World War Two-period Defensive Fortifications at Eareckson Air Station, Shemya Island

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 1Figure 1. Machine-gun pillbox.

Figure 2Figure 2. 37 mm artillery bunker.

Figure 3Figure 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 4Figure 4. Spatial patterning of Shemya Island’s WWII defensive fortification systems.


Cohen, Stan

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.


The Seal Stone Enigma

Author: Allison Young McLain

The Seal Stone Petroglyph

Photograph by Lawrence Burr.


Sea Stone Picture

Drawing by Mareca Guthrie.

In September 2010, Billy Jamieson, an antique dealer from Toronto contacted the University of Alaska Museum of the North for help identifying a “basalt carving that has turned up in California”. According to the owners the carving, weighing 240 pounds, was collected on an Air Force Base near Attu Island, an identification that could only refer to Shemya Island.

Nothing like it has ever been reported from anywhere in Alaska and the carvings bear a strong resemblance to petroglyphs from the Northwest Coast of North America. The owners called it the Seal Stone because they thought it looked like a seal with eyes, nostrils, ears, and a mouth carved on one end.

I have worked for nearly 35 years with Unangaxˆ artifacts and art objects. I had also documented petroglyph sites while working in the Tongass National Forest, and had studied NW coast art at the University of British Columbia. I was asked to determine the stone’s authenticity, and, if possible, the cultural affiliation through examination of the motifs and style of the petroglyphs.

To make the study I compared photographs and drawings of Arctic and Northwest Coast petroglyphs with a drawing and 30 photographs of the Seal Stone taken by Mareca Guthrie at the Museum.

The Seal Stone has a wealth of figures pecked into one surface and two sides of the stone. In addition to the seal face I identified:

   Sea Otter

   Birds

   Phalluses and Female Genitalia

   Human Faces, Wide-Open eyes, and Spirals

   a cetacean

   a sea monster

   a bird head with teeth or a human form

   a Northwest Coast style Copper.

There no doubt this is a genuine artifact. The edges of the grooves that form the motifs are worn and weathered, it takes many years for stone to acquire this weathered look. Additionally, a forger would have had to know enough about Arctic petroglyphs to include motifs tantalizingly similar to other petroglyphs but not similar enough to establish a regional provenance for the stone. If the owner or antique dealer made up the origin story that placed this stone on Shemya, someone did their homework on the Aleutian Islands, Alaskan airbases, and timeframe in which a petroglyph of this size could feasibly have been removed and transported to the Lower 48.

The motifs on the Seal Stone are almost identical to Unangaxˆ motifs found in ivory, stone, bone and wood carvings, yet are just different enough from other Arctic petroglyph motifs to place the Seal Stone within the realm of Unangaxˆ art.  Plus there is an uncanny similarity between the motifs and the magical guises, spirit protectors and demons described in Unangaxˆ folklore.

Throughout Aleut folklore there is a central theme of the transformative power that Unangaxˆ people believed existed between themselves and the creatures in their world. The Seal Stone is a powerful artifact combining many important motifs in Aleut spirituality. These motifs represent the transformative relationship between Aleuts and sea mammals, birds, and other animals.

Modern Shipwrecks on Shemya Island

Author: Jason Rogers, PhD: Northern Land Use Research Alaska, LLC, Senior Project Archaeologist

The Aleutian chain is the final resting place for literally hundreds of wrecked vessels (over 180 wrecks are listed in a compilation prepared by staff of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge). The earliest recorded shipwreck in the Aleutians is that of Vitus Bering’s vessel Sv. Petr, returning to Kamchatka on his initial voyage of exploration. The Sv. Petr wrecked on the island that would later bear Bering’s name, and where the explorer himself died. In modern times, the Aleutian chain is frequented by numerous fishing vessels, and transited by thousands of cargo ships every year on the ‘Great Circle’ route between Asia and North America. Grounding, stranding, and wrecking are still all too common events, occasionally with disastrous consequences- a recent example is that of the Malaysian freighter Selandang Ayu, which lost power and was driven aground at Skan Bay on the northwest coast of Unalaska Island in 2004. Six crewmembers died during the event, and 350,000 gallons of diesel and bunker oil were released, requiring a major clean-up along many miles of remote oiled coastline.

In June 2014, historical background and field investigations of two modern period shipwrecks at Eareckson Air Station on Shemya Island were undertaken at the request of the U.S. Air Force (Rogers 2014). Although no removal or salvage is currently contemplated, the USAF PACAF Regional Support Center Cultural Resources Program Manager requested the inventory and evaluation for responsibilities under section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act. The vessels investigated are Barge No. 18, a tank barge situated above the high-tide line on a sand and gravel beach on the north side of the island; and F/V Opty, a commercial fishing vessel lodged on a rocky point at the northwest end of the island.

Barge No. 18.

Barge No. 18.

Barge No. 18 is a 275-foot long steel-hulled tank barge built in Alameda, California, in 1957. The barge was in tow by the tug Wando in 1958, bringing a cargo of petroleum fuel to supply the Northwest Orient Airlines refueling and operations base on Shemya (1956 – 1961), when she broke loose and grounded. Over the years she was used as a source of scrap metal for various projects on the island, and large amounts of steel were cut and salvaged. As her condition worsened, however, military authorities placed her off limits. The vessel’s current condition is poor, as salvage and corrosion have taken their toll. The physical environment of the cove and beach has changed greatly since the grounding in 1958. Historic photos show the vessel’s stern completely exposed and resting on a rocky substrate. Over the past 56 years, sand accumulation has buried the entire starboard side to the deck level, and the stern is exposed for only two feet above the level of the sand. The landform on the vessel’s port (landward) side appears stabilized by thick vegetation growth, although the starboard (seaward) side is still active and impacted by wave action. Despite salvage and exposure Barge No. 18 is for the most part stable and not in danger of structural collapse.

F/V Opty.

F/V Opty.

The 139-foot F/V Opty was built as on offshore supply vessel (OSV) in 1970, in Jennings, Louisiana. She was christened Flying Diamond 2, and used to support the offshore oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico. In the mid-1980s she was converted to a commercial fishing vessel and renamed Opty. In December 1988, she was fishing in the Bering Sea, and had anchored offshore of Shemya Island for the night. Early on a snowy and windy morning their anchor dragged, and the vessel was blown ashore. The vessel took on water, and the crew had to abandon ship. They were hauled onshore by hand lines by fire and security personnel, as Shemya had no water rescue capabilities. All crew members were successfully brought to shore with only minor hypothermia. Approximately 15,000 gallons of fuel was spilled into the ocean. The vessel was driven onto a steep rocky point of land, completely exposed to northerly swells. F/V Opty’s current condition is calamitous – the vessel has been seriously damaged by marine processes, and is approaching the point of total structural collapse. The entire bottom hull is torn out from midships forward, the aft deck has buckled, and much of the vessel’s starboard side is gone as well. F/V Opty’s further disintegration is inevitable as the vessel is further impacted by storms and wave action.

F/V Opty.

F/V Opty.

The disparate rates of vessel disintegration can be directly attributed to their differential exposure to marine processes. Barge No. 18, in a relatively protected cove (and increasingly buried in sandy sediment), shows much slower rates of breakdown than F/V Opty. The total exposure of Opty’s starboard side, as well as the rocky substrate, has resulted in accelerated rates of fragmentation and collapse.

Fig 2 barge


October header image: Barge No. 18 |  Jason Rogers |  Shemya | 2014.