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The first of these projects was a chain for the Bering Sea, in western Alaska. It was the first full-scale program for Loran stations in which the Coast Guard undertook both construction and operation. Normally, this area had prolonged periods of bad weather which hampered navigation. The Army and Navy were operating there, confronted with the problem of dislodging the Japanese in the westernmost island of the Aleutians, and of making full use of the Alaskan area for military activities directed toward the western Pacific.
In September 1942, two months after the Manasquan tests, a survey party comprised of representatives of the Army Air Force, the Coast Guard, and the Radiation Laboratory went into the Bering Sea and selected Loran sites on St. Matthew, St. Paul, and Umnak Islands. On 28 January 1943, the Coast Guard was directed to establish stations at these sites. Headquarters organized a special Construction Detachment A (Unit 26) to construct and man the stations. The permanent manning crews were to be used also as the construction force, and each slave station was to have one officer and 18 men.
Lieutenant Commander John F. Martin, USCGR, was designated as commanding officer and sent to MIT for a course in Loran work. An order of 19 February 1943, called for the simultaneous construction of four stations. The project required the procurement of substantial amounts of construction equipment, tools, supplies, and technical apparatus, as well as special foods and clothing for life on the northern islands. All were finally assembled at Seattle. Forty-six men with construction experience and two civil engineering officers, Ensigns David R. Permar and John J. O’Meara, were assigned to this project. Trained technicians and operators were drawn from the Loran school.
Most of the materials, equipment, and crew departed Seattle for Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in USS Henry Failing and Jonathan Harrington on 12 April 1943. Unloading began on arrival 25 April, and a detachment headquarters was set up. Cutter (buoy tender) Clover stood by to transport personnel and material to the various sites.
Clover departed Dutch Harbor for Umnak Island on 12 May, towing a landing barge. Just outside Dutch Harbor, however, the barge capsized because of the “excessive” speed of 10 knots, and it was returned to the harbor for reconditioning. Since that would delay operations, plans were changed and Clover left on 21 May for St. Paul Island, 250 miles distant, where unloading would be done by barges belonging to the Army garrison there.
Two trips to St. Paul Island were required to transport the 450 tons of materiel—trucks, cranes, bulldozers, concrete mixers, Quonset huts, lumber, cement, pipe, and other items, as well as electronic equipment such as antennae, transmitters, timers, switchboards, generators, and other things needed to make a completely self sustaining station. The shoreline of the island consisted of rocky cliffs and ledges rising to a height of about 45 feet. The site was on a promontory with the sea on its west and south sides. Unloading was done by barge, and the materials were hauled by truck from the dock to the end of the existing road. The remainder of the haul was over rocky terrain, and transportation was furnished by two Army tractors with trailers, and by sledges built by the crew. Heavy snow covered the entire island; when it melted, conditions were deplorable.
When the technical equipment was unpacked, it was discovered that the Loran timers and transmitters were in poor condition. Defective parts and poor connections caused trouble, and a shortage of spare parts and test equipment caused difficulty in getting the station on the air. On 31 May 1943, Coast Guard plane PBY-189, under command of Lieutenant Commander Richard Baxter, with Ensign Harold Bennett as co-pilot, reported for duty to transport the commanding officer of the Loran Construction Detachment, as well as mail, personnel, supplies, and materials to the various sites.
Conditions at St. Matthew Island were observed from this plane. St. Matthew was the northernmost site, 200 miles north of St. Paul Island, and over 400 miles north of Dutch Harbor. At the proper time, Clover loaded materials and the construction crew and, with the landing barge, sailed for St. Matthew on 17 June. Here, since snow and ice covered the site, and the tundra, which was 18 inches to eight feet thick, was unstable when not frozen, it was necessary to prepare unusually elaborate foundations for the structures. Technical equipment was in a condition similar to that at St. Paul, and several trips for spare parts were required before the station began testing on 11 September. While tests were being conducted, five enlisted men set out on an errand from St. Matthew Island in a small surfboat for a 9-mile journey along the shore to an Army weather station. Despite a calm sea, the men, boat, and equipment disappeared without a trace. Only a 5 gallon oil can known to have been in the boat was ever found — mute testimony to tragedy.
