Crusty old Joe's

Kodiak Alaska Military History

The official web site of the Kodiak Military History Museum

by Dave Evans

Before There Were Warbirds
July 2, 2001

Like many in Kodiak, I've been out at the Airport in the last couple of days to see the B-24 and the B-17. Part of the thrill was just hearing those high-powered radial engines. I still get a kick out of what's become a true Kodiak sound to me--being able to listen to the local air service Beavers flying over the island every day.

The B-17s and B-24s played an important part in winning the Second World War. The B-24, especially, became a workhorse bomber in the Aleutians campaign. At war's beginning, though, Alaska was given conspicuously short shrift as far as aircraft were concerned. General Simon Buckner, heading the Alaska Defense Command, was glad to get any aircraft, and was sent an allotment of obsolete Douglas B-18 Bolo bombers (picture a DC-3 with a glass nose) and some snub-nosed Curtiss P-36 Hawks that were shipped up north in crates for assembly in Anchorage. A number of these planes were assigned to Kodiak in those early days. Both types of aircraft were old, slow, and could be easily out-performed by Japanese aircraft of the time.

Part of this reluctance to provide the best aircraft available was lack of recognition of Alaska's strategic location. Part was also because, in the late '30s and into 1941, there was no great realization of the significance of air power. The North Pacific Fleet was headquartered at Kodiak, and the high tech resources of the time were solely devoted to defending the Fleet from attack by sea. The assumption was that the greatest threat came from bombardment by approaching battleships and cruisers, with possible invasion afterwards.

Fort Abercrombie at Miller Point, Fort Tidball on Long Island, and Fort Smith at Chiniak were the three coastal gun batteries responsible for this defense against attack from the sea. Fort Greely, in the Buskin Lake and Buskin River area, provided the central command role. The northeast coastline of Kodiak became dotted with searchlights, searchlight control bunkers, and artillery observation bunkers, all with an emphasis on detecting approaching ships, and locating targets for the coastal batteries. Some Top Secret radar installations, primitive by today's standards, represented the latest technology for detection of distant surface craft. The defense structure was proudly, if a bit defiantly, a U.S. Army operation. A saying at the time was, "The Navy must be on the island. They had to bring the Army in to protect them."

The overlapping fields of fire of these three coastal batteries completely screened the seaward approaches to the Navy base. Communication among the batteries was coordinated by Harbor Defense Command at Fort Greely. The object of this communication was to allow the batteries to fire in a sequence such that all projectiles would land on the same target simultaneously. With the major batteries and some smaller caliber artillery as part of the defense system, as many as eighteen shells could impact that target at the same time, a formidable defense against approaching enemy ships.

Operation of this harbor defense system of artillery, searchlights, and radar depended upon immmediate communication. A number of the personnel assigned to the Army contingents of the system were communications specialists, and a main job for some of the soldiers was laying communication cables.

Other than these coastal regions from Spruce Island to Narrow Cape, the island was basically undefended. The prospect of an effective aerial attack on the base seemed a much less immediate threat than direct bombardment from the sea. Pearl Harbor quickly took us a long way toward changing this outlook. The attack on Dutch Harbor, though it inflicted no great damage, did show that their coastal battery defenses were irrelevant if aircraft were a key part of an attacking force.

Alaska finally did get its B-17s and B-24s, and the saga of air power in the Aleutians became one of flying under impossible weather conditions from runways that couldn't be built (as Dan Jessup ably recounted in his Mirror column last week).

The bunkers supplying ammunition to the coastal batteries still stand at all three sites, though the Ready Ammunition Bunker at Fort Abercrombie is the only one that has been restored. It also houses the Kodiak Military History Museum. It's worth a visit to see this huge structure that was part of a maximum effort, but an effort from a time before the tremendous military potential of air power was fully understood.

High resolution

High resolution Updated 2001 August 20