I am not sure what happened between the 1940’s and the 1990’s, but somewhere along the way the story of Alaska and World War II became lost to the public. While I knew about the Japanese-American interments in California, I did not know about the forcible evacuation and internment of natives in the Aleutians. Basically the army cleared off some of the furthest island. The Aleuts that had lived there forever were moved to the Alaskan panhandle to live in squalor conditions. Then the army moved into their homes and religious buildings, breaking and looting their personal items in the process.
The army hadn’t gotten around to imprisoning the Aleuts on Attu when the Japanese invaded that island and the small island of Kiska nearby. The Japanese army didn’t treat them any better than the US would have treated them. They shipped off the Aleuts from Attu to Japan to live in prison camps there, and also presumably moved into their homes and religious buildings.
Kodiak Island became very important to the defense of mainland. The area previously known as Miller Point became Fort Abercrombie in 1941 and Kodiak served as the Alaska Defense Command for the entire Alaska campaign from October 1942 through March 1943.
Kodiak became a major staging area for North Pacific operations during World War II. The population of the tiny village soared to more than 25,000. A submarine base and air station were constructed at Women’s Bay and an army outpost was established near the Buskin River. Bunkers and gun emplacements were built at Chiniak, Long island and Fort Abercrombie. – World War II in Kodiak
After Pearl Harbor, an attack on Kodiak seemed not only plausible but imminent. Residents and serviceman scanned the skies constantly for signs of Japanese aircraft. But they never came. The guns at Fort Abercrombie were fired often in drills, but were never shot at an enemy.
After World War II, the army quickly abandoned the fort and the bunkers were forgotten. They became overgrown and the forest reclaimed the land. For a while, homeless people took up camp there before the state “evicted” them in the 1980’s to clean up the area and create the park. Local youth still liked it as a hangout. A local handyman I ran into told me his friends used to raid the bunkers at Fort Abercrombie and drink the beer they found there. He was around my age, so that would put the beer at least 40 years old.
I didn’t find any beer when I started exploring Fort Abercrombie, but what I did find was enthralling. Bunkers covered with the softest moss I’d ever encountered. Gun mounts still pointed out at the seemingly endless Pacific Ocean. Footprints of buildings that hadn’t been built as sturdy as the bunkers and had been reclaimed by the forest.
Fort Abercrombie was my first destination after arriving on the island. I took a trail around a peaceful lake out to Miller Point. I sat out at that glorious point for at least an hour, watching the waves crash against the rocks below. I conciously made the decision to slow down and take it all in so that I could replay the scene in my mind in the years to come. But I couldn’t help but imagine the servicemen’s state of mind as they sat at the same place I did sixty years earlier. Sure you were in a beautiful paradise, but it could all go to hell in an instant.
Kodiak’s place in World War II is not the only history evident on the island. One of the first things I saw was a Russian Orthodox church and a Russian Orthodox Seminary next door, left by Russian trappers and traders from the 17 and 1800’s.
When Russia landed, they encountered the native population of Alutiiq (which anthropologists classify as Eskimo). They established the first Russian permanent settlement in Alaska here in Kodiak, led by Russian fur traders. Like interactions with Native Americans in the mainland, this meeting of the cultures was not without bloodshed, but intermarriage was common and helped the Russian Orthodox church spread on the island.
One of the first things I noticed in the island was the large windmills on Pillar Mountain. The cost for importing anything to an island in Alaska is large so there must have been expensive to bring these in. It is forward thinking of the islanders to bring in a renewable resource like this. In the first year of operation, the windmills saved $3 million in diesel costs.
The second day on the island, I found out that Kodiak was home to spaceport. Not just any spaceport, but the nation’s first commercial spaceport. If you know me, you know that wild horses couldn’t keep me from checking it out! I didn’t see any workers while I was there, so all I really got to do was take a look from the fence.
Here’s a live launch at Kodiak. Liftoff is at 1:53.
I loved my time there. I could definitely see myself spending summer after summer there. I loved the isolation, but that same isolation would be limiting. There are only 100 miles of road on Kodiak, and not all of it is connected. Getting to other villages on the island, like Old Harbor, require a boat or a plane ride. Getting to mainland Alaska requires the same, or a slow trip on the ferry. I think the harsh winters would feel stifling on an island I couldn’t easily stray from. Overall, I look forward to returning to this beautiful island paradise, and this time I’ll be sharing the experience with my children.
DeeAnn’s Kodiak Tour Company is a great way to get around the island and learn about the uniqueness of the place. I highly recommend working with her!
Andrews Airways can help you with a once in a lifetime bear viewing. Whether you are seeing the famous Kodiak bears in season, or flying over to Katmai to see brown bears like I did, Andrews is a great tour company.
The small Baranov Museum, housed in a former fur warehouse in Kodiak, was a great place to learn more about the Russian era in Kodiak’s history.
Kodiak Brewing Company is a hub of the community.
Alutiiq Museum is a small museum that can enlighten you on the history of the native Eskimo population on Kodiak.