On 5 June, Clover set out from Dutch Harbor with equipment, materials, and a construction crew for Umnak Island. A landing was made there, supplies were transported ashore by barge, and a temporary camp was established in the village of Nikolski. The site at Cape Starr was five miles away. There was no road over the rugged terrain and all hauling had to be done when the ground was dry or frozen. The Army had an air station at the island, and vessels arrived at least once a month throughout the year. From this station a squadron of fighter planes in 1942 had knocked down several Jap planes which had attacked Dutch Harbor. Ten hour transmissions from this chain began on 18 October, and by July 1944, transmissions were on a 24 hour basis.
During the first winter, difficulties were caused chiefly by weather. Snow was heavy and continuous; drifts varied from 3 to 25 feet in depth. Several blizzards lasted 10 days, and men lost their bearings even when traveling only 50 feet from hut to hut. Guide ropes rectified this difficulty. Men were rotated after a year of service.
There was a light station at Cape Sarichef, on Umnak Island, 80 miles northeast of Dutch Harbor. A monitor station was established toward the end of 1943. Personnel were housed at the light station. However, because electronic results were poor, the monitor was decommissioned in December 1944, and its duties were taken over by a temporary monitor station which had been established in July of that year at St. George Island, one of the Pribilof group.
The crew of plane PBY-189 played an important part in building the Alaskan Loran chain. It made 96 flights, and of 354 hours of flying, mostly under adverse weather conditions, 200 flying hours required instrument flying. As there were no handling facilities at the three destinations, it necessary to anchor the plane in the open sea. During this period, the plane rescued four injured men from an Army plane wrecked in the Bering Sea.
On completion the Alaska chain comprised:
St. Mathew Island Unit #5 Single Slave
St. Paul lsland Unit #60 Double Master
Umnak Island Unit #40 Single Slave
Cape Sarichef* Unit #25 Monitor
St. George Island Unit #95 Monitor
* Replaced by St. George Island Station
The Japanese had occupied two of the Islands – Attu and Kiska. The United States Navy and Army had driven the Japs off Attu, the westernmost of the islands in a hard-fought battle of two weeks duration ending in success on 29 May 1943. Kiska was evacuated by the Japs on 28-29 July of that year. All of the Aleutian Islands were then in American hands.
On 18 Julv, the first United States air attack on Paramushiro occurred when six planes took off from Attu and completed the 2,000-mile round trip. A second raid was made on 11 August. On 15 August, American and Canadian troops had landed on Kiska Island and found the enemy had deserted it. The weather was so uncertain, however, both over the Aleutians from which the bombers had to fly, and over the Kuriles which were fogbound most of the year, that bombing was hazardous and uncertain. Loran was a means of reducing the hazards of navigation. The Bering Sea stations were still under construction but nearing completion when, in the late summer of 1943, it was decided to expand Loran coverage in Alaska through a second chain in the Western Aleutians.
Site surveys were made by Coast Guard plane late in August, and sites were chosen at Adak Island, roughly 400 miles west of Dutch Harbor; at Amchitka Island, 180 miles west of Adak; and at Attu, 250 miles west of Amchitka.
Because the work would be carried on in the winter and temporary construction personnel had proved only moderately satisfactory, Construction Detachment A (Unit 26) was assigned to this work. It consisted of eight officers and 130 men, and these were subdivided into four detachments. Personnel of each subdivision included a construction officer, carpenter’s mates, motor machinist’s mates, cook, pharmacist’s mate, electrician’s mates, and seamen, making each unit self sufficient. A headquarters unit consisted of 4 officers and 10 enlisted men including yeomen, storekeepers, and general duty men. The entire detachment was under command of Lieutenant Commander J. F. Martin.
Supplies, personnel, and equipment were assembled at Seattle. Advance arrangements were made at the three locations for the housing and messing of personnel and for storing gear. With preliminary arrangements completed, SS George Flavel left Seattle about 1 November for Adak and Attu by way of Ketchikan and Dutch Harbor, with personnel and supplies. Cargo movements between Dutch Harbor and the Loran sites were handled by buoy tender Cedar.
On 15 November 1943, Lieutenant Commander Martin was relieved by Lieutenant (jg) Garrett Horder, and assigned to survey work for southwest Pacific stations. He returned to Dutch Harbor in a JRF airplane assigned to Loran work in Alaska and the Aleutians, transferring to another plane for Kodiak. The short-range JRF had just been pronounced inadequate for work in the bad weather there, and had been ordered to Port Angeles, Washington. The JRF left Dutch Harbor, also for Kodiak, 20 minutes before Martin’s plane. After leaving Port Heiden it was never heard from again.
