Category Archives: history

Armistice Day Centenary

November 11th is the 100th Anniversary of the end of WWI. Dignitaries from around the globe, are in France this weekend to commemorate this event.


Scars from the Battle of the Somme

Scars of the First World War can still be seen across Europe.


Photo credit: Frank Hurley/Getty Images

70 million military personnel were mobilized during WWI. Some 9 million combatants, and 7 million civilians died as a direct result of the war. The 1918 influenza epidemic was exasperated by the mass movement of troops. Between 50 and 100 million people died due to the epidemic world wide.


A British soldier stands knee deep in spent shell casings, Front Lines, France


The WWI Cemetery, Verdun, France

The Battle of Verdun took place between 21 February – 18 December 1916. It was the longest and largest battle on the Western Front. French casualties were estimated at between 336,000 – 434,000 men, with 143,000 killed. German casualties were at 379,000, with 163,000 soldiers killed. The battle became known as Die Hölle von Verdun in Germany; The Hell of Verdun.


From: The National Museum of the USAF

Bulgaria was the first to sign an armistice on 29 September 1918. The Ottoman Empire did the same a month later on October 30. Germany signed the armistice at 5am on 11 November, on a railcar at Compiègne. A cease fire was declared at 11am on the 11th of November: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”


The S.S. Portland


S.S. Portland

On 17 July 1897, word spread like wildfire through the streets of Seattle over the cargo in the hold of the S.S. Portland. The S.S. Excelsior had already docked in San Francisco, bringing news from the Yukon.

“A ton of gold!” The arrival of the S.S. Portland was about to cause a mad rush to the Klondike.

68 miners and over a ton of gold had boarded the Portland in St Michael, Alaska. Fresh from the Klondike in Canada’s Yukon Territory, the gold was packed in anything the miners could find: coffee cans, socks, sacks, and boxes. Anything that could get the gold dust to Seattle. The estimates were off: The Portland carried two tons of gold in her hold that day.

At the time, the country was in a recession. Over 5000 people were waiting for the Portland at the dock, when she arrived. The streets were so crowded, the streetcars had to stop running. Reporters, longshoremen and others immediately quit their jobs and booked passage to Alaska. The mayor of Seattle was in San Francisco at the time; he wired his resignation via telegraph, and hopped on the first steamer heading north towards the Klondike. Seattle merchants sold out of mining gear and equipment within hours of the Portland’s arrival.

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Plaque dedicated to the S.S. Portland, Photo credit: CtoC

Today, there is a historical marker near the place where the S.S. Portland docked. The plaque is located between Piers 57 and 59, along the sidewalk that runs beside the road, Alaskan Way. The plaque is mounted on an anchor, and looks down on the boardwalk that runs along the water.

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The S.S. Portland served between 1885 and 1910. The above picture shows the Portland in the Bering Sea in 1901. Seamen are out cutting the ice in front of the ship.


The wreck of the Portland near the Katalla River, Alaska 1910

The Portland spent much of its life going from the west coast of the United States to the Alaska Territory. In 1910, the ship was caught on a shoal in rough seas. The waves pounded the old vessel, smashing her to pieces. The S.S. Portland remains at the mouth of the Katalla River. The ship was the subject of an episode of the PBS show History Detectives in 2004: Series 2, episode 9.

Historic photos come courtesy of the Alaska State Library Archives


The Titanic of the West Coast


The Princess Sophia

It was 100 years ago on 25 October 1918, when one of the worst shipwrecks on North America’s west coast occurred. The sinking of the Princess Sophia.

A Canadian Pacific Steamer, the Princess Sophia left Skagway, Alaska on 23 October, bound for Vancouver and Victoria, Canada. It was the ship’s final run of the season, and she left the dock three hours late. There were 353 people on board; an eclectic group from the Yukon and Alaska: miners, business men, government officials, their wives and children, along with the ship’s crew.


