World War II at Sitka National Historical Park
AS it did in communities across Alaska, World War II forever changed the face of Sitka. Some of these changes reached within the protected boundaries of the park, a portion of which was under the control of the U.S. War Department between 1942 and 1947.  Where the park had been valued for its scenic and historical attributes, the early 1940s brought a new set of values. These were the emergence of Indian River gravel as a strategically important resource for military construction and the fact that the park's harbor-facing shoreline, still widely known as Lovers' Lane, was also an ideal location for an anti-aircraft coast defense site.
The activities that took place in the park, like those at a number of coastal locations around Sitka, were sidelights to the military activity taking place on the islands offshore. The epicenter was the construction of a system of coast and harbor defenses that included Alaska's first Naval Air Station (on Japonski Island), Fort Ray, an installation for the defense of the air station and harbor (on Alice and Charcoal Islands), and Fort Rousseau, U.S. Army coastal defense headquarters (on Makhnati Island). The most dramatic feature of this complex was the 8,100-foot long causeway, a rock-filled roadway linking the three into one of the largest coast and harbor defense systems in Alaska. Today the complex is a National Historical Landmark. 
The impact that this construction had on the park was substantial. Large volumes of gravel were needed for cement manufacturing. The mouth of the river just bordering on the park boundary was already the site of a municipal gravel pit when the Navy, through defense contractor Siems Drake, began dredging there in early 1940. The Navy soon requested permission to expand the pit and the operation slowly worked its way into the park. 
The operation included a dragline with a one-yard bucket, rock crushers and sorting screens. The gravel was hauled by truck to the harbor and then barged across the channel to Japonski Island. It is estimated that military use eventually extracted 100 million cubic yards of gravel from the river, including an entire forested island. As a result, the river channel became straighter, deeper and more prone to erosion. A manmade terrace at the mouth of the river, marking the location of the dredge, can still be seen today. 
These events coincided with the arrival of Ben C. Miller, the first full time, on-site National Park Service manager for the park. Custodian Miller was a career park service ranger and under his tenure the park slowly began to assume more of a National Park identity. Newly arrived in Sitka, Miller found himself in the middle of a "boom town". The influx of military and civilian construction workers pouring into Sitka made finding a place to live almost impossible; landlords were receiving from four to ten applicants for every available house. He quickly found himself assuming a kind of generic federal civilian presence in town, filling a position on the draft board and taking an active role in civil defense planning. At one point he proposed that the park could provide a refuge for townspeople in the event of a bombing raid. 
Miller could do little more than monitor the progression of the gravel removal as it extended into the park and submit frequent reports on the operation. He acknowledged the importance of the gravel to the defense effort but as the dredging continued he grew increasingly concerned about the impacts. By June 1942 he warned that if the gravel removal continued to expand, even the site of the historic Tlingit-Russian Battle of 1804 would be threatened. 
Among the troops arriving in Sitka in 1941 were two military units that would be assigned to active duty in the park. Both were National Guard units called into active duty and sent to Alaska via Fort Lewis, Washington. The 205th CA (AA), a coast artillery anti-aircraft unit from Washington State, arrived in Sitka in August 1941. Company K of the 20101 Infantry Regiment, a field artillery regiment from West Virginia, transferred to Fort Lewis in August 1941, arriving in Alaska that September.
The first references to troop activity in the park occurred in October 1941 when Custodian Miller reported that a guard tent had been established in the park for the men protecting the gravel plant against sabotage.  By December the 205th CA (AA) had established a temporary antiaircraft observation post in the monument, near the replica blockhouse and Company K of the 201st Infantry had moved the tent occupied by the gravel operation's guards to higher ground in response to tide-influenced flooding.  Other facilities mentioned included a mess hall, barracks, and fire control station. Although no physical evidence has ever been found, one park service document suggests that there may also have been an ammunition dump within the park. 
On May 30th 1942, under the command of Colonel John E. Copeland, then Commanding Officer of Fort Ray, the 205th abruptly occupied 14 acres of the park, closing it off to civilian use. The closed area included "that part of the monument on the west side of the Indian River, from the second cross footpath to the mouth of the river." Although he had known in advance that the military might request use of the park, Miller described the actual takeover as "sudden and unexpected." As he later sat preparing his report on these events, Miller noted that reports of an attack on Dutch Harbor were just being received. 
At some point during the occupation of the park a series of earthen gun emplacements or revetments, still faintly visible today, were constructed along the park shoreline. The revetments are clearly two different sizes. Five of the features are consistent with 50mm machine guns, but two larger, horseshoe-shaped features may have held 37mm antiaircraft guns. 
Although the park remained far from active military engagement, two servicemen did lose their lives while on duty there. In September 1942 a torrential flood, perhaps intensified by the dredging, tore through the park, washing out a suspension footbridge and a Navy-built vehicle bridge. The men, identified only as Sergeant Riley and Private Westfall, had been patrolling the area to warn approaching cars and people away from the area and were apparently on the footbridge when it gave way. Frank Smith, a Navy enlisted man, was also washed into the river but survived. The force of the flood caused considerable damage to the park, including washing the Trader Legend pole, the only totem pole ever displayed on the eastern side of the park, out to sea. A Navy boat later recovered the pole and towed it back to the park where soldiers from Fort Ray helped pull it to dry ground. 
The rest of the war passed fairly quietly for the park. By 1943 the pace of military construction, and the need for gravel, was winding down. In August 1943, about the time that civilian travel restrictions were eased, the park was reopened to the public and recreational use of the park slowly began to resume. Between February and May 1944, soldiers from Fort Ray removed the temporary buildings and attempted to restore the impacted areas of the monument. Indian River, however, could never be restored to its pre-war condition. Efforts to monitor and control erosion, including an extensive rip rap installation in the 1980s, continue today.
Last Updated: 20-Feb-2012