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Annette Island, Alaska
in World War II

by Murray Lundberg

      To most historians, Annette Island is known as the site of New Metlakatla, the utopian Christian Tsimshian community founded by Anglican missionary William Duncan in 1887. But the island held a crucial, albeit small (and now almost forgotten), position in the defense of Alaska during the Second World War as well.

      As the United States made ever-quicker preparations for the possibility of war from 1939 through the fall of 1941, traffic through ports on the Pacific coast became extremely heavy. At Seattle in particular, facilities were stretched to their limits, and the American forces began discussions with Canada for using Canadian ports for shipment of troops and materials to Alaska. Work on the "Joint Canadian-United States Basic Defense Plan 2" (ABC-22) had just begun when Pearl Harbour was attacked (Bezeau).

      The port of Prince Rupert was deemed to be especially important, but Canada's ability to defend it against attack was very limited, with only a seaplane base. By the time an American sub-embarkation port and ammunition dump had been opened at Prince Rupert in April 1942, an airfield had been constructed on Annette Island, only 60 miles to the north. The airfield had been started as a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which had a very high profile in Alaska in the late 1930s.

      The project apparently was conceived in response to a suggestion... that the Alaska CCC undertake a specific defense-related project. The armed forces in Alaska wanted to improve air service between the states and Alaska. In order to shift from amphibious planes to larger and faster wheeled aircraft they needed a runway and refueling station between air bases in Seattle and Anchorage. Annette Island, a flat, boggy island of about ten square miles, located twenty-five miles south of Ketchikan, was chosen as the site of a ten-thousand-foot runway and refueling station.
      ...In August 1940, a twenty-man CCC crew from Ketchikan prepared quarters on Annette for the advance crew of army engineers. The main body of CCC enrollees and army engineers [400 of each] arrived on the army transport "Leonard Wood" later that month. The Ward Lake CCC camp outside Ketchikan served as one of the staging areas for the CCC and engineer troops, their one hundred trucks, five thousand tons of cargo, and one hundred prefabricated houses bound for Annette Island. Construction on the island involved the erection of a camp to accommodate twelve hundred men (four hundred additional engineers came later), and the construction of a five-mile truck road to haul rock from a quarry, as well as a pipeline (partly below sea level) to bring water to the camp. Bogs and lakes were filled with rock to provide a solid base for the runway itself. The Annette Island base was completed within a year. The first plane landed on a not-quite-complete runway in September 1941.

      Work was continued on the field through the winter of 1941-1942 by the Army Corps of Engineers, under the command of Major George J. Nold. Canada offered to supply a squadron of fighters to Annette, and by May 5, 1942, No. 115 (Fighter) Squadron was in place, becoming "the first Canadian force ever based in U.S. territory to directly assist in American defense" (Bezeau). The workings of government are always intriguing - to avoid the payment of customs duties on the Canadians' supplies, a special designation of these military units as "distinguished foreign visitors" was made by the Secretary of State.

      The responsibilties of the Eleventh Army Air Force in Alaska were determined to be defense of 7 key locations:

  • Anchorage;
  • Kodiak;
  • the port at Dutch Harbour and air base at Umnak Island;
  • Yakutat;
  • Annette Island;
  • Naknek;
  • Cold Bay.
The strength of the 11th was only 1/3 of desired strength (with 61 pursuit planes and 86 medium bombers [Cohen]), so the addition of Canadian units at Annette, and later in the Aleutians and many other locations, was most welcome.

      As soon as flying weather improved in the late spring, Annette Island became a transit base for aircraft being relocated to Alaska. On June 2, No. 8 Bomber-Reconnaissance Squadron passed through with their Bolingbroke light bombers. On the following day, June 3, 1943, a huge carrier-based Japanese force attacked Dutch Harbour, and all hell broke loose.

      On July 10, 1942, a report stated that a Japanese submarine had been sunk the previous night off the coast of Annette Island by several aircraft and the Coast Guard cutter McLane (Cohen). Air traffic at the Annette base became quite heavy at times, with C-47s, Cansos, Bolingbrokes, Norsemen, P-40s and even the odd Hurricane appearing. For new arrivals, facilities at Annette could be pretty basic:

      Initially everyone was quartered in tents, which were adequate, though their oil burners used to freeze up when it got too cold. About half-way through the first winter [for 118 RCAF Fighter Squadron, being the winter of 1942-1943], Quonset huts replaced the tents. The camp had a mess where a fellow could get a beer, and this was a real boon to the Americans on the base, whose own mess was dry. Aircraft at Annette were flown and maintained by the Canadians, while US personnel were responsible for all other matters. Besides 118, the only other outfit on the base was 115 Squadron...
      Life at Annette was bearable for the Canadians. The weather was generally decent enough for flying, and logbook notations by Al Studholme show 151 flights, almost all in P-40s, with the odd trip in a Norseman or Harvard.
      ...No enemy ships or aircraft were intercepted, but sadly a few aircraft were lost. One P-40 went down after its wings folded during a roll while carrying bombs and F/O Art Jarred, an American, was killed. Another day, a Communications Flight Norseman crashed, killing several base personnel.

Jacket patch, Annette Island Coast Guard Air Station USCG Annette Jacket Patch
courtesy of Bill Thiell
      Following the war, life on Annette Island slowed down, but the people living there still played a crucial role in the safety of Alaska. At the northeast corner of the airport, on Tamgass Harbor, the U.S. Coast Guard established an Air Station, which by the mid-1960s had 83 enlisted personnel, including 18 pilots operating three Grumman Albatrosses and two Sikorsky HH-52A amphibious helicopters (Turner).

      In 1965, in one of the most dramatic of the rescues that the Annette aircrews were involved in, one of the Sikorskys made four trips in to the Granduc Copper Mine during a spring blizzard, following an avalanche which killed 26 people. Exactly 10 years later, I would be working as a first-aid attendant at that mine - sometimes the entire North seems like a small town where everything is tightly linked.

      This article was prompted by a note from Bill Thiell , who was stationed on Annette Island at the Coast Guard Air Station. He remembers seeing the remains of a radar installation at one end of the island, ammunition bunkers near the runways, and the wreckage of an aircraft on the island. I received a note in November 2009 from USCG pilot Richard Laskey that the wrecked aircraft was a T-6 or Navy SNJ that, when he was on Annette in 1959-1960, was being discussed as a restoration project by some crew members of the Detachment .

Annette Island Coast Guard Air Station, 1960s
Annette Island Coast Guard Air Station, 1960s

Annette Island Links:

Reading List:
  • Alaska At War, an edited compilation of papers given at the Alaska at War Symposium, which was held in Anchorage in 1993. In particular, the following articles in Alaska at War discuss Annette Island:
    - M. V. Bazeau, "Strategic Cooperation: The Canadian Committment to the Defense of Alaska in the Second World War;
    - Benjamin B. Talley and Virginia M. Talley, "Building Alaska's Defenses in World War II"
    - W. Conner Soresen, "The Civilian Conservation Corps in Alaska (1933-1942) and Military Preparedness"
  • Capt. Grant MacDonald and Capt. Terry Strocel - 442 Squadron History (Comox, BC: 442 Squadron, 1987)
  • Larry Milbery, editor - Sixty Years: The RCAF and CF Air Command 1924-1984 (Toronto: CANAV, 1984)
  • Stan Cohen - The Forgotten War: Volume One (Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories, 1981)
  • Ruth M. Turner - "Annette Island", in Alaska Sportsman, September 1966
  • Jean Usher - William Duncan of Metlakatla (Ottawa, ON: National Museums of Canada, 1974)

  • ©2001-2018 Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author.