Wed, August 07, 2013

Trip of a Lifetime: WWII Aleutian Sites

By John Cloe
Ten of us, including six intrepid Alaskans, recently completed the first commercial tour of World War II military sites in the Aleutians, organized by Valor Tours of Sausalito, California. Our goal included determining the feasibility of safely visiting World War II historic sites in remote and difficult to reach places. Our trip was more of an expedition than your normal tour of well-groomed Civil War battlefields.

The tour commemorated the 70th anniversary of the ending of the Aleutian Campaign and included visits to the Attu and Kiska Historic Landmarks and the B-24D Liberator crash site on Atka Island listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Additionally, the Aleutian have the distinction of having three sites listed as World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monuments. Of a total of nine, including five in Hawaii and one in California, the Aleutian ones are the most difficult to visit. The three sites encompass the battlefield remnants on Attu, the Japanese occupation sites on Kiska, and the B-24 on Adak. Attu and Kiska are uninhabited and the B-24 site is at the far end on Atka Island with no road access from Atka Village on the east side.
We flew to Adak on June 20 on one of the twice-weekly Alaska Airlines passenger and cargo flights, arriving in rain, wind and cold.
On arrival, we toured the World War II and Cold War sites, where we viewed the slow deterioration of unused facilities. They included the Old Bering Hill Chapel, listed by The Alaska Association for Historic Preservation among the “Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties for 2013.”
We then boarded the custom designed 72-foot steel hulled M/V PukUk, owned and operated by Billy Choate, Alaska Marine Expeditions, based in Homer, and headed out into an Aleutian storm, stopping in Gusty Bay, Tanaga, to wait for the storm to pass.

The group, however, decided to press on despite the heavy swells. We were rewarded by reaching Kiska Harbor in calm conditions. We spent time ashore visiting the former Japanese occupation sites including many of the guns, ranging from 6-inch naval guns to anti-aircraft machine guns, and three beached Japanese transports. The place is like a museum.
From there, we proceeded in calm weather to Attu, watching wildlife along the way and passing the secret Air Force base on Shemya. We went ashore on Attu at the former Aleut village in Chichagof Harbor, explored the West Arm in Holtz Bay, walked the length of the abandoned runway at the former Coast Guard base in Massacre Bay where we read the inscriptions on four memorial plaques, and hiked to the Peace Memorial installed by the Japanese on Engineer Hill.
We stopped along the way to visit and read the interpretive panels and memorial to Joe Martinez, the only man to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Aleutian Campaign. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife personnel had installed the panels and plaque early in June.
While we were on Engineer Hill eating our sack lunches, a twin-engine turboprop flew over. I don’t know who was more surprised in that remote area. On the way back to our pickup point in Navy Cove, we met a Japanese couple, a priest and a guide heading for Engineer Hill for a memorial service for the Japanese war dead on Attu. The battlefield apparently has more meaning to the Japanese. In addition to the Peace Memorial, the Japanese have placed four other smaller memorials in the area.
We left Attu with another storm approaching us from the southwest. While aboard the Puk-Uk, we watched DVDs, read, discussed the war in the Aleutians and what we had seen, spent time on the spacious bridge watching the incredible Aleutian scenery and wildlife, ate gourmet meals prepared by our cook, celebrated her birthday during a party organized by Ron Inouye, enjoyed wine and beer, and slept in comfortable bunks. If anyone was seasick from the violently pitching and rolling vessel, they kept their misery to themselves.
While en route to Dutch Harbor, our end-of-tour destination, we went ashore in Beechevin Bay, Atka, and hiked the short distance to the B-24 site where John Andrews and Louis Blau had made a wheels-up landing in the approaching darkness of December 1942. They were unable to land elsewhere due to weather. Sadly, we found many parts missing from this historic relic. They apparently had been taken by scavengers seeking parts for the restoration of other B-24s.
We arrived at Dutch Harbor on a beautiful morning July 2. Our group toured the former Navy base and nearby Unalaska, spent the night at the Grand Aleutian Hotel, and departed on July 3 on a Pen Air flight back to Anchorage.
There were a number of lessons learned from the trip: the need to be physically fit, the requirement that only small, well-led groups can safely visit many of the sites, and the ability to adapt to a remote environment and respect its conditions.
Currently, the next trip is planned for June 2014. Six people have put down deposits for the trip and another fifteen have expressed interest. The tour has not been advertised. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in a seldom-visited, remote area of our planet.