There were two places in the Aleutian Islands that I most wanted to see. Dutch Harbor, because of the show ‘The Deadliest Catch,’ and, Attu, because of the WWII battle that was fought there.
Bill had warned me prior to arrival that Attu had been ‘cleaned up.’ Kiska still has many left over artifacts from the Japanese occupation, just lying on the beach. Whereas, on Attu, if you didn’t know what had happened there, you might never suspect it.
Of course, signs like this on the beach are reminders of the island’s history.
In June, 1942, six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese captured, and occupied the islands of Kiska and Attu, claiming them for the Japanese Empire.
A year later, after a year-long bombing campaign, the Americans decided to re-capture Attu from the Japanese. Approximately 15,000 Americans arrived, to dispatch the estimated 1,500 Japanese on the island. The battle was expected to last 36 hours.
Instead, it became one of the bloodiest battles of WWII, and one that both governments, arguably, swept under the carpet. Few Americans are aware that Dutch Harbor was ever bombed, or that the only land battle of WWII, fought on American soil, was at Attu.
Mistakes were made by both sides, and the weather on Attu was badly underestimated. In order to maintain secrecy, the American soldiers were not told where they would be going. Many thought they were headed for Hawaii. Training was on the beach in Monterey, California. Instead, they were confronted with the freezing temperatures of a land invasion on Attu, in which the enemy forces were 2,600, not the estimated 1,500, without appropriate jackets or shoes, and an enemy who controlled the high ground.
The battle lasted for 18 days, and casualties on both sides were devastating. Of the 15,000 U.S. troops, 550 died, and 1,500 were wounded. Another 1,200 were casualties of the climate (mostly trenchfoot and frostbite). Of the Japanese force of 2,600, only 29 survived.
On the last day of battle, with the Americans clearly having momentum, the commander of the Japanese troops, Yamasaki, was down to 800 combat-ready soldiers, and 600 wounded. In a bold, last-ditch effort, he gave the order to kill and leave behind their own wounded, and lead a banzai charge directly against the Americans.
An excerpt from the diary of a Japanese doctor:
The Japanese strategy, with their final attack was to focus all their remaining soldiers on one highly focused charge. Their strategy came very close to working. They broke through the lines that the American soldiers had established over a three-week period, but were stopped perilously close to reaching their goal of seizing the American supplies — by a group of engineers! When it became obvious that the Japanese were beaten, the remaining Japanese soldiers, approximately 500, also took their own lives.
Today, my understanding is that the only population on Attu is 20 Coast Guard men who occupy the Loran station. Loran is an alternative to using GPS for navigation, which used to be in fashion, but now is being phased out, or about to make a comeback, depending on whom you ask.
We were told, prior to arrival, that we would probably be treated well by the Coast Guard staff. They don’t get a lot of visitors, and enjoy having people drop by to say “Hi!”
And, to my great surprise, they are fond of their island. Our group met with the Commanding Officer who proudly showed us around their facility, then offered to have the second-in-command (the XO) to give us a tour of the island in their ‘snow caterpillar.’
Coast Guard personnel assigned to Attu do a one year tour of duty. Once a month, a C-130 (the plane in the picture above) arrives to bring the staff supplies, and transport staff. We were lucky enough to watch the monthly flight come in. It was picking up two Coast Guard men who had served their one year, and were heading home. Two men were on the in-coming flight to replace them.
Next to where we were anchored was a grim reminder of the harsh environment at Attu; the wreckage of a C-130 that went into the hillside.
The Coast Guard staff assigned to Attu seem to be passionate about Attu. Brad, who gave us a tour was quite an ambassador for the island. He spoke with obvious delight about doing hikes several times a week, and even a make-shift ski mountain they set up in the winter. On these hikes, he said it is not uncommon to find ammo, weapons, and recently he found a human leg bone. Another reminder that Attu wasn’t always the peaceful, pretty island, that we were seeing today.
We stopped at a memorial for Yamasaki, the commander of the Japanese troops, marking the location where he died.
I decided to ‘tough it out,’ and walk it from the Yamasaki memorial, to the ‘Japanese Memorial,’ which isn’t terribly far, but it is steep and uphill. Roberta and I were fine, but Shelby ran out of gas. Here we see me carrying her the last 100 yards. (Being a 13-year-old dog, she isn’t as spry as she used to be.)
Overlooking the valley where the final banzai charge occurred, is a memorial to the soldiers who died there during the war. The inscription reads, “In memory of all those who sacrificed their lives in the islands and seas of the North Pacific during World War II and in dedication to world peace.”
