NORTHWEST AIRLINES ON SHEMYA

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My name is Rick Cochran, and I was aboard Shemya in 1950 and '51, employed by Northwest Airlines as a radio operator in support of military airlift activities during the Korean conflict. This story presents my view of Shemya as seen by a Northwest employee during that period. Bear in mind, I am now 78, and memories tend to fade. I will be looking for comments, corrections, and facts to clean up what I am about to write. Please feel free to take exception, clarify, and generally bring these accounts into the correct perspective.

I was on Shemya from July 21, 1950 to April 3, 1951, on temporary duty from my permanent position as ground radio operator in Cleveland, Ohio. I had been in New York, looking for employment with the airline industry. I was about to nail down a flight radio operator assignment with TransOcean Airlines with their Middle East subsidiary but they cancelled the operation and I returned to my home in Cleveland and took the job with Northwest on September 11, 1949. Since I had a Radio Telephone and Telegraph license and a Flight Radio Officers certificate, they ask me in July of 1950 to go to Shemya as a temporary assignment to support their need for additional personnel during the military airlift. I accepted and soon found myself on a flight to Anchorage, and then to Shemya. I don't know if you remember Anchorage in those days. As I recall there was only one hotel, the Westward. The Anchorage Hilton now sets on that site. I had a cot on the second floor dormitory, and a clip board hung on the foot with my flight time to Shemya. They woke you up when it was time to get a car to the airport.

Since Northwest had the experience, personnel, and facilities in place, to fly the Great Circle Route to the Orient and they were the housekeeper on Shemya at the time, other airlines provided DC-4 and DC-6 aircraft, and NWA provided flight crews and flew the airlift of munitions, troops, and other wartime supplies from Anchorage to Shemya and then to Tokyo or Seoul. It was not uncommon to see United, Delta, Chicago & Southern, TWA, and other aircraft on the Shemya flight line. Arrival and departure was handled through the Shemya Tower and GCA, operated by Army Air Force personnel. Once clear of the tower, aircraft communications were by Morse Code (CW) to fixed stations in Anchorage, Shemya and Tokyo or Seoul. That was my job on Shemya. The radio positions were in the flight operations building on the flight line. NWA was continuing their regular passenger flights to the Orient during the airlift activities.

I worked twelve hours per day, seven days per week for the duration of the time I was there. All company business was transmitted via CW from the company station in Anchorage, cargo lists, flight manifests, personnel assignments, etc. In the same building was an Army radio teletype facility, which we supported and backed up when propagation was bad due to the northern lights. Earthquakes were frequent and mostly ignored.

All flights were required to transmit a position report each hour during the flights west and east out of Shemya, but due to poor radio propagation, there were many time when we did not hear from an aircraft for hours at a time. A "Pacific Alert" was called if they missed two reports, but to my knowledge, we did not lose any flights while I was there.

All landings at Shemya were Ground Controlled Approach due to the continuing miserable weather. Constant fog and wind. When the good weather did show up, everyone got outside to get some sun, if there was any, and all landings continued to be GCA for practice. Adak was the alternate, but most of the time their weather was as bad or worse than ours, and the only choice was to risk a landing at Shemya. The GCA and tower operators were excellent at their craft. Landing gear maintenance was high due to hard landings because of zero visibility to touchdown.

I don't know when NWA was designated housekeeper on Shemya AFB. Probably sometime when they pioneered the route to Tokyo. There were always about forty folks on Shemya and five families. You could get on a housing list when you arrived if you wished. There were radio operators, maintenance, cooks, weather and administrative personnel. The Army had a compound also, and I am not sure if NWA provided mess and housing support for them or not. One of the first things we did upon arrival was to go to the old main hanger and pick out a flight jacket and boots. There were tons of "stuff" just lying around in the buildings. Photo paper, electrical supplies, hobby shops full of tools and material. It looked as if someone blew a whistle and everyone just left. It seemed weird. Jeeps and three-quarter ton vehicles just pushed over the side. NWA pulled a couple out of the junk and got them operating for company vehicles.
There was a munitions junk pile on the beach over the high side of the island. Rounds of ammo, flares, bombs, mortar rounds, etc. We didn't mess around there much.

Passengers continued to come through and during bad weather they became grounded for a couple of days. They were put up in the "Hotel" for the duration. Some mighty large poker games have been known to occur from time to time.

Those of us who were ham radio operators had a surplus Army BC-610 modified to operate on ten meters into a full rhombic antenna supported on sixty foot poles. Since most of the personnel were from Minneapolis, it was aimed in that direction, and the island personnel could conduct phone patches to their families with almost telephone clarity, the path was so good. The amateur call was KL7NU. It was used almost every day.

Sometime after I left, the Boeing Stratocruiser began to over-fly Shemya and NWA's importance declined, except as a alternate landing field. The technology in communications had progress to the point the flight radio operators and their CW operations were history and all communications were handled by the aircraft's second officer via voice over the entire route.

I returned to Cleveland in April of '51. Stayed with NWA a few more months and then headed to California. I worked for various electronic firms for a couple of years and then accepted a position with GE in their communications operations and spend 32 years with them. Retired now and living in the foothills east of Sacramento. During my last four years with GE/Ericsson I was working in Alaska and tried several times to get a ride to Shemya, but even though I had a top secret clearance and worked on most all the military facilities in Alaska, I could not make it happen. Shemya had become too "secret".

I have been delighted to have been contacted by several ex-Shemyaites after I posted a comment on this website. I hope someone can lend some additional information to support or clarify my thoughts.

Rick Cochran
email: rcochran@jps.net
Amateur: W6GGO

 

Don't miss reading:
The Shemya Informer, 1959

 

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Online since 1 September 2006