Journey to Attu
The island at the end of Alaska
Alaska’s westernmost point is actually in the Eastern Hemisphere. Attu Island is the last in the Aleutian Chain, and closer to Russia than Alaska’s mainland.
The fog enshrouded island doesn’t get many visitors, but earlier this month the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sherman and some of her crew called, each with their own unique tie to Attu.
The Japanese invaded Attu as well as Kiska Island in June 1942. Both were highly contested in World War II because of their location.
The U.S. military feared Attu would become a staging ground for attacks on North America. In 1943, American soldiers recaptured the island, turning it into a staging ground for attacks on Japan.
Seventy years later, the 378-foot Sherman glided into Massacre Bay as dawn was slowly breaking through the fog and gloom.
Attu Island has a number of grim-sounding places. Massacre Bay most likely gets its name from the murder of 15 Aleuts in 1745 by Russians.
For Sherman Commanding Officer, Capt. Joe Hester, the trip to Attu was a link to his first years in the Coast Guard, when he was assigned to the Cutter Attu, 20 years ago.
“It was a patrol boat of the Island Class, 110 feet long, crew of 17,” he said.
Hester served twice on the Cutter Attu, in Puerto Rico, where the cutter “chased a great many drug smugglers and illegal migrant smugglers.”
“When I got assigned to the Attu it had occurred to me to do some studying and figure out what the heck she was named after,” he said. “I’d never heard of Attu Island.”
Attu and San Juan are more that 5,200 nautical miles apart. Hester did that study “and I thought, wow, wouldn’t it be interesting someday serving done here in the southeast corner of our country in Puerto Rico aboard the Cutter Attu to someday get to the northwestern corner of our country and see this desolate island named Attu.”
Four others on the Sherman had personal connections to the Island. Two had worked at the LORAN station before the Coast Guard shut it down.
The abandoned Long Range Aids to Navigation Station sits white atop a wide brown bluff, with Mount Terrible in the background.
When the men stepped ashore, Hester said, the two who had served at Attu LORSTA told him they’d never thought they’d see the place again.
“On that desolate island, there’s really only the Coast Guard LORAN station, with 22 people on it, which for those six weeks included these two and they didn’t remember each other,” he said, laughing. “But that probably speaks a lot to the mindset of the people who serve out there, especially if they’re near the end of their tour. You know, it’s just be focused on the next day … ‘only got six more weeks’ … just focused on getting out of there.”
One of the five Sherman crew to visit Attu had worked at several remote LORAN stations and always wanted to go to the one on Attu. The Coast Guard closed the station in 2010, before he got a chance.
As the five were on the island, a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft circled overhead to drop parts to the Sherman. When the LORAN station was open, the plane was among the few connections to the outside world. Weather permitting, it came once every other week.
Weather often did not permit. That was not lost on Boatswain’s Mate Chief (BMC) Shane Melott – a retired Navy man turned Coast Guard. The day of the Attu visit was cold and so was he, despite the high tech Gore-Tex, thick boots, and other modern gear he wore.
“I was just thinking about how cold we are in the gear that we’ve got today and I know that those guys went out without the type of gear that we’re using,” he said. “So I’m sure they were just freezing all the time and trying to do what they had to do before getting back in to try and warm up a little bit.”
Melott’s grandfather, from Oklahoma, was a heavy equipment operator on Attu Island during the war. He didn’t talk much about the experience until his grandson announced he had joined the Navy, (before the Coast Guard).
“My grandfather said that when he was in the Corp of Engineers in World War II he was up here building bases. And basically he and his team got invited along to go run the Japs out of the Aleutian Islands. And while I don’t think he was in the primary wave to hit Attu, I know he was on Attu. And he also went to Kiska,” Melott said.
BMC Mellott called Attu Island desolate but gorgeous. He said it now has special significance to him.
It was Capt. Hester’s idea to visit Attu during the Sherman’s fall Bering Sea patrol. He described trenches, abandoned fuel tanks, and a few memorials as standing “in silent witness to the courage and sacrifice” of those who fought to reclaim the island for the U.S.
He watched the five crewmen’s reaction, including BMC Melott.
As the men departed the island, a snowy owl “landed atop a cement door frame, standing alone amidst the rubble of a World War II building in the tundra,” the captain said.