Scratch the Island from the Map

A condensed history of Attu: First there was only sea and sky and wildlife. Next came Aleuts, and Russians, and Americans, and Japanese. And a horrifically bloody battle, and scientists, and birders. And, on rare occasion, tourists. And finally—very soon—there'll be only sea and sky and wildlife.

Stewart O'Nan

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The plane comes every two weeks, weather permitting. The flight out is five hours from the Coast Guard base on Kodiak Island in a thundering old C-130 Hercules, about 1,400 miles. If fog socks in the airstrip or rain stalls over the tip of the Aleutian chain or the williwaws are blowing, you’ve got a five-hour trip back. Tom Gauntt, our pilot, thinks we’ve got a fifty-fifty shot this morning. “Myswell try,” he says.

Everyone, even the people headed there, ask me why I’m going to Attu.

“I asked to.”

“You asked to go there?”

It’s hard to explain. I first saw Attu in my mind almost 10 years ago, while I was writing a novel. I knew that one of World War II’s strangest battles had taken place there, so I sent my main character to fight in it. I did research, of course, but the time I spent on Attu was imaginary, that fever dream of writing fiction. Now I thought I’d make good on a promise to my character to see the place where — like a lot of people — he’d given up so much.

In the years since World War II, Attu has passed hands from the Army to the Navy to the Coast Guard, which operates a loran station there. Though it’s the size of Martinique, on any given day there are no more than 20 people on the island. But now the Coast Guard is scheduled to pack up and leave, meaning that for the first time in centuries Attu will be uninhabited — nothing but fog on the mountains, the surf crashing and hushing, birds wheeling endlessly. A Brigadoon, receding back into the mist. This will be a rare chance to see Attu before it closes at some rapidly approaching date, see it before it goes back to what it was: untouched, a deserted isle.

What it is is a long way, at the very end of the Aleutians; the international date line has to swerve to miss it. The ride out is part of the place, as is the possibility you won’t make it. This is the Cradle of Storms, where the warm Japan current meets polar air from the north and the North Pacific meets the Bering Sea, spawning rogue waves, 50-foot seas, and 100-knot winds. The Wind Devil is strong here, Aleuts say.

All day photographer Charles Mason has been regaling me with stories of airplane crews that ditched or disappeared, and now Max Thompson, an ornithologist with us, adds one. He’s an Attu hand from way back, a collector of specimens, bird skeletons scraped clean of muscle.

“That Herc’s still up on the mountain,” he says. “When we make our approach you can see the pieces.”

Up on the buzzing flight deck, Tom Gauntt confirms this, shaking his head at the pilot’s stupidity, the sheer boneheadedness of running into a mountain. It was 1982, the same basic plane as the one we’re in. Two Coast Guard men burned to death in the wreckage. I go back to my seat and buckle up.

It’s a supply flight, to refresh the cupboards of the loran station. It has three rows of commercial airline seats fastened to the deck, then nothing but cargo. The strapped-down pallets behind me are stacked with Diet Pepsi and jars of salsa, beer, and Pop-Tarts, Priority Mail. Along with me are Charles; Max, the bird expert; and Cindi Horan, a Coast Guard medic spelling the station’s corpsman for a two-week leave. As Tom brings the Herc down out of the clouds, everyone grabs a window, hoping to catch sight of the island. The pitch changes as we descend; the plane seems to slow and float.

We’re lucky. The ceiling’s high, and Tom gives us a treat, flying several gut-clutching passes along the southern shore so we can see the black beaches, the waterfalls cutting the steep green cliffs. “It’s like Hawaii,” I say, though I’ve never been. “Like Kauai,” Charles says, ignoring, like me, the old snow caught in the folds of rock.

Below, the dark water brightens as it sweeps over the reefs and pinnacles of Massacre Bay. When the Army invaded in May 1943, landing craft snagged on these outcrops and sank, dragging their heavily equipped crews to the bottom. The shore is cluttered with the listing, rusted remains of barges, engines, and trucks buried upside down. Somewhere under the waves, among the sunken landing craft, sits a ditched P-38 Lightning, its twin abandoned by a river in the next valley. As Tom brings us around, we can see pieces of the downed C-130 on the mountainside. The tail’s intact, bright orange paint still vivid.

“Guy wasn’t even close,” Charles says, incredulous, though I can see all too easily how it happened. There’s no control tower on Attu, and the fog sits down low. As in the Bermuda Triangle, man and machinery seem to have a tough time here.

