Crusty old Joe's

Kodiak Alaska Military History

The official web site of the Kodiak Military History Museum

by Dave Evans

Shell Search
July 7, 2004

The two main questions we hear asked about the Fort Abercrombie coastal battery (other than those about the location of bathrooms in the bunker) are these: Why were the guns blown up? Where are the shells they fired?

We've got a reasonable response to the question about why the guns were destroyed. Economics and a warming Cold War made it seem like a good idea to dispose of these now-obsolete weapons and their ammunition. The decision was made; and quick, if rather extreme, action was taken. Around Thanksgiving Day of 1948, a crew of ordnance demolition experts jammed wet sandbags in the gun muzzles, crammed the breeches with high explosive and set it off. The twisted metal of the mountings and the giant pieces of the guns in the Miller Point campground testify to the violence of these explosions.

Sometime after the guns were destroyed, the ammunition was also disposed of. Photographs in the Park collection show bag charges for the guns being carefully laid out on Miller Point and ignited. The operation occurred sometime after the guns were blown up (some of the photos show the destroyed gun mountings in background).

Exactly what happened to the projectiles for the guns is still a question that's very much open. We simply have no remaining examples to show our curious visitors to the battery at Miller Point. There is a possibility they were trucked out and put on a ship. Another likely scenario is that they were simply taken out off the Point and dumped at sea. That last likelihood fits well with the style of the gun demolition--salvage didn't seem part of the pattern of the operation.

Fort Abercrombie was visited last week by a contingent from the Coastal Defense Study Group. CDSG is a national organization focusing on the historical and technological aspects of coastal defenses from all eras and in all parts of the world. Kodiak was a major stop on a fairly extensive tour of Alaskan coastal defenses.

The CDSG visitors were impressed by the rarity of our WWI-vintage 8-inch guns, which were originally designed for use on battleships. Very few guns of this type were employed as parts of the United States coastal defense system during World War II. Ours were actually cast in 1918 and stored in a New York arsenal until they began their journey to Kodiak early in 1943.

Ordnance manuals indicate that two types of shells were used in our guns. They fired either a 260 lb. Armor Piercing shell or a 240 lb. High Explosive shell. The projectiles were 8 inches in diameter and 36 inches long. Both had mechanical fuzes that were set (much like a kitchen timer) according to the amount of time that it took a projectile to travel from the gun to its target.

The conversation with the CDSG group turned to suggestions about how we could design some reasonable simulations to display if we couldn't come up with the actual projectiles. We'd need to find somebody with access to and experience with a lathe. A big lathe!

We could then construct wooden simulations of the shells, paint them the flat yellow color used for indicating High Explosive shells in the early World War II years, and stencil them with appropriate markings. A natural display site would be the gun loading tray that's currently inside the Military History Museum, but which was formerly located behind one of the guns. It was from the trays that the shells and powderbags were loaded into the open breech of each gun. Perhaps a couple of the simulated shells could also be stacked for display on the projectile storage platforms within the bunker.

I'm continuing correspondence with CDSG about getting some type of representation of our guns' ammunition into the Ready Ammunition Bunker, but I think a home-grown solution to the problem would be much more satisfactory. In the past, I've had the experience of letting the Kodiak community know about needs the Park has, and the response has been gratifying. So, I'm trying it again this summer! If there are any ideas on solving this problem, or interest in producing a simulated 8-inch shell or two, please let me know.

It's quite remarkable to me how information and displays associated with our coastal battery have increased by bits and pieces through the past five years. Having ammunition for the guns of Fort Abercrombie would be one of the most significant interpretive additions I can think of to the Ready Ammunition Bunker and Kodiak Military History Museum.

David A. Evans, Volunteer Naturalist
Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park Updated 2004 July 17