There's a Fighter Base Located Where?In 1941 General Buckner, to bypass heavy U. S. Navy opposition to U. S. Army involvement in the Aleutians that would appear to subvert the Navy's interests there (the Navy considered this to be "their turf"), covertly contrived the "Blair Fish Packing Co," an outfit whose real intentions were to build a U. S. Army Air Force base on the island of Umnak. After lengthy and intense negotiations with General DeWitt, General Buckner finally received official approval for his plans to build airbases at both Cold Bay and Umnak. The fish packing company cover was retained to help conceal the United States effort to establish forward air bases in the Aleutians from which to protect Dutch Harbor and to launch attacks against the Japanese. In March of 1942, the 807th Army Engineers arrived in the Aleutians to begin work on the airfields.
Umnak is part of the "Fox" islands, southwest of mainland Alaska in the Aleutian chain. It is the third largest of the Aleutian islands, having a land mass of around 675 square miles. At this time in it's history, Umnak supported about 50 Aleut residents, about 15,000 sheep, and a heard of imported reindeer. Umnak has no natural harbor, supports no trees, and is very mountainous. There were serious doubts that a runway could in fact be constructed here. General Buckner solved the runway problem by importing to Umnak 3,000,000 square feet of Marsden Matting, perforated-steel plating (PSP) that could be assembled with other steel plates to create a flat surface upon which aircraft could take off and land. On March 31st, 1942 the 807th had completed the 3,000 by