The station house is low and white, tiny beneath the line of high mountains behind it. There’s an unsettling resemblance to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining. I’ve associated Attu with snow and isolation, imagining the rimed, grimy Quonsets of John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. Nowhere to run, the elements unforgiving, the land silent. That fear of going too far, never getting back. As if to confirm my worries, a logy old Saint Bernard lumbers over — Coco, the station mascot. His eyes are cloudy and he smells like a rug in someone’s cellar. He’s 13, meaning he’s been here far longer than any of the 20 Coast Guard personnel, each of whom does a year-long tour.

The station’s tidy as a hospital, smelling of floor wax and green beans steaming for dinner. The first thing in the door is a magazine rack, giving the place the still feel of a waiting room. A glass cabinet in the front hall displays relics from the battlefield — rusty grenades and mess kits, a Japanese soldier’s glasses — and a plaque warning all personnel that back in 1972 a crew member injured himself while tampering with a 40-millimeter shell (shown, now exploded, in the case below), so don’t touch any ordnance you find on the island.

There’s a sauna and Jacuzzi in the station, and up on the rec deck a big-screen TV, Ping-Pong table, and bar. All of this is deserted, as if the crew has been neatly slaughtered, beamed off into space. The big TV, like all the others, is tied into a VCR system in the basement that shows up to four movies at once. I wonder what else the crew does to pass the time. Nineteenth-century lightship tenders wove baskets, and whalers carved scrimshaw. Our first day I see people deep into the Internet, or reading, or getting ready to go fly-fishing. Always they surprise me, suddenly appearing beside me in the long, empty hallway. Never any footsteps.

The Coast Guard will be the last people to live here. The first, the Attuans, arrived an estimated 8,000 years ago, after crossing the land bridge either from Asia or the North American mainland. They lived in grass-thatched dugouts called barabaras, fished the salmon in the streams and hunted otter from sealskin boats. In 1741, a Russian expedition under Vitus Bering arrived, and in the space of 25 years Russian trappers overran the Aleutian chain all the way to Kodiak, forcing the Attuans as well as other Aleuts to serve as hunting crews. The Russians brought disease, alcohol, and the Norwegian rat to Attu, and also the lucrative arctic fox. In 1745, a band of traders executed 15 Attuans for some unknown transgression on a spit of land soon branded Murder Point, hard by what even the Russians took to calling Massacre Bay.

The fur trade had collapsed by the time America assumed ownership of the island in 1867, the otter population seriously depleted. The Attuans had intermarried with the Russians and converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. Their population was also dwindling. In 1880, there were 109 Attuans; there were only 41 in 1942, when the Japanese invaded, surprising them as they came out of church one Sunday morning. All communication to the island was cut.

It took a year for the Americans to marshal forces for an invasion. After the landing-craft debacle, the Army’s Seventh Infantry Division humped up Massacre Valley, slogging through knee-deep muskeg toward the Japanese positions high atop the fogged-in cliffs. The Seventh had trained in the Mojave Desert, expecting to fight Rommel in North Africa. When Rommel fell, the division changed plans and practiced an amphibious landing on San Clemente Island. Even as they left San Francisco, they thought they were headed for the South Pacific. It wasn’t until they swung north that the quartermaster clerks broke out foul-weather gear. But the new boots issued to the soldiers were leather, useless in the wet snow and mud of May.

Operation Landcrab was already well underway when the Seventh realized it couldn’t get its field artillery or tracked vehicles across the muskeg. The weather was too rough to call in air support. Foot soldiers alone would have to do the job. The troops trudged through the muck, their feet burning with cold. Above, dug in on Gilbert Ridge, the Japanese waited, wearing white so they couldn’t be seen in the snow. They lobbed mortars on the advancing troops, rolled grenades down the slopes while snipers opened fire. The Americans were stuck on the windy slopes for days. Offshore, the big guns of the battleships Nevada, Idaho, and Pennsylvania roared, and avalanches of rock came tumbling down the mountain, full of machinery and pieces of dead Japanese.

A second force advancing from the north took longer than expected to make its way through and ended up running out of battle rations. They ate no food for three days. With every drink of water — sometimes only melted snow — they’d throw up green bile. Risking booby traps, they frisked the dead Japanese they came upon for rice.

It was the Army’s first amphibious assault of the war. The soldiers were unprepared for the weather, the terrain, the will of the Japanese — everything. Even their maps were wrong. Landing craft collided in the fog. When the stretcher bearers dropped the wounded, the litters flew down the slopes like toboggans. On the beaches, supplies piled up so fast there was no place to put them. Finally the weather broke for a few hours, and the Army called in a flight of F4F Wildcats to attack. Just as they headed through Jarmin Pass, a williwaw blew in and slapped two of the planes against the mountain.

