Ron Strong

The relatively low power of the J-57 engines was almost legendary. Many tales can be told about tankers rolling, and rolling, long distances to get airborne on hot days. More than once every inch of runway was used, even with the added thrust of water injection, to get off the ground. Frequently several minutes and a number of miles of flying were necessary before gaining enough airspeed to climb to cruising altitude. The tanker return from Hickam was just such a takeoff. To the uninitiated, such a long takeoff roll was a source of terror, and a real concern for the experienced, too!

Most of the Shemyaites used the barbershop at the Comp Bldg where the barbers were NCOs who cut hair on a part-time basis away from their regular jobs. It was open about nine hours/day. Prices were 80 cents for enlisted and $1 for officers and civilians. In Hangar 3 it was a similar situation with our own troops doing the cutting in the evenings in a commons area on the north side of the hangar. They usually did a brisk business. I think the cost was only a dollar there, too.

All of the hangars on Shemya covered more than 50,000 square feet, were made from birchwood, and had a semicircular cross section with an additional two stories of housing and office space added to the sides. They were built during WW II to house B-29s for the bombing of Japan. Fourteen were planned but only six were completed, possibly because of supply problems. The many timbers were huge and were held together with great large bolts. The concrete hangar floor was illuminated by many very large incandescent bulbs complete with reflector shades suspended from the rafters by short cables. Some time later they were replaced with more efficient and brighter mercury vapor lights. Both Hangar 2 and 3 had aircraft-sized entry doors in their west ends that consisted of six tall panels on each side that slid past one another to open and close. The main opening was probably at least 50' high. When opened, whatever weather was outside came inside with gusto. The openings were very large, and high and wide enough for the aircraft tail and wings to clear by several feet. The airplane's wing span was almost 131 feet, and the tail height was just short of 42 feet. West ends of both hangars were about 25 feet higher than the east ends to accommodate the aircraft tail as the planes went in nose first. Both hangar ends had similar doors, but the east ends were blocked by maintenance offices and could not be opened completely; however, there was a smaller door in one of the center panels for vehicle traffic. There were also pedestrian doors on both sides of the large hangar doors. Over the years Shemya had at least eight of these huge hangars, but by 1966 only five or so remained. Hangar 4 had its large door left open during a high wind and had lost part of its roof. It was still off when we left in April of 1967. Hangar 6 was in very poor repair and was only partially used for storage, as was Hangar 4. As I remember, Hangar 5 was near the middle of the runway and was used by the Transportation Management Office for storage of inbound and outbound personal goods for PCS personnel. It seems that a Navy unit, VP-1, also used it, or the area near it, to park the Navy P3A Orion, an ASW (anti-submarine warfare) aircraft when it was deployed from Adak Island, Alaska to patrol our end of the Bering Sea and on south.

At that time Shemya was almost a "living museum." Nine prehistoric archaeological sites have been recorded on Shemya, but three have been completely destroyed. All of the remaining six have been disturbed by construction or vandalism. Four of these six were eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). No natives live on Shemya and have not since some long while before WW II. When a Danish explorer employed by Russia, Vitus Bering, discovered the islands in 1741 there may have been more than 100 inhabitants, possibly from NE Asia. Shemya is probably the same island that was originally named St. Abraham. A number of WW II era structures met the eligibility criteria for inclusion in the NRHP. The fortifications include gun emplacements, concrete bunkers, and a buried shelter. To qualify, the items had to have played an important role in the campaign to retake the Aleutians and exhibit unusual and possibly unique fortification design features.

Relics and remnants of WW II were everywhere. On the beaches there were scattered, rusting, 155mm shore guns. During the war, several batteries of 90 and 155mm and antiaircraft guns were also on the island in strategic locations. One 90mm gun, on display outside the main entrance of Bldg 600, is in the NRHP. On the bluffs along the beaches one could see the crumbling shells of pill boxes, bunkers, and gun emplacements. Quite a number of bunkers also dotted the interior of the island. Some of the bunkers were six-sided and interconnected to other nearby units to form small complexes. A few pill boxes were rounded steel and shaped like a small tank turret, probably for machine gun emplacements. On the north side of the island on a bluff overlooking the beach was an old command post that was almost flush with the surface. Still inside were the hanging, green-shaded lights that would have illuminated briefing tables and maps. On the east end of the island was the remains of an officers' club. All that could be seen of it was a few partial walls one of which still had a window made from a very large piece of thick plexiglass. The view from that wall was out over the North Pacific and the beach; rather spectacular, actually.

