There was always the need to keep the plane's radar system operating at peak efficiency. Tweaking the radar could sometimes take several hours. Occasionally the plane would be parked at the east end of the runway and the radar radiated out over the Pacific Ocean. When this was necessary, a warning was put out island-wide for personnel to stay well clear of the area because of the very high power radiated. To be caught in the beam would be like crawling inside a microwave oven. Once, while the plane was parked on the end of the runway, but NOT transmitting, someone drove past on the beach road that was several hundred yards away. When he found out about it he complained about being blinded by the radar. It took some convincing to persuade him otherwise. Maybe it was just a ploy to exit The Rock!
Two examples of what the radar's power could do are worth retelling. While the plane was still at Greenville before the deployment it was at the far end of the Majors Field runway on a test pad testing the radar. Observers said they could see jackrabbits at a distance stop, look puzzled, jump up, and fall over dead from the radiation. Wire fences had to be grounded because the RF energy from the radar started grass fires. Workers didn't have to be told to stay out of the roped-off area! Another is the large stock of the old lightbulb-sized Press 5 flashbulbs in the Shemya BX that all went off at the same time. This was before the decision was made to tow the plane to the far east end of the runway for testing. This was also the time when the radar back lobes had blasted all the radio receivers on Shemya.
On one of the ops sorties the radar would not fire up. The inflight technicians worked on it while the plane orbited. Without checking the aircraft's position the radar was finally brought online but the radar was pointed at the Soviet mainland. This was a no-no because their receivers were probably blown because of the high power. The next day a Soviet recon bird overflew Shemya to see what was really going on. There was nothing to stop them. For that matter, the entire island could have been overrun very quickly by a comparatively small force at any time. Several hours would be required for any help to arrive.
When the weather permitted, and there was minimal chance of being tasked to fly an ops sortie, the plane would be flown on a calibration (cal) sortie. A cal sortie was actually planned for once a week on Friday, when possible. One Friday we flew a cal sortie at 10 in the morning and an ops sortie at 10 that night. We did that more than once. During these cal sorties the plane would fly out a distance from the island, possibly a hundred miles, and wait for a metallic, one-square-meter in area, calibration balloon to be launched from Shemya. Then the system would be tweaked for optimum performance. During these flights it was not uncommon to see a Soviet "trawler"in the vicinity. We were watching them watch us. Only once or twice did we see a trawler offshore from Shemya, but they were almost always out there, somewhere out of sight, monitoring our every move. When they could be seen they appeared a dirty white over a rusty red. They needed extra superstructure bracing for all their antenna arrays. The trawlers routinely violated the 12-mile territorial water limit and went just about wherever they pleased. Little could be done to stop them. By the time the Coast Guard could have arrived from Attu they would have been long gone.
More than once a pilot, who retired as a brigadier general, flew very low and just abeam of the trawlers. That was great fun for everyone, ship and plane alike. Sometimes during an early morning launch, ops or cal, just to let the island residents know we really did fly, we would buzz the Comp Building, clearing it by only a few hundred feet. This usually grabbed everyone's attention! Also, it was great fun to buzz the control tower just before landing. The preferred buzz was to fly close to the runway, climb to clear the tower, and drop down again before circling back around to land. Tower personnel tended to frown on this sport!
After a sortie there was always an initial operational report (OPREP
4) that had to be done within about an hour, another at four hours (OPREP 5) , and yet a final report after the all the data tapes had to be initially processed. The processing, called a "quick-look," always took a number of hours and included running off stacks of paper from a line printer that used multiple-copy printer paper with carbon paper between the layers. The copies had to be separated and the carbon paper collected for disposal. As I remember, one copy was kept on-site, and the others were shipped to FTD at Wright-Patterson AFB along with the data tapes, written reports, BSC plates, and anything else associated with the sortie, including any film shot by the pilots. Before our stay ended, my classified account was almost as large as the combined total for the Detachment in Hangar 2. At one time it had 304 items. One weekend alone I generated 65 classified items.
