Jason Rogers | PhD: Northern Land Use Research Alaska, LLC, Senior Project Archaeologist
The landscape of Shemya Island in the western Aleutian chain is dominated by military structures, many of which date from the Second World War. The western Aleutians were of considerable strategic importance to the United States during this period due to their proximity to Japan. In June, 1942, Dutch Harbor on the island of Unalaska was attacked by bombers and fighter aircraft of the Japanese Imperial Navy. Just days later, the islands of Kiska and Attu were occupied by Japanese forces. In the spring of 1943, military commanders decided to establish an air base in the western Aleutians to provide fighter protection for troops attempting to reoccupy the islands. Shemya Island was chosen for its relatively flat geography, and for its proximity to Attu. In May 1943, during the U.S. campaign to retake Attu Island the U.S. Army began work on a secret air base at Shemya. Between June and August 1943, runways for fighters and bombers, with hangars and other support facilities, were constructed. Between 1943 and 1945 the airfield was used to launch bombing raids on Japanese military targets in the northern Kurile Islands. During this period, Shemya also played a role in the WWII Lend-Lease program as a refueling stop for planes en route from North America to Siberia.
While many of the large structures such as aircraft hangars were recorded and documented for historic preservation purposes in the 1990s, the extensive remains of defensive fortifications remained uninvestigated. In May 2015, historical background and field investigations of WWII-period defensive fortifications on Shemya Island were undertaken at the request of the U.S. Air Force.
The WWII-period sites documented for this project were classified into two general categories: Pillbox Bunkers (20) and Gun Emplacement and Fire Control Complexes (7). Bunkers were further classified as machine-gun pillboxes (Figure 1) or 37 mm artillery bunkers (Figure 2). Gun emplacements consist of large anti-aircraft complexes (Figure 3), and 155 mm coastal defense complexes.
Figure 1. Machine-gun pillbox.
Figure 2. 37 mm artillery bunker.
Figure 3. 90 mm fixed mount gun emplacement, part of a large anti-aircraft complex.
The military constructed Shemya’s defensive fortifications with three main objectives: 1) to defend the island from waterborne invasion; 2) to defend the island from marine bombardment; and 3) to defend the island’s facilities from aerial bombing or strafing. The types of defense systems and their spatial arrangement on the island correspond to these objectives. Pillbox bunkers were primarily directed against the possibility of invasion via landing craft and personnel. The 155 mm coastal defense batteries were primarily directed against battleships and other foreign marine fleet elements. Anti-aircraft complexes were intended to protect the island – especially the runway – from aerial bombardment and strafing.
Individual elements of defensive fortifications were designed, built, and integrated as components of a larger system. Understanding how each feature was situated on the landscape, and how each was meant to coordinate with the others, is important to gaining an understanding of the whole system. Patterns in the location and positioning of the various defensive fortification types correlate topographically to the landscape of Shemya Island (Figure 4). The flat-topped seamount presents an inclined planar geography, generally sloping gently upward from south to north. Bluffs on the island’s southern side average 6 to 8 m in elevation, while the high cliffs on the northern side reach 75 m. Machine gun and 37 mm artillery pillbox bunkers are concentrated on the more accessible south and west coasts, with concentrated coverage of shallow coves and beaches, as well as the island’s only harbor. Anti-aircraft and fire control positions are located at higher elevations at regular intervals along the length of the island, paralleling the main runway. The 90 mm guns situated in the anti-aircraft emplacements could also be used against ground targets if required. The two large 155 mm coastal defense positions are set on the northern cliffs – the island’s highest points. A single machine gun pillbox controls the only road leading from the sea level strand flats to the cliff tops on the north side of the island.
Figure 4. Spatial patterning of Shemya Island’s WWII defensive fortification systems.
1988 The Forgotten War. Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Missoula, MT.
Rogers, Jason S., Morgan Blanchard, and Roberta Gordaoff
2015 Survey and Documentation of World War II Defensive Fortifications at Eareckson Air Station, Shemya Island, Alaska. Report prepared for Baer Engineering and U.S. Air Force 611 CES. Northern Land Use Research Alaska LLC, Anchorage.
Ross, James L.
1969 Construction and Operation of a World War II Army Air Force Forward Base: Shemya, Alaska, May 1943 – December 1945. Office of History, Alaskan Air Command, Anchorage.
Header image: Agattu Island from Shemya, with anti-aircraft gun emplacement in the foreground.