On the south and west sides of the island the beaches slope up gently and are sandy with only a comparatively few rocks and boulders. In marked contrast, the east and north have lots of rocks and a steep slope up to noticeable cliffs and high bluffs. The cliffs don't look like much from the air, but they do from the beach. Also off the east end of Shemya, in the water, was where tons of surplus WW II munitions were dumped at war's end. Small arms ammunition up through artillery shells and bombs formed a vast, rusting, corroding mass. Only a very few items were good enough for souvenirs. On the northeast side of the island was an even larger area. From a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chart the north area is about twice the size of the other. Except for the chart I had never heard of the larger of the two areas. Casings of phosphorus munitions had long since rusted away and left the phosphorus open and exposed in the water. When the phosphorus is exposed to air it burns furiously with a great cloud of smoke. When I was back again in 1981, a piece of phosphorus looked like an unusual rock that our rock-collecting son, Roger, might have liked; however, it was too large and I threw it against a real rock to break it into smaller pieces. That is how I discovered the substance's true identity! No, I didn't take any samples home!

The beach was a source of constant allure. It seemed to have an almost primal attraction. Segments of what seemed to be concrete piers were found in several places. Driftwood and debris from all over the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea washed ashore, especially after a storm. Some spots on the beach had great piles of logs hundreds of yards long that could have been from a timber ship. All sorts of odd things washed up: everything from rope to tennis shoes. I found a large tooth about five inches long from some unknown creature, and a long bone that might have come from a whale or maybe a large sea lion. A sizeable portion of the debris seemed to have come from Japanese sources. Empty cans and bottles of all sorts with Japanese characters frequently littered the beach when strong winds came from the south. After all, Shemya is in the Japanese Current.

Highly desired items in all this debris were the glass Japanese fishing floats. These were woven into fishing nets and ranged in size from bigger than basketballs, two feet in diameter, down to tennis ball size. I was fortunate enough to find three baseball-sized ones in good condition, but our cat knocked one off our fireplace mantel and broke it. The remaining two are safely locked away from cats and grandchildren in a display case. Sometimes large pieces of the nets with floats still attached would wash ashore. The unique feature of the floats was that they were apparently hand-blown from Coke and 7-Up bottles. Sometimes part of the letters on the Coke bottle were still visible. Floats from other materials were found, too, including bits of boards and a pressed material not unlike a hard styrofoam. Some floats were cylindrical about 6 inches long and others were spheres the size of softballs. Most were beige but some were blue or red. Some Soviet floats were also found but not nearly with the same abundance. I also found a board fragment 7" inches wide and two feet long that has the Japanese characters for "right" and "three" cut into it with a chisel, one over the other. It's hanging on a wall in our family room now. Could it have been a door or ship's corridor marking? When all else failed to pass time, we could always go to the beach and watch the dead whale rot! Dead whales and sea lions that had washed ashore were not uncommon. A few yards off the northeast corner of the island are some large rocks where hundreds of stellar sea lions would bask in the sun on the few warmer, sunny days during the summer weeks. They made quite a ruckus during the mating season. You will notice that I wrote summer "weeks" and not "months." Seals and walrus could be seen now and then, too.

