Sitka Military History

Here lie the remnants of a high school project on the WW2 defenses of Sitka, Alaska. From 1996-2000 I attended Mt. Edgecumbe High School, which was in a former Naval Air Station. My “Sitka Military History” website was about 25% computer class, 25% history class, and 50% an excuse to get into some off-limits areas.

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The original site is far too dated for me to recreate it fully here. It’s a mess of frames, image maps, animated gifs, and other embarrassing prehistoric technologies. I’ve chosen to ditch the ’90s layout and resurrect some of the more interesting content below. Sadly all the photos are small, because people used to have something called “modems”, and were concerned about bandwidth. I’ve made a few edits to the text below, but most is pulled straight from the old website and may be out of date or incomplete.

Meanwhile, my friend Matthew Hunter has done a much better job of documenting Sitka’s WWII history on his own page, which you can find here.

History of Sitka Area Military Installations

Fort Ray,    Fort Rousseau / Sitka Naval Operating Base,    Fort Babcock,    Fort Pierce

From 1939 to 1944, Sitka was the center of activity for most of the naval and army activity in Southeast Alaska. Fear that the Japanese would invade the United States through Alaska and Canada caused coastal fortifications and airbases to spring up all along the coast of Alaska. The largest of these in Southeast were at Sitka, with several other gun emplacements and air stations in Cross Sound and on Annette Island, protecting the entrances to the inside waters.

Cross Sound Installations:

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George Island possessed a coast artillery position with a 6-inch “Mark X” 1903 cannon. Nearby were a rangefinding post, ammunition magazine, latrine, and likely a crew bunkhouse. A road and earth bridge led across the island to barracks and mess hall on the beach. With no enemy action during the war, the gun crews reportedly used nearby Brady Glacier for target practice. A few structures still remain near the gun position, but the rest of the camp was deconstructed and moved to nearby communities “about 5 minutes after the army left” (according to a local source).

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Nearby Soapstone Cove had a government radio station prior to WWII, and was upgraded with an underground bomb shelter and likely a “base end” spotting station to triangulate ranges for the artillery.

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Present-day visitors will note a decaying pier and large chimney in the woods. Hiking the overgrown trail to Soapstone Point will lead one to the foundation of the lookout post.

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Prewar (1929) photo of the lookout post at Soapstone Point:

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The former cannery at Port Althorp was used as a base for seaplanes, to scout and bomb potential Japanese submarines or ships approaching the area. More information on the area is available here.

Sitka Area

Fort Ray, the original army headquarters in Sitka, and the later completed Harbor Defense Command Post headquarters were both located adjacent to Sitka with road access across causeways and fill to the islands they were built on.

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Sitka area installations included several large underground complexes at various locations, which served as magazines and plotting stations for three 6″ gun batteries of 2 guns apiece. Armored fire-control and command bunkers, or “Base End Stations” dotted the islands in Sitka Sound along with searchlight positions, anti-aircraft posts, radar antennas, and a Naval Air Base located on Japonski Island. The huge defense buildup during the war years was abruptly terminated with the end to the Japanese threat in 1944, and today these extensive and costly fortifications sit empty and abandoned, some fully completed but now vandalized and damaged by weather, others only half-built and disappearing with the abuse of the elements.

Fort Ray

Fort Ray is the name most often applied to all military installations in Sitka. It began as the barracks and other structures on Charcoal and Alice Islands in 1941, and was the Army’s headquarters at Sitka from 1941 until 1943 when a reorganization resulted in Fort Ray being attached to the Harbor Defenses on the causeway and Japonski Island.

The main part of Fort Ray occupied Charcoal and Alice islands, as well as some reclaimed land and causeways which were created from rubble left over from leveling these islands. Facilities on the island included barracks, vehicle and equipment maintenance shops, ammunition magazines, shore bunkers, and other support buildings for the military operations in the area.

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After the war most of the buildings were destroyed at various times, but the islands have not been developed extensively. The southwestern end of Charcoal island has the most remaining structures, mostly warehouses which are still used for storage. An ammunition magazine was located here, and until recently it contained bodies of tuberculosis victims from the 1950s. This bunker was destroyed in late 2000 to make room for an expansion of the airport runway. Also in this area are some original lengths of razor wire fencing, an old windsock, and a concrete slab with an advertisement painted on it which may have been the roof of a bunker.

