide by placing hand grenades against their chests. Only 28 Japanese soldiers were taken prisoner.

On the American side, 550 soldiers were killed and another 1,500 were wounded. About 1,200 Americans suffered injuries from the cold.

The Army and Navy did not intend for Attu to again fall into Japanese hands, and American forces sent to defend the island included two squadrons of Army Air Force fighter planes.

Elsner, who turned 100 on Thursday, was assigned to the 18th Fighter Squadron and arrived at Attu in March 1944. The squadron’s mission was to keep the Japanese from returning. Elsner flew a Curtis P-40 Warhawk that he named Carolyn in honor of his mother. By 1944, the P-40 was an old airplane and considered obsolete, having been eclipsed in Army service by the North American P-51 Mustang and Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.

But Elsner said he liked flying the P-40 and called it “exhilarating.” The P-40 had been made famous in the years before the U.S. got into the war by the Flying Tigers, a group of American fighter pilots who flew against the Japanese in defense of China.

“The P-40 did its duty,” Elsner said. “The Flying Tigers flew it and shot down a lot of Japanese. It’s a good thing it was there until the 51s and 47s arrived.” Another group at Attu flew Lockheed P-38 Lightnings.

The fighting was over at Attu when Elsner arrived, and there would be no combat during his time there.

“The mission really was air defense,” Elsner recalled. “We were scrambled any time they thought they saw a bogie. They thought the Japanese might come back. That’s why we were there.”

The squadron’s pilots did a lot of training. They’d practice aerial gunnery, skip bombing, dive bombing, navigation and dog fighting. One of Elsner’s squadron commanders was Dean Davenport, the co-pilot of the B-25 bomber Ruptured Duck that flew in the Doolittle Raid off the Hornet. The lead pilot was Ted Lawson, whose book about the mission, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” was later made into a movie starring Van Johnson, Spencer Tracy and Robert Mitchum.

Elsner left the Army after the war but continued to serve in what became the Connecticut Air National Guard. He flew until 1968 and retired in 1971, having attained the rank of lieutenant colonel.

During his career, Elsner got to fly six different fighters, including the Air Force’s first operational jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. He eventually transitioned to flying C-47 and C-54 transports.

Like so many of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, when the war ended, Elsner went to work, married and raised a family. He worked at G. Fox & Co. in Hartford as a purchasing agent. That’s where he met his wife Dorothy, who worked in what was called the foundation department.

“People were wondering why I always was going into the corset area,” he said. Together they raised two sons and a daughter in West Hartford. The couple have been married for 68 years. His wife, Dorothy, turned 93 Friday.

Elsner was recalled to duty for the Korean War. When he returned home again, he went back to G. Fox and worked in the credit department and was credit manager for 17 years.

Elsner left G. Fox in 1974 and went to work for Society For Savings, a Hartford bank that in 1993 merged with Bank of Boston Connecticut, before eventually being merged into Fleet Bank and Bank of America. He left there after 17 years.

A regular exercise regimen helped Elsner reach the century mark. Until just a few years ago, he would head to a local health club and swim laps. These days, he does situps and works out with resistance bands.

“And I walk a lot,” Elsner said. “And I just renewed my driver’s license for six years. So it’s good till 2025.”

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