Just up from the beach on the southwest corner of Shemya was Million Barrel Bay. This was the dumping ground for the empty 55-gallon fuel, oil, and other drums, many left over from WW II. On the north side along the shore were old graves areas of two Russian seamen and three Aleuts. They were well maintained, separated by a few yards, and enclosed with white picket fences. The "Jade Mine" was on the north shore, also. It had a very narrow gauge rail track that went a few hundred feet into the side of a high bluff. Another "mine" also had heavy timber shoring for wall support. Supposedly, this was a soil sampling shaft for the FPS-17 radar foundations although it seems a little odd for a soil sampling shaft to have tracks and be shored up so well. One high, steep, berm had three openings almost in a vertical line. Other shafts even had what looked like a sluiceway near it made from boards. One shaft was about four feet wide and six feet high all the way to the end. Another shore sight was a fuel barge that had been blown ashore during a severe storm and never refloated. Not much was left of it but a rusting hulk. It was beached on its maiden voyage in November 1958. Each attempt at refloating only more deeply grounded it.

Scattered all over the island were deserted buildings that had once been living quarters and warehouses. Some were Quonset huts while others were regular frame construction. Nearly all of these buildings were constructed in depressions in the ground made by bulldozers. Many had their roofs almost flush with the surface of the ground to protect them from the high winds. Some still had furniture remnants. Still others were in fairly good condition and were used as warehouses. Some were just not used and were going to rack and ruin. In some of these I found old flatware, canteens, mess hall serving trays, and other bits and pieces from bygone years. There were some clusters of four to six almost-underground structures that had the vestiges of wooden sidewalks connecting them. Some completely buried rooms seemed to be little more than wide corridors with a semi-circular metal top set on four-foot walls. Perhaps it was, indeed, a connecting corridor. One such group of these rooms was definitely interconnected. Depressions dotted the landscape. Many of the shallow depressions had remains of walls and roofs. Traces of barbed wire fences were still scattered throughout the island. I have a short segment of one stashed away somewhere. The sample was nothing unique, just from Shemya. Now and then the rubble of a concrete foundation also had a stone fireplace. What was burned in it is unknown because there have been no trees on Shemya perhaps for centuries or more. It could be that the old buildings themselves were used for fuel! A few of the buildings in better condition were used as "smokehouses": club houses that island residents renovated and used as pubs, complete with well-stocked bars, furniture, and other accouterments. They were popular after-hours haunts for many of the island residents.

Shortly after WW II, in March 1946, the first dependents began arriving on Shemya, and some of these buildings undoubtedly housed them. Reports indicate that 90 families were there at one time. From old pictures there were many hundreds, possibly thousands, of structures everywhere, some set back from the water's edge by only a few hundred feet. During that time there were churches, three theaters, a school, newspaper, radio station WXLO, a bank, laundry, and a gym. There was even a large hospital. As an indication of just how many buildings once covered Shemya, several completely isolated fire plugs could be found in the middle of a large open area with nothing around for a maybe a mile or more. Somewhere on the island is a little round brass survey marker dated 1943. It was mounted on a small concrete slab. Later markers were dated 1965 through 1967 and on larger concrete slabs and pillars. While we were there, the base population was about 1500 or so. At one time there were 20,000 people on Shemya. That took a lot of housing. Williwaw Tech school even had 643 students at one time.

A distinctive feature at the northwest corner of Shemya was the large Alcan Dock on Alcan Bay. This is where the cool-barge unloaded a year's 2000 tons of supplies, vehicles, and equipment during the summer. The barge was brought from Anchorage by tug boat and carried a great quantity of meats and canned goods, and the many other items necessary for the island. Other barges were used to bring in construction supplies and equipment 3000 miles from Seattle. Sometimes the barges had to wait off-shore a month or more to unload because of the high seas. Fresh fruits and vegetables were also flown in every week by various military and commercial aircraft throughout the year, many by C-124s from McChord AFB in Washington State.