The Adak station (monitor) was built at the top of a steep 634 foot hill, 340 feet above the nearest road. The chief problem encountered was getting the cargo up the hill; gear was hauled over the ground on Athey wagons—a slow process. The buildings were erected on spaces dug out of the hillside, and were well banked with soil to reduce surface exposed to the very high prevailing winds. When the station was turned over to the regular manning personnel, supplies were obtained from the Naval Operating Base being developed on the island.
Material for the master station at Attu was unloaded from George Flavel at Massacre Bay on 7 December 1943. Attu is about 40 miles long east to west, and 20 miles wide. The site was midway on the south side, at Theodore Point. Materials and equipment were moved 11 miles by barge from Massacre Bay to a rocky beach near the site. Transportation to the site required the conquering of steep grades, with the last mile over an abrupt 1,600-foot hill. There were 7 to 10 feet of snow on the ground.
Cutter Citrus, which relieved Clover, arrived with the construction crew consisting of Chief Boatswain’s Mate William Goodwin and 80 men, and commanded by Lieutenant Thomas Kiely. Cargo was taken ashore by ship’s boats, LCMs, and pontoon barges. Four barges were lost in the process due to difficult landing conditions and the suddenness of storms. Chief Goodwin designed, and the men built, a bobsled capable of carrying 20 tons, which almost made the difference between success and failure in transportation of materials and equipment. A bulldozer was rigged as a caterpillar, to pull the bobsled. Even this rig could not get over the steepest part of the route until a road with two switchbacks had been built. While working on this road, a bulldozer operator, William A. Baughman, seaman first class, was killed when the vehicle rolled down the side of the hill.
Work at the site began 11 January 1944. Despite extremely cold weather, blizzards, and deeply frozen ground, the station was on the air and testing 11 February, with a complement of about 23 men. Navy ships supplied this station after it was placed in operation, sending supplies ashore by dory. The supplies were hauled up a 230 foot hill, with steep incline, on a cart pulled by cable and winch. Station personnel spent much of their time handling such deliveries.
While the Attu station was being built, construction of a slave station began at Amchitka Island, under the direction of Ensign O’Meara. Eleven months earlier, the Army had landed there and begun construction of what became a major base. A fighter strip had been completed on 16 February, from which planes soon began bombing Kiska. The cargo for the Loran station was landed on 10 December 1943. Building proceeded normally. The site on St. Makarius Point was far removed from the Army installation in order to avoid interference from other radio stations.
The Aleutian chain was on the air by mid-February 1944, and all were operating on a 24 hour basis by early June. To summarize, it consisted of:
Attu Unit #62 Single Master
Amchitka Unit #63 Single Slave
Adak Unit #64 Monitor
The western Aleutian Loran units were highly important and useful. Many officers including those attached to the Fleet Task Force, which made frequent raids on the Kurile Islands, stretching northward from the main Japanese islands, held Loran in high esteem as an all weather aid to navigation. For example, a vessel performing guard ship duty was able to keep her station through two weeks of adverse weather, using daytime sky waves. Navigators on patrol missions made by Navy Catalinas used Loran extensively. It gave drift data free from the inaccuracies of drift sights taken on the ocean’s surface. A Ventura bomber, while on a mission over the Kuriles, was hit by a burst of antiaircraft fire which threw the plane over on its back and destroyed its radar, compass, and other instruments. The Loran gear was still operative, however, and by homing on a line of position from rate 0, the plane reached its home base. The value of Loran was recognized by the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces in their attacks on the Kuriles, when he forbade his bombers to take off on missions to the westward unless their Loran sets had been checked and found working properly.
The invasions of Tarawa, Makin, and Abemama in the Gilbert Islands took place in November 1943, just as construction of the Aleutian stations was getting under way. Other operations between Hawaii and Australia were in progress. Guns were blazing in the Gilberts when, on 12 November, it was decided by the Joint Loran Planning Committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Loran coverage should be provided in the area southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. Through these waters passed the all important supply route from Hawaii to Australia.
Sites chosen were on Kauai for a monitor station, and on the islands of Hawaii and French Frigate Shoals for single slave stations. The island of Niihau was chosen for a double master station. These were along a 600 mile line through the entire Hawaiian group.
Locations of the first Pacific Loran stations
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