It took the Americans 20 days to dislodge the enemy. In the end, the badly outnumbered Japanese killed their own wounded with morphine, the doctor dosing them with a syringe, and then throwing a hand grenade into the medical tent. Those left made a banzai charge through the heart of the American base camp, killing patients in the field hospital and exploding the propane stove in the mess. Cornered by several units of engineers, 500 of them committed suicide with grenades, holding them to their stomachs and chests and foreheads.

The Japanese lost 2,622 men; only 28 surrendered. The Americans listed 549 killed, 1,148 wounded. Many of the injured were victims of frostbite and trench foot due to the leather boots; hundreds had to have their feet amputated.

For a full year, no one knew what became of the 41 resident Attuans. Eventually American intelligence found out that all of them had been shipped off to Japan in the hold of a freighter and then forced to work digging clay. Malnutrition swept their camp, and only 25 survived. After the surrender, they were flown over the ruins of Nagasaki to Okinawa, and then taken by boat to Manila, San Francisco, Seattle (where the Christmas decorations amazed them), and finally Atka, 600 miles east of Attu, where the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided the refugees would live — in houses built with government-surplus lumber. They would have to coexist with their former enemies, the Atkans, who had been repatriated after spending the war confined to an abandoned cannery at Killisnoo, near Ketchikan.

Today the last four Attuans live on Atka and work the fishing boats. The only reminder of the village that once stood on Attu’s Chichagof Harbor is a commemorative plaque, a list of casualties to the left of a sketch of the village as it appeared in 1942, a list of survivors to the right.

Massacre Valley is the first thing I want to see. I’ve imagined nothing but mud, snow, and rock, but now I find the valley is green and rich, overgrown with waist-high brush, the old road washboarded by rain. A black stream beside us seethes with fish — pink salmon and Dolly Varden trout so thick they shoulder one another, their fins thrashing in the riffle. Our driver, Electronic Technician First Class Kris Jensen, stops to inspect a bridge. The fish are even thicker here, swaying slowly in a foot of water. “A visitor last week jumped right in,” Kris says, pointing. “Netted some just to prove he could.”

Farther up the valley, on Hogback Ridge, the old Navy Quonsets have fallen in on themselves, their floors filled with water reflecting the mountains. Stop, and all you can hear is the wind. Maybe because the landscape is so big — or the battlefield is a solemn place, or ruin is all about — something silences us, makes words puny and untrue. Rusted oil tanks line the foothills far below, their circular berms imitating the bomb craters we will see elsewhere. And here on the ridge stand the only trees on Attu, a few scraggly, wind-whipped pines beside the sheet metal steeple of a collapsed chapel. The old Army joke was that there was a woman behind every tree on Attu; it was accurate back then, since there weren’t any trees, and it’s not far wrong now: Other than Cindi Horan (already answering to “Doc”), there are only two other women crew members.

We wind higher, through skewed telephone and power poles tilting in the fog like crosses, their dead black wires hanging limp. A ptarmigan bursts from the brush, its wings already taking on their winter camouflage.

On Engineer Hill, at the head of the valley, the Japanese have erected a 25-foot-tall titanium starburst monument to their dead and, the inscription reads, to world peace. In Japanese military history, the banzai charge and mass suicide on Attu is referred to reverently as an instance of gyokusai, an honorable sacrifice, the participants venerated like the defenders of the Alamo. There are also four smaller Japanese memorials on Engineer Hill; despite the fact that the battlefield was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1985, the only two American memorials are modest stones down by the station, one of which isn’t engraved yet.

In clear light, the starburst looks ridiculous and ugly, like a child’s futuristic toy, a weapon plucked from a Megazord. In the fog, it seems regal, mournful, an apt remembrance of sacrifice. Nearby, housed in a Plexiglas box, lies a picture of Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki, the leader of the banzai charge, and a facsimile of the final page of his diary. Two-man bunkers dot the hillside, overgrown and filled with water, but nothing else betrays the battle fought here; the only relics left are from the Navy’s occupation from 1945 to 1958: tanks leaching diesel fuel into streams, rusting mounds of 55-gallon drums.