Carbon paper, extra copies of quick-looks, bad data prints, and other unneeded classified material had to be destroyed in some way or another. On Shemya, and many other bases, the preferred disposal method was burning. Shemya's burn facility was very little more than a small, partially open, concrete block building with a furnace in one end. It may have been the remnant of an old building's heating plant. When the burn pile grew large enough at least two of us, according to military regulations, would pack it into large paper bags that were stapled shut, stuff the bags into a crew truck (an old 6-passenger, 4-door pickup), and drive half way across the island to burn it. Burning carbon paper and classified material is a slow, very hot, and very dirty job. Carbon paper was particularly messy. Everything classified had to be accounted for and carefully documented. One of us signed the paperwork as the Destroying Official and the other signer was the Certifying Official. We always came back covered with carbon paper soot, and needing a change of clothes and a shower. Usually I ended up with singed hair and eyebrows for my efforts. Once Dunc and I had to dispose of 8000 pages of Top Secret quick-look printouts and the associated carbon paper. After burning everything we left looking like two vaudevillians in blackface, sneezing and coughing up clumps of gooey black carbon for days after.
We soon discovered that Shemya had a whole lot of interesting features. It is only about 2 x 4 miles, had about 11 square miles, and only 275 feet above sea level at the highest point. Its 7200 acres is larger than Offutt's 4,041, however. At the west end of Shemya are two smaller islands: Alaid and Nizki. These two islands are close, but frequently not seen because of the low visibility. Alaid and Nizki are not much more than mile apart, and Nizki and Shemya are separated by about 1« miles. Alaid had a low "peak" of 662 feet, but Nizki was flatter and the highest point was only 170 feet. Both were narrow, about 3« miles long, and had the remnants of a road, but little more. Alaid's depiction on aeronautical charts included a cabin, but I never saw it. Shemya, Nizki, and Alaid were all in a line pointing to Attu. Between these three islands in the Semichi group were a number of low rocks protruding just above the water at high tide.
Attu was about 28 miles west-northwest of Shemya and had a Coast Guard or Navy detachment and a runway less than half as long as Shemya's. The runway was long enough, however, for the Coast Guard's C-130s and the Reeve Aleutian airplanes. There were a few active roads, but only on its east end. The central part of Attu was the site of bloody WW II battles. Its highest peak is 3,020 feet.
Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, a Reeve Aleutian Airlines DC-6B from Anchorage would bring mail and passengers, usually PCS folks or a few visitors. During my second tour Reeve used something much faster: the Boeing 727. Weather sometimes delayed arrivals and departures. It was also the way home when a tour of duty was over for people living or stationed there. Now and then during the summer a few people from Shemya used to go on to Attu for fishing on Tuesdays and return the following Friday or vise versa. The plane always went from Shemya to Attu and back to Shemya to spend the night. The stewardesses always attracted a lot of attention at the Club because there were only a very few women on Shemya. The Reeve flight crews and visitors usually stayed in one of the small dormitories connected to the Base Operations building next to the flightline. These were commonly called the "K-House" because of the shape. None of us ever made the trip to Attu because of being on constant alert to fly and the uncertainty of a guaranteed, on-time return. About 19 miles to the southwest of Shemya was another island, Agattu. It was triangular and about 11 x 19 miles at its extremes. Its highest peak at 2,080 feet was not quite as high as the one on Attu. There were a few deserted cabins and roads but no inhabitants. The cabins had been used many years prior by fishermen and fur trappers.
Shemya's major runway was on the south side of the island with headings of 100/280 degrees. It was 9,990 feet long (listed as 10,000 feet on navigational charts) and 150 feet wide, with 30-foot shoulders, and made of asphalt. It has BAK 13 arresting gear (cables) to stop airplanes if extra, emergency help is needed to keep planes from crashing over the sheer dropoffs if they can not stop in time. The surface was only 97 feet above sea level at its highest point. Unlike most runways there were no overruns at the ends. At the east end was a steep cliff that dropped at least 80 feet down to a rocky shore and the Pacific Ocean. The west end dropped 20 or 30 feet to a road leading to the beach roads.
