11 September 2017

Navy Memories #13: Adak Outdoors

Previous installments:
  1. Boot Camp Memories
  2. About Those Navy Memories
  3. First Orders
  4. Anchor's Aweigh
  5. Man Overboard!
  6. Reflections of a Black Shoe
  7. Destroyer Life and Ports of Call
  8. Warships vs. Big Waves
  9. The Accident, and More Ports of Call
  10. The Black Sea - Operation Silver Fox
  11. 1975, A Year of Change 
  12. North to the Future
Sign above the entrance to the airport terminal from the runway.

If you ask anyone who was stationed in the Aleutians, they'll talk about the weather, the fishing, and the roads. Not necessarily in that order, but trust me - those three things will be among the first things they mention.

Adak, situated smack-dab in the middle of the Aleutian chain, is 650 miles from the Alaskan mainland. The Aleutians are also used by cartographers as the boundary between the north Pacific and the Bering Sea.

I already wrote about the elements which form the basis for Adak's wild weather patterns (see #12, above). When I was there, we had some 270 days per year of measurable precipitation, and sunny days were rare. So yes, the weather plays a BIG part in anyone's experience there.

There weren't many roads on the island, apart from the Naval Station itself. The roads off-base were dirt and gravel. You can imagine what all that rain and snow did to dirt roads. According to one crusty old Chief Warrant Officer, "I see they've relocated all the potholes."

The Main Road ... always referred to with capital letters ... was a two-lane blacktop that ran from Bering Hill, around the southern end of the runway, and north again to the edge of the base. It forked just north of the Station; the eastern fork continued along the coast to the Naval Communication Station (see map - it's labeled "NSAG" for Naval Security Activities Group), and beyond. To get anywhere off-base, one traveled either a dirt road, or went hiking.

There were about 12 miles of road, excluding the streets in the residential areas, and only some 3 1/2 miles of it was paved.

I drove 189 miles on those roads, one weekend ... we'll get back to that in a later installment.

"Birthplace of the Winds"
Official station patch
On any day when the winds blew at less than 40 knots (46 mph), it was considered a normal day. That doesn't mean a 40-knot wind wouldn't go straight through whatever outer wear you selected. I soon discovered that the Navy's standard foul weather coat was woefully inadequate. But a quick trip to the Supply Division had me digging through non-standard wear ... I found an Air Force parka with a snorkel hood that worked very well. A "snorkel" hood is one which, when unfolded or unrolled, extends out past your face to create a space where the weather doesn't reach you. Of course, you get tunnel vision, but that's how snorkels are. :)

a "snorkel" parka

But the winds were the big story, most of the time. You could walk across a lot in the rain (have I mentioned it rained horizontally?) and get wet on only one side. In winter, you'd have snow caked on one side. There were days when it blew so hard that many would link elbows to get across the parking lots; it kept the smaller folk from blowing away. That's no joke.

One popular pastime was to go onto any parking lot in winter, with your back to the wind, and open your coat. You could slide, skate, or tumble very quickly to the other side! Okay, it was an acquired skill ... but it was a lot of fun!

There was a particular day in my second year when the winds were blowing at 60 to 70 knots (69 to 80 mph), and gusting over 100 knots (115 mph). We were sent home at mid-day because the weather service expected the storm to worsen.

Several of us piled into my 4x4 (my second vehicle on Adak) to head back to the barracks. Once on the main road, I realized that the wind would be behind us for the first half-mile.  We turned off the engine, opened the doors, hung onto them for dear life ... and continued at 45 mph without slowing!

Weekend Activities

A popular pastime for many was the adoption of a Quonset hut.

At one point during World War II, there were around 90,000 troops stationed on Adak. The original quarters were canvas tents, but those didn't stand up to the wind and snow very well. So the next option was Quonset huts ... and the Navy built a LOT of them. Each was spacious, and many servicemen could be quartered in each one.

Adak, c. 1945

The enlisted huts were a thick pressboard, with inner and outer layers, and insulation in-between. The officers' huts had metal siding. We enlisted men took a perverse pleasure in noting that, in the '70s, that the enlisted huts had resisted the weather much better than the metal-sided version. Many of those had collapsed by then.