On foot we hit the beach at Massacre Bay, following fresh fox tracks across the black volcanic sand to Alexai Point and the abandoned airfield there. Out in the water an otter floats on its back, a few harbor seals bob around the mouth of a stream, poaching some easy salmon. Caught under the timbers of a washed-out bridge, sunk in the sediment and chunky with clots of mud and rust, rests what is either a runaway buoy or a 500-pound bomb. We walk on.

The cliffs here are strictly Hawaiian, horsetail falls dropping from sheer black rock, walls mossy. It’s low tide, and the piles of seaweed stink. A vee of cormorants wings over, and on some distant rocks an arctic fox pops his head up, on guard. He turns in circles, agitated, then, when we get close, ducks into his den.

Alexai Point was once a major installation, with two runways, quarters, and support buildings. Now it’s a plateau of rusting Marston mats, perforated steel plate overgrown with weeds and wildflowers. The shores of the bay are heaped with machinery wheels and engine blocks and whole bulldozers fused into rusty tidal pools. Beyond the far runway is one of three restricted areas on the island, colored yellow on the map, where the military has sequestered its aging ordnance. Rumors of other, uncharted minefields and random, unexploded shells don’t stop us from searching the point or the valleys, but we step carefully, holding our breath when our feet drop into unseen holes, which seem to be everywhere. Also hidden by the lushness are a toxic combination of DDT, unused fuel, and solvents. Some reports say chemical weapons were once buried here. In 1976, ’89, and ’91, Navy ordnance disposal teams destroyed some live ammuniton, but the overall cleanup proved too costly, and finally they decided it would be easier — and maybe safer — to leave the rest where it was.

We pass the flat where the hospital used to be, only the cement arch of a door still standing, speckled with bristly lichen the color of tar. A few hundred yards beyond is the former site of Little Falls Military Cemetery, where the American dead were buried en masse, dog tags screwed to the center of simple wooden crosses or Stars of David, and where the Japanese were interred eight to a grave. In 1946, the bodies were exhumed and shipped to the military cemetery at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, the crosses and Stars of David stacked in a Quonset that has long since fallen. We trudge for hours through waist-high brush, sweating in our parkas, occasionally plunging into chest-deep holes, but we never find the outlines of Little Falls, only cotton grass and barbed wire. The maps are old and of no help. Like the battlefield, the cemetery has disappeared.

For all the abuse the island has taken, Attu is so wild, the weather so overwhelming, that it defies any attempt at domestication. Of the hundreds of Quonsets and stick-frame barracks the Navy built in the ’40s and ’50s, only the old loran station and its mess hall on Murder Point are still inhabitable. They’re used by birders who charter regular trips to add windblown Asian vagrants to their life lists.

The rooms in the old station (one lovingly dubbed the Rat Hole) are crammed with rusty bunk beds and milk crates, the floors stinking of mildew. On the walls, a patchwork of peeling plasterboard, the birders have posted their names and the number of species they’ve seen so far, both their American Birding Association total and that for Alaska. All of it’s scrawled in Magic Marker, Manson-family style. Most of the birders are regulars, it seems, their totals inching up over the years. “1st N. American record,” an asterisked note crows, “yellow-throated bunting!”

In the mess, two dry-erase boards list the spring sightings like a menu. From the ceiling a rubber rat hangs among stuffed gulls. Reeve Aleutian Airways flies out groups for a private firm called Attour, which charges $5,000 for a three-week stay. The birders have been coming for as long as anyone at the station remembers, but rumor has it that Attour, worried that the Coast Guard is pulling out, may fold soon, leaving only the German tour boat World Discoverer to bring birders and veterans out twice a summer.

How long the Coast Guard will stay is a mystery. Over the years, as GPS has slowly replaced long range aid to navigation, the station has been slated repeatedly for decommissioning — first in 1994, then 1998, 2000, and now again in 2006. It’s my constant question — when will it actually happen? — but everyone I ask just shrugs. Who knows? By then, they’ll be long gone.

Back at the station, the weekend has started with a morale-building jambalaya supper on the rec deck. Beers and popcorn, a movie. There’s no hard alcohol allowed out here, but every once in a while the commander authorizes a party at the Whoopie Hut, a cabin up on Mount Terrible, and the crew members indulge themselves in more than a few beers. Otherwise, the days are the same, except for Saturday and Sunday, which are even slower, everyone off-duty except those few keeping the signal going out.

