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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Life in Alaska
The Father of Military Construction in Alaska: Colonel B. B. Talley  -  Down at Sea
By Virginia Talley « Prev   Page 2 of 4   Next »

Colonel B.B. Talley, second from the left, with his reconnaissance team on Amchitka Island, December 1942.
In June 1942, Japanese invaders captured and occupied two undefended islands in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands, Kiska and Attu. America quickly responded to the occupation with urgent development of airfields, bases, and other infrastructure. Colonel B. B. Talley and a small team of Engineers and Alaska Scouts carried out an on the ground reconnaissance of Amchitka, an island within easy striking distance of occupied Kiska. The reconnaissance was a dangerous one.

Upon landing, the party found clear evidence that the Japanese had recently been on the island and might still be there with guns pointed in the direction of the Americans. It was learned later that a Japanese Naval Task Force was en route to occupy both Amchitka and the island of Shemya. However, the ferocity of constant air raids on Kiska by American forces convinced the Japanese commander that he couldn't afford to divide his forces. He took his convoy to Kiska, rather than to Amchitka, to help reinforce the already-occupied island.

Upon completion of the reconnaissance on Amchitka, Colonel Talley flew first to Adak and then to Umnak. General Buckner, commander of the Alaska Defense Command, was at Kodiak and wanted to see Colonel Talley, to plan occupation and construction of Amchitka. The Navy was short of aircraft and the only available plane on Umnak was a PBY planning to go to Kodiak for an overhaul. In light of the urgency of General Buckner's request to see him, B. B. Talley boarded the plane.

On December 21, the winter solstice, it was still dark at 8:30 a.m. Skies were overcast and the air was turbulent. The pilot of the PBY was a young ensign named Ewing, an enlisted pilot who had received his commission only a few months earlier. In flight, a half hour from Umnak, the engines began to run roughly and, to lighten load, the pilot dropped his bombs from a thousand feet. The pilot, determined to reach Kodiak, repeatedly opened the throttles to climb to one or two thousand feet, then dove to within fifty feet of the water with throttles retarded. B.B. didn't particularly like this but kept his place in the waist blister and made no comment. Except to move from the left to the right gunner seat when it was necessary to open one of the blisters, Talley did not move out of his seat for the first four hours. In a corner at the back of the plane, a Navy Lieutenant Commander sat singing the same song all afternoon, "Girl of My Dreams, I Love You." The pilot informed Kodiak that he would try to get the plane there, but it was doubtful he would make it.

The crew fastened cork life preservers around emergency rations, and got out the rubber life rafts, preparing to take to the sea. As they approached Chirikof Island, about 100 miles southwest of Kodiak Island, both engines were leaking large amounts of oil. Oil was pouring off the wings: one blister was completely black, and one side of the plane was covered with oil. Ensign Ewing had difficulty holding altitude. On the lee of Kodiak Island, about 20 miles from shore, the plane's right engine quit without warning. The sea was very turbulent with 25-to-30 knot winds. The surface of the water was streaked with white. One engine could not keep the plane in the air, so the pilot had to land on the water. The plane bounced only twice when it hit the water, not unusual in a PBY. B.B. noted in his Daily Log for December 21, "My first thoughts when I saw we were going into the sea were, 'After what I have just been through, is this to be it'? Then of my family, and finally with a feeling of confidence, I prayed the prayer of my childhood, 'Thy will be done.' Almost immediately came the thought that I had a job to do, that my work was not finished and that this was not to be the end." There were 13 men in the plane, eight crew and five passengers. They had one seven-man life raft and one two-man life raft. This posed an unvoiced question: which four men would take to the water? The temperature of the air was about 20 degrees, and of the water somewhere in the middle-thirties, with the wind rising. A man could live in the water for only a few minutes to a half hour, even with a life jacket.

During landing, one or two rivets in the bow of the plane popped. The crew chief started a little gasoline-driven bilge pump, and everyone relaxed as it began to pump the water out of the hull. The engine on the bilge pump stopped, it couldn't be re-started. The crew began to bail with buckets. The right engine was dead and the other would not run under 2,000 rotations per minute. Each time the pilot would close the throttle, the engine would stop, so it was to either run wide open or not at all. The pilot controlled the engine and maintained headway on the water by cutting the switch. The swell was running about eight feet high, and some of the passengers became seasick. Others had been airsick before they landed and became violently seasick on the water. Fortunately for B.B. Talley, he was not among them. Near the end of the first hour, a PBY from Kodiak flew over, and shortly thereafter, another scouting plane arrived. Neither plane could land, due to the rough sea, because take-off would have been impossible. Near the end of the second hour, those in the downed plane were advised that a ship was being sent out from the city of Kodiak, 75 miles distant. The winter solstice is made especially short by Alaska's extreme latitude; the sun set at about four o'clock, and a full moon rose soon thereafter. The Engineer recorded: "The sunset was glorious, and we remarked at its beauty with some feeling. I have never seen the ocean more silver than with the rising full moon."