The first US military presence on Shemya was on May 21, 1943 after the recapture of Attu from the Japanese. There were no Japanese troops ever encountered on Shemya, but there were traces of a survey party. Only a dilapidated trapper's cabin and the graves of two Russian seamen indicated any kind of habitation. The first runway was only 4500 feet long and was completed in late June of 1943. Interlocking steel mats were used. These are called "pierced steel planking" for the large round holes in them. It was in the position that the Japanese survey party had decided on about a year earlier although the U.S. engineers did not know it at the time. The first aircraft to land was a C-47. The longer 10,000 feet runway was finished in August of the same year and the first heavy bomber, a B-24, arrived in late September. Bombing raids against Japanese Kurile Island installations were flown by B-24s launched from Shemya. Although the runway was designed for B-29s that were to bomb Japan, only one ever visited Shemya, and that one was only an experimental cold-weather model. Such a forward operating location was like having a fixed aircraft carrier except that it couldn't be turned into the wind to launch and recover airplanes.
A bumpy gravel road ran around most of the island just inland of the beach except for the northeast corner where it climbed to the top of the shore bluffs. There the beach wasn't wide enough to accommodate a road very easily. Generally, there were some rocks in the water, then a sandy beach about 50 or 100 feet wide, followed by the road and sloping terrain from the island's edge. Sand on the north beaches is black and pebbly while the south beach sand is brown and fine.
In about the middle of the island was a large white, spherical building of about 15 feet in diameter. Inside was a concrete-collared shaft about a foot in diameter that went way down into the bowels of the earth. This is all that remained of a nuclear explosion and earthquake detection site. Apparently a very long cable was suspended in the center of the shaft. When an earth shock came along, the cable swayed enough for the motion to be detected and the strength measured from the amount of movement. A strong earthquake jolted Shemya in February 1965 and it was put it out of service when the shaft collapsed. All that remained was the concrete ring around the opening and the bubble. Even the door was missing. This quake also cracked the runway about a third of the way from the west end and caused a drop at the break of several inches. This put the main runway out of service for some time. The shock was 8.7 on the Richter scale and occurred in the Rat Islands a few hundred miles to the east. It caused a tsunami on Shemya reported to have been about 35 feet high. Weather isn't the only hazard on Shemya.
The Comp Building housed the only radio station we could normally receive during the day. Programming came from the Alaskan Forces Radio Service. One of the features was the old-time programing such as Suspenseand Gun Smoke. The very high power radars on Shemya frequently bled through into the radio and sometimes caused a lot of interference. Television was not available in the hangars although there was a closed-circuit TV station accessible in the Comp Building quarters 12 hours/day. Apparently the cables to the hangars had been cut by excavators somewhere. When I was there in 1981 the single, 120-watt Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, on-island station could be picked up using a rabbit-ears antenna. This was a much better solution. My main link to the outside world was a vacuum-tube short-wave radio that I had made from a kit sold by Lafayette Radio Electronics Corporation. Lafayette has long since gone out of business. Another link that didn't come about very often was using the military phone system to call home from an enclosed Operations office in Hangar 2. We called through the Alaska Switch only a few times a month to the Offutt AFB operator to get an off-base line to HOME! It was wonderful! The calls were great but were never ever long enough. Someone else was almost always waiting to use the phone, too. Again in 1981, I had a phone in my room and could call almost anytime the Offutt operator would be kind enough to provide the connection. I usually called on Saturday about noon.