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On the northwest side is the city’s sewer treatment plant and an intact pillbox, now facing the settling lagoon and the runway where it once had an unrestricted view of the ocean and the causeway. There is also an odd metal structure here which has short tunnels leading off from it, but which have been filled in. The central part of the island complex is a wasteland of gravel piles, broken concrete foundations, rusted manholes, twisted metal and the occasional burned out car. The eastern side has an office building and a new condominium building, and seems to be under further development. There are several more pillboxes along the shore on the south side, but all have had their roofs removed or have otherwise been destroyed. One bears graffiti from soldiers stationed there in 1941, possibly the engineers who built it.

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In several areas the original utilidor tunnel system is visible, primarily where the concrete pipe ducts (too small for human use) serve double duty as sidewalks. The large number of manholes and strange concrete slabs which can be found in some areas have lead to rumors of an extensive bunker system or “underground hospital”, but there is no real evidence of this.

 

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Ammunition magazines on Charcoal and Japonski Island were later used to entomb the bodies of tuberculosis victims (mostly Native Alaskans) during a 1950s outbreak. In 2000-2001 the Charcoal Island mausoleum was demolished for airport expansion and the remains returned to their home villages.

The main part of Fort Ray extended from “G” street in Sitka, from the harbor to Swan Lake, then stretched Northwest along the coast in a 7,000 foot wide path, ending just before Halibut Point, and occupying 2,646 acres on Baranof Island. The land in Sitka was used for logistical and administrative support of the Sitka area installations, and held warehouses, barracks, ammunition storage, and other improvements. There are only a few intact structures dating to WWII remaining in Sitka itself. These include several underground ammunition magazines near Cascade Creek, which are privately owned, and the old dam and pipeline on Cascade Creek itself, which provided water to Japonski Island and the causeway. The ammunition bunkers were built to supply the 90mm gun battery at Watson Point, the site of which is now under Seamart, a local grocery store. Charcoal and Alice islands still have a few buildings and concrete bunkers dating from this period as well. Fort Ray included supporting installations on Nearby Galankin Island, Long Island, Whale Island, and several other islands near Sitka. Searchlights, fire control stations, and other related structures were set up on these islands. There was also a “secret” radar facility on top of Harbor Mountain, the site of which today can be reached by the original army road, improved and kept up by the Forest Service for recreational use.

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Fort Rousseau (Causeway)

Fort Rousseau included Makhnati Island, the Causeway, and the Sitka Naval Operating Base on Japonski Island.

Makhnati Island held the main artillery defenses for Sitka’s harbor, consisting of two 6″ guns and two 155mm guns. A central traverse magazine of standard design (Battery 292) supported the guns, while an underground Harbor Defense Command Post coordinated overall actions at the island and other gun batteries at Forts Babcock and Pierce. An SCR-582 radar and several observation posts were atop hills on the island.

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Some photos from inside Battery 292:

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And some historic photos from when the battery was operational:

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The 6-inch “Shield Gun” emplacements were of a standard type found at many WW2 coast defense batteries. A distinctive metal shell surrounded the firing mechanism and protected the gun crew from small arms fire and shrapnel. The entire gun and shield rotated on large bearings in a circular pit. Supposedly at the end of the war the guns and other equipment were bulldozed off the end of the causeway into the ocean. Surviving examples can be found at Fort Columbia in Washington State.

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The Causeway

Sitka’s Causeway is a rock-fill road connecting several small islands in the harbor area. The causeway can no longer be accessed by land, as it is cut off by the modern airport runway. It is a popular destination for kayaks and small boats. While parts of the causeway still have a road surface, other sections have suffered storm damage and are not passable at high tide.

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Several islands along the causeway held support structures for the gun battery. Kirushkin Island had barracks and mess halls, as well as a temporary underground command post. The command bunker was built hastily and somewhat poorly, into the side of a cliff instead of fully underground. Today the exterior walls are exposed to waves and weather.

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Sasedni Island held more barracks, as well as officer’s housing and vehicle garages. An antiaircraft emplacement was at one end of the island, with small bomb shelters nearby. A smaller bunker on the island was reportedly a weather and tide reporting station. There are also the remains of a seawater pump station for fire hydrants, and foundations of sub-sea cable anchor stations.

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Gold Island had (as of 2000) one of the more intact and mysterious bunkers on the causeway system. I am not sure what its function was, but it had remarkably little vandalism or damage. There was also an intact fuse house for some of the cable systems laid under the causeway road.

