Sunday, April 24, 2016

More From Kodiak, Alaska

There were simply too many extraordinary images to share.  Here are just a few more... and then some. 

250th Coastal Defense Gun Emplacement at St. Peters Head,  Battery No.1
 Chiniak Point, Kodiak Island.  2014
The remains of the 8 inch gun after its demise.  
At least 100ft away from it's base at the top of the hill. 
WW2 Ammunition Bunker at St. Peters Head. Battery No. 1.  
Chiniak Point, Kodiak Island.  2014
Inside the same bunker.  
One day, I hope these graffiti artists realize how disrespectful this is. 
WW2 Pill Box at St. Peters Head, Battery No. 1. 
Chiniak Point,  Kodiak Island.  2014

Construction of Fort Greely.  Base buildings consisted
 of wooden structures, Quonset huts and tents.
Photo Credit: Baranov Museum.

250th Coast Artillery Regiment- Robert E. Metcalf. 
Photo: from his daughter, Jane Metcalf

One heck of a view from Chiniak Point.
Arctic Lupines.

WW2 Housing- a Quonset hut found in some random yard along the way.
Quonset Hut in Fort Greely. 1943.  
Photo: Levi Ballard, c/o R.C.A.F. Corporal. Killip's collection.
The huts slept about 12 men and were often built 4ft into the ground 
for protection but primarily to contain the heat 
during the cold Alaskan winters.  

Now,  one historical storage shed. Do they have any idea?

R.C.A.F. Mess Hall in Fort Greely. 1943

How would you like this in your front yard?  
A grown over WW2 gun emplacement along the
 coastal dirt road to the base.  2014

  Frequent and strong crosswinds may have caused this 
AAF P-39 accident at Chiniak Point.  1943. 

Representing at the Northeast end of the air strip.

And that's a wrap from day two in this sweet little fishing town filled with an unknown yet important history.  Kodiak leaves an impression on you.  As I sit here I can still smell the sweet clean air that envelopes this Alaskan Island.  One day Kodiak.  I'll be back.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Runway Talk

One of my main objectives while I was on Kodiak was to make it to one of the old WW2 Airfields that, according to my grandfather, was only used by the R.C.A.F. while in Kodiak.  Although I had previously been advised, that it may not be worth my trip, I was going anyways. Glad I did as it is one of the highlights of my entire time in Alaska.  One incident where my stubbornness pays off.

This particular runway I was determined to see, was constructed using PSP or Marston matting- interlocking steel planks- nicknamed for the place where they were produced, Marston, North Carolina.  During the war,  the U.S. Army of engineers used these 10ft by 15inch planks to create simple yet durable runways in record time.  For example, a five thousand foot runway, on top of rugged terrain, could be constructed in under 10 days.  General Benjamin B. Talley, who was in charge of U.S. Army and Air Corps construction in Alaska, utilized this runway system all through out the Aleutian chain, building functional airstrips on Umnak, Atka, Adak, Amchiktka, Attu and Shemya in one years time.

Want to see how it was done?  This three minute video from Adak in 1942 shows you how.

The old air strip I was in search of was located in Chiniak, 40 miles southeast of the main town of Kodiak.  The Royal Canadian Air Force had a small satellite base there which consisted of 6 planes, 8 pilots (two of them officers) and 15 ground crew and was commanded by R.C.A.F. P/O (pilot) Eskil.   Along side the Canadian airmen was the U.S. Army unit of Battery D of the 250th Coast Artillery Regiment.  Together, they solidified the eastern defenses of the U.S. Naval Air Station Kodiak.

Chiniak Point was a bit of a challenge to get to as the well maintained island roads turned into narrow logging roads.  It really was in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.  With Dake, my trusty guide, and the WW2 maps provided to us by Crusty Old Joe from the Military Museum in Fort Abercrombie,  we would find our way.   After driving 30 minutes along the bumpy dirt road we came to a junction and there it was, a long and open clearing among the trees.  The airstrip.  The very same one my grandfather and so many of his friends would land on time and time again as they patrolled the skies for our safety.

Laying of the Marston Mat on Chiniak Point.  1942.  Photo: Baranov Museum.

What is left of the old WW2 Marston mat runway.
R.C.A.F. Kittyhawk (P-40) AK944 sitting on the Chiniak steel runway. 1943
R.C.A.F. Kittyhawk coming in for a landing at Chiniak.

