Crusty old Joe's

Kodiak Alaska Military History

The official web site of the Kodiak Military History Museum

by Dave Evans

Fort Abercrombie's Mystery Paintings Revisited
August 19, 2003

Just about a year ago I wrote in this column about some artwork that is prominently displayed in the Visitor Center at Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park. One of the paintings is a striking image of an eagle on a shield emblazoned with "30th Coast Artillery-Headquarters Battery."

A point I was making was that history is fragile, even fairly recent history. Exactly where that painting (and a couple of others displayed in the Kodiak Military History Museum) came from and how it got to Fort Abercrombie were mysteries. Several alternate stories about the paintings were circulating, and, human nature being what it is, each teller was equally certain about the version being told.

We now have at least a partial resolution to this mystery, and it's a wonderful weaving together of several distinctly Kodiak threads. When I arrived here last June, Administrative Assistant Lisa Thomson, who keeps track of ALL things at Fort Abercrombie, mentioned that a visitor had stopped in earlier in the season who seemed to know quite a bit about the painting. She also remembered that he and his wife had signed in on our guest register.

A number of park guests from earlier this season received unexpected phone calls from me last week, and I finally connected with Rex M.(Wess) Wessling, Lt. Commander, US Coast Guard (retired), now living in Redmond, Washington. Wess was the first Alaskan Commanding Officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Firebush, and he brought her here to Kodiak from the Coast Guard Yards in Baltimore in 1979. He was able to tell me the story of how the paintings made their way to Fort Abercrombie.

Firebush regularly went out along the Aleutian chain to work buoys. Occasionally she would anchor in bays to allow the crew to spend some time on shore. One of these stops was Umnak Island, next to Dutch Harbor. During World War II, Umnak was the site of Fort Glenn, the Army Air Corps installation with the airfield that protected Dutch Harbor. This was one of the first airfields built on the islands officially described as having a "muskeg surface incapable of supporting an aircraft runway." The solution was some ingenious engineering and Marsden matting, perforated interlocking metal plates that provided instant runway surface. (Bits of the matting can still be seen out at the old Chiniak airstrip.) One pilot described the sensation of setting down on Marsden matting as being like landing on an inner-spring mattress. Wess describes Fort Glenn as a big place, and during those onshore excursions he would walk for miles among the buildings and along the airstrip.

He recalls his first visit there in 1979, and some of the buildings were surprisingly intact. Located relatively close to the beach was a large quonset with our 30th Coast Artillery painting and another of an anti-aircraft gun crew in action painted directly on the beaverboard wall. At the time, he felt it appropriate to simply leave the paintings undisturbed.

In Spring of 1981, Firebush made another visit to Umnak. By then, Wess noticed that the windows of the quonset were broken out and the building was open to the weather. Also, by then, he realized these paintings were the only examples of combat art he'd discovered in Firebush's voyages out and back along the Aleutians.

He decided then that they needed to be saved, and he cut the paintings out of wall with the sawblade of his Swiss Army knife, tied them together face-to-face and walked them down to Firebush. They then spent a couple of years in the basement of his quarters on the Coast Guard Base where he served as Planning Officer for a couple of years.

At this time Fort Abercrombie was developing as a State Park and Wess' time at Kodiak was coming to an end. He wanted to be certain the paintings remained safe and in Alaska. Because Fort Abercrombie was a State Historical Park, he gave Ed Apperson, the first Abercrombie Ranger, a call to see if he'd be interested in the paintings. Of course Apperson was eager to have them at Abercrombie, and the paintings have been here ever since.

We now know where the paintings come from, yet we still don't know much about the 30th Coast Artillery, except that it was associated with Fort Glenn. Given Fort Glenn's function and the subject matter of the other painting, it was most likely one of a number of coast artillery units that was also designated "anti-aircraft."

My original theme of history's fragility is amply supported by this anecdote. Much of what we are trying to discover about Fort Abercrombie, its personnel and its coastal battery occurred more than sixty years ago. Yet it was only an early season visit to the Visitor Center and a half-remembered conversation that saved this much more recent story from disappearing.

David A. Evans, Naturalist, Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park Updated 2003 August 19