Princess Sophia on Vanderbilt Reef

The Sophia, traveling off course, crashed onto Vanderbilt Reef at 2am on the 24th. The ship was traveling 11 knots at the time of impact. It is not known why or how the ship ran off course, although weather was probably a factor. The ship was cruising through heavy snow and fog, with zero visibility. Procedure called for the speed to be reduced to 7 knots, but the captain kept the pace up, possibly to make up for the late departure. The Sophia’s log was never recovered to provide insight.

A stresscall was sent out to Juneau, and a fleet of rescue boats went out to the reef, and circled the Sophia for several hours.


Princess Sophia atop Vanderbilt Reef

Initial inspections showed that the Sophia was not taking on water, so the captain hoped that the ship could float off the reef at high tide. Passengers waited anxiously from October 24 to the 25th to be rescued.

The sea began to worsen. A light house tender, The Cedar, could only get to within 400 yards of the Princess Sophia, and was pushed back by the rough waves. By afternoon on the 25th, the storm had increased in severity to the point that rescue ships had to seek shelter themselves.


“Last trace of the Princess Sophia”

The winds picked up, the tide rose, and the Sophia’s stern was lifted upward, breaking the hull away when the ship came down. It was now taking on water, and an SOS was sent out from the ship.

The Princess Sophia sat on Vanderbilt Reef for 40 hours, yet sank between 5:30-6:00 pm on the 25th. There were no survivors from the frigid Alaska waters.


Walter Harper; Formal photo, 1916

There was one Alaskan celebrity on board. Walter Harper, a Koyukon Athabascan, was the first person to summit Denali in 1913, as a member of the Karstens-Stuck Expedition. Harper had just been married on 1 September, and was on board the Sophia with his wife, Frances Wells. The couple were on their honeymoon.


A plaque erected by Pioneers of Alaska-Juneau, at Eagle Beach, 9 miles from the wreck site

Photos courtesy of the Alaska Library and its Archives


USS Abner Read


USS Abner Read

The U.S. destroyer, Abner Read, struck a Japanese mine off the coast of Kiska Island on the 18 August 1943 during the Battle of Kiska. The explosion tore off the ship’s stern. There were over 300 men on board the Abner Read that day, many were in their bunks in the stern when the mine blew at approximately 1:50am. 71 sailors died, but 20 were hauled out of the frigid Bering Sea waters.


The Abner Read after the explosion off the coast of Kiska

The crew was able to keep the destroyer afloat. The ship was shored up as best they could, the main compartment was kept water tight, and a homemade rudder was attached. Two U.S. Navy ships then towed the Abner Read to port.


The Abner Read in floating dry dock

Within months, the Abner Read had its stern repaired, and the destroyer rejoined the war.

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In July of this year, a research team funded by NOAA, discovered the Abner Read’s stern off the coast of Kiska Island. It’s general location has been known, and the team of scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego and the University of Delaware used multi beam sonar to locate the wreckage. They then sent a remote operated submersible down to the stern, which was in 290 feet of water.


Photo credit: NOAA

The stern section measures 75 feet long and 18 feet high, and is now covered in marine life.


Gun on Abner Read stern section; Photo credit: NOAA

Daryl Weathers was a 19 year old seaman on the Abner Read. He is the last known survivor from the destroyer on that August day in 1943. Weathers is 94 now, and lives in Seal Beach, California. When told that the stern section had been found, Weathers expressed surprise saying, “That’s the end of the world up there.”

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For its wartime service, the Abner Read received four battle stars from the Pacific Theater. In November of 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese launched a kamikaze attack. A Japanese dive bomber (VAL) made it through the anti aircraft fire, although it had been hit. The bomber was able to drop one of its bombs down the destroyer’s smokestack, blowing up the engine room. The VAL then crashed across the main deck, setting it in flames. The Abner Read sank within hours.


The Abner Read is struck by a kamikaze attack in November 1944


Battle of Kiska

Operation Cottage:
15 August 1943
75 Years Ago


Kiska Island on the Aleutian Chain

The Japanese had occupied Kiska Island on Alaska’s Aleutian Chain since June of ’42. After the brutal Battle of Attu, Allied forces expected the same type of defense of Kiska from the Japanese.


