Sam ShoutThe Aleutian Campaign: Umnak Island

After graduating from high school, on January 23, I enlisted in the army. I was inducted in the Army on January 28, 1942 and sent to Indiana for basic training. Due to a minor leg injury near the end of basic training, I was not permitted to ship out with my unit. I was held over on cadre as a drill instructor to train the next group of recruits arriving for basic training. In May of 1942, I was transferred to Camp Rainier in the State of Washington, and then to Fort Lewis, Washington where I was assigned to the 58th Infantry Regiment. On June 19, 1942 we departed from Seattle on a Liberty Ship for the Aleutian Islands.

On June 27, 1942 we arrived at Umnak Island in the Aleutian Islands. As we approached the island, we saw a huge rock offshore that looked like a ship. It was known as “Ship Rock” by the troops but I am not sure of the origin or time of its name. When we arrived only military personnel occupied the island, since the native Aleuts had been evacuated to the Alaskan mainland. The only other inhabitants on the island were caribou, a few fox and fish in the streams. The island was formed from volcanic ash and had no trees, only knee high tundra grass. The terrain offered no protection from the weather. Mt. Tulip was an active but dormant volcano and was the highest point on the island. The army engineers were building runways to be used by P-40s, P38s, PBYS, and Bombers in their strikes against the Japanese and in defense of the islands. We lived in wall tents that had to be tied down securely to keep them from blowing away. The only fuel we had for heat was compressed sawdust logs and coal shipped in from the States or the mainland of Alaska. Later we set up Mess Hall tents and tents for storage of supplies. Much later Quonset Huts, metal buildings with rounded roofs, were brought in. To protect them from the wind they had to be set in the ground deep enough to leave very little above ground level except for their rounded roofs. The winds seemed to blow almost continuously and often there were ferocious winds called williwaws. The engineers were also building roads for the heavy trucks and military equipment whose weight could not be supported by the island soil. Coastal and antiaircraft batteries were under construction to defend the island.

Shortly after we arrived a plane crashed into the Quartermaster area killing the pilot and destroying nearly all of the flour stockpiled for use by the Army cooks to prepare meals for the troops. This was the first American casualty of World War II that I saw. It made a lasting impression on me because it was my first real life experience with death. Before that day I had never seen anyone die, nor had I ever seen the body of a dead person. During the months that followed death and bodily injury became a more frequent occurrence. On Umnak, the majority of the victims were members of the air force: members of the crews of planes returning from missions over the Japanese held Kiska and Attu. Often planes would return badly damaged, with pieces of their wings and tails missing. With the passage of time, death and serious injury did occur among the ground troops, but not from the Japanese enemy.

When we arrived in June, we found the weather to be bearable, in fact very pleasant on some days, except the winds seem to blow most of the time. Work details, training, and off duty time did not seem much different from duty on any army post, except for the lack of entertainment and the convenience of modern facilities. There were times when the salmon would swim up some of the streams on the island. At such times work details were sent to catch the salmon, which would be smoked and cooked to feed the troops. The way we would catch the salmon would be to form a human chain across a narrow and shallow part of the stream. Then keeping our legs pressed tightly together, we would bend over until our hands touched the bottom of the stream. When we felt the rush of these huge fish hit our legs or arms we would immediately raise our arms and throw the entrapped salmon on the shore of the stream. It took a little practice, but once learned we could make large catches of salmon in a short time. Another unique experience was being a member of a work detail assigned to go to Aleut villages to make sure that their homes, churches and other buildings were properly prepared to weather the coming winter and had not suffered damage from other sources. Going and coming we would fish for halibut. The halibut often weighed sixty pounds or more, but gave little fight. It was more like pulling up an anchor than reeling in a fish. Catching the salmon and the halibut were enjoyable and a great diversion from the daily routine of army life. It would have been even more enjoyable if I had liked to eat fish.

As major tasks were completed: the air strip and supporting facilities, the roads, the gun emplacements, the headquarters facilities, mess halls, and other essential facilities, life for the ground troops became more and more routine. In addition, the weather changed from a rather mild and bearable climate to a cold, harsh and unbearable winter. The island was desolate, isolated and without any form of entertainment except for an occasional movie or newsreel sent over from the mainland of Alaska. There was little reading material available and we spent much of our spare time talking to our buddies, playing cards, writing home or just sacked out on our bunk. Evenings during the harsh winter seemed to be the hardest time to cope with the boredom and loneliness. Never before had I seen grown men cry themselves to sleep. These were men who were highly trained combat ready soldiers who would have gladly traded combat for the loneness and boredom of army life on Umnak. Everyone suffered from being lonely and bored, but as time passed some became desperate to get off the island. Consequently, there were some who faked illness to get home. Others resorted to more drastic measures, such as shooting themselves in the feet, claiming it was accidental while cleaning their rifle. There were even a few reported suicides. Those who served on Umnak for extended periods and then later served in combat on Attu or in other theaters of war know that not all of the horrors of war are reserved for combat.

Like many others, when I returned stateside, I was assigned to another infantry unit and sent to Europe where I served in France, Belgium and Germany. I was discharged from the army in November of 1945. Since being discharged, Umnak and the Aleutians are the places that I have tried hardest to forget, but are the most often remembered.

Umnak challenged all of us in our ability to survive indescribable harsh living conditions and loneliness, but it also molded lifelong friendships among those who served there during World War 11.

Caribou on Umnak 1. A Caribou on Umnak, 1942-43.
Herd of Caribou, Umnak 2. A herd of Caribou on Umnak, 1942-43
Mt. Tulik, Umnak, 1942-43 3. Mt. Tulik, Umnak, 1942-43
Mt. Tulik, Umnak, 1942-43 4. Mt. Tulik, Umnak, 1942-43
Mtn Scenery, Umnak, 1942-43 5. Mountain scenery, Umnak, 1942-43
Water Falls, Umnak, 1942-43 6. Water Falls, Umnak, 1942-43
Sam Shout, Umnak, 1942-43 7. Sam Shout, Umnak, 1942-43
Ship Rock, Umnak, 1942-43 8. Ship Rock, Umnak, 1942-43
Ship Rock, Umnak, 1942-43 9. Ship Rock, Umnak, 1942-43
B17 on Umnak, 1942-43 10. B17 on Umnak, 1942-43
P-40 on Umnak, 1942-43 11. A Canadian P-40 (Kittyhawk) on Umnak, 1942-43. RCAF's 14th and 111th Squadrons rotated between performing anti-submarine/convoy escort duty from Kodiak and front-line combat duty at Amchitka.
High-Wing Aircraft on Umnak 12. A high-wing aircraft on Umnak, 1942-43

More photos donated by Sam Shout

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Posted 30 January 2009
Last Updated: 30 Dec 2013 10:02