Early Friday morning, we drove south from Seward to Lowell Point along the western shore of Resurrection Bay, named by Alexander Baranov, manager of the Russian-American Company (effectively the first governor of Russian America), after having been driven by a storm into this safe harbor and surviving to see Easter Sunday, 1792. I suspect that if I looked hard enough I’d discover that the storm was a Good Friday event.
We were spending the day kayaking and then hiking to Fort McGilvray on Caines Head. That’s the town of Seward off in the distance in the photo below, taken from Miller’s Landing fish camp on Lowell’s Point, our starting point.
There were plenty of fishermen already out, participating in Alaska’s oldest fishing tournament, the Seward Silver Salmon Derby, then underway in the Bay. Just after launching, Dale spotted a sea lion up ahead.
There were seven of us on this outing and we were all in tandem kayaks, with the exception of our guide, Maddie, a recent college graduate from Oregon. It was a calm, clear morning with a favorable ebb tide.
We paddled 5.2 miles to the remains of Fort McGilvray’s North Beach Dock, abandoned after WWII and destroyed by the tsunami resulting from the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964 that all but destroyed the town of Seward and resulted in 13 deaths there. We beached our kayaks, then began the 2 mile hike up to the fort.
Every historically-literate American knows that the United States entered WWII as a result of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, “a date that will live in infamy.” But few are aware that the Japanese also bombed, invaded and occupied Alaska – another American Territory – a mere six months later.
America’s non-combat entry into WWII preceded those attacks with congressional enactment of FDR’s Lend-Lease program in March 1941 by which the United States supplied food, oil and war materiel, including ships, vehicles and planes, to the Allies, primarily Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union. Everyone knows about the shipments to Britain, but, again, few are aware that 5,000 aircraft were shipped under that program from the contiguous United States to the USSR by way of Canada to Alaska, then on through Siberia, the Soviet pilots being trained by American flyers in Fairbanks.
I have previously discussed the U.S. Army’s building of the Alaskan Highway and its extension of the Alaska Railroad to the harbor at Whittier via tunnel, both of which were already underway when the Japanese attacked Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in June 1942. The invasion started with the bombing of Dutch Harbor from two Japanese aircraft carriers, followed a few days later by the landing of Japanese troops on the far western islands of Attu and Kiska. These islands are closer to Japan than they are to the contiguous United States by more than a thousand miles. Some historians believe that the Japanese occupied the islands to prevent the U.S. from using them as forward bases for an invasion of Japan, while others believe the attack was a feint to distract from Japan’s real strategic target in the Pacific, Midway Island, within bomber range of Hawaii. Whatever the reason, the United States was caught flat-footed, realizing too late that its Alaska Territory was essentially undefended.
The military launched into high gear, ultimately constructing nearly 300 military installations in Alaska, one of the first being forward defenses for the important all-weather port and railroad terminal at Seward.
Construction on Caines Head began within a month of the invasion of Attu with the building of the North Beach Dock and a road from there to the headland. Before a year had passed, a battery of two 6-inch guns and several ammunition magazines had been installed at Caines Head, officially named Fort McGilvray on March 23, 1943.
On Attu Island, U.S. forces counter-attacked on May 11, 1943, with an amphibious landing of 11,000 troops, over-running the Japanese defenses. Of the more than 2,300 Japanese soldiers on Attu Island, all but 28 were killed or committed suicide. The U.S. sustained nearly 4,000 casualties, including 580 killed in combat. Three months later, 34,000 U.S. and Canadian troops landed on Kiska, only to discover that the Japanese had abandoned their defenses there and fled the island under cover of fog. The Aleutian Islands Campaign was over. For the remainder of the war, Alaska was forgotten. In April 1944, Fort McGilvray was abandoned.
We wandered around the now crumbling fortifications,…
… taking time for lunch at the East Gun Block. The 6-inch gun that was installed here had a range of a little over 15 miles.
We returned to the kayaks and then to Lowell Point. The day’s milestones: a hike of 4.2 miles; 10.5 miles kayaking; and, the last time I will be in a tandem kayak.
Although we were all smiles, next time it will be two if by sea.
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