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Virublennoi Island had several large ammunition bunkers.

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Sitka Naval Operating Base

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The Sitka Naval Air station was Alaska’s first seaplane base, constructed in 1939. During the war its planes performed submarine patrols over the Gulf of Alaska, as well as bombing practices (once on a hapless whale reported as a submarine by paranoid observers). In 1942 it was designated a Naval operating station and put under the command of Fort Rousseau. The base included 3 hangars, a control tower, a short runway (Aircraft carrier arresting gear and catapults may have been used for wheeled planes) three seaplane ramps, and barracks for the officers and men stationed there. Hangars One and Two were on the East side of Japonski and still exist. Hangar Number Three was at the start of the causeway and was removed during airport construction.

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Today many of the buildings are owned by the State of Alaska’s Department of Education, and are home to Mt. Edgecumbe High School, begun as a BIA school for Alaska Natives in 1947, and now a State boarding school. The hangars are used for classrooms and a gymnasium, and the barracks are used as dormitories.

Supporting facilities for the Air Station included a 200-man bomb shelter, a power station, entertainment facilities, bomb maintenance shop, water towers, repair shops, docks, and housing. A pre-war Navy coaling station was also upgraded and used for storage and maintenance shops. Some of these facilities are partly used by MEHS and some are now vacant.

Interior of bomb shelter, later used as a target shooting range and paint storage:

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The power plant was used until about the 1970s. As of 2000 it still had much of the original equipment.

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Artifacts from the Naval Operating Base include some large murals in the control tower plotting room, painted by Charles E Jones during the war. There is also some graffiti on the ceiling of the hangar (including a portrait of a woman’s face).

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Other 1940s artifacts found by maintenance staff, the blue matchbook is labeled “Sitka Naval Operating Base”, and picture of a PBY seaplane. The spoon is marked “USN”.

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Visit Sitka Alaska, home of the world’s largest toilet plunger! (Demolition of the Saltwater tower for hanger fire sprinklers):

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Fort Babcock

Fort Babcock

Fort Babcock was located at Shoals Point on the south end of Kruzof Island, at the base of the dormant Mt. Edgecumbe volcano. It included a coastal defense gun battery (# 290), watchtower, searchlights, and other supporting facilities. It was under construction from 1941-1944, when it was no longer needed. The 6″ guns were never installed, and the roads, bunkers, and buildings were abandoned. Matt Hunter has some great photos of the area here and more info here.

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This installation included a gun battery and underground central traverse magazine similar to those on Makhnati and Biorka islands. The only significant differences in the construction of these structures is the placement of the aboveground command post which housed the rangefinding and spotting gear, and the existence of a lower level in the Makhnati Island magazine bunker (Fort Rousseau). The magazine at Fort Babcock was not completed by the time the order to leave was given, so it is not buried beneath fill material as are the others, and exists as a large concrete building on the surface. These magazines were standard defensive installations used by the army, and fifty or more were built along U.S. coastlines.

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Fort Pierce

Fort Pierce

Fort Pierce included Biorka Island and several smaller islands nearby, and was composed of coastal defense artillery, radar antennas, searchlights, fire control stations, radio stations, and other supporting facilities. The 6″ gun battery was abandoned just before it became operational, along with the central traverse magazine between gun positions. Again, these magazines are nearly identical at all three locations around Sitka. Today Biorka Island has an FAA radio facility, Coast Guard LORAN station, a microwave repeater station, and other communication systems. Some of the smaller islands are now privately owned. Matt Hunter has more information here and photos here.

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Other Misc WWII Sites:

Kayak Island near the Sitka Causeway held a small outpost, consisting of a rangefinding station, Distant Electrical Control station, and searchlight bunker. These would have served a number of purposes, including spotting and triangulating targets, controlling mine fields, and spotlighting targets from an off-site location (if the spotlights drew fire, they were away from the main base). The island is very rugged and difficult to access. Similar stations existed on several small islands around the area.

base-end ranging

Other sites of interest around Sitka include the radar station on Harbor Mountain (now a picnic area), the shooting range with target bunker near the city dump, the ammunition magazines near Cascade Creek (one of which has a house built into it), and


 

Some of my sources of information include the Isabel Miller Museum, William Lawrence, Alan Jerram, Matt Hunter, The MEHS maintenance crew, and various people in town and other places who I have interviewed or corresponded with. A big thank you to everyone who has helped me out by providing information or feedback!

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