The Aleutian Chain was rocked by an incredible storm over New Years. The wonderfully named Bomb Cyclone, set a record in Alaska for a low pressure system.
High and low-pressure systems form when air mass and temperature differences between the surface of the Earth, and the upper atmosphere, create vertical currents. In a low pressure system, the air currents flow upward, sucking air away from the earth’s surface like a giant Shop*Vac.
Eareckson Air Force Base on Shemya Island recorded the record low pressure at 924.8 millibars.
A sea buoy off of Amchitka Island, registered a wave at 58.1 feet. Winds at Shemya hit gusts of 83 mph. This was an impressive storm that pummeled the outer islands of the Aleutian Chain. From Atka to Adak, the islands were seeing 40-50 foot waves and hurricane force winds.
St Lawrence Island and the Yukon Delta saw high winds and blizzard conditions when the storm hit Alaska’s mainland.
Unlike a hurricane, which extract heat from the ocean, as they grow in power, a maritime cyclone creates energy by drawing together warm and cold air masses. It’s the energy created when the warm air rises and the cold air sinks, that gives rise to the cyclone.
The sea otter is the largest of the weasel family; it is also the smallest marine mammal. Adult males average five feet in length and ninety pounds. Females are about the same length, but run about thirty pounds lighter.
Life span is between 15-20 years in the wild. Sexual maturity happens at 2-3 years for females, and 4-5 years for males. It should be noted, it may take several more years for a male to breed, until one holds a breeding territory. Breeding can happen at any time of the year, and young can be born during any and all seasons, but in Alaska, birth usually occurs in the spring. The female raises one pup per year.
In order to maintain body weight, a sea otter must eat 25% of its mass, every day. They have the densest fur of any mammal, with between 800,000 – 1 million hairs per square inch.
Alaska has three distinct populations of sea otter: The Southwest, South-central and Southeast. Alaska is home to 90% of the world sea otter population.
The Southeast and Southcentral population is stable, but the Southwestern population has been listed as threatened since 2005. This population, which runs from Kodiak Island west throughout the Aleutian Chain, has lost roughly 65% of its numbers since the 1980’s.
Sea otters are considered a keystone species in the Alaska coastal environment. Now, they are proving to be the protectors of the underwater kelp forests. As the sea otter population plummeted in the Aleutians, the sea urchin population exploded. The sea otter is the number one predator of the sea urchin; sea otters will eat them like popcorn.
The number one predator of the kelp forest, is the sea urchin. Without the sea otters to keep the sea urchin population under control, the urchins have decimated the kelp forest along the Aleutian Chain. Now, the sea urchins are destroying the reefs along the Chain. With the drop in kelp, the sea urchins are eating the algae that creates the reef. These reefs are disappearing right before researchers eyes.
The kelp forest are now gone from the central and western Aleutians. In their place are often 400 sea urchins per square meter. The loss of the kelp is huge on several fronts. It is a home and safety zone to numerous fish species, cod among them. The 1200 mile Aleutian Chain supports two multi-million dollar fisheries: Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea.
Kelp is also an extremely efficient absorber and holder of CO2. Like all land plants, kelp forests take CO2 out of the air during photosynthesis. Without kelp, the oceans lose a tool in lowering carbon in the atmosphere. Kelp forests also help reduce the force of storm surges, which Alaska is facing more and more.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, there are several potential drivers for the western sea otter population drop. Overharvest, disease and predation. The new predator on the block in the Aleutians is the killer whale. Prior to 1991, there was not a documented case of an orca singling out sea otters for a food source. Now, it seems to be common. What changed? Something else changed in the diet of orcas that now makes the sea otter worthwhile. There are several theories, but no definitive answer.
Currently, sea otters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Sources: University of Alaska – Fairbanks; Alaska Department of Fish & Game; Fairbanks Daily-News Miner; Alaska SeaLife Center; Ocean Conservancy.
The Shishaldin Volcano on Unimak Island; Photo credit: USGS
Mount Shishaldin, which is one of the most beautiful and perfectly cone-shaped volcanos on the Aleutian Chain, has been restless since July 2019, with several short burst eruptions. At the end of December, temperature elevations were measured at its summit, and seismic activity had increased substantially.
This past Friday morning, Shishaldin erupted, sending ash five miles into the air. Volcanic lightning, and the glow of lava near the summit, could be seen from Cold Bay.
Shishaldin from high; Photo credit: AVO
At an elevation of 9373′, Mount Shishaldin is the highest peak in the Aleutians. Shishaldin is relatively young, with its cone less than 10,000 years old, although remnants of an ancestral volcano can be found on Unimak.