To my dismay, almost all the Marston matting that once made up the airfield had been tossed in ribbon fashion,  alongside the bush.  Discarded as if it were some valueless item.  For me that runway felt sacred and to see it tossed so carelessly aside was like disrespecting an important part of history.  I realize that at some point, things have to go but still...  We walked around the deserted scraps of steel until I came across a piece small enough for me to take home where I could honor it the way I felt it should be honored.   The 3ft X 2ft piece was, in fact,  too big and heavy- this stuff weighs a ton, for my suitcase so Dake was kind enough to wrap it up and mail it to me.  Best mail delivery I have ever received.  It now is a permanent part of my dining area.  Yes, dining area- I mean, what dining area is complete without a WW2 runway as it's wall decor?

Discarded Marston matting = my good fortune.

Flt. Sgt. Skully,  My Papa & Flt. Sgt. Weber proudly standing with his plane on that very Chiniak runway.  1943.

Dining Decor.

It was such a surreal moment, to be standing in the very same place as he, and all his R.C.A.F. brethren,  would have been standing as at any moment they were ready for battle.  To close my eyes and envision them moving around as they were preparing for flight not knowing what lies ahead of them brings me again to the deepest place of gratitude for their sacrifices. 

It does not seem to matter how many times I express this gratefulness, it never seems like it is thanks enough.  And so I write..

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Kodiak In WW2

Day two- wide awake and ready to go.  Seeing as I did not want to waste time getting lost in the middle of the Alaskan bush in search of old relics, I choose to hire a reputable guide- Dake, to drive me around.  Now Dake, an island transplant, did not know much about WW2 in Kodiak but I was a more than a willing teacher.  Any chance I get to tell their story...  We had a full day of historical sites to explore which will be shared over several posts.  Seriously, I could write a book with the days events. 

You may not associate Kodiak with war and it is true that they never saw any direct action but the island was an important and strategic center of Alaska during the Aleutian Campaign and served as the closest refuge for injured soldiers returning from battle.   The imminent threat of attack was real and ever present.  This large Alaskan Island located 250 miles southwest of Anchorage was home to the principal advanced Naval base in Alaska and the North Pacific in the 1940's. What must the primitive people of this quiet fishing town, population roughly 1000, thought about as it was infiltrated with upwards of 7500 military personnel?

Downtown Kodiak, 1943. Photo: Military History Museum/R.C.A.F. Corp Killip.

Actually, the very first military presence on Kodiak goes back to 1868 with the U.S. Army at Fort Kadiak.  Followed later, in 1911, by the U.S. Navy which established a near by radio facility and subsequently the construction of a major U.S. Navy base beginning in 1939.  It appears, by then the U.S. government already had some suspicions of what could possibly be brewing in Alaska's future.  Kodiak's Naval Station submarines and ships played a vital role in the success of the Aleutian Campaign. In fact, it was the USS St. Mihiel, stationed out of Kodiak that brought a downed, almost fully in tact,  Japanese Zero from the Aleutian Island of Akutan to U.S. engineers for examination.  Our engineers went on to rebuild that enemy plane to flying condition which helped us develop strategies to defeat this nearly invincible fighter during WW2.  More on that, on another day...

Also on Kodiak were the Royal Canadian Air Force.  In October of 1942, the R.C.A.F.  moved half their 111f squadron onto the Island to protect the skies and waters surrounding this important Naval station.  The other half of their men rotated between active combat duties on Amchitka and Umnak islands along the Aleutian chain.   The R.C.A.F. were the only Air Force presence on the Island.

R.C.A.F. 111f Squadron's P-40's on the Fort Greely runway. 

Our first stop was,  the now historical park, Fort Abercrombie at Miller Point named after the early Alaska explorer, William Abercrombie.   This park is filled with numerous U.S. Army coastal defense remnants, uniquely and beautifully shaped Sitka spruce trees and unbelievable vistas.   Also located inside the park is an impressive and privately owned Kodiak Military History Museum which is located within the walls of an original WW2 bunker.  Joe Stevens (a.k.a. Crusty Old Joe), was kind of enough to meet me during the museum's off hours and give me a private tour.  A tremendous treat-  Thank you Joe!  Inside you will find an impressive collection of WW2 artifacts.  I really needed his expertise to help us out with some directional details for the latter part of our day since Dake was still learning... bless his heart.  Crusty Joe (who is not so crusty after all) turned out to be a wealth of information.  He provided us with old maps of the Naval Station, which now serves as one of the largest Coast Guard stations in the country, as well as an important map of Chiniak,  which was a small secondary air force base and coastal defense post located about 90 minutes west.

