Adak, Alaska, Part 1: History, beauty and destruction

Bering Hill Chapel, Adak, Alaska

The map was useless. This backroad, like the others we’d driven that evening, had once led to somewhere relevant—a barracks maybe, or a bunker, or an underground hospital—but now it was no more than a groove in the tundra.

We couldn’t get lost; the island was minimally developed, and these so-called roads, laid by the military decades ago, would only take us so far.  We wandered until dark, eventually finding our destination, a mountain top that once held Cold War surveillance stuff and now offered 360 views (to those who could find it, at least).

We were on Adak, an island in Alaska’s Aleutian Archipelago. Adak sits 1,200 miles west of Anchorage, a blip on the map between the North Pacific and the Bering Sea, yet for decades—from World War II through the end of the Cold War—this remote locale was an important military outpost, part of the Alaskan frontline defense against foreign enemies such as Japan and then the Soviet Union. But when the Berlin Wall fell and the political climate changed, Adak became irrelevant to national security, and the military left, leaving behind a tiny populace of hardy locals as well as billions of dollars of military infrastructure. The town never recovered from the loss of its main revenue source, and it couldn’t afford to put all those military structures to use, so the roads returned to grassland, and the empty buildings settled in for the long haul, fending for themselves in the wild Aleutian weather. Eventually, in the face of williwaws and abandonment, these structures succumbed to the environment, strewing decay and aluminum siding across the landscape.

We traveled to Adak in May 2018 because we badly wanted to visit the Aleutians, and Adak was one of only two islands that could be reached by commercial jet.  What we found was one of the most interesting spots in Alaska, a place that combined a unique, wild habitat with the deterioration of a former civilization. It had treeless plains and snow-capped mountains and a McDonald’s forever frozen in the 1990’s. It offered shelter to seabirds, but unexploded ordnance from earlier decades still washed ashore after major storms. This haunting combination, along with the remnant of a town trying to survive, left an impression on me that, a year later, I haven’t been able to shake. Over the next several posts, we’ll tell you the story of Adak.

Adak’s History

Alaska (Source: Wikipedia)

The Aleutian Archipelago stretches 1,200 miles from mainland Alaska toward Russia, with Adak roughly in the middle. The archipelago consists of 69 islands and divides the Bering Sea from the Pacific Ocean. Most of these islands are part of Alaska (the western-most group, the Commander Islands, are Russian). A few communities exist here and there, but most of the islands are uninhabited, and nearly all are protected as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and the Aleutian Islands Wilderness. The islands are renowned for their pristine terrain and home to immense sea bird colonies as well as other marine wildlife, including endangered Steller sea lions

A quiet beach and the Bering Sea

For almost 10,000 years, the Aleutians were the territory of the Unangax̂ people (also known as Aleuts).  The Unangax̂ adapted perfectly to the harsh conditions, creating waterproof clothing and living in subterranean homes called barabaras.  They hunted whales, seals, and otters from kayaks they designed themselves. At the time that the Russians “discovered” Alaska in 1741, around 16,000 Unangax̂ lived in the Aleutians, and they had villages on most of the islands.

Adak was one of those islands; archeological evidence reveals that people lived here for millennia. The Russians, however, displaced many residents, and the hardship and famine that followed drove the rest away. The last of the Unangax̂ moved to neighboring Atka in 1826. By the onset of World War II, the island had long been uninhabited, used only for Native subsistence hunting.

All of that changed in June 1942. World War II was well underway when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded the Aleutian Islands, attacking Alaska to divert American resources from the South Pacific Theater of the war. First, they bombed military installations in Dutch Harbor, and then they moved west and seized the islands of Attu and Kiska.

Japanese attack on Dutch Harbor
The Japanese bombing of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in the eastern Aleutians (Source: Wikipedia)
Dredging a wetlands (Source: U.S. Army)

Americans were shocked: a foreign enemy hadn’t trespassed on U.S. soil since the War of 1812. Something had to be done, and Adak, thanks to its proximity to Attu and Kiska, became ground zero for military operations. Within months, the Army had established Adak Army Airfield, draining a wetlands and carving the unforgiving landscape into a base from which to launch the Aleutian Campaign, the offensive to drive the Japanese from Alaska.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is US_troops_at_the_Battle_of_Attu-300x288.jpg
U.S. soldiers traversing ice and snow on Attu  (Source: Wikipedia)

Attu was first. The Americans launched Operation Land Grab in May 1943, landing 11,000 soldiers on the island. The Japanese were heavily outnumbered and the U.S. anticipated a quick victory, but the conflict lasted much longer than expected. Rugged terrain and wicked weather made traversing the island difficult, and many soldiers were hobbled by frostbite, gangrene, and trench foot. The Japanese were also fierce antagonists, and U.S. soldiers sometimes found themselves engaging in hand-to-hand combat. But 19 bloody days after their offensive began, the Americans secured Attu and turned their attention to Kiska. 

