Crusty old Joe's

Kodiak Alaska Military History

The official web site of the Kodiak Military History Museum

by Dave Evans

A Little Piece of Metal
July 16, 2001

While I was hiking along the shore last week, a glitter in the sand caught my eye. It turned out to be a battered but still legible World War Two dog tag. That chance discovery led to a still-unfolding series of communications between a couple of generations; a combination of contacts by internet, telephone and mail. Geographically, the story now ranges from Kodiak to Minnesota to Arizona.

The name on the tag was Austin Masterson, with a home town given of Walnut Grove, Minnesota. I e-mailed Walnut Grove's web page (Home of the Author of Little House on the Prairie), asking if any of the Mastersons were still in the area, and suggesting the find as a possible human interest story for their local paper. Within an hour a message came back from a woman at the Chamber of Commerce informing me that I should expect to hear from Masterson's sister. Within four hours I'd received e-mail from his sister, Kathleen, of Fulda, Minnesota, saying that she'd called her brother, Tom (the name he prefers), in Phoenix, Arizona, and left a message on his machine.

Next morning there were two e-mails waiting for me from Masterson's son, Casey, also living in Phoenix. I telephoned him to find out about getting hold of his father, who actually happened to be sitting next to him at the time of my call. Tom and I had the chance to talk about the time he arrived in Kodiak as a 20-year-old, and to start putting a picture back together of his time on the Island in the early '40s. His story was especially intriguing to me because he was Army, and assigned to the harbor defense system of which our own Fort Abercrombie was a part.

Before arriving here, Tom was in the Minnesota National Guard, which was mobilized in 1940. His unit was Battery B, 215th Coast Artillery, and after a period of training in California the unit was assigned to Fort Greely. He and the rest of men in Battery B were responsible for guns which were a component of Kodiak's harbor defense system. He remembers first being billeted in Fort Greely's Tent City along the Buskin River, then having to construct roads from the beach up onto the high ground of Cliff Point on the far side of Womens Bay. "It was September or October 1941 and raining all the time." He and the rest of Battery B were quartered on the Point as an outpost. He recalls the guns having to be hauled up those roads that his unit had to make. The fact that the harbor defense plans kept at the Park don't show large caliber guns in that location is of some interest, and we're still in the process of trying to sort out a few of these specifics from the memories of some 60 years ago.

Tom Masterson stayed at Fort Greely until 1944, when his unit was reassigned to the 99th Infantry Division in Europe. He fought in the Battle of the Ardennes and was wounded in the securing and crossing of the Rhine River bridgehead at Remagen during the advance into Germany. After returning to the States, Masterson attended to law school and became an attorney, eventually moving with his wife to Phoenix to escape the Minnesota cold, wet, and snow.

Casey, Tom, and I are still in contact, and this ongoing series of communications naturally turns out to be even more immediate and important to the Masterson family than it is for me. They've got the memories and some personal photos and memorabilia; we've got some maps, documents, and information on Fort Greely and the rest of the harbor defense system that provides a context for what the family has. And now they have the dog tag.

I'm impressed by what a specific evocation of Kodiak in the early 1940s is developing from an accidental encounter with a bit of metal on the beach. Even with today's communications systems, I'm also amazed by how quickly a story like this can fall together. When showing people through the Ready Ammunition Bunker and Kodiak Military History Museum at Fort Abercrombie, I try to steer people toward the case holding a few dog tags, some messware, and several uniform buttons--the little bits of metal that anchor the museum's displays to the reality of people who were actually here. As much as any of the exhibits, these fragments have the power to individualize those displays, and in a few cases to generate some distant but highly personal recollections of wartime Kodiak.

155mm gun in Sitka

215th Coast Artillery, Battery B.
Masterson is second from left, kneeling

Click for large view

Dog Tags explanation

Dog Tags info and ordering

Google search for Dog Tags Updated 2001 August 20