Annette Island lies about 600 miles NW of Seattle, and is part of the island chain at the very southern-most part of Alaska. During WWII the Pacific Northwest became a minor theater of operations, as Japanese forces invaded the islands of Attu and Kiska (US sovereign territory) and Jap submarines ventured south into coastal waters off British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) assigned several squadrons (111, 8, 118 & 115) to help defend Alaska and the NW coast. Squadrons 111 and 8 formed “X Wing”, operating out of Anchorage and Kodiak. Squadrons 118 and 115 formed “Y Wing”, and moved to Annette Island in April 1942. This is the only time in US history that a foreign country has directly assumed the defense of US territory.
From that very austere base on Annette Island, 115 Sqdn began flying anti-submarine patrols in the twin-engined Bristol Bolingbroke MkIV (the Canadian-built version of the Blenheim). The Bolingbroke was better-known by its crews as the “Boly”.
Boly anti-submarine patrols were routinely uneventful, but on 7 July 42, the boredom was broken when Flying Officer William E. Thomas and his crew, flying in serial# 9118, spotted something in the choppy waters. It was a 100-foot long “cigar-shaped” object, emitting white smoke or vapor. They turned the Boly around and dropped a 250-pound anti-submarine bomb, scoring a direct hit. The crew of 9118, however, weren’t sure what they’d hit. They thought they might have killed a whale.
But they dutifully called in the contact report, and the next morning two US Coast Guard cutters steamed into the area, found a target with sonar, and prosecuted it with depth charges. They reported a heavy smell of diesel, bubbles and oil on the water, and were convinced they’d sunk a sub. The next day, 9 July, USCG cutter McClane was in the same area, spotted torpedo wakes in the water astern, and took evasive action. More RCAF planes from Annette Island were dispatched, this time P-40s from 118 Sqdn, and dropped more anti-sub bombs on the mysterious contact, with no apparent effect.
This whole action was called the “Battle of Annette Island”, with more than a little dramatic flair. It actually seems to have happened closer to Forrester Island, off the entrance to the bay known as the “Dixon Entrance”. Coyle and other writers are a little vague (and sometimes contradictory) on where the engagement occurred, but here’s a map to give some context.
Was it a submarine? The plot thickens…
Flight Officer W.E. Thomas and crew officially received credit for sinking a sub, supposedly RO-32 of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN). And I believe that makes 9118 one of the few Bolingbroke’s to actually engage a target. But soon after the war, when IJN records were confiscated and searched, it was found that reports of RO-32’s demise were greatly exaggerated. Not only was that sub still afloat at war’s end, but the records showed no Japanese sub losses near those waters during that timeframe.
So was there a sub at all? If so, who’s sub was it?
Author Brendan Coyle expands on the theory that it was a Russian sub, sent into those waters on a semi-covert mission to keep on eye on American and Canadian activities. He cites enough details on Russian submarine ops to make it convincing. For example, on 10 July, Soviet Navy records show the submarine Shch-138 was reported as missing. The boat was operating out of a port near Vladivostok, and was visually very similar to Japanese subs like RO-32.
But the most intriguing evidence is this grainy photo, purportedly taken from 9118 in July 42, clearly showing a surfaced submarine. It comes from the base photographer at the Annette Island base, who processed all patrol photos during the war. Coyle says that when zoomed in, there’s a visible numeral “8” on the conning tower, and signs of an explosion just forward of the conning tower (both invisible on this low-res copy of the image). See this 2008 article by Coyle, that goes into detail on the Russian-sub theory.
So, there are still many questions, but Coyle’s premise seems pretty strong. Soviet sub Shch-128 is reported as missing on July 10, just days after a mysterious target is attacked near the Dexter Entrance by 9118 and US Coast Guard vessels. And a photo has emerged showing an aerial attack on a sub with an “8” on the conning tower.
Until someone can shoot that evidence down, I say Boly 9118 has earned a unique spot in airpower history.
Here’s an excellent resource, by Hugh Halladay, that covers the larger campaign against the Japanese in the NW. Halladay debunks the sub sinking, but doesn’t consider the Russian angle.