Brad mentioned that there is a major effort going on by the Japanese and Americans to find the mass graves of the Japanese, some of which are in remote locations, and return the soldiers to their homeland.
As we hiked around the area, we saw the shallow trenches dug by the American soldiers. It was a strange feeling, standing in an American trench, looking up at the hills where 65 years ago the Japanese had controlled the hills and exchanged fire with the American soldiers. It was inconceivable, but it did occur.
Back on the beach, everyone loaded into tenders to return to the boats.
The last tender to leave the beach was Sans Souci’s small tender. Our larger tender is in need of repair, so we had brought to the beach our nine foot little light-weight tender, with its seven horsepower engine. Into it we crammed Jeff, Bill and myself (Roberta and Shelby rode in Grey Pearl’s tender). We had come ashore at Massacre Bay, which is probably a two mile ride from where we anchored the boats, in Casco Bay.
We had planned poorly, particularly in being the last tender to leave the shore, and in being overloaded. Our selection of weather also wasn’t looking so wise. The wind had come up to over 20 knots, and was freezing. The tender’s engine decided to be grumpy, and stalled, within about five minutes of leaving shore. Fortunately, it restarted, only to die again. After being restarted five times, and only making a mile, we realized we were in trouble. Three very experienced ship’s captains, sitting in a tiny tender, a dead outboard, high winds, freezing temperature, and being blown towards a reef. This seemed a good time to call for help. Steven Argosy, back at Seabird, responded immediately. He said that he had deliberately stalled on loading his tender onto the deck of Seabird, sensing that we might have problems. In five minutes he was to us, offloaded Bill and I to his tender, and without the overload, the little tender and Jeff made the run back to Sans Souci without further incident.
Back on the boats, we loaded the tenders on deck, and prepared for departure.
We have been using two weather routers, each of who predicted calm seas for our three day trip to Russia. However, inside Casco Bay, as we were pulling anchor, we were watching the wind rise. The 20 knot winds became 30 knot winds. As we were approaching a full-on gale, I called (via radio) to Steven and Braun, to say “Are we sure we should be pulling anchor? Something doesn’t seem right.” Braun came on the radio to say, “I think we’re going to be fine. This is probably wind being funneled through the mountains. I think it is a local phenomena, or at least I hope it is.” We continued to pull anchor, and were in dead calm seas fifteen minutes later, as we exited the bay. For the next three days, our trip went as smoothly as a trip can go. We had flat water and zero excitement. A great cruise.
We had been warned to call the Russian Navy 12 miles before reaching Russia. However, we weren’t sure who to call, or on what radio channel. Rather than take any chance of ‘surprising’ the Russian Navy with our presence in their waters, I started calling on the radio 50 miles out, “Petropavlovsk Navy, this is Sans Souci.” No answer. 40 miles out, same thing. 30 mile out, same thing. Etc.
At 12 miles out, I started calling both for the Petropavlovsk Navy, and for the Petropavlovsk Pilot. We had been told that a pilot boat would be guiding us into the harbor, although we weren’t clear if the pilot would guide us, or actually board our ships to direct us. In any event, I was to call them at 12 miles out. However, still no response. This was at 6am, and we were starting to get nervous about being too close to Russia without speaking with anyone.
That is when a voice came on the radio, “G S R. This is Petropavlovsk.” Did he mean us? Could it be the USSR calling the GSSR? Was it the pilot, or the navy? Bill tried responding, and they did answer, although the person calling spoke only a couple of words of english. We think he said we should continue, but we weren’t sure who he was, and we weren’t sure he knew who we were. We continued.
At about five miles out, another voice came on the radio, calling to Seabird. This time the English was better, and we were being directed to continue to the pilot boarding location, and call when we reached there. We still didn’t know who we were speaking to, but they seemed to know who we were, and we had orders, so we followed them. We were being guided towards a point a couple miles before the entrance to the harbor.
We arrived at that point at 6:30am. The voice came back on the radio, and asked us to wait until 8am for more instructions. Once again, no idea who the voice was, and they didn’t seem to like questions, but, we did as told. Roberta was steering, and chose a tight circle, which we traversed many times while waiting.
At 8am, we were given clearance to enter the harbor, and proceed to our berth. This was great news. We had previously been given the latitude and longitude of where we would be tying up. Being able to proceed directly to our slips would be easy to do, and allow us to stop the engines. After three days of running, we were fatigued.
