DOES IT SEEM there are a lot of pigeons around town? It does to me. More on that later.
It was a time of war — World War II, to be specific — a time to be on your guard against deception, intrigue and invasion.
The number of World War II veterans is dwindling and few remain with firsthand knowledge about the war. For most of us, our knowledge about the war comes from sterile history books and movies like “Midway” or “To Hell and Back.” I wonder, though, if for some of us World War II was more like the comedic television series “McHale’s Navy.” In Port Angeles, it was the latter.
Since the 1930s
Port Angeles has been home to the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station since it was built in 1934 and commissioned in August 1935. At the outbreak of World War II, the air station was an important outpost for the defense of the Pacific Northwest. It also served as a Navy gunnery school.
During World War II, our courageous U.S. Coast Guard aviators patrolled our coastline. They referred to themselves as the “flying white hats.”
Besides patrols, pilots would also tow practice targets for the Navy’s gunnery school.
There were a variety of aircraft stationed at Port Angeles. They included the Douglas RD-1 Dolphin, Hall Aluminum Co.’s PH-2, Grumman JF-2 Duck, Grumman JRF-2 Goose, Grumman HU-16E Albatross, PBY Catalina and Martin PBM. The B-17 and DC-3 also flew out of Air Station Port Angeles.
The pilot’s job was rather prosaic. While the nation slept, our gallant aviators kept careful watch on the western approaches to the continental United States. They knew Japanese forces had landed in the Aleutian Islands. Could we be next?
In June 1942, Japan had seized the remote, sparsely inhabited islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians. It was the only U.S. soil Japan would claim during the war in the Pacific. Rumor was the Japanese also were living it up in Dutch Harbor, some 840 miles farther east. It was a false rumor because nobody can live it up in Dutch Harbor.
Our Coast Guard aviators made sure Port Angeles and the Bremerton Naval Shipyard were safe from enemy attack.
Two of our Coast Guard aviators were Jim Byrnes and Melvin Handley. Along with them, the fine fellows in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), stationed at Patricia Bay, B.C., also were keeping a watchful eye on the west coast of Canada. The Patricia Bay station is now the site of the Victoria International Airport. The two forces interacted regularly.
Besides patrolling the western waters, Byrnes and Handley had time to practice their instrument approaches. They also practiced reading International Code Flags. It did not take long for them to realize the Canadians were using the flags to spell out naughty words from every available yardarm up and down the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Some of these daring young men of the RCAF pulled a nifty trick on us. They loaded up one of their Bristol Beaufort bombers with crates of miserable looking pigeons and flew to Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles. Once here, they borrowed one of our trucks and loaded the crates of pigeons on board.
They had the barely plausible story that it was a courier pigeon exercise, and they wanted to test their pigeons. Our soldiers should have seen right through the ruse, but alas, they were bamboozled.
The RCAF fly boys did release the birds, but they hung around town. No wonder we have so many pigeons. It was a Canadian invasion. It is bad enough they continually send their geese to us.
After this “unsuccessful” pigeon test, our Canadian brothers were left with a bunch of empty crates. What can you do with that?
Well, they headed directly to the Washington State Liquor Store and filled up their crates. They loaded them onto their bomber and flew back to Patricia Bay. Oh, the subterfuge! We were the real pigeons.
This happened while Byrnes, Handley and the other red-blooded American patriots were guarding the western approaches to the continental United States. Only after they hangered their planes for the night did they realize they had been duped. There wasn’t much left on the shelves of the liquor store; it was party time at Patricia Bay.
We could not stand still for such deception. We had to act, and Handley was the man for the job.
Our air station had received a new North American T-6 Texan, a single-engine advanced trainer, with less than 10 hours on it, and it was an opportunity to pretend to be a real fighter pilot.
Melvin decided he would fly to Patricia Bay to show the Canadians a thing or two. His goal was to dive down over the control tower, tear up their International Code Flags and make the Canadian admiral hit the deck. Byrnes and the rest of the pilots were ready to watch this all unfold.
But there was a flaw in Handley’s plan. He was in the midst of a stupendous aerobatic show over the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and, at 10,000 feet, he went inverted. The T-6 may not have liked that because his engine quit. There is nothing quite like the sound of silence for a pilot. Melvin had to ditch the aircraft.
After the war, Byrnes went on to be a longtime reporter for the Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He was considered charming, full of curiosity and somewhat irreverent.
Handley continued in the Coast Guard and served for a 26-year career. He retired as a lieutenant commander. He received numerous medals and honors for his service and bravery in the World War II and the Korean conflict. After he retired, he served as chief flight instructor for Eagle Aviation, training Army helicopter pilots for service in Vietnam.
The pigeons, however, never found their way home.
John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected].