An Unlikely Thing - Exploring Shemya Island
By: Michael Rogers | Photos by: Jeff Brummett
My work in Alaska has never been what my friends in the Lower 48 think of as “normal.” I had travelled to many locations that by the reckoning of my childhood friends were positively outlandish—the North Slope oil camps, remote Interior villages, even a couple of mountaintop transmitters. But one assignment took me to a very unlikely place that would last a few years, Shemya Island. The island is in the Western Aleutians and as the inhabitants say—“It’s not the end of the world but you can see it from here!”
Credit: Jeff Brummett Visually striking, the volcanic islands that comprise the end of the Aleutian Islands are known as the “Near Islands” and rise from sea floor at the very edge of the Aleutian Trench—resulting in rocky beaches, pounding surf and incredibly steep mountains. For anyone who has travelled there, the name “Near Islands” seems about as oxymoronic as they come. The islands are 1200 miles from Anchorage and don’t really seem near to anything. As an aside, the name actually comes from the Imperial Russians, since these islands were the “nearest” to Vladivostok, the hub port of the Russian-American Fur Company. While out on my assignment, I decided to do a little exploring with a co-worker and went beach combing on the rugged coast at low tide. While the phrase beach combing invokes the mental image of a pleasant walk in the sand, the coast of Shemya Island requires an athletic climb on boulders, bowling ball size rocks, and enormous logs that have washed ashore a long while ago. The coast here is rugged and pounded by storms; the weather is frequently so bad that the station manager forbids residents of Shemya Island to venture outside, much less to the beach.
Credit: Jeff Brummett During our explorations on one rare fine day we came upon a pillar of volcanic rock. It rose out of the tide line perhaps some thirty feet or so and was topped with a shock of long, billowy tundra grass. Being young and adventurous, we were not ones to pass up such an opportunity and we climbed up the sides for a view of a slightly protected cove to watch some seals go about their fishing. When we arrived at the top, we found the view was quite spectacular and Shemya Island revealed its rugged coast stretching in both directions. What we also found was rather unusual, hidden there in the grass at the top was a most unlikely thing in this far away place. It was a small pile of empty cartridge casings. Being interested in such things, I soon found about two dozen and upon examination they had a very familiar shape. The presence of shell casings is not particularly unusual anywhere in Alaska, while hunting sheep I’ve found empty cases on mountaintops where I thought I was the first guy to ever step foot. And it wasn’t like these islands hadn’t been the scenes of several military occupations—in fact the only battle for occupied U.S. territory during World War II occurred a mere 80 miles to the west on Attu and an entire Japanese division had vanished from the island of Kiska, only 40 miles to the east.
Credit: Jeff Brummett But these casings weren’t from some GI’s rifle firing any generation of U.S. military cartridge, or even from any Japanese rifle—these were (of all things) marked W.R.A.C.O. - .30 WCF! That’s right, the very good and century-old “30-30” from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. These casings were old and had considerable verdigris on the brass, but on a few the head stamp was still clearly visible despite decades of exposure to the hostile climate. If I had ever doubted the ubiquitous nature of the “30-30” before, I never would again. These shell casings wouldn’t even elicit the slightest curiosity in my hometown in Tennessee, anywhere else in the Lower 48 or even Interior Alaska where the 30-30 goes back to the Gold Rush—but what an unlikely thing out here at the end of the earth. Being curious about such relics I took one down with me and a few minutes of searching on the internet resulted in the following identification. These particular cartridges were manufactured between 1895 (the .30 WCF’s year of introduction) and 1903 based on the head stamp data. After 1903 these were known in the gun trade as the .30-30 Winchester and the “30 WCF” moniker was dropped altogether. These islands have been a U.S. military preservation since 1943 and were only rarely occupied prior to that as a seldom-used Aleut seasonal hunting camp and much earlier than that as a Russian fox farming operation. Credit: Jeff Brummett Who could have fired such an unlikely cartridge in this place? We will likely never know. A G.I. would have been forbidden to have a privately owned weapon here and the U.S. military never issued this caliber of weapon to anyone. The Russians had a presence here for a couple of hundred years and did issue a .30 WCF rifle manufactured by Winchester and even did so in respectable numbers. But by the year 1895 the Russians should have been cleared out of these islands altogether after the U.S. had purchased Alaska in 1867. Anglo-American fur and seal hunters rarely ventured this far out and the dangerous tides, lack of natural harbors and cataclysmic weather discouraged all but the hardiest souls from the place. Besides, by this time the abuses of the earlier Russian fur trade had all but obliterated the sea otter population in the Western Aleutians. The Aleut population did occasionally come here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but generally chose to harvest animals by traditional means and only rarely used firearms during that time period. Artifacts of earlier Aleut populations are sometimes found, but these are more in line with the Ice Age than the Industrial Age, so that would preclude the use of guns.