Holidays apart from families were the hardest times on Shemya, especially the big ones like Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, Easter, anniversaries, birthdays, and even Valentine's Day. These are time when families are supposed to be together. Back home the wives and children got together as often as possible for desserts and lunches for moral support and to keep others from feeling sorry for them. On Thanksgiving Day they congregated at the Levis house for a pot luck feast with all the traditional foods and goodies. They watched my 8mm movies of Shemya, but were disappointed because they were only of the island and the airplanes, and not the husbands. At least the ladies could all be together. After some fussing by the wives I shot a whole reel of nothing but the six of us standing around outside the hangar and looking woeful. Molly stayed as active as possible to help keep her mind occupied. She went to squadron wives' luncheons, was on a Girl Scout council (even though we had no girls), was secretary, vice- president, and president of the Offutt Toastmistresses chapter, was a substitute teacher a few times, and attended Protestant Women of the Chapel functions. Molly helped organize a Father-Daughter box supper and square dance for the Girl Scouts. Just before Thanksgiving George's mother died to heap sorrow on isolation and loneliness. He was able to fly back for the funeral. We flew on Thanksgiving Day, but it was a dry run except for our tears of sorrow for George.
The wives formed their own support group and helped one another whenever possible. Dunc's wife, Melinda, and Molly called each other every day and visited often because they lived only a few blocks apart. Molly babysat Ross when Brett had tonsilitis. Neighbors helped tremendously with babysitting, yard work, driving to the hospital, and taking care of Travis one night while I was home at Christmas. Our neighbors have always been absolutely wonderful and very caring.
Molly had other things to occupy her, too. The next-door neighbor, Ken Fisler, had a female Siamese cat, Su Su, who needed to be serviced, but our male Siamese, Su Chai, was too shy. Later, our female Siamese, Ming Toy, came into heat. This time Su Chai overcame his shyness and fathered her first and only liter. She just didn't know how to care for the kittens and they all died, the last one after the TDY was over. At least, I did get to see one.
Recreation facilities on Shemya were adequate, but limited. Outdoor activities were restricted because of the weather, but there were some softball diamonds and tennis courts. All in a northbound row at the west end of the Comp Bldg were the chapel, a large gymnasium with a four-lane bowling alley in one wing, and the base theater. The gym even had a weight room. I was never in the gym for one reason or another. It was within easy walking distance from the Comp Building as were the ceramics, photography, leather, lapidary, electronics, and wood working shops.
The 500-seat Semichi Movie Theater admission price was low, only 35 cents and there were three showings daily. Of the 25 or so movies that came in each month we probably saw 18. One movie showing let me see the end of a feature that Molly and I had to leave early to get her back to her Baylor dorm on time when we were dating in 1962. Four years was a long time to wait to finish a movie! The movies were not the best by any stretch of the word. "Last run" was probably the best description. The theater did have a concession stand that offered popcorn, candy, and such. Spaghetti westerns (from Spain) were numerous, but they provided some "time off of the island," even if only in the imagination. Movies could also be interrupted by a flashing alert notification sign being turned on right in the middle of a showing. (The chapel had a flashing alert sign, too.) After one such interruption we tried to get in the next night using the same admission tickets, but the management would have none of it.
Not far from the front of the Comp Building was a sign post with mileages to the South 48 cities and many others, such as London and Tokyo. Somewhere on the island was an indoor .22 caliber target range where pistols could be checked out. The range was probably in a wing of the gym but it could have been in one of the many old wooden buildings that were built partially underground and left over from WW II. It was, however, most likely close to the Comp Building because of the population concentration and bad weather access.
Tundra covered Shemya. It was ubiquitous (everywhere, even). Below it was rich, black dirt, several feet thick in places as a result of millennia of composting. Tundra grasses on Shemya are broad and coarse and as much as four feet long, although about one or two was the norm. The three main grasses, bent grass, blue joint reed, and cotton, are not suited for grazing animals. Unlike the tundra on the northern Alaskan mainland, which is generally like mosses and short grasses, there is no permafrost below the surface at any depth. Temperatures never dropped cold enough for long enough. Walking through it could be dangerous because there were numerous holes that could be a foot or two deep. These were possibly fox holes or even post holes left over from WW II. In the warmer months many, many wonderfully beautiful varieties of small, delicate wildflowers were everywhere. Asters, buttercups, monkshood, daisies, and violets are common. Vegetation was quite lush. During the colder months everything turned brown. Green didn't return again until late March.