At the end of the third hour the outboard floats began to leak. The plane began to list slightly. Around seven o'clock, the circling PBY signaled with his lamp that a ship was coming over the horizon, and in a half hour, the light from the mast of a destroyer became visible. The destroyer came within a couple hundred yards of the stranded plane and signaled Ewing to cut his right engine, which the pilot had succeeded in getting started to maintain steerageway. The destroyer put over a boat, which took the pilot aboard the destroyer to report the plane's condition. Talley was the only Army person aboard, and because of the urgency of his return to Kodiak to report the results of his reconnaissance to General Buckner, the boat returned to the plane to take him aboard the destroyer. When Talley went back to get his gear, he saw a young seaman crying. Talley asked him what the trouble was.

He said, "They would! You're a Colonel. They're going to take you off and they're going to leave us here." Talley told the seaman that if he wanted to go aboard the destroyer, he should follow instructions and not say a word to anyone. Colonel Talley would tell the young man to get his gear and put it aboard the boat. The seaman said "Aye, aye, sir" and brought the bag containing soil samples, motion picture film of the reconnaissance and the briefcase containing secret papers, leaving B.B.'s sleeping bag, rifle, and other supplies aboard the plane. Talley told the sailor to put the gear in the boat and crawl in with it. The seaman crawled into the boat. Talley crawled in behind him, and the two were taken to the destroyer. Soon, the other passengers and crew were taken aboard the destroyer, and the plane was taken in tow. In the night, storm-tossed waters became even more turbulent. It was no longer safe to tow the plane, and the destroyer entered a small bay and anchored there.

By the next morning, the plane was icing heavily with spray over its nose. It was reported the PBY was taking water rapidly, and it was impossible to beach the plane. It sank about 11 a.m., taking down all of Talley's gear. The destroyer proceeded to Kodiak, and Talley arrived at General Buckner's office just before six o'clock. B.B. Talley wrote a letter of commendation to Ensign Ewing, the pilot of the PBY, but he never received it. He was killed in a crash before the letter arrived. Following Talley's meeting in Kodiak with General Buckner, the Amchitka project was authorized, and preliminary work began to provide a base for long-range bombing missions against the Japanese archipelago and for offensive action against the Japanese occupied islands of Attu and Kiska. Construction proceeded at lightning speed. On January 15, 1943, initial landings were made at Constantine Harbor on Amchitka. Two days later, construction on a fighter strip, a lighterage dock and access roads was started. In March, the building of the main bomber runway was initiated. The fighter strip was located in a tidal marsh running for about 4,000 feet inland from the head of Constantine Harbor. Drainage ditches were dug and a tide gate was constructed. The area was satisfactorily drained, leaving a substantial sand base. On February 16, 1943, less than two months after the reconnaissance, the first pursuit planes landed on the new fighter strip.

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About the Author: Virginia M. Talley, a retired lawyer, was the fourth generation of lawyers in her family. In the late 1930s when she entered Washington University in St. Louis, she was the only girl in her class. She graduated as valedictorian. After law school, Virginia took a job in the Legal Department of the Rural Electrification Administration, traveling widely throughout the lower 48 states to help establish electric cooperatives, purchase small electric companies or portions of lines being divested by larger firms.

After five years with REA, Virginia Talley was employed in the legal department of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank). The Bank was in its formative stage, and work was in progress on the first of its development loans. Virginia became the first woman to be sent overseas on Bank business.

Virginia never experienced active military service, but her relationships with the Army started at the top. She twice married Generals, each of whom were widowed and retired from the military. They both completed illustrious careers in the Army Corps of Engineers. Her first marriage was to Lieutenant General Raymond A. "Speck" Wheeler who, after finishing his tour as Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, came to the World Bank to set up its Engineering Department. After her marriage, Virginia retired from the World Bank as a regular employee but continued as a consultant, and both the Bank and the United Nations sent the couple together as a joint engineering/legal team to countries around the world.

In 1975, Virginia married Brigadier General Benjamin B. Talley, and Virginia began her life in Alaska as a resident of the unincorporated village of Anchor Point. Virginia and B.B. married late in life, but enjoyed 23 years together. In spite of her original civilian orientation, Virginia had the opportunity to absorb the flavor of the military experience and to visit many of the places on the mainland and in the Aleutians where B.B. Talley had been charged with overseeing construction of numerous projects that changed Alaska and contributed to both the military and civilian economy.
 
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