Sunday the wind is up, the windchill in the 30s, and we stay inside and listen to the windowpanes shake. All three hours of Titanic drag by, seeming to emphasize rather than speed the passage of time. Two younger crew members fight an escalating war that involves toilet paper and shaving cream, the contents of a vacuum cleaner, and a dozen eggs smashed on the carpet. In a way, it’s like summer camp or life in a frat house, the same aimless horseplay and boredom. It will all have to be cleaned up by tomorrow; the place needs to be spic and span for the arrival of officers from the Ironwood, a Coast Guard buoy-tender. Up on the rec deck, Bruce Willis is mugging through another Die Hard sequel in a dirty undershirt.

“Fuck,” someone laughs whenever something blows up.

I find I’m savoring Tom Drury’s new novel a few pages at a time, saving it as if afraid it will run out too soon. Maybe the working week will rescue us, the comfort of routine eating up the hours. And the Ironwood brings the promise of a basketball game, possibly volleyball, too. By 10:00 the rec deck’s clear, everyone hitting the hay before the sun’s down, getting ready for the big day tomorrow — all except crewwoman Sarah Hess, who stays up buffing the hallways with a whirring machine.

The next morning the weather turns — fog on the mountains, spitting rain — but the Ironwood has put in, and the captain, Lieutenant Commander Bruce Toney, says he’ll try to take us out to see the grounded P-38. We tug on blaze-orange Mustang survival suits to keep warm and climb into the launch. Stubby puffins flee from us, wings slapping at the waves.

The P-38 is just east of the Temnac River, about a mile inland. As we come ashore, a seal surfing around the mouth breaks off for some rocks. Dollies but no pinks in the channel, the water a milky gray-blue. Slogging through the spongy muskeg is like walking across an endless succession of overstuffed couches, and the Mustang suits heat up quickly. Mike Eisemann, our guide, says the valley’s grown over since he was here last, but the plane’s right where it’s always been, its twin tailbooms intact, aluminum skin punctured by random potshots, scored with initials. After so many hours and miles searching fruitlessly for proof of the war, I’m surprised at how easily we’ve found this. Days later, though, we’ll find a box of Japanese hand grenades and cartridges in a rain-filled foundation just beside what we believe was Little Falls Cemetery — ammunition taken from the dead, we figure — immediately creating another no-go zone on the island.

The rain comes down harder on the hike back, and out on the water the wind is pounding out five-foot waves. The launch bucks through the chop. Chief Warrant Officer Chuck Bush pilots us through a kelp field and the prop fouls, the motor overheats. We’re dead in the water while Chief Rob Duprau fixes things. Captain Tony asks Chuck to turn on his GPS and hails the Ironwood. I wonder how far I can reasonably swim and realize my estimate assumes a water temperature of 70 degrees and that I’m wearing only a swimsuit. Toward Murder Point a whale breaches and blows. The engine finally kicks over, the prop grabs, and, lurching, we leave the kelp and surf the crests into Casco Bay, where the Ironwood sits at anchor.

At the station, Max says he’s collected 10 olive-backed pipits so far, double the existing total for the state; even through the plastic bag the bones stink of rotten meat.

The wind doesn’t stop, so that night we pop The Thing into the VCR and laugh at the parallels — the remoteness, the wretched weather, even the Ping-Pong table and bar.

The clouds are still sitting on us in the morning, keeping us from going out. In a week we’ve been everywhere you can get to reasonably. Anywhere else on the island requires a Zodiac, a long day’s hike, and an overnight, a gamble even in this, the mild season. Much of Attu is inaccessible, trackless, parts uncharted, the interior a maze of blind draws and sheer cliffs. A western section of the 1959 Army Corps of Engineers map is bare of topographic lines and reads merely Obscured By Clouds. Beyond that patch lies Cape Wrangell, the westernmost point in the United States — at 172 degrees, 27 minutes east, actually in the next hemisphere. Fly another 400 miles and you hit the Russian peninsula.

There’s everything out here, and there’s nothing. The arctic fox and the Norwegian rat are the only land mammals on Attu, and just possibly the house mouse. None of the three, biologists claim, is native. Neither were the Attuans or the Russians or the Japanese, or the Army or the Navy or, today, the Coast Guard, though all have had their uses for Attu. Now it appears that humans may finally quit the island, hand it back to the birds and salmon. Even the dead have left.

It’s inevitable, and yet the Coast Guard’s termination date continues to move back. Until then, the station sends out its signal, the 20 crew members police the galley, play all-night poker and Nintendo, giddily TP one another’s rooms, and in-line skate on the runway to relieve the boredom. The birders arrive, and the occasional veteran, the occasional curious tourist. The rain comes, the wind comes, the plane, with luck, comes.