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
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.
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
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.
Don't miss reading:
The Shemya Informer, 1959
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