Credit: Jeff Brummett So, a neat little mystery developed from an accidental discovery of an errant shell casing. Who fired the cartridge and at what? Was it an adventuresome Anglo-American hunter going after a catch of seals for food or one of the few remaining otters for fur? Was it a renegade Russian doing the same thing on the remote and lonely shore of a foreign nation? Or perhaps it was a forward thinking Aleut who had adopted a firearm and its ability at doing what his people had been doing traditionally for millennia? That casing is since long gone from my personal artifacts and is now lost to the years, but I still think about it from time to time. I’m still curious as to the identity and purpose of that long dead person on a volcanic spire overlooking that small cove on Shemya Island.
Credit: Jeff Brummett We will never know, but out there in that lonely and far away place I was quite happy to have the diversion of thinking about the casing while the gales howled and the wind and rain lashed the windows of my quarters. It is only one of the many mysteries of the Western Aleutians. For future generations, there are still a double handful of casings on that spire … waiting to be found by an adventurous young person exploring that rugged coast. Credit: Jeff Brummett Michael Rogers is an Alaskan explorer—a workingman travelling to odd places to do odd things for even odder people, and a curious collector of sporting artifacts from centuries past.
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I was on Shemya 1969-1970 while in the US Air Force Security Service. I was there working with the Army Security Agency personnel. I remember seeing from my barracks window the remains of the RC-135 that ran off the end of the runway in January 1969. While there I also remember the RC-135 taking off and disappearing on it way to Fairbanks in June. I lost a few friends on that flight I knew in San Angelo. Sad day! I pulled a lot of KP on my free days for those who were willing to pay to not have to work in kitchen. I was able to buy nice stereo system with that extra money. I have to admit, I did not like KP work. I was glad when tour was over as I separated 4 months early as I would not re-up for another 4 years. Wow, that was 51 years ago next month! I was glad because I was married. Still married to same girl as we will celebrate 54 years this year.
Patrick-I was stationed on Shemya from 08/64 to 08/65. I remember the earthquake. Remember, we had plans to evacuate the island if the high water flooded the roads. It was an interesting tour.
Spent my year there Jan .1975 to 76. First as GCA Radar supervisor and then as MCC supervisor in the 2064th comm. Sq, (AFCS). A few days after arrival we had a 7.5 level earthquake. I was setting on a bed end and it raised up off the floor several inches. We were without heat, power and water in the residence building for a while. They took several days to fix everything. Place was pretty smelly for a while. Windows fell out of the control tower and plywood sheets temporarily filled the holes. There was a major crack across the runway almost even with the GCA vans and the outside of the runway sank a bit leaving only about 6000 ft of usable area. Spent lots of time walking the perimeter road for want of nothing better to do. We had an old dodge 6 pack truck that looked like it was held together by the blue paint but it lasted and was still being used when I left there in 76.
Tom-I was there from August 64-August 65 with the Air Force. I also have a glass ball in my collection. I remember we had basketball teams, bowling teams, and when we were not busy, we went to the movie theater to see all the beach party movies. It was interesting remote tour.
I was there in the ASA 1963-64, got back to Anchorage just in time for the earthquake. What a day that was!
August 17 11:00 AM
I was at Shemya from Nov 83 to Nov 84 as the Chief, Ground/Explosive Safety. Had a big fuel leak at POL farm. Disposed of a lot of WW II dynamite. put a lot of miles on the safety Jeep around that 2×4 mile island ! Col Frey great guy! Taught Chuck Stewart to weather safety goggles in raquet ball court (The hard way).
As an RC-135 crew member, I flew out of Shemya from 1991 to 1995. Being curious about the Island’s history, I read some on the Aleutian campaign in WW2 (Thousand Mile War). I’m no scholar or military history buff. I just remember reading about a unique cadre of soldiers who were experts on surviving the elements in the Aleutians. Don’t know if they were called “scouts” or not, I just remember reading about how they were experts on hunting/ fishing/surviving in the environment and that their expertise was used to try and help the rest of the G.I.s survive and accomplish their missions during the campaign. It was mentioned especially that they had different outfitting and gear than the rest of the soldiers which they were allowed because of their unique capabilities and mission. I just wondered if they might have had access to weapons of their preference and that it might have been a 30-30-chambered rifle. As I recall, there were various locations on the island (50-Cal Beach) were WW2 armament could be found. It would seem possible that one or a few of these scouts would be part of any deployment to the island at that time.
Hi Ray, small world, I was at the satcom with you in 79, small world indeed! 40 years later and that island is still a part of me. Hope all is going well with you and yours.
Worked at the Cobra Dane, 89-90, did work on the bailor plant as well.
I was stationed on Shemya (the Black Pearl of the Pacific) from 10/66 to 10/67. I was in the Army Security Agency working in the bubble. Tracked ICBM shots from USSR as well as the Soyuz launches. I remember the Soyuz I mission that the Russkies lost control of saw it spinning (audibly) with the cosmonauts heart rate through the roof. They said it crashed upon re-entry but I think the guy died before that. Always nervous when they launched the ICBM shots as they would pass virtually overhead and we always wondered if the “Balloon” was going up. I would calculate the orbits of the satellites launched, manually. Used to freeze our hands off so equipment could stay cool till they changed to solid state.