It took us another hour to reach the harbor. Once there, things were more complicated than expected. The dock is meant for tying giant cruise ships. Sans Souci tied up first, but then realized it was impossible to get to shore. There were giant tires strapped to the dock, which were keeping us five feet or so from the quay. Standing on shore was the seven-person immigration team, ready to come aboard Sans Souci. They were looking at us, and we were looking at them, but neither of us had an idea how to bridge the gap. It took about a half hour for someone on shore to find a gang plank, which would allow the immigration officials to board Sans Souci.
While waiting for the boarding ramp to arrive, I was speaking to Seabird and Grey Pearl via radio. We decided that it would be simpler for the other boats to side tie (raft) to Sans Souci, rather than for all three boats to need boarding ramps. However, as Seabird was positioning to tie to Sans Souci, the immigration officials were boarding Sans Souci, and they immediately ordered me to stop Seabird from tying up. We had an agent, who had arranged our moorage in Petropavlovsk, who was translating. The Russian officials wanted to deal with our boats, one at a time. Seabird and Grey Pearl would need to float, until they were given the green light to tie up.
The clearing in process was time consuming, and involved a huge amount of paperwork. Each of our boats had to assemble a thick set of documentation (nearly 100 pages including copies!) each of which had to be reviewed and stamped. Overall, though, it went incredibly smooth, and the Russian officials couldn’t have been nicer, or easier to work with. I remember clearing in and out of Mexico, each of which involved running around town, going from office to office. We had all of the agents, for all of the agencies, sitting in our salon, working with us to make the clearance as painless as possible.
After about an hour to process Sans Souci, Seabird was green-lighted to raft up, and 45 minutes later Grey Pearl was cleared, and we were in!
We were parked next to a Russian battleship! They had all soldiers on deck for our arrival. I suspect we must have looked very strange to them. It felt totally bizarre standing 20 feet from the Russian battleship. The soldiers were smiling, so we figured we were ok. Once ashore we discovered that we had arrived on “Navy Day.” The navy was there showing off their battleships, bombers, fighter jets, etc. We were offered tours. I found it amusing, in that prior to arrival I had mentioned in the comments section of my blog that I was going to work hard to NOT see anything controversial. We’re a guest in Russia, and I didn’t want to see anything they didn’t want me to see. Suddenly, here was a Russian battleship inviting us aboard for a tour. How strange is that?
Our first priority, once into Russia, was to obtain shore power. All of us have been running on our generators for nearly a month. Our local agents in Russia, Pacific Network (highly recommended!), were on the boat within an hour, to bring us shore power. Amazingly, they asked us what we would most prefer, and we were astounded when they said “No problem!” We asked for 240v, 50 amp service, preferably 60 hertz. They were able to comply with all but the last part, and asked if our boats could handle 50 hertz power. We said yes, and they started wiring. As they were working on it, I noticed that they had three phase power, at 420 volts. My boat has a super-duper-magic power system that is supposed to be able to handle anything I throw at it. Thus I asked them to give me the 420v three-phase. This would give my boat a ton of power, through a single 50 amp cable. Steven and Braun looked at me like I was crazy, but I remained confident that it would work. Inside, I was sweating, and my fingers were crossed. It did work. Yay!!
Above is one funny picture, though. I went out for a hike, and was coming back to the boat when I noticed thick, black smoke above the GSSR boats. I phoned to Roberta who was in our stateroom, to ask if we were on fire. She said, “Not as far as I know,” and rushed upstairs. Leaning out the back door she realized that the battleship had started engines in order to leave, and was throwing out thick black smoke. When I reached the boat, the battleship was gone, but the smell inside Sans Souci was not great. It smelled like we were on fire! Roberta said my call was timed poorly. I called just in time for her to take a full load of thick black smoke into the boat. Oops.
I am deliberately refraining from talking directly about Petropavlovsk until my next blog. Suffice it to say that the city has exceeded my expectations, and I have nothing but good things to report. I didn’t want to mix talking about Attu and Petropavlovsk in the same blog, so that each location gets proper respect.
It really took until about an hour after arrival before it set in, ‘WE HAD CROSSED THE PACIFIC.’ For Grey Pearl and us, this means we have crossed both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Wow! There were wide ear to ear smiles on all three boats! We still have a challenge ahead of us to reach Japan, but this arrival marked a huge milestone for us.
Sans Souci, Nordhavn 68
P.S. Roberta snapped a collection of lovely pictures of the plants and flowers on Attu. To see them, CLICK HERE