Aleutian Islands: World War II secret bases|
by Capt. Carie Seydel
Air Force News Agency
12/5/2006 - SAN ANTONIO (AFPN) -- When Stuart Faber enlisted in the Army Air Corps shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he wasn't quite sure what he'd be doing.
Once assigned to the 404th Bomb Squadron at Elmendorf Field, Alaska, he not only maintained bombers, but was also sent on temporary duty to perform a variety of tasks at a remote Aleutian island town called Umnak.
He arrived in August 1942, just two months after the covert base there became operational. Few people knew the base existed. And, sometimes Mr. Faber wished it didn't.
"The weather was bad all the time, and supplies were hard to get," Mr. Faber said. "After living on Spam for a few months, one of the guys caught a mess of fish, and the cook told us whoever cleaned them could eat them."
Bare bones base
The base was the brainchild of Brig. Gen. Simon Buckner, commander of the Alaska Defense Command. Because the Navy dominated the Aleutians, it supposedly opposed Army involvement in the area. So in 1941, General Buckner proposed a covert construction project to build two Army Air Forces bases on the islands of Cold Bay and Umnak.
Alaska was strategic territory. General Buckner realized that if the Japanese took these islands, they could easily be within bombing range of Seattle. If they took Alaska, they'd have an ideal staging location to attack the continental United States.
He devised defense strategies with what limited resources were at his disposal. He stockpiled as many construction supplies as he could, but knew it wouldn't be enough. Once established, the Aleutian locations would protect Dutch Harbor [located approximately 60 miles northeast of Umnak] and serve as forward operating bases to launch attacks against northern Japan.
Since Umnak is mountainous and has no trees, it was doubtful a runway could be constructed. But the general solved that problem. He imported perforated steel matting, and within the first month, a 3,000- by 100-foot portable runway was waiting for the first P-40 Warhawk fighter aircraft to land. But the matting wasn't a perfect solution in the harsh Alaskan environment.
"Every once in a while the gusting wind rolled it up like a carpet," Faber said.
Since this was before the Pearl Harbor attack, leadership wasn't convinced the Japanese posed an immediate threat, so General Buckner wasn't given permission to build the two airfields. This could have cost him a court-martial if caught, but he felt he was right so he decided to divert resources from other Alaska projects for construction. Ironically, General Buckner's idea was eventually approved just before the Pearl Harbor attack, Faber said.
The general put forces on alert Dec. 1, 1941. But he only had about two dozen P-38 Lightning and P-40 aircraft. After the Pearl Harbor attack, Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold sent additional aircraft to General Buckner in Alaska. He was due to receive additional resources because Washington realized the possible problems the Japanese could pose to the mainland.
In March 1942, the 807th Army Engineers in civilian clothes -- so even the locals didn't suspect the buildup -- started working on the airfields on Umnak Island and Cold Bay. General Buckner made up the name of a fictitious factory called "Blair Fish Packing Company" to disguise the project. Supplies sent from other operating locations were marked to reflect the fake name.
Cold and foggy in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter, the Alaskan climate was harsh on man and machine. The winter of 1942 to 1943 had Mr. Faber and the thousands of other soldiers stationed at remote locations along the chain of islands huddling to stay warm while 18 inches of snow fell. Then the wind blew and covered the snow with dirt. They winterized tents with anything they could find, from canvas tarps to plywood, and small coal burners kept the insides warm.
"We learned to improvise and make due with what we had," Mr. Faber said.
When spring finally came, roads made of ice melted, leaving vehicles axle-deep in mud.
"We relied on the frozen roads," Mr. Faber said. "So when the thaw got there, transportation came to a standstill until we could get things built back up. It was a real mess."
He was originally sent to the island with three others to prepare for the arriving flying units. But once that job was done, he wondered if he would ever see the U.S. mainland again.
"I guess they forgot us 'cause we sat there for about two months," he said. "We weren't sure that we'd ever get home."
So, to keep busy, the beach at Umnak became a makeshift target shooting area.
"We made the best of it by working hard and trying to entertain ourselves when we weren't working," Mr. Faber said. "There wasn't much else to do out there."
Not a secret anymore
The Japanese attacked Dutch Harbor in June 1942. Forty-three Americans died -- 33 military and 10 civilians -- and 11 planes from Umnak were lost. Dutch Harbor was the only land in North America, besides Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, that was bombed by Japanese Zeros during World War II. Few Americans knew any of this because military officials restricted the media from covering operations in Alaska.
"Once the Japanese saw it was there, there was no point in keeping it a secret anymore," Mr. Faber said.
Japanese troops occupied two Aleutian islands -- Kiska and Attu, just a few hundred miles from Umnak. The Alaska conflict was brief. It was a little-known segment of a larger war, with the weather proving to be the most powerful enemy. But some historians say it marked the turning point of the Pacific war.
Mr. Faber keeps the experience in perspective.
"That was tough duty, and when it was my time I was ready to head home," he said. "But I have some pretty good memories of my times in the Aleutians."
Note: This article reprinted from Airman magazine, June, 2003.