Thursday, April 17, 2008

2 by 4 Miles of Nothing

Shemya is about 1,500 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska, a tiny dot near the end of the Aleutian chain of islands that points toward ... where else? ... Russia, or, at that time, the Soviet Union. Specifically, the Kamchatka Peninsula and their continuation of our Aleutian islands, the Komandorskis (Командорские острова). Technically it is part of the Semichi group of the Near Islands of the Aleutian chain.

Shemya, from space
 Near what isn't specified. It's so far west that it's actually east, at Latitude 52.723193N, Longitude 174.10643E. The International Dateline bends around the end of the chain (at Attu, about 40 miles further west) to keep the islands in a U.S. time zone. Here's what it looks like from space, courtesy of Google. In 1969 it was supposed to be supersecret. Now, with Google, you can zoom right down on it.

Don't let the top picture fool you. This is not a tropical isle. Shemya is tundra. That is, there are no trees on its 2 miles by 4 miles of waste. The only tree I saw in the 11 months, 22 days and some hours that I spent there was the dead Christmas tree on a trash heap behind the NCO club.

Welcome to Shemya
The island had been more-or-less continuously occupied since World War II, when a base was built there while the Japanese were occupying Attu. It is said that 20,000 men were stationed there at one time. We had about one-tenth that number, so proportionately about 1,000 of those guys went completely nuts. For a long time it was a refueling stop for Northwest Orient Airlines flights to the far east.

I saw 4 different women during that year. One was a 70-year-old Aleut librarian, a couple were whores who came out on the weekly mail plane, and one came with a USO show. The saying goes that there's a woman behind every tree on Shemya. Lame joke.

A barge that didn't make it
The island was supplied once a year by barge, and weekly by planes of Reeve Aleutian Airways. Robert Reeve started the company years ago as a famed bush pilot, and, at least while I was there, he must have still been hiring bush pilots. Weather on Shemya was atrocious at best. I once watched a 4-engine Reeve plane come in over the sea to the south of the island and land by moving almost laterally in the wind.

Reeve Aleutian Airways
It never got really cold on the island, for the same reason that we rarely saw stars or blue sky: the warm Japan current on the south meeting the cold air over the Bering Sea to the north made for clouds low and high, and lots of wind (which, for some reason, never seemed to blow the fog and clouds away). We had snow, but little of it ever stayed on the ground, because the wind blew it all away so quickly.

Look Ma, no trees!

We 7 actually arrived there on an Alaska Airlines 727 out of Elemendorf AFB; I never actually got to ride on a Reeve flight. We collected at Fort Richardson next door to Elmendorf until it was time to go west. We were at Fort Rich at the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, when we could play softball at midnight. The takeoff from Elemendorf was memorable. It was early in the morning and we flew by Mt. McKinley (now Denali) as the sun came up behind it. It was almost the last sun we saw for a year.

Related to what we did, in winter
That was still part of the cold war, but I can't say that we did anything remarkable to help win it. I don't suppose I'm allowed to talk much about what we did there even now, although there's plenty on the Internet, and the technology we used was obsolete even then (but so was the Russians'). The Veteran's History Project doesn't want our stories; the cold war wasn't interesting enough. I think we got an extra $16 a month for being out there. Given that it was cold and there were no women, it's astonishing that more guys didn't volunteer to go to Vietnam.

Would you have wanted to come back ...

The Army didn't like to give anyone leave during a Shemya assignment, since they were often very reluctant to go back to finish the year.

... to this?
(Besides, it was officially an Air Force station, and the birdmen didn't get leave either.)
One of our small group did get off the island, back to California to deal with a family problem. He actually re-enlisted to keep from going back, even though he was one of the least military of the bunch.

In later years I met several people who had been on Shemya at various times. I worked with a programmer who had been there with General Electric as a civilian not long before I was there. The civilian support people were paid very well to go there, and, since there was no place to spend it, they left comparatively well off.

Typical scene

The island was literally a dump. Anything that was shipped there stayed there. It was too expensive to remove it. So there were enormous piles of 55-gallon oil drums, and huge dumps of expensive electronics. I understand that in recent years there has been an effort to clean it up. What for? Nobody wants to go there.

Rivetball down
Remember Korean Airlines flight 007, shot down by Soviet interceptors in 1983? It was apparently mistaken for one of the reconnaissance planes that flew out of Shemya. There were two based on the island when we were there, and both of them crashed that year. One went down in the Bering Sea with 19 aboard, all lost.

Boozer at his post
I watched that one take off that morning. I remember it because it was a beautiful, almost clear morning. The other plane skidded off the 10,000-foot runway and broke in half. Boozer also died that year. 1968-1969 was not a good year for Shemya.

Typical smokehouse

During WWII, most everyone was housed in quonset huts out on the tundra. The way the tundra grass grows in the short summers out there, by the time we got there most of the huts had sunk into the permafrost. Some of them had been renovated and were used as "smokehouses" for various groups on the island. A smokehouse was really a small, private bar.

We all lived in one humongous structure called the "composite building." There were other buildings in the complex for the NCO club, the bowling alley, movie theater and craft shop (I still have a ceramic Buddha Tom made).

Shemya fox

There was a modest amount of wildlife on the island. Walruses could often be seen on the "beaches," but weren't often approached closely; they could be mean suckers. There were also the tundra foxes, small, dark foxes with bright orange eyes. Most of them were quite tame. They liked french fries and often hung around the back door of the NCO club waiting for handouts. Unfortunately, a finger looks a little like a french fry to a fox, so we had a few bites.

About 12 miles to the south, part of the Near Islands, but not in the Semichi group, floated Aggatu, uninhabited, but mystical to me. It reminded me of Laputa, from Gulliver's Travels. Aggatu seemed to float in a cushion of cloud on the sea.

Wildflowers - It wasn't like this!

We wore uniforms all the time up there, of course. Why bother with anything else? Otherwise, it wasn't terribly military. How could they punish us? Send us off the island for court martial? We had one exercise when we were issued rifles (no bullets) to go sit on the cliffs on the island's north side to watch for Soviet invaders.

Feel the cold!
That was just plain dumb, since we knew that if war came we would be considered expendable anyway. We also had an opportunity to re-qualify with the M-14 rifle (with bullets). That was dumb, too. The wind was so strong that you couldn't hit anything more than 16 inches away. So we shot at seagulls.

Otherwise there wasn't much to do but work, eat and sleep. And when it was over, we flew back to Anchorage on an Air Force C-141 (sitting facing backwards) by way of Adak. Adak was a much bigger island, with a Navy base, and families. The plane came out to Shemya first, and on the ride to Adak we had our first look at little people in a year (not to mention their mommies).

A few days in Anchorage, again on the longest day of the year—and one of the hottest in many years, with not an air conditioner in sight—and we were flown to Fort Lewis, Washington, and from there immediately to Sea-Tac airport for flights elsewhere. Tom and I flew back east together. It was a Sunday flight, so we had the Sunday funny papers. The plane was nearly empty, so we slept a good part of the trip. And to be awakened for landing by a lovely stewardess offering orange juice was heaven.

Those of us from Shemya, and a few others of the original 27, were collected together again for the final 9 months until discharge in the Spring of 1970. We worked as uniformed personnel at National Security Agency headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland.

I was mustered out at Fort Meade exactly 4 years from the day I joined up.