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

The Outer Island Station

The Aircraft Warning Service, part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, received authorization in May 1940 to begin setting up a network of Alaska detector sites. The military's Western Defense Command initially proposed four such sites, and in December 1940, authorization was granted to construct four fixed sites and one mobile site. Three months later, stations were authorized at a minimum of seven additional locations. These stations were designed to give a minimum warning to the approach of hostile aircraft at the territory's three largest Navy bases (at Dutch Harbor, Kodiak, and Sitka) and its two largest Army bases (at Anchorage and Fairbanks). The Western Defense Command, up to this point, did not propose any AWS detector sites in the Seward area.. [42]

detector-site station
The Aircraft Warning Service staffed a detector-site station in the Pye Islands (shown in foreground) from 1942 to 1944. M. Woodbridge Williams/NPS photo, in Alaska Regional Profiles, Southcentral Region, July 1974, 35.

This Army Corps drawing made in 1942, details the layout of the Aircraft Warning Service camp on Outer Island. Army Corps of Engineers Collection, NARA Anchorage.

Following the declaration of war in December 1941, the Commanding General of the Alaska Defense Command was given the authority to immediately construct detector sites as determined by the tactical situation. Soon afterward, new detector sites were established surrounding each major air base in Alaska. Then, in October 1942, the Alaska's Air Defense Plan was expanded to include Very High Frequency stations for local communication with certain friendly aircraft during periods of general radio silence. The construction of the Outer Island Aircraft Warning Service Station, in the Pye Islands 80 miles southwest of Seward, was constructed in response to one of these two initiatives. The station was one of the more than 20 Alaska AWS stations which were either operating or under construction by the end of 1942.. [43]

Contemporary maps and drawings suggest that the Outer Island AWS station was first proposed in June 1942.. [44] By August a small, temporary construction camp had apparently been established at the island's southeastern tip, 325 feet above sea level. Plans were laid out that month for a detector-site complex large enough to house 150 men. The proposed camp, which would be laid out on a south-facing hill, surrounded a small swamp. The camp would consist of a 50-man headquarters building, two 50-man barracks, three 16' x 36' Quonset huts (for materials storage), three latrines, a cold storage building, a powerhouse, and the detector site. Water would be provided by two concrete-lined storage tanks, connected to the camp by water lines. Either underground or overhead power lines connected the powerhouse to each building; the entire camp would be connected to the north side of the island by a 0.6-mile dirt road. The proposed Kitten Pass landing site, at the island's northern end, would have a dock, where two additional 16' x 36' Quonset huts were proposed; the dock, located at the base of a cliff, would connect to the road by means of a short tramway and stairway.. [45]

Construction on the permanent camp closely followed the outlined plans. Much of the camp was built that winter; the communications gear was installed by the Signal Corps, while the buildings and supporting infrastructure were supplied by the Corps of Engineers. The detector site was fully operational by March 1943. By October, the camp had been completed. During that summer or fall, the island saw its only "action" when the commander of a U.S. ship convoy ordered his crew to open fire with its 20mm guns. The detector-site crew, clearly alarmed at the assault, jumped behind sandbags and radioed that they were under attack by a Japanese submarine. The convoy commander was obviously unaware that the island had a fully staffed AWS station. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the incident.. [46]

Kitten Pass stairway
The Kitten Pass stairway, built by military personel in 1942 at the north end of Outer Island. M. Woodbridge Williams photo, NPS/Alaska Area Office print file, NARA Anchorage.

Little is known about the lifestyle led by the soldiers stationed on Outer Island. One anecdote suggests that many soldiers, either out of frustration or boredom, killed hundreds of sea lions at their rookeries while out on patrol. Another account states that Outer Island soldiers, like soldiers in many remote areas, were lonely; they thus welcomed the opportunity to socialize with others. Josephine Sather, who lived on nearby Nuka Island, recalled that:

During the war, many young servicemen came here. Many times we've had four or five of them sitting or lying on the carpet with books and newspapers all around them, while still others, perhaps in a real home for the first time since they left their mothers' homes, were writing long-delayed letters to their families. In the summer, when my flowers were at the height of their glory, the first thing these boys would say was "Oh! I wish my mother could see all this!" Then, "May I write a letter? This time I really have something to write about."