Mount Shishaldin, postcard image, circa 1910; Photo credit: J.E. Thwaites
The first known ascent of Shishaldin happened in 1932, when G. Peterson and two others, made the climb to the summit. It is widely understood, that native Aleuts and visiting Russians certainly made the climb previously, but their ascents were not documented.
Local climbers are known to still make the climb to Shishaldin’s summit, then ski back down its flank.
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.
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.”
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
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.
Mount Cleveland from Concord Point; Photo credit: AVO/USGS/John Lyons photographer
Lava flow was seen in the crater of Mount Cleveland this week, about 80 meters across. With lava flowing over the active vent, the odds of an explosion to clear that vent has increased substantially. With that in mind, the warning level on Cleveland was raised to Orange.
Great Sitkin Volcano on 17 June 2018; Photo credit: AVO/Alaska Airlines Captain Dave Clum
Great Sitkin Volcano, also on the Aleutian Chain, which had a minor eruption on June 10th, is still smoking. AVO has Great Sitkin’s warning level at Yellow.
A picture of the Aleutian Tigers at the Glenn Curtiss Museum
While at the Glenn Curtiss Museum, I was excited to see the P-40 Warhawk being restored, and talk to several volunteers involved with the extensive rebuild.
Stationed at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage in 1942, was the 11th Fighter Squadron, also known as the “Aleutian Tigers”. The Aleutian Tigers were commanded by Lt. Col. John Chennault, who was the son of Gen. Claire Chennault, the commander of the famed “Flying Tigers” in China.
P-40 Warhawk, 11th FS, 343rd FG
The 11th Fighter Squadron was one of 4 squadrons making up the 343rd Fighter Group, and were assigned the task of defending the Aleutian Islands during WWII. The 11th FS flew their final combat mission in Alaska in October of 1943. The 343rd FG remained in Alaska flying patrols until the end of the war.
Long before WWII and the Japanese invasion of the two islands in the Aleutian Chain, Attu Island was part of the earliest Federally protected wildlife areas.
This year is the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Attu, and the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are both commemorating the battle with several discussions, gatherings and art displays. Unfortunately, most are being held in Anchorage, but the big city, that’s a little closer to Alaska, has its merits too.
On 7 June 1942, the Japanese Northern Army landed, unopposed, on Attu Island. The island of Kiska had been invaded the day before. Allied command for the Aleutian Campaign spent the better part of the next year preparing to repel the Japanese from the Aleutian Islands.
Attu Island with 1943 Battle descriptions
On the morning of 11 May 1943, visibility off the coast of Attu was estimated at a “ship’s length”, due to the heavy fog blanketing the island. The 7th Division’s Northern Force was to land at Beach Red, a few miles north of Holtz Bay. Beach Red was a narrow strip, maybe 100 yards long, and surrounded by 250′ walls of rock. The Japanese had no defenses nearby, because they never considered it a viable landing point.
Captain William Willoughby had 244 men in his Scout Battalion. They came up to Attu in two submarines: the Narwhal and Nautilus. They shoved off in their rubber boats with 1-1/2 days rations, landing at Beach Scarlet in Austin Cove. The air temperature was 27 degrees.
The 7th Division’s Southern Force was the largest of “Operation Landcrab”. They landed at Massacre Bay All three landings were unopposed. The beach heads were secure and all forces had made gains, but they were now stalled. The Americans could not see the Japanese up in the fog, but the Japanese could see down out of it.
The very first shot fired by American land forces was a 105 mm howitzer. The big guns had been mired on the beach. Cat tractors tried to maneuver them, but their treads broke through the muskeg, and were quickly spinning uselessly in the black muck underneath. A Japanese mortar crew was spotted on a ridge, and a howitzer was moved into position by brute strength. The howitzer fired, and the recoil of the big gun slammed the gun’s sled 18 inches into the muskeg.*
Massacre Bay, Attu Island 12 May 1943
The following day, men and equipment streamed onto the beaches. The Navy ships bombarded the ridges. The Battleship Nevada unloaded her 14″ guns onto the mountain tops above Massacre Valley. The Japanese positions were heavily entrenched, the progress for the Allied forces was slow. The Arctic conditions were brutal, and exposure-related injuries common. Travel over the island was through mud, snow, ice and the unforgiving muskeg. After two weeks of endless fighting, the Japanese were finally pushed up against Chichagof Harbor.
Japanese troops lie at the bottom of Engineer Hill after the banzai charge
With no hope of victory, and little hope of rescue, Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki led his Japanese troops in one final banzai charge. The Japanese broke through the front lines, and rear echelon troops suddenly found themselves in hand to hand combat with the Japanese. The Japanese charged Engineer Hill in an attempt to gain control of the big guns set up there. The 50th Engineers held their ground, however, and the charge failed. Almost all of the Japanese in the charge were killed, many by suicide by grenade after the charge failed. The failure of the banzai charge effectively ended the Battle for Attu.
