Atka B-24 Liberator Wreck Still Sat on Aleutian Islands

Right now on the cold wind-swept tundra of the Aleutian Islands rests the Atka B-24, a Liberator bomber that crashed landed in this exact spot 80 years ago after encountering poor weather conditions. The aircraft was deemed a write off and left in place, but thanks to its remote location it remains in excellent condition to this day.

The B-24 Liberator, with its distinctive twin-tail and sleek design, was one of the war’s most iconic bombers. This example was one of the earliest B-24Ds built, and is one of only eight of this variant left in the world.

But the Atka B-24D Liberator occupies a unique place in history, not for the battles it fought, but for the tale of its final resting place.


Atka B-24 in the Aleutian Campaign

The aircraft on Atka Island participated in the rarely-mentioned Aleutian Campaign off the coast of Alaska. These islands were of great importance to the US, who feared that if they were taken by Japan they could be used to launch bombing raids against cities in the continental US.

The Japanese captured the western most islands Kiska and Attu in June 1942, sparking a joint US-Canadian effort to oust them from the region amid the on-going war in the Pacific.

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The area was supported by US B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers, medium bombers, and a compliment of P-40 fighter aircraft.

US troops carrying the wounded on the Aleutian Islands.
US troops operating on the Aleutian Islands. Note the low cloud cover in the distance, a common feature on the islands.

At its basis the B-24 Liberator was a heavy bomber, with its design prioritizing range and load-carrying capacity, making it one of the most effective long-range bombers of the war. It played crucial roles in multiple theaters, from the deserts of North Africa to the islands of the Pacific.

During the Aleutian Campaign B-24s conducted search and long-range bombing missions over the islands.

The B-24 we are focusing on in this article, 40-2367, was the 19th B-24D built by the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, being completed in San Diego in 1941. This aircraft arrived in the Aleutian region in March of 1942, assigned to the 21st Bomb Squadron.

The Atka B-24 in 2006.
The Atka B-24, 40-2367, in its present condition.

The 21st Bomb Squadron was on loan to the 11th Air Force’s 28th Composite Group in January 1942, which operated against Japanese forces on the Aleutian Islands.

This bomber and others conducted bombing missions against Japanese forces after they had captured Kiska and Attu. Once actions slowed, 40-2367 was assigned to weather reconnaissance duties.

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One day in December 1942 though this aircraft had to make an emergency landing on the desolate Atka island, with the wreckage still remaining today.

The Fateful Day

On December 9, 1942, the Atka B-24D Liberator, along with its crew, took off from Adak Island on a reconnaissance mission that would cover Kiska and Attu. On this flight the aircraft was also carrying the high ranking Colonel Hart and Brigadier General William E. Lynd, who wanted to make their own observations of the target islands.

After their objective was complete the aircraft returned back to Adak, but upon arrival found that weather around the airbase was too bad to land. The crew circled for a while hoping for an opportunity to land, but when fuel ran low the pilot contacted the base and informed them that he intended to fly to Atka Island and attempt a rough landing.

The Atka B-24 from behind.
The area is hazardous for flight due to the weather, which includes dense, low-altitude cloud cover severely reducing visibility.

Atka Island was also blanketed in bad weather, but the pilot put the lumbering aircraft down anyway in Bechevin Bay. As B-24s tended to do on crash landings, the aircraft’s tail section broke off behind the wings, but miraculously everyone onboard survived the ordeal.

The pilot, Captain John Andrews, said of this moment: “There was one hell of a racket as the airplane bounced along the tundra, and then came to a stop. Then there was a great deal of silence. It was broken by someone saying, ‘Let’s get the hell outta here before it burns!’ Then we all piled out of the pilot’s and co-pilot’s windows.”

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They didn’t come out completely unscathed, however, as General Lynd fractured his collarbone – but all-in-all this was quite a success considering the circumstances.

Atka B-24 in 1942.
The B-24’s pilot, Captain John Andrews, stands beside his wrecked Liberator on Atka after the crash-landing in 1942.

Their location was unknown to rescuers at this point, so they prepared for the night by draping fabric over one of the wings for shelter and wrapping themselves in parachutes for warmth.

The next day they were spotted by a B-24, and a PBY eventually landed in the bay to collect them. Unfortunately it was overloaded and so had to leave the stranded crew alone once again. They were collected the next day by Navy vessel USS Gillis.

The aircraft remained on Atka Island, gradually becoming a part of the landscape, a rusting behemoth juxtaposed against the wild beauty of the Aleutians. As the war raged on and eventually concluded, the Atka B-24D remained, untouched and largely forgotten by the outside world.

The B-24's crew waiting for rescue at Bechevin Bay.
The B-24’s crew waiting for rescue at Bechevin Bay.

Atka B-24 Wreckage

The Atka B-24’s wreckage can still be seen today for any travellers brave enough to make the trip. With the rear-section of the fuselage tearing off the aircraft was considered a total loss and so no recovery efforts were made.

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The site remains mostly untouched since it crashed, with even the .50 caliber machine guns remaining in place for decades. They were only removed in 1975 by a US Navy helicopter crew. To this day the aircraft remains in remarkably good shape, with visible, albeit faded Army Air Force star markings on top of the wings.

The B-24 in 2013.
The Atka B-24 in 2013. Note the surface-search radar antenna still in place under the wing.

The “ARMY” marking is still clearly visible on the underside of the wings, as is the blue paint surrounding the white star. Speaking of wings, they are in fantastic condition too, with the landing gear still retracted inside them as they were during the belly landing, and all four engines are present.

The aircraft’s nose art (a middle finger-gesturing hand) was still visible in the 1980s.

At the front of the Atka B-24, the nose section is partially crumpled in as a result of the crash, and the whole aircraft has partially sunk into the ground.

Looking through the nose of the Atka B-24.
A look into the fuselage through the nose.

The fuselage behind the cockpit has collapsed inward by the weight of the dorsal turret over the years, but it is deemed by some to still be in restorable condition.

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The aircraft’s remote location has spared it from the looting most Second World War aircraft wrecks are subjected to, but despite a desire by some to recover the aircraft for preservation, it is unlikely this will ever happen.