In the winter they'd say, "Gee, it's good to get off the boat for a few hours!" I'll always remember one lad who sat on the couch not saying a word, stroking the silky draperies ever so gently, his eyes misty and his thoughts no doubt of home.... They called me mom; and the good will and kind memories they carried away from my home are worth more to me than any monetary consideration.. [47]

It is not known how long soldiers remained on Outer Island. They probably remained at their post until the spring or summer of 1944; then they, like those who were serving at the various Resurrection Bay posts, vacated the area and moved to camps in the States.

The area, not having been withdrawn by the War Department, remained part of the public domain for the duration of the war. When the soldiers left, military officials apparently removed the camp's communication gear and other valuable equipment. They abandoned the various buildings, however.

The camp was quickly forgotten and its material remains soon deteriorated. When the U.S. Geological Survey studied the island in 1951, in conjunction with a topographic map of the area published that year, it made no indication of buildings or other cultural features.. [48]

For the next several decades, few visited or paid attention to the old World War II site. In July 1976, Nina Faust visited the landing site at the northern end of the island as part of a bird survey. While there, she found many remaining artifacts. She noted that:

Remains of an old rail supply line, apparently installed by the Army to bring supplies from the water to a ladder at the base of a trail, are now bent and rusty. Portions of an old, rotten wooden ladder, traversing moss-covered boulders and crevices, still remain. The ladder ascends a steep hillside to an obscure footpath that crosses spectacular cliffs to an observation post on the island's southern plateau.. [49]

Excerpts of Ms. Faust's journal from that visit provide an excellent description of both the landing and camp area:

Friday, July 2, 1976. [We were] left on Outer Island of the Pye Islands to recon the area. We established our camp at the base of a wooden ladder leading to an old WW II bunker. It took some digging to get a level tent area for our supply tent and sleeping tent.

Saturday, July 3. At noon we took off up the mountain above our camp. The bunker trail is very overgrown in some places, very evident in others. The ladder is very rotted in most places where it is even visible. We were not able to trace the trail very far going up mainly because our objective was to reach the top. On the way down we encountered the army trail which indicates that it contours around the side of the hill.

Sunday, July 4. Followed an old army trail to the bunkers on the south point of the island. The old WW II trail was built on a contour around the east side of the island over very steep cliffs and gorges–a very difficult route to have built. We followed the trail the best we could climbing up rotted wood ladders, pushing our way through thick salmon berry bushes and alder. Several times we lost the trail because the vegetation was so thick. Other times we came to a temporary impasse at steep rock walled gorges where the trail once had some kind of suspension bridge. Bits of rotted rope hang on a rusted bracing spike. A giant rusted eyebolt is pounded into the rock before the gorge.... At this first gorge, we were forced to climb up the steep slope pulling ourselves up with vegetation as best as possible, until we were finally higher than the impassible part we had encountered. Further along we lost the trail entirely where it had simply slid down the hill, probably during the '64 earthquake.... Our destination was the plateau above the large puffin colony and the bunker was finally made five hours after starting. The area of former habitation was dangerous walking. Salmonberry bushes were waist to chest high. Stepping on rotten boardwalks between the six buildings was easy to do–so was falling through. There is one quonset hut, one small lookout shelter right next to the cliff, and about 4 other large bunkhouse, dining hall, work area buildings placed around among the trees. They are slowly collapsing as the wood rots away. As there was really nothing left inside, I did not risk the rotten wood. We know they had a generator, probably a well and a small reservoir. It appears to have been a good-sized detachment.. [50]

Many of those who have visited the island since then have also focused on the decaying resources at the north-end landing site. Marge Tillion, who lived on nearby Nuka Island during the early 1980s, noted that it was still possible to ascend the stairs rising from the beach. In 1989, archeologist Mike Yarborough noted that the site consisted of "three flights of log stairs, iron rails, and drilled boulders on or adjacent to a boulder beach at the northeast corner of the island." Yarborough, who was unable to make a land survey, also noted a road cut that "runs up the mountain slope along the southeastern coast of the island" and located an iron cart beside the road.. [51]

National Park Service ranger Mike Tetreau visited the island in 1994. He noted that in the old camp area, salmonberries and other overgrowth had done much to obscure the visible resources. He recalled, however, seeing the remains of at least two large bunkhouse structures and at least two smaller buildings. Of these buildings, perhaps one wall remained standing; all the rest were collapsed. One of the buildings was buttressed with earth mounds. The road that once connected the camp to the landing area was almost if not entirely obscured.. [52]

Illustration by Rockwell Kent from Wilderness, A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska, 1920. The Rockwell Kent Legacies.

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002