Also on the northwest corner of Shemya and east of the dock was the FPS-17 radar site, and a sizeable tank farm that stored jet fuel for the airplanes and diesel fuel for the generators and heating systems. The FPS-17 was a missile warning radar with very long range capability. It had three great antennas that must have been at least 175 feet high and 110 feet wide. These were flat from side to side and curved from top to bottom. They were a several yards apart, and the outer two were angled about 15 degrees out from the center one. At the bottom of the high embankment that ran down to the shore was a high-radiation sign that looked something like the standard radioactivity warning sign. Shemya also had an FPS-80 that was a tracking radar, whereas the FPS-17 was the detection radar for Soviet missiles. Both were part of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS). At one time BMEWS sites formed a line all the way across Alaska and Canada. There was a radar bubble, I think for the FPS-80, about 100 feet in diameter. Island ravens took a liking to the sealing compound in its joints. Four months were required to reseal the bubble with something less appealing to their appetites. Another large antenna array was the White Alice system that provided military communications before the overhead satellite links were developed. White Alice had two 120-foot antennas and was located on the north side of the island only a few hundred yards from the Comp Building. The name came from White for the frozen north, and Alaska Integrated Communications and Electronics, hence White Alice. Power to run the radars, and the rest of the island, came from the base power plant. It had four, later six, 16-cylinder diesel engines running generators of three megawatts capacity each. Two were running at all times.

The tallest structure on the island, aside from the hangars and the Comp Building, was the "Shemya-Seattle Bridge." This was a large wooden structure that was really part of a rock crusher at the edge of the large rock quarry in the middle of the island. Gravel for the roads and other projects came from the quarry. It looked like a partially completed bridge heading off to the southeast more or less toward Seattle. We could see it easily from Hangar 3.

On the west end of Shemya were the old runways from WW II. They had been disused for many years and were short, only 5000' long. One of them was perpendicular to the main, active runway. These old strips were not maintained and had all sorts of small bits of debris on them. On occasion a C-130 and other aircraft had landed there when cross winds were too strong on the regular strip and landing was really necessary. At one time planes could go from the main runway to the other two by using the taxiways but that was no longer possible.

In the western and central parts on of this tundra-covered island are 20 small lakes, maybe better termed ponds. They ranged in size from about 40x80' to maybe 840x975'. (How large does a pond have to be before it becomes a lake?)The larger ones were stocked with fish, including Dolly Varden and rainbow trout, by the Alaska wildlife folks and provided some diversion for the residents when the weather was favorable. Fishing from the dock afforded some fun, too. Several varieties of fish, including salmon, halibut, flounder, and Japanese perch, were taken. The mess hall folks often cooked the fish for the people that caught them.

Somewhere not too far from the dock was an area where lots of 1940s and '50s Coke and 7-Up bottles had been discarded. These were the old green, 6-oz, 5-cent bottles that used to be available everywhere from pop machines and in wooden cases of 24. It was great fun to dig them up and look for early dates on the bottle bottoms. The earlier the date, the better. I found several dated 1943 and 1945. One story about why they were buried is that there was a large fire in one of the warehouses that contained the sodas. A bulldozer was used to put out the fire and cover up the remaining debris.

Just north of the middle of the runway on one of the old parking stubs was the wreckage of at least one B-17 and parts of other WW II bombers and fighters. At one time there was a large pile of wrecked P-38s left over from the War. An old B-17 fuselage segment provided a nice inspection port cover as a souvenir as did a Manual Flap Actuator plate and a red, wing-tip clearance light cover. I also found a segment of an instrument panel with what was left of four meters with scale markings that started with 100 and ended at 156. What was their function?

On the south side near the west end of the runway was a few large wooden buildings that were used for storage. These were in what appeared to be an excavated area because the area south of the runway was higher. From a WW II era picture, there were many, many buildings all over the island, particularly around the runway. A massive construction effort must have been made to put up everything in a short time. The bringing in all the building materials necessary must have been an impressive sight to behold.

Although I never made it to Attu, there were many wrecks of WW II aircraft, both US and Japanese. According to reports, some were nearly complete. Years later a P-38 from Attu was recovered and restored to flying condition. Not much exploring on Attu was possible, however, because there were still some active mine fields left over from the War. Japanese maps of the mine fields were just not available for the mines' removal. Some of these mines worked themselves to the surface over the course of time because of the constant freezing and thawing of the land. More than once a fox blew itself up by stepping on one. The explosive in these old Japanese mines becomes very unstable with age. As a result, there were large areas on Attu that were still off-limits as late as 21 years after the war. Rumors also have it that there are spacious caves on Attu that are filled with old Japanese munitions. The same rumors say these caves are booby-trapped. No particular effort has been made to clear the island although it would be a gold mine of war relics and historical information. Fierce, costly battles were fought on Attu until it was recaptured in May 1943. Of the Japanese garrison of 2350 men only 29 survived. Attu was the second most costly battle, in percentage, of WW II. For every 100 Japanese killed, 71 US fighting men were either killed or wounded.