So what do off-duty personnel do, 650 miles out in the middle of the ocean? Why, we salvaged materials from collapsed huts and rebuilt Quonsets for ourselves. Some got pretty fancy, indeed. The base Security office had aerial photos of all the huts, and all they asked was that we stop by to tell them which one we'd "adopted".

This one had an Arctic entryway, dormer windows, a composting toilet, a gas stove for
heating & cooking, and a TV.

Mine wasn't as nice as the one pictured above, but it was weather tight, and we found a 55-gallon drum and enough galvanized stove pipe to make a wood stove. We salvaged flooring from other huts, and a couple of metal cots to sleep on. A Coleman lamp, well-seasoned lumber from collapsed huts, and we were good to go. It was a quiet shelter from the wind or cold, and I spent a night there, from time to time.

But the weather was always an issue. I was always amazed at how quickly snow could accumulate. One Saturday, I headed out to the hut to install more flooring. It had just begun flurrying, and there were two- to three-inch tall drifts across the road already.

My first vehicle on Adak, purchased because the only other option was to ride to work
in the back of a pickup. And that was COLD!

I parked my old Ford Galaxy about 1/8 mile away, and spent the next 90 minutes nailing down some flooring. When I went back outside, the snow was up to the door handles on the car.

I'd had the car for awhile, and since it was mid-winter, also had quite a bit of experience at how to get it going.

1:  Get the snow shovel out of the trunk.
2:  Dig a trench around the car.
3:  Jack up each rear tire and put the snow chains on.

That was a fairly quick procedure, given the amount of practice I'd already had. But then I faced a new challenge. Each time I'd done it, previously, I was on-base, and the Facilities folks had already plowed the roads.

On Adak, they used road graders on the base for snow plows. Off-base? They used D-7 Caterpillars.

D7 Dozer (not on Adak)

The road was now one with the surrounding landscape; there was a solid, three-foot-deep landscape of snow as far as I could see.

But then the Lord smiled on me, and what was at first a distant rumble became a very large D7 Caterpillar which was headed toward the base. I waited for him to chug by, and followed him back into town.

By the way, the reason I'd had so much practice putting the snow chains on the car was because the parking lot at the barracks was never cleared unless we did it ourselves. I got good at rocking the car back and forth, with chains on, until I created enough room to get up a bit of headway. That allowed me to churn through the snow and make my own path to the plowed road at the edge.

Adak family housing in winter

But getting outside was its own reward. The landscape is spectacular in summer and winter alike.

And wildlife?

Caribou, with no natural predators save Man ... Arctic fox ... ptarmigan ... the largest aerie of Bald Eagles in North America (or so we were told at the time), with some 5,000 of the raptors present. There were ravens ... seagulls ... several kinds of salmon ... Dolly Varden ... halibut.

Shellfish? No. There are mussels, but those are poisonous in the Aleutians.

In fact, you can eat almost anything you find there. With minimal instruction, one can live off the land quite nicely.

It's a sportsman's paradise, very photogenic, and it touched everyone who's ever been there.

Next installment: I get involved in radio and TV.

(h/t RCM for editing suggestions)


DAH Global Solutions said...

Might have been fun, back in the day, but to do that now? Ain't no way!

Rev. Paul said...

Bro, it was warmer there than it is here on the mainland. I'd do it again in a heartbeat! :)

Old NFO said...

What was the name of the barracks we (aircrew) got stuck with on Bearing Hill?

drjim said...

Ahhh...the famous N3B parka! I bought my first one when I started going to the local Junior College/ The place was built way out on the Westside of town, up on a plateau, with NO trees around to break the wind.

And the winters in Northern Illinois can be quite cold and windy!

I didn't start wearing it to school until the end of November or so, and got laughed at for wearing it.

Until after Christmas, when we got clobbered with TWO WEEKS of sub-zero temps, and 30 MPH winds.

