TIME TRAVEL: Fortifying the Last Frontier | HistoryNet MENU
Touring kayakers explore the deep waters and mountain scenery of Resurrection Bay off the coast of Seward, Alaska.

TIME TRAVEL: Fortifying the Last Frontier

By Jessica Wambach Brown
10/13/2016 • World War II Magazine

AS I DIP MY PADDLE IN THE GLASSY MORNING WATER of Resurrection Bay, the mossy remains of an old wooden pier emerge in the foreground of Caines Head, whose rocky face rises 650 feet from the gray-green sea eight miles south of Seward, Alaska. For me, it is a dream to be kayaking into this little-known chapter of the war in the Pacific. I wonder if the 200-some young men in the 250th Coast Artillery Regiment’s A Battery felt the same when they landed their boats on this black-pebble shore in July 1941 assigned with what sounds like an idyllic boyhood mission: to build a fort in the woods to protect the sleepy village from the wily enemy.

World War II vaulted Alaska Territory into the modern ages. Fearing that Alaska’s coveted location for strategic air operations might tempt a Japanese invasion, the War Department ordered the construction of approximately 300 military installations across the territory between 1939 and 1945, along with elaborate transportation systems to connect them. Seward—home to a year-round ice-free port and the ocean terminus of the Alaska Railroad—was uniquely qualified to supply their effort. Beginning in 1940, a steady stream of ships parted the bay’s deep waters, delivering equipment, personnel, and rations bound for Alaska’s wild interior.

Between the summers of 1941 and 1944, the War Department would spend more than $4.7 million fortifying the spruce-covered headlands and islands that skirt Resurrection Bay, so named by an eighteenth-century Russian fur mogul who found refuge from a storm in its calm waters one Easter weekend. Searchlight stations, fire control systems, artillery, and radar installations were erected in at least seven spots throughout the bay as part of the Seward Harbor Defense System. Among these, the best preserved and most accessible is Fort McGilvray, a steel and concrete strategic command center chiseled into the top of Caines Head.

Brushing the kelp and oceanic shale from our shoes, our group of eight on the Caines Head Adventure tour—conducted by local kayak shack Miller’s Landing—climbs from the beach on a two-mile path forged by the boots of the 250th. Like us, the troops arrived in the damp, 60-degree weather characteristic of summer in this temperate rainforest. But in a few short months snow would replace the faint-green lichen dangling from the trees. Due to material shortages and poor weather, construction crews laid few bricks in 1941, and the soldiers at Caines Head spent their first teeth-chattering Alaskan winter huddled in canvas tents and makeshift log structures as they manned a pair of French World War I-era 155-millimeter guns sent to protect the bay.

Today, moss covers the entrance to Fort McGilvray’s underground command center, where the army kept watch over vital shipping lanes.

With the Japanese occupation of two Aleutian Islands, Attu and Kiska, in June 1942 and America supplying the Soviet military through the Lend-Lease Act, the army accelerated its plans to make Seward the most heavily fortified town on the Alaskan coast. That summer, troops assembled Quonset huts and barracks shipped from Seattle to create a garrison for 500 soldiers on Caines Head’s South Beach. In December, the 267th Separate Coast Artillery Regiment joined the 250th there, and absorbed it a month later. Meanwhile, the Anchorage-based West Construction Company dynamited a network of roads from North Beach to haul materials for fashioning Fort McGilvray’s permanent structures.

Armed with flashlights, we explore the company’s handiwork. Guide Abigail Alexander leads us through dank corridors to the plotting room, where decaying fibers and calcium stalactites creep from the ceiling. This was the heart of the Caines Head operation, housing the teams of soldiers who controlled the fort’s armaments, including two six-inch guns salvaged from naval vessels and placed here in late 1943. As we eat our packed lunches, our feet dangle above the corroded bolts that ring one of the long-empty gun mounts.

From the observation tower carved into the crown of Caines Head, we spot three alpine glaciers tucked amid snowy peaks across the bay but—like our predecessors—not a single enemy vessel. In the three years the army guarded Seward and its priceless shipping lanes, one suspected Japanese sub was detected by the electromagnetic cable laid across the bay and a few others were sighted out in the Gulf of Alaska. But the closest these outposts came to battle was a minor assault on the boat of a cantankerous local fisherman who repeatedly failed to report his passage to the proper authorities. Fort McGilvray’s six-inch guns were never fired.

For many of the young men who served here, Alaska was the first frontier rather than the last. Even in the dead of winter, wool-clad soldiers marched, drilled, dug trenches, and maintained vital communications equipment. Many fished or roamed the woods in their off-time, pursuing moose and black bear amid green fiddleheads and low-bush blueberries where we now hunt for shell lockers, collapsed lean-tos, and other rusty reminders of the past. The most coveted respite was a boat trip to Seward, named for Secretary of State William H. Seward, who negotiated the Alaska purchase from Russia in 1867.

Seward was founded as a railroad town in 1903. To support the Harbor Defense System outposts and protect the railway, Alaska Defense Command established Fort Raymond on the town’s northern rim in the summer of 1941. Within two years, this burg of fewer than 1,000 residents was crowded with 3,400 soldiers, including coastal artillery, anti-aircraft, stevedores, and engineering units, as well as the staff of the 150-bed 203rd Station Hospital, which cared for troops whose constitutions succumbed to the chilly winters. Although no fighting occurred here, fear lingered over Seward’s streets, thanks to curfews, censorship, and blackouts, says local war authority Tom Osborne, who also works as a ranger at nearby Kenai Fjords National Park. But Fort Raymond also brought some perks for Seward’s civilians, including 10-cent showings at the army’s Dreamland Theater—when the feature wasn’t a training film.

During Fort Raymond’s construction in 1941, more than 3,000 soldiers quartered in tents a mile north of Seward’s port.

In March 1944, with the tides of war turning and Attu and Kiska safely back in American hands, the Alaskan Department ordered the defenses in and around Seward dismantled. By year’s end, Fort Raymond was in caretaker status and the gun mounts and fortifications around Resurrection Bay were left to nature’s whim.

In 1971, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources opened the Caines Head State Recreation Area. While clearing the first trail through the 6,000-acre park 13 years later, rangers unearthed the intact relics of Fort McGilvray, which remains open for visitors.

Tectonics forced a different fate for many of Seward’s treasures. In March 1964, the 9.2-magnitude “Good Friday” earthquake and tsunami sent the original Alaska Railroad tracks and harbor tumbling into the sea. But a trained eye can still spot Fort Raymond’s relics all over this 2,500-person town: Quonset huts converted into vacation rentals, the 420th Coastal Artillery’s non-commissioned officers’ club expanded as American Legion Post 5, rotting vestiges of the original harbor poking through the beach at low tide just south of where vessels carrying tourists and fishermen—the pillars of Seward’s modern economy—dock today.

Visitors lunch at one of Fort McGilvray’s two six-inch gun mounts, which in 1943 held guns salvaged from naval vessels.

Seward is a historical scavenger hunter’s dream, yet its bounty is veiled from most locals. My friend and travel partner Monica Fouts grew up here and recalls stumbling upon an old ammunition bunker during an after-school bushwhacking expedition with friends 20 years ago. No one can validate her memory until I meet her old high school guidance counselor, Osborne. After he shows me the rough location on a 1942 map of Fort Raymond, Fouts and I retrace her childhood steps and find the bunker in a vacant nook of a subdivision just north of Japanese Creek. Its thick cement walls are covered in underbrush and graffiti, a colorful makeover administered by nature and youth.✯

This story was originally published in the November/December 2016 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.

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