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..


  1. There's a guy here in Utah selling 200 tons of the stuff!

  2. Wow. It is some durable building materiel for certain things.