By Carey Restino
It’s taken two years, thousands of emails and a lot of chasing dead ends, but Homer resident and retired electrical engineer Pete Fineo thinks he finally knows the most likely history behind the airplane prop that sits outside the Alaska Islands and Ocean Center. But it didn’t come easy.
Fineo said he walks the gravel path heading down to Bishop’s Beach often, and must have passed the large airplane prop dozens of times before he first wondered where it came from. Initially, he assumed it was salvaged and displayed because it had an interesting history — perhaps to honor those who lost their lives in a crash during the battle of the Aleutian Islands in World War II. Since the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center represents the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which includes several islands invaded by the Japanese during the war, the historical significance of the prop seemed likely to be war-related.
“I thought maybe an aviator died,” Fineo said. “I figured it probably had some meaning. I made several assumptions at the beginning. All of them were wrong.”
Inquiries by Fineo as to the history of the prop to staff of the visitor center came up dry — the prop came from the Aleutians all right, but it was brought when staff did a cleanup of war-related leftovers from Amchitka Island. The prop had sat for years beside the Amchitka Airport sign. One member of the visitor center staff, Joel Voss, took an interest in the mystery and posted a thread on a World War II web forum. After Voss left the refuge staff for a period, Fineo took over monitoring the page for any leads.
In the beginning, the search seemed almost impossible – there had been some 75 crashes on the island – most during the effort to take Kiska and Attu islands from the Japanese in 1943. Much of the debris from those crashes remained on the island.
Fineo attempted to find out who had placed the prop by the airport sign on Amchitka, and had managed to narrow it down to a man named Jim Coffey, an employee who was stationed on the island with several other people trying to repopulate the Canada goose population. But attempts to converse with Coffey about the prop were unsuccessful.
But leads did start to trickle in, in part because the propeller turned out to be somewhat unique. It had some identifying markings on it that narrowed it down to several types of planes. Initially, the markings narrowed it down to three types of aircraft, but because it had an unusual degree to the way it was constructed, Fineo was able to determine with the help of an online community of experts in World War II aircraft and a lot of research that it had to have come from a C-47. There were only eight accident reports for C-47s on Amchitka Island, so now it was just a matter of matching the damage on the propeller to one of those accidents.
The bottom two blades of the propeller at Islands and Ocean Center were damaged in the crash, but not the top propeller blade, suggesting that the propeller was not spinning at the time of the crash.
This lead Fineo to one crash that he found interesting – a flight by a B-24D that took antiaircraft fire while flying over enemy held on Kiska Island in February of 1943. The bombardier was killed by the flak burst, Fineo said, but in spite of damage to the crew compartment and the plane, the pilot, Lewis Jackson, was able to land on the partially constructed runway on Amchitka with one engine on fire, one engine out, and no ability to use flaps or brakes. The plane came to a rest with its nose in the ground, all but the bombardier walked away from the crash. While the story certainly fit Fineo’s idea of a reason for saving the prop, it turned out that the propeller was not the same as the one at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Fineo found that out after contacting some of the family members of those on board the plane, as well as some World War II experts, who told him step by step why the B-24D couldn’t have been the plane that once held that prop.
However, the bombardier was the first war casualty on Amchitka and was the first to be buried in the new Port of Amchitka cemetery. His remains were sent back to Texas for reburial after the war.
Most likely, the propeller came from a C-47A Skytrain plane used as a troop carrier squadron, Fineo said, making trips to and from Anchorage throughout the airlines. The accident that caused the C-47 to crash during takeoff on March 12, 1945, was fairly uneventful and none of the five people on board were injured. Why the 400-plus-pound propeller was dragged all the way from the scrap heap to the front of the air station remains a mystery, Fineo said.
For Fineo, who said he has never had a lot of interest in wartime history or researched anything like this, the experience of trying to solve the mystery, and doggedly pursuing lead after lead, interacting with the family of the fallen heroes and pilots and learning how to navigate the historical records available as best he could was extraordinary. The internet proved to be an immense resource of information and exchange, especially on World War II-devoted forums and genealogy sites.
“What I found was that it wasn’t the destination it was the trip,” Fineo said. “I never anticipated getting involved, but it was like eating potato chips.”
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