And the parking lot was about 1/2 mile to the first set of temporary classrooms, and the Student Union.

The first day I came strolling in all nice and snug and WARM, everybody swamped me demanding to know where I got it!

The local surplus store sold out that week.

I bought a new one a few years ago, before I'd met my wife, and when I moved in here, she looked at it busted out laughing.

I don't think she'll feel the same after it gets some use in Colorado!

Rev. Paul said...

NFO, I think you're referring to the Birchwood Barracks ... if my fading memories still serve.

Jim, those parkas are in high regard here, even if they're only useful for a month or two in winter. I have a detachable snorkel hood for my winter parka, even now.

LindaG said...

I don't remember the parka hoods being called snorkels. Must have been a Navy thing. ;-)

On Shemya, hubby said they had fence posts with ropes going from the barracks to the hangar (and probably anywhere else that was important, I just don't remember); and more than once he had to use that to get from point A to point B. I suppose Adak was too big for something like that. :)

Nice photos and a very interesting update!

Rev. Paul said...

Linda, I don't recall now what the Air Force parka was called; surely it had an alphanumeric designation, like all military gear. But I bought it as soon as it came to the surface in that big box of discarded coats. :)

Adak was a city of 5,000 in my day, with hundreds of homes plus all the military buildings. Ropes wouldn't work. But all the barracks, mess hall, and recreation building on Bering Hill (see header photo at the top of this blog) were connected with tunnels.

LindaG said...

Tunnels are the way to go!

When I was at Clear AFS, in the middle of the Tanana Valley, for one of my short tours. It consisted of a maintenance building, three or four barracks (all connected by hallways), the "cooling ponds" - which never froze, even at 60 below, and the building and radome that housed the tracking antenna. Said to be able to track a pencil in space. I know it could light a light bulb if you held it in your hand, and you could hear it in whatever speaker you had, whether it was on or not!
I always wondered what it did to the people who worked there for a year, or more! in the case of the technicians.

Good memories. We miss the Air Force. As it was, not as the military is now. Hopefully President Trump, and the good Lord, will fix that.

drjim said...

The designator for the parkas was "N3B".

The tag in my original one also said some like "Jacket, Men's Flying", but I wouldn't doubt if the wordage has changed over the year.

They've been called "Snorkel Parkas" since the USAF first issued them in the 1950's, so it wasn't "A Navy thing".

My original Alpha Industries parka served me from the fall of 1969 until the early 1990's when the zipper finally failed, and the jacket was simply too worn out to be worth the $100 a tailor wanted to replace it.

Rev. Paul said...

Jim, I wore the parka for my two years on Adak, went home with it after the Navy, and then gave it to my best buddy when I gained a few pounds & it didn't fit. He wore it for years, until it too was worn out. And it clearly said "Property U.S. Air Force" on the interior label, until I bought it from Supply. It's just that I haven't seen it since 1978. :)

LindaG said...

Hubby said he heard the term "Snorkel Parka" at an indock briefing. But I never did until this post.

Of course, I could have heard and forgotten, too!

Ed Bonderenka said...

Kinda late reading this, but I had one of those parkas issued to me and it got stolen after I got home. I miss it to this day.
USAF called it a snorkel parka and I'm sure it had an M designator.
I like having the hood unzipped on my shoulders (like an animal skin) on warmer days.
I have my son's Navy issue he left at home, but it's quite tight on me.

Rev. Paul said...

Ed, I was just glad the Navy had no objection to me wearing a USAF-issue parka. But N-3B it was; I just googled it (okay, I Bing'd it) and confirmed. The only difference I can see is that my old parka had an actual wolf-fur ruff around the hood, whereas the modern coats have an acrylic ruff.

Yes, it was warm, and yes, the hood sometimes got in the way. But when you needed that hood, there was no substitute.

drjim said...

My original 1969 parka also has real wolf fur around it.

My new one has something else. Might or might not be synthetic, I don't recall.

And my old one and new one are sage green!

Rev. Paul said...

I bought mine used in '75, and - IIRC - I believe it was a '72 manufacture. Sage green. :)