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

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