Kenai Fjords
A Stern and Rock-Bound Coast: Historic Resource Study
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Chapter 8:

World War II Activities in Seward

During the 1930s, Japan became increasingly militaristic; in 1931 it invaded Manchuria, in 1934 it denounced the five-nation Naval Disarmament Treaty of 1922, and in 1936 it allowed the treaty to lapse. War clouds grew, both in Europe and the Pacific, and on September 1, 1939, World War II began in Europe. In order to be prepared for war, Alaska's Congressional Delegate, Anthony Dimond, repeatedly urged Congress to fund the construction of military bases in the increasingly vulnerable territory. Congress, however, refused. Thus when Germany invaded Poland, Alaska had only one small military installation: Chilkoot Barracks, an army detachment near Haines. This post was more than a thousand miles away from the Aleutian Islands, the most likely Japanese target.

The war in Europe finally goaded Congress into action. Congress authorized three Alaska naval bases; work began at Sitka and Kodiak in 1939 and at Dutch Harbor in 1940. Congress dragged its feet on further Alaska appropriations until Germany invaded Scandinavia in the spring of 1940. The recognition that Alaska lay within striking distance of Nazi bombers spurred further activity, and during the summer of 1940 Army bases were laid out near both Anchorage and Fairbanks. A series of airfields linking interior Alaska with bases in southern Canada, along the so-called Northwest Staging Route, was authorized in 1940 and either constructed or expanded in 1941.

After the summer of 1940, the nation increasingly prepared for war, and as a part of the military buildup, millions of dollars were expended in Alaska to develop a stronger defense infrastructure. Because of that buildup, the U.S. government was fairly well prepared for war on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered World War II.

Seward, at the southern end of the Alaska Railroad, was the linchpin for the only railroad–and the only year-round route–connecting the major shipping lanes with Alaska's two largest air bases. The town and bay, therefore, held enormous strategic value. In order to protect Seward, its port and rail facilities, and the enormous traffic that passed through, the U.S. Army Air Corps established Fort Raymond. [13] The fort consisted of the Seward garrison, just north of town; a dock and adjacent housing area for the stevedores, on the northeastern outskirts of town; and a fuel oil storage area, just south of the garrison. The fort was named for Capt. Charles W. Raymond, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Raymond had ascended the Yukon River to Fort Yukon in 1869. It was he who determined that the fort lay in Alaska; he convinced the Hudson's Bay Company personnel there that the post had been illegally established, and the traders vacated the post soon afterward. [14]

The Adjutant General of the Army Corps of Engineers authorized the construction of Fort Raymond on June 4, 1941. A small detail from Fort Richardson, near Anchorage, began preparing the site soon afterward. In late June, the first large troop complement left Seattle; it arrived in Seward on June 30. Construction began immediately afterward. Within two days, the fort site was being graded and leveled, and within a week, anti-aircraft gun emplacements were being constructed. [15] The first soldiers were from the Arkansas-based 153rd Infantry Battalion, which guarded ships and patrolled the town. Before long, they were joined by the 420th Coast Artillery, which manned the pillboxes on the beach and furnished the anti-aircraft unit; two port battalions, the 371st and the 260th; the 203rd Station Hospital Force; and the 29th Engineers Battalion. Later, in December 1942, troops from the 267th Coast Artillery (most of whom hailed from Pittsburgh and Baltimore) arrived in Seward. Some of those troops remained in town and were stationed at Fort Raymond. [16]

Living conditions at the fort were crude at first. Troops lived in tents, and until a mess hall was set up, soldiers marched to the supply ships for meals. Meanwhile, construction proceeded quickly; grading was completed by the end of July, and in August the Post Headquarters building was erected. Construction of other buildings followed. By the end of August 1943, the fort's buildings–in the stevedoring area, at the Army dock, the San Juan dock, and the main garrison–had all been completed. The main garrison featured a horseshoe-shaped parade ground; the nearby hospital area had three wards plus numerous associated buildings. [17]

Nine months after Fort Raymond was founded, on March 25, 1942, the troops had their only enemy encounter when they spotted a Japanese submarine within 2,000 yards of Seward's Army Dock. [18] Then, on June 3 and June 4, the Japanese Navy bombed Dutch Harbor. The raid resulted in relatively little damage to either Fort Mears (a U.S. Army post) or the Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base. It did, however, underscore U.S. vulnerability to Japanese attack, and it was also followed soon afterward by the Japanese invasion of Attu and Kiska islands, at the western end of the Aleutian chain.

Perhaps in response to the raid, the U.S. Navy established a Navy Section Base at Seward. Located just north and west of the San Juan dock, the base was commissioned on July 31, 1942, and before long it consisted of four semi-permanent barracks, a seaplane hangar and ramp, and two piers: one 165 feet long, the other 100 feet long. [19]

Construction continued at Fort Raymond, as noted above, until the summer of 1943. No sooner was construction complete, however, than the fort had begun to lose its strategic value. Allied troops, in May 1943, successfully landed on Attu Island. Three weeks of hard fighting ensued, and by May 30, Japanese forces had been driven off the island. At Kiska Island, Allied forces launched a major assault on August 15. Surprisingly, they found no resistance; only later did they discover that the Japanese had evacuated the island in late July. Allied forces, once again, controlled the Aleutian Islands, and with action shifted to other theatres of operation, military commanders began to de-emphasize the importance of Fort Raymond and other Alaskan bases.

The Navy, perhaps because of higher priorities elsewhere, began to downsize its Seward facility even before the May campaign to retake Attu had begun. On April 1, 1943, the Section Base became a Naval Auxiliary Air Facility. Naval troops left town during June and July. On July 29, all naval activities at the facility were discontinued and the site was turned over to the U.S. Coast Guard. [20]

U.S. Army units began to leave Seward even before the Navy did so. In mid-March 1943, three battalions of the 153rd Infantry were sent to a camp in Mississippi, and before the end of the month the 420th Infantry had transferred to a camp in California. Other battalions of the 153rd Infantry continued to leave during the summer, and in October the 267th Artillery, which had been in Seward less than a year, took over the fort's administrative functions. [21]

By the spring of 1944, Alaska's defense network was considered sufficiently secure that further cutbacks were in order. On March 25, therefore, the Alaskan Department Headquarters of the U.S. War Department ordered that the entire Seward harbor defense network be dismantled. Two months later, all harbor entrance control post functions stopped. In response to those orders, most of those constituting the 267th Coast Artillery left Seward on August 28, 1944 and headed to a camp in Texas. A few troops, however, remained in town until 1945. [22]

After the war, Fort Raymond was a vacant government post until October 1947, when it was sold by the War Assets Administration to the private sector. [23] Just three years later, however, the military changed course when it established a U.S. Army Recreation Center on a small portion of the former fort. The recreation center, used by troops from Whittier and Fort Richardson, offered boats and barges for deep sea fishing. The center has utilized the site ever since. Sometime later, the U.S. Air Force moved to establish a similar facility. The two centers were merged in 1989; they now operate as the Seward Military Recreation Camp. [24]

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002