Adak, a name to remember

Published 10:47 am Tuesday, December 31, 2013

by James D. Howell

I’ve been here for a week. I’ve settled in to the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters, opened a bank account at the local bank (yes, they have a branch), made my required orientation to the base facilities and started my duties.

The base has about 4,000 resident civilians, military and their families, scattered in several housing areas around an airport and the navigable harbor, Sweeper’s Cove. To the north, visible on some days is Mt. Moffett; mostly only the lower quarter is visible. To the south is a succession of low hills and inlets, dotted with left over Quonset huts from World War II. More modern buildings house the island’s current residents and work spaces.

It’s a deep-water harbor, capable of most cargo and military vessels. Dredged and improved during World War II, it boasts repair and maintenance facilities for a wide range of vehicles and watercraft. A supply ship arrives every two weeks with provisions for the islanders. Its arrival is celebrated by a run on the commissary building for lettuce and frozen milk. Mail arrives on the twice-weekly Reeve Aleutian flight. Its arrival creates a stir among the populace about who’s arriving and who’s departing.

The airport has two intersecting runways and is well maintained. It has an instrument approach system, a control tower, and full fire and rescue departments. At a glance, the island has all the requisites for an isolated island life, with regular air and sea service for re-supply.

I learn that, tucked away in a cove on the far side of the island, there is a “Naval Facility.” The same kind of station I worked with in Bermuda. The underwater cables extend way out here. And other places. I can tell that a lot of what I don’t know about goes on this island.

My car will take a couple of weeks to get here, but it’s not a large base. I share rides with others to get to and from work, and I hike and share rides with others to distant points around the island. There are many roads left over from World War II and the rock sub base on the roads doesn’t deteriorate quickly. Potholes are numerous and expected beyond the pavement. Getting a vehicle stuck in mud is generally not a problem; potholes have a rock bottom.

My duties will be in the Aircraft Maintenance Division, supporting transient aircraft. Patrol Squadrons from the “lower 48” deploy to Adak for a month or more on a routine schedule. The anti submarine world extends virtually anywhere a submarine can operate. Today that territory is worldwide, including the arctic.

My duties also include flying a Grumman HU-16 amphibious aircraft. I have some experience with seaplanes; so it’s not much of a stretch to operate this aircraft in most situations. We fly airborne ambulance missions to other island populations as well as military search and rescue. The search and rescue team also includes two Kaman UH2B helicopters. I make friends quickly with the helicopter pilots and am invited to respond with them to emergency calls as an additional crewmember. It’s a gift, not to be taken lightly. It will prove to be one of the more interesting duties that I will ever have.

The first weeks are spent learning the ropes of Adak, exploring roads that crisscross the island, and learning the geography of the Aleutian Islands for a hundred miles or so in different directions. I visually check out Great Sitkin Island, about 25 miles to the east, and Kanaga and Tanaga islands to the west. All have active volcanoes and a part of my job will be to check them for eruptive activity each time we pass and can see well enough. Most of the time all are hidden in a mask of cloud that begins about six hundred feet above sea level. Low ceilings, rain, and high winds will be the standard forecast most days in this region.

I quickly learn that the weather conditions on Adak can be physically and mentally depressing; sanity is retained by finding diversions and activities that can be pursued indoors, or outdoors with appropriate clothing and preparation. I learn that people die from exposure on this island because they do not respect Mother Nature and don’t believe death can occur without freezing temperatures. Hypothermia is deadly and unforgiving.

I find that I’m challenged by this new environment; I learn to prepare for and accept the fact that my duties will take me into harm’s way without war. I am at once thrilled by and a little leery of this new world.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at