Aleutian Islands, Adak & Kiska Memories by Bill Fry 1943/44
69th Coast Artillery- Automatic Weapons
At Fort Ord, Ca. we were issued arctic clothing before we boarded a train for San Francisco and directly to dockside of our troop ship. There was no way for anyone to let our loved ones know our whereabouts.
It was about a 10 day zigzag trip through a heavy Williwaw storm, an introduction to what we would experience later on the Island of Kiska. Our first stop was Adak Island where we would receive training how to fight on tundra covered hillsides with very few boulders, no trees or natural terrain for cover. Adak was already established and secured as an all service military base. The airport, I was told, was previously a lake and after sounding the bottom found it to be fairly level so it was drained into the ocean. It was shaped into a sizeable air field with landing mats for runways and taxiways. I thought that was a good piece of engineering and was of special interest to me as that is what I became under the GI Bill after the war.
We stayed there for several weeks getting accustomed to the strange environment. We set up our guns in a wide open area with a good sweeping view to be on the look out for enemy planes. Never saw a Japanese plane, but, we did get to practice tracking our own SBD dive bombers as they arrived by island hopping or from carriers. One day one came in very low, so low it appeared to be on a crash course and sure enough it crashed about 200 feet behind our bivouacked area. Something actuated the planes machine guns. The tundra was quite heavy with very little noise. Some of our people were in their tents and only heard gun fire and thought the Japanese had arrived. They came out of the tents with rifles ready only to find what had happened. Several rushed to see if they could help the pilot. Sure enough they were able to rescue him. He survived but pretty well bruised. The tundra cushioned the impact. There were a few guys sitting on the multiple holed latrines who came running out without completing the paper work or buttoning up. It was a funny sight for those of us watching as we were aware of the situation.
It all happened very quickly. Needless to say there were a lot of mixed emotions for awhile. One day we had a pretty strong wind but no matter the weather if “you gotta go”, you go. I was one that had to go and while sitting to get the job done one guy had just finished the paper work. The latrine was covered with a four sided tent with side flaps pulled up over the ends of the wooden multiple holes for ventilation. The fellow that had just finished the paper work, dropped the paper in the hole and soon the wind blew it up thru an empty hole, circled around and stuck him on the face.
It seemed like there were funny situations happening now and then where we had a good laugh. I really believe that servicemen were blessed with a sense of humor to help break built up anxieties.
Adak was a very busy port due to the build up in preparation for the invasion of Kiska. Weather was fairly good so pilots flying shuttle bombing of Kiska via Attu but during inclement weather it was tricky finding their home field without instrument assistance.
We had training that was mostly how to deal with the terrain and the elements. Tundra was difficult to move around in quickly. It was wonderful as a mattress for sleeping. It was good as camouflage material. The only protection from enemy fire was digging fox holes and that was a big problem as the soil was always saturated with water that had to be bailed out often. The helmets were a readily available vessel to scoop with.
We hoped we wouldn’t have to use the fox hole as they would be easy to spot by the enemy. Fortunately we never had to do that, to be explained later.
The day came to depart for the invasion. My gun squad and others set our guns on the top deck of the ship we came on. We were to watch for low flying aircraft that might be aiming at our ship. Other gun squads set up on shore to protect troops and supply dumps. We never saw any enemy airplanes,
Now the wait began, wondering how things were going on the island (Kiska). Once a day the Chaplain would come by and give a report. I think it was the second day he reported the ground troops had encountered small arms fire; about the third day we got a report that there were some casualties. As it turned out those casualties were the result of some one firing blindly causing others to get “trigger happy”, setting off panic. We heard there were about 150 friendly troops killed.
It was soon discovered that there were no Japanese on the island. The theory was that they had been evacuated by submarine as the island had been surrounded for a long time by the Navy. Our Navy had not sounded the waters. The Japanese apparently had and found the necessary passages to escape undetected. This was the report we got.
Needless to say the commanders had mixed feelings about it but the troops feelings were one of celebration.
It was now a time to wait for further orders. While waiting the Chaplain came by the ship and told us that our Captain and two lieutenants were missing. So our 1st lieutenant and some sergeants went looking for them. They were found safe in a cave with food and ammunition. This discovery spread like wild fire within our organization. It was amazing no one ever reported it to higher authorities even when we returned to the states (48 at that time.) I’m not sure what it was that we all seemed to join in a secret pact to not let it be known to higher authorities. Whether it was esprit-de-corps or just watching the captain sweat. It was a situation where it was the rank that was honored.
When it was determined the island was secure we set up in gun positions at strategic points around the island in the typical army 4 sided tents. We had to dig our tents in the hillside near the gun positions. One day we were digging and decided to take a break. During the break we heard explosions, but knew to expect them as the ordinance people were locating dud bombs from the bombings and shelling of the island prior to the invasion so thought nothing of it.
Well, when we went back to our digging I started to dig and my pick hit something metal. I discovered a piece of shrapnel about a foot long and 2 inches in diameter. It had a fresh break look to it. And we had heard a whistling sound right after one of the explosions. I didn’t look to see if my number was on it. I just offered a prayer of thanks
The weather wasn’t all that cold but we had to be aware of the Williwaws. And we did get one. We anchored our tents in four directions with cables and built parapets around the tents and above the flat sides so that about 3 feet of the peak of the tent was above the parapet. One time we got a 12 inch snow, but was followed by rain that left a quagmire where the tundra had been removed for roads etc. All vehicles had to be tracked. Wheeled vehicles were useless.
After one snowstorm where Kiska and surrounding visible volcanic peaks were all covered. There was the most beautiful sight. There was no moon, but the white peaks were rising out of the ink-black ocean. There wasn’t a sound and the stillness left a feeling of peace and calm. The thoughts of a world at war could not invade the moment.
I have experienced many beautiful scenes of God’s creation with unbelievable color and I am always left with a feeling of awe. The one I described of Kiska, in black and white, has given me a mental picture that I cannot adequately describe.
I was very fortunate to escape action and was glad to experience that part of the world. An image that will always be with me.
We left Kiska Christmas eve 1943 and had Christmas dinner aboard ship in Dutch Harbor. On to Kodiak Alaska for about 4 months and then back to Seattle, Camp Hahn Ca.; then to Mississippi to be trained as combat engineers. In the spring of 1945 we went to France where two weeks later the Germans surrendered.
On to Marseille France to wait for a ship to take us to the Philippines for the invasion of Japan. There they dropped the “A bomb”. Back to the good old USA for discharge.
I never had to shoot at anyone and never got shot at for which I will ever be thankful. There was a time I felt guilty that I escaped action and some of my friends didn’t and some gave their lives. I finally realized that I was a draftee and my life was in the hands of “others”.
I am grateful for the experience as it has had a big impact on my life. As of this writing I am 90 years young and living in Albuquerque, N.M.