Undoubtedly the most popular resident of Shemya was a large, gray, long-haired, malamute-husky named "Boozer." No one knew how or when the dog had come to the island or from whence he came. He was "just there".....and had been there long enough to know where all the smokehouses were located. He would get on the shuttle bus that made periodic runs around the island with regular stops, and would wait for the bus to halt at a scheduled stop. He would get on the bus. (All the drivers knew him and would open the door when he waited at the stop.) He would then ride to the stop closest to the appropriate "smokehouse," where he knew he would receive a hand-out. He then got off the bus seat, stood by the door to "tell the driver this is where he wanted off," and exited after the driver opened the door. He visited the appropriate smokehouse for a "snack," returned to the same bus stop and repeated the process when the bus stopped again. He was "top-dog" on the island and all the other dogs knew it. They just didn't "mess" with Boozer. His favorite spot to nap during the warmer days was on the front steps of the Comp Building where he was certain to get a hand-out from mess hall patrons. The front of the building faced south and was sheltered from the prevailing winds. Boozer even had his own fire plug, with his name on it, in front of the Comp Building. There is now a bronze plaque dedicated to Boozer on the wall at the main entrance to the Comp Building. He was what the troops needed: a relief from the boredom and all the accompanying items. He was a legend to all of us who were stationed there and, while he never received a medal or citation, he was a hero to all who had the pleasure to make his company. Once while a resident was working out in the gym with the heavy punching bag Boozer flashed in front of him, ripping the bag from its chain. If the bag was someone's enemy, it was Boozer's, too! Boozer was so popular that the Army unit on Shemya appointed him a Command Sergeant Major. Rumors are that he also held a colonelcy in the Air Force Reserve. He loved everyone except the island doctor that gave him his shots. His favorite food was knockwurst soaked in beer. Boozer "belonged" to the 6984th Security Squadron. Its commander was Maj. Richard Drain (Draino) who had a long, red handlebar moustache like the cartoon character, Yosemite Sam. Draino put a stop to the practice on getting Boozer drunk with bowls of beer and potato chips. After a long illness Boozer was put to sleep at noon on December 31, 1968. He was old and full of years. Boozer was buried on New Years Day in the year that both Lisa Ann and Wanda Belle were lost. The entire island came to his funeral. He was buried with full military honors in a place of dignity next to the "Shemya Plug." Somewhere on the island is a circular concrete slab shaped like a very large sink stopper with a length of chain attached. It was called the "Shemya Plug" with the joke that it could be pulled and sink the whole place. Also, departing troops were "urged" to take a little rock with them - after a while the whole island would be gone!

Exploring this historic island was something of a challenge because we were on constant alert to fly. Only when the plane was down for parts or back at Eielson or elsewhere for maintenance was it possible. Also, Shemya had some of the world's worst weather, dominated by what is called the "Aleutian Low." Clear, calm days were very rare. (I remember only five or six in the seven-month TDY and year PCS in 1981.) The norm was a heavy cloud cover 90% of the time. Winds of 40 knots, with fog cutting visibility to only yards, were not uncommon. In the winter before we arrived the winds exceeded hurricane force 17 times. Frequently a storm front, a squall, could be seen approaching rapidly. It would bring heavy snow and very low visibility. Just as quickly the storm could pass, leaving nearly clear skies again, or it could be a real storm lasting several days. Rain fell in the January we were there and melted nearly all the snow. Occasionally all vehicular traffic was halted because of blowing and drifting snow, or dense fog.

Kingdon R. Hawes (Webmaster)
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