Japanese Type A mini submarines on Kiska Island

Leading up to the invasion, the U.S. Air Force bombarded the Japanese positions on Kiska. In June of ’43, 407 bombing sorties were sent to the remote island, and even more in July. Japanese troop level was at just over 5100 men. Resupply of the island had become by submarine only.


Japanese tunnel to the beach

In August, bombing sorties increased even more. On August 4 alone, 135 sorties dropped 304,000 pounds of explosives on Kiska.* No Japanese troops were sighted by the bomber pilots, but that was not unusual, since the Japanese went underground during the raids.


Allied troops landing on Kiska Island

7300 combat troops landed at the main beach head. They were greeted by six dogs wagging their tails. One of the dogs was “Explosion”, the pup that was with the Navy weather station crew that was on Kiska when the Japanese invaded the island the previous June. In all, 34,426 Allied troops were a part of the invasion, which included 5300 Canadians.

As troops moved across the foggy island, occasionally a bomb or booby trap was set off, but no enemy soldiers were to be seen. Still, shots were fired into the fog by the jumpy soldiers.

The Japanese were no longer on the island. Realizing they could not defend Kiska after losing Attu, they had evacuated the island two weeks before the invasion.

92 Allied troops were killed, and 221 wounded. Most came when the destroyer Abner Read struck a Japanese mine causing 118 casualties. 4 Canadians and 17 Americans were killed on Kiska, and 50 were wounded, many by friendly fire in the fog. 130 men suffered from trenchfoot, of which only one was a Canadian due to their proper footwear.


Guns of Kiska

The Americans would not learn how or when the Japanese evacuated the island until after the war ended.


The Japanese Type A midget sub on Kiska today

Today, Kiska is part of the Aleutian Islands Wilderness, and the Japanese occupation site a National Historic Landmark.


The Navy Weather station crew on Kiska prior to invasion. Explosion is front and center.

*The Thousand Mile War

Photos courtesy of The Alaska State Library


Fort Raymond

Seward, Alaska


Fort Raymond, circa 1941

Fort Raymond was activated on 1 July 1941, with the purpose of protecting the rail terminus and the ice-free port of Seward, leading up to WWII. The fort was named after Captain Charles W. Raymond, a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Captain Raymond had been sent to Alaska in 1869, to determine the precise location of Fort Yukon. When he confirmed that Fort Yukon was indeed within the Territory of Alaska, Raymond evicted the famed Hudson Bay Company from the region.


Fort Raymond historical marker

At its peak, Fort Raymond housed over 170 officers and 3200 enlisted men. In 1940, the civilian population of Seward was only 949.

On 25 March 1942, a Japanese submarine was spotted in Resurrection Bay, only 2000 yards from the Army dock. By June of that year, Japanese troops had taken the islands of Kiska and Attu in the Aleutian Chain, and Dutch Harbor had been bombed.

But by the fall of 1943, the Japanese had been forced out of the Aleutians, and the threat to Alaska had decreased substantially. In November of 1944, the fort went into caretaking status.

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In 1946, the hospital at Fort Seward was renovated into a sanatorium for Alaska native children with tuberculosis. The sanatorium was open for 12 years.

The 1964 Good Friday Earthquake wiped out much of the town of Seward, including what remained of Fort Raymond. Several buildings from the fort can still be seen in Seward, however. Many quonset huts are scattered about the town, that came from Fort Raymond. The NCO building had been built out of local logs. That building is also still in use; it is the bottom half of the local American Legion post.

Today, the Seward Military Resort is located on the land that Fort Raymond once stood on.


Kodiak after Novarupta

Kodiak, Alaska in 1912


Photo courtesy of Katmai National Park & Preserve

The Alaskan community of Kodiak one day after the eruption of Novarupta in 1912. Over a foot of ash fell on the town, collapsing roofs and engulfing the area in near total darkness.