American troops making their way across Attu
Officially, the Battle of Attu ended on 30 May 1943, but isolated Japanese troops continued to fight until early July.
549 men of the U.S. 7th Division were killed on Attu, 1148 wounded, and over 1200 suffered severe cold weather related injuries, 614 disease, 318 other casualties: accidents, drowning, self-inflicted.
The Japanese lost over 2350 men. Only 28 were taken prisoner.
The Battle of Attu, when considering numbers of troops engaged, would rank as the second most costly battle for the United States in WWII – second only to Iwo Jima.*
The Battle of Attu was the only battle of World War Two to have taken place on U.S. territory. It was also the only battle between the U.S. and Japan to have taken place in Arctic conditions.
The Japanese had assembled a massive fleet in Tokyo Bay to repel the Americans from retaking Attu. The fleet had 4 carriers, 3 battleships, 7 cruisers and 11 destroyers. The Allies captured Attu before the fleet could leave the bay.
Note: The battle took place west of the international date line. Official Navy times are Hawaii/Aleutian time zone.
The Americans had been bombing the Japanese garrisons on Attu and Kiska endlessly, in spite of the brutal Aleutian weather, since the Japanese landings in June of ’42. Invasion of these islands were imminent. The Japanese were finding it more difficult every passing month to resupply their garrisons. They were desperate to get supplies and equipment in. The Americans were just as desperate to keep those supply lines cut.
Enter Admiral “Soc” McMorris on the ancient (1918) light cruiser Richmond. Out on patrol, 200 miles west of Attu, and 100 miles south of the Russian Komandorski Islands, McMorris had four destroyers with him: the Bailey, Dale, Coghlan, and Monaghan. Also in the task group, was the recent arrival, the heavy cruiser Salt Lake City. Known throughout the USN as the “Swayback Maru”, the Salt Lake City had been launched in 1929.
At 0730, radar showed 3-5 targets at approximately 21,000 yards. It appeared to be a group of lightly screened transports. “… a Roman holiday was in prospect”, McMorris would write later.
At 0824, the radar brought the number of total targets to ten. Within minutes, the tops of heavy cruisers appeared over the horizon. It was Japan’s entire Northern fleet. Along with at least two transport ships looking to resupply the island of Attu, were two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and four destroyers. The odds had flipped. The Americans had fewer ships, and what they had was slower and outgunned.
What happened next, was an oddity of naval engagements in WWII. There were no aircraft carriers. The battle took place without any air or submarine support. It was a daylight battle, with the enemy in sight, guns blazing. Lasting 3-1/2 hours, the Battle of the Komandorskis was the longest continuous gunnery duel in modern naval history.*
USS Salt Lake City with destroyer smoke screen during the battle
Since the Salt Lake City had the most fire power, it drew the most attention. By “chasing salvos”, and accurate fire, the American task force more than held its own. Rudder damage suddenly limited the heavy cruiser to ten degree course changes. The Salt Lake City took two hits: one midship; one hitting the seaplane in its catapult. Another hit flooded the forward compartments. Water in the fuel oil lines killed the boilers. The Salt Lake City was dead in the water. The smoke screen put up by the destroyers had concealed the severity of the damage to the Japanese, but now, it was just a matter of time.
At this point, three of the destroyers charged the Japanese ships for a torpedo run, the fourth destroyer stayed with the wounded heavy cruiser. The charge, led by the Bailey, drew fire away from the Salt Lake City. The Bailey was hit three times by 8″ shells, before launching five torpedoes. Engineers on the Salt Lake City managed to get the boilers fired, and the Swayback Maru was moving again.
Suddenly, the Japanese started to withdraw. They were low on fuel and ammunition, and Admiral Hosogaya assumed that American bombers would be overhead soon. Hosogaya had no way of knowing that the Americans were in even more dire straits as far as ammo and fuel went, and there were no American bombers rushing to the battle.
The USS Bailey in for repairs after the battle
The Salt Lake City had fired 806 armor-piercing projectiles, and 26 high-capacity shells during the battle. The heavy cruiser was hit by six 8″ shells. The Coghlan was hit once. The Americans suffered 7 dead and 20 wounded.
The Japanese had one heavy cruiser moderately damaged and one heavy cruiser with light damage. 14 Japanese were killed and 26 wounded.
The battle, in many ways, was considered a draw. Although, the Americans kept the Japanese from resupplying their garrisons, and the Japanese would not attempt again to resupply by surface ship. For the remainder of their Aleutian occupation, the Japanese would resupply by submarine only.
Crew members of the USS Bailey during their Aleutian campaign
* “The Battle of the Komandorski Islands” by John Lorelli
Photos courtesy of the National Archives