Kiska invasion fleet
The Kiska invasion fleet in Adak Harbor, August 1943 (Source: Wikipedia)

After the challenges of Attu, the U.S. took no chances, amassing 90,000 soldiers on Adak and sending 35,000 of them to Kiska on August 15, 1943. When the soldiers landed, they found that the Japanese were gone, having evacuating Kiska weeks earlier under cover of fog. Not long after it began, the Aleutian Campaign was over.  It was a short operation, one that few modern Americans know much about, but it wasn’t inconsequential: Operation Land Grab was the only World War II battle fought on U.S. soil, and it was the second-deadliest battle in the Pacific Campaign based on percentage of forces present. 2,351 Japanese and 549 American soldiers died in the assault.  

Adak’s relevance did not end with WWII. Alaska, so close to America’s new post-war enemy the Soviet Union, became the front line of defense in the Cold War.  For decades the U.S. monitored the USSR from various Alaskan cities, including Adak, which housed the only major airfield in the Aleutian Islands and the main naval base in the North Pacific. The Coast Guard also had a station here.

The Navy operated top secret operations from Adak, including a submarine surveillance center and a support base for anti-submarine aircraft. Stand-offs between U.S. and Soviet aircraft were common in the 1960’s, with Soviet planes flying so low that they were sometimes visible from the island. But the Americans were prepared; a bunker nicknamed the Seven Doors of Doom housed nuclear weapons that could be dropped at a moment’s notice.

Hmm. Not one, but two barbed-wire perimeter fences. Perhaps this facility stored something super secret, like, say, weapons of mass destruction? The appropriately nicknamed Seven Doors of Doom

Along with important military installations came infrastructure.  As many as 6,000 people lived in Adak during the Cold War decades, with the population reaching its height in the 1980’s, and it was one of the biggest towns in Alaska.  Multiple campuses around the island contained administrative buildings, warehouses, bunkers, barracks, and laboratories.  The families that tagged along had access to a community center, playgrounds, schools, and even a McDonald’s and Baskin Robbins.  The rec center housed a movie theater, roller skating rink, bowling alley and swimming pool.  There were tennis courts and a ski lodge, and an $18-million hospital was built in 1990.  And the colorful homes that housed the locals sat in rows as neat and orderly as an enlisted man’s closet.

Overlook of the city of Adak

A gentleman we met on the plane ride home had been stationed in Adak in the 70’s and again in the 90’s. He said that he loved the place so much he owned a house on the island and lived there part-time.  “You should’ve seen Adak back then. The school dilapidation ran everywhere, taking the kids wherever they wanted to go—the bowling alley, basketball court, wherever.  You didn’t have to worry about the kids doing bad things.  It was a great place to raise a family.”

But then the Cold War ended, and Adak became nonessential territory once again. Naval Air Facility Adak was slated for closure in 1994, and by 1997 the Navy had withdrawn all operations from the island.  Without Naval assistance, the Coast Guard could no longer sustain operations either, and they also left. Almost overnight, the island’s population dropped from several thousand to just a few hundred, and the people that remained had to subsist in a remote outpost with few other industries to fill the void.  It became harder and harder to make a living, and the population dwindled. When we visited last year, around 100 full-time residents still lived on the island.

As for all of that military infrastructure, the Navy transferred most of its assets to the Aleut Native Corporation, but the corporation couldn’t afford to maintain such a large collection of buildings, and by the turn of the century most of them were abandoned.

So they sat empty.

To say that these structures fell into disrepair would be an understatement. Under the best circumstances, a vacant building will succumb to the elements, but gradually, like a wilting flower.  Adak, however, is nowhere near the “best” of circumstances.  In Adak, buildings are punished for their abandonment.

We drove the island many times and found the ruins everywhere, in every state of deterioration. Buildings were decomposing at a rate that surprised even the locals. We saw office complexes, fall-out shelters, two ruined churches (one shredded by the weather, the other desecrated by vandals), and entire neighborhoods, abandoned and disintegrating.

The original Bering Hill Chapel

On the outskirts of town, we might come across a house atop a hill, claiming a sweet view of the ocean, but upon closer inspection, walls would be missing, or the roof collapsed. There was many a pile of flattened wood, an indentation in the tundra, looking as if something giant had stomped on it.   A rusty appendage might protrude here or there, a pipe or bed frame, and we saw domestic goods—bunk beds, swing sets, furniture. We even came across a treadmill once, sitting next to what appeared to be an oven.

A depression in the tundra
Bunkbeds and other furniture
Playground equipment next to a hovel of some kind
Home with a view…and random household goods (treadmill on the left)

These sights evoked the aftermath of a natural disaster, a hurricane or tornado or earthquake. The decay was as breathtaking as the Aleutian landscape, the sight of so many decomposing buildings, shocking. It was a modern-day ruins.

There’s much more to this story than just a bunch of abandoned buildings, of course, and we didn’t go to Adak just to gawk at the dilapidation. The island was an important part of Alaska’s military history, and many of these structures and sites served vital functions when they were alive. In the next post, we’ll take a closer look at some of the most interesting and historic places on Adak.

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