FPS-17 BMEWS signal permeated everything on the island it was so strong.
Christmas Party lasted three weeks long at the Smokehouse. Never forget the Ralph O’Rorke awards during that time. Winner threw up so much that he fell off the top bunk and broke his leg when he landed.
Thank God for the brave souls at Reeves Airline who brought the vital mail for us in far less than ideal weather for planes.
I was right behind you. I was there 1978/ 1979.. did some good hikes. Like the cliffs and being in motor pool. I could go just any where I wanted..
Robert Wilson 52-53 5021st AB San I may have refueled your plane.
I was stationed there on active duty USAF from June 1968 to July 1969. During my off time I collected small sections of Japanese fishing nets with colorful glass balls attached.
I spent a year on “the rock”, from mid-September 1957 to September 1958, two weeks prior to the Russians launch of Sputnik, which orbited over us. I joined about 109 other U.S. Air Force personnel, at 6981st Radio Group Mobile detachment, USAF Security Service. We housed in three WWII uninsulated wooden barracks. Our purpose: monitor all military morse code and voice radio traffic emanating from Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. The U.S. Army had its own detachment of about 100 personnel on Shemya. Life was bleak and very cold on Shemya. Our only diversion consisted of USO movies on an old projector and our daily meals provided by Northwest Airlines. Northwest, at that time, was flying the old prop-driven, four-engine DC-6s, from Seattle to Nagoya, Japan, requiring a fuel stop at its facility on Shemya. Northwest maintained a cafeteria and dormitory for air crews and passengers who occasionally spent a night in the Northwest dormitory because of high winds grounding the aircraft. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway: I was glad to leave “the rock” and don’t intend to return!
Hi, everyone! Shemya was my home for a year – fiscal 1960-‘61 – US Army Security Agency. Today, as I search ’the Black Pearl’ on Google Earth, it sure is changed. Cannot locate H Building or my old ops site. See many pits and dugouts that used to have buildings in them, tied down in earthen shelters because of the winds. Never was actually cold there; couldn’t stand up in the williwaws, though. We combed the island pretty good on our days off – but never climbed that spire to find the shell casings. Would have if we’d seen it. When I arrived we had civilian cooks (from the Philippines) and lived in wooden WWII huts (in those cutouts). Then the move to modern H Building. Summer 1961 was on a Wednesday afternoon; I was working graves, and missed it. Like all of you I miss the Rock, I think. Yuri Gagarin made his flight while I monitored the ‘tone,’ quite a memorable time! Warm regards to you all!
I was stationed there from August 1968 – Dec 1968. Got an early release fro the AF due to lack of spots to send the newby’s coming out of school. I remember a few times that the winds would get so strong that they would ground all vehicles. Good memories, and glad they are just memories.
I was stationed at Shemya AFB, in satellite communications, from 1/79 to 12/79. A very interesting island with WWII history. We joked about there was a girl behind every tree. No trees on the 2 mile by 4 mile island. Great memories!
Wow, I was there 2010-2014 working in the Head Shed we called it out there.
During the time had great many women friends miss them. We had out door boom fires roasting pigs
and we caught a Halibut over 300 pounds. Our day room was filled with dart games along with pool games and card games and of course good food that is girls would make for all. And the kitchen would help. To me this was my home I was very lucky to have my brothers with me.
It’s a experience you cannot forget at the end of the world, we all worked very hard out their. Of all the people I hung out with Thank you, your good people. Miss ya Shemya
Spent a year there 1966-67. Was Army security agency. We were allowed personal guns there and could buy them at the PX. Worked in the afjog operations building. Fished for trout in the lake.
I was stationed on Shemya 1970 and 1971. I was a SP4 radio repairman in the dome, a tracking dish. We monitored ICBM’s and a doomed Soyuz 11 mission that was doomed after a space docking caused a malfunction of an air valve. Ground control said that the open hatch indicator was an error, unfortunately they were wrong. We monitored their heart and vital signs as they died.
Was there 1979. Wow what memories.
I was in U.S. Air Force stationed on Shemya from 4/1964 till 4/1965. Very lonely remote tour. Suffered through earthquake in 2/65. So glad when my tour was over! lol
On my way there tomorrow.
On January 23, 1945, we lost our uncle, James E. Neal, when his crew flew from Shemya Island to near Paramushiro Island. Their mission was to photograph airfields and to bomb targets of opportunity. The B-24 was taken down by Japanese Zeros. No one survived. Must have been some harsh conditions you were working in. Thanks for your service.
I was in the first cav Division in 1953. Flew from tokyo to Shemya in November 1953. Looking out the window of our aircraft, while approaching to land at Shemya
for refueling, I was certain we were going to crash. That was because the Island is small and all we could see on approach was water, Ice and snow. The pilots were darn good.