Blue foxes were everywhere. They had been introduced to Shemya by Russian fur farmers in 1755 when Alaska belonged to Russia. Some were tame enough to come inside some of the buildings for short periods. These fun little animals favored napping in sunny spots anywhere and especially in front of the Comp Building where they hoped to get scraps of food from the mess hall when meals were over. Most appeared to be very well fed! Many would eat out of your hand but could not be petted except when they were lounging in the sun half asleep. Pups were more likely to allow petting. It was fun to be able to pet a "wild" animal, to have them trust you enough to allow themselves to be touched by alien hands. Some lucky people were even able to pick up a few of the pups. Usually they seemed to enjoy the petting until they awoke enough to realize what was really happening. In the winter they were usually white although some were brown. Their summer coat was brown to silver-gray. In the spring they shed their thick winter coats in large chunks and really looked scruffy. As a result, they were sometimes called "Scruffies." Often during the short, "warmer" summer nights they could be heard howling and calling wistfully to one another in full moon or dark.
Rats and mice are the only other mammals on Shemya. These pests came ashore from docked ships. Foxes were put on Shemya as a cash crop and they fed, in part, on these rodents. Seabirds also formed part of the foxes' diet. The rest came from food scraps from the dump and handouts. Because there are no predators for the fox they moved to the top of the food chain and, as a result, upset the ecosystem. The bird population, once large and varied, has been markedly reduced by the foxes. Agattu's large fox population was eliminated and the Aleutian goose has been successfully reintroduced.
Seagulls and 18-inch black ravens were plentiful on Shemya, too. Some of the birds would catch bits of bread when they were thrown into the air. Shemya is also in the migratory flyway for large numbers of geese and ducks. Great flocks landed all over the island. They pose a significant hazard to flight during April to June and August to October in addition to the bad weather and earthquakes. The hazard is so significant that "Notices to Airmen" that are published worldwide carry the warning. Gulls and ravens in lower numbers also add to the hazard throughout the year. Other Shemya birds are the Arctic owls, storm petrels, and rock sand pipers, along with several varieties of ducks, including pintails, eiders, harlequins, and scoters.
One of the things that helped me get through the long months was Molly sending audio tapes of the TV series Star Trek. She made them by placing a tape recorder microphone in front of the TV and adding comments when the plot had something that needed extra explanation. Molly sent pictures from home every now and then. We also sent audio tapes back and forth. Those were the days of using the small, battery-powered, three-inch reel-to-reel recorders. The speed of the tape varied from start to finish and I had to install a small rheostat to compensate for the differences between our two recorders.
Passing the time when not flying or processing mission data was spent in several ways. Molly forwarded my magazine subscriptions and often included cookies that were always more than welcome. My mom and some friends sent cookies now and then, too. There was always the single radio station, or short wave listening. Nome, Alaska came in fairly well at night on the regular AM broadcast band. I even tried growing a moustache for three days. That was more trouble than it was worth. Even now, when I can wear a beard or moustache with impunity, the old military influence takes over. Anyway, I want to be clean-shaven just for Molly's sake. I also wrote letters, read, tinkered with electronic projects, made weekly tapes to send home, listened to the Star Trek tapes, or occasionally explored the island with the rest of the crew the few times when conditions permitted. Exploring really didn't happen very often because of being on alert to fly 24/7. When I was back PCS in 1981 I was able to do more exploring in the first three weeks than I did in the entire seven-month TDY. Some of the NCOs made cups, mugs, and other items at the ceramics hobby shop. They did a lot of cups with the Lisa Ann witch on them. There was also another mug whose handle was in the shape of an unclothed lady with her arched back toward the bowl that was quite popular! When we first got to Shemya, we worked on the plane sometimes until 1 or 2 a.m. doing computer programing and troubleshooting, and writing checklists and equipment operating techniques and procedures. Just when we thought all the procedures and techniques were correct, something would come along that would make changes necessary. Computer program changes had to be incorporated. SAC and Air Force regulations needed compliance. Everything had to be documented.