Truly, there were so many incredible photos, it was a challenge to pick just a few to fit into this post.  Fort Abercrombie- really quite extraordinary. 

Custy Old Joe & I outside the old bunker turned Kodiak Military History Museum.

The plot room.
Here some old structures covered in the soft muskeg of the Kodiak forest.
What does the inside of a cannon look like?  This.
Coastal Defense Pill Box inside Fort Abercrombie.

The view from inside.

Gorgeous Sitka spruce trees fill Fort Abercromie.

Next Stop- Fort Greely.  Fort Greely is a United States Army facility located just outside of town.  It was home to the troops that operated the island's land defenses.  The first army garrison arrived aboard the St. Mehiel on April 3rd, 1941.  The base, at it's height, was upwards of 7500 army troops strong.  Fort Greely was also home to the Canadian,  111th fighter squadron.  The Canadian Air Force and the U.S. Army worked together for the defense of the the Kodiak Navel Base.    

Fort Greely had well maintained cement runways- 2 at 6000ft long and 1 at 4500ft long, a pilots dream after landing on the rough marston matting air strips along the chain.  Not much left of old Fort Greely now but some concrete slabs where the barracks used to sit, a few artillery emplacements and the those runways which now serve as the Kodiak Airport and USCG Air strip.

Fort Greely circa 1940. Photo: Bill Eull's site-
What is left of Fort Greely.  2013

WW2 Pill Box overlooking the Airport. 2013.

We made one more stop, The Naval Air Station, now Air Station Kodiak of the United States Coast Guard, before heading west towards Chiniak.  Facilities located at the base during WW2 were several hangers, a seaplane base for a fleet of Consolidated PBY Catalinas and a submarine base.  The Navy officially handed the base to the Coast Guard in 1972.   On our old map,  Joe had marked off all the original WW2 buildings still being used today, the hangers being some of them.  We spent time driving around trying to identify the old from the new.  The base is large and well maintained but not a ton of WW2 stuff left as most things have been rebuilt.  Regardless, I am a big fan of the Coast Guard so it was still neat to see.  Incidentally, you can see some live footage of this base on The Weather Channel's tv series, and one of my favorite shows, Coast Guard Alaska.

Same hanger and runways from WW2 used by the USCG. Plane  HC-130.
Naval Air Station circa 1949.  Photo:

The Star of the Sea Chapel on base. 1940's.
The Star of the Sea Chapel.  2013.

Main Building. 1940's
Main Building Now.
Kodiak Naval Air Station Dock circa 1949. Photo:
What is left of that dock.  2013

Friday, April 1, 2016

Pilot's Eye

Ever wanted to know what it looks like from the cockpit of one of WW2's best pursuit planes; the  P-51 Mustang?   Heck ya, I sure have.   Pilots, Jeff "Linedog" Linebaugh and partner Larry "Lumpy" Lumpkin do this for fun and from the heart.  They are part of the Commemorative Air Force crew and have spent the last several decades dedicated to keeping the spirit of these planes, and the pilots who flew them, alive.

I have to admit, this video gives me goosebumps every time I watch it.  To be able to see, from my grandfathers perspective (minus the anti aircraft gunfire), leaves me speechless and in more awe then before.  Is that even possible?  Even more astonishing, is the realization that during WW2 they would send these pilots into combat with well under a year of flight training behind them.  Yikes.  Talk about getting thrown into it.

Leave all your worries aside, you're in good hands. These in particular P-51 "Gunfighter" pilots have over half a century of flight experience between them.   If you want a warbird ride of your very own, you can have one!   Catch them at numerous air shows around the country this year.  Or if this falls outside of  your comfort zone,  you can buy a ride for a veteran and allow them to feel the unforgettable power of the Mustang once more.   Either way, it is sure to be the ride of a lifetime!
God bless you boys and and thank you for the countless hours, time and effort, you give to ensure they are always remembered.  I know if you are like me, a little energy put forth seems so insignificant to the sacrifices made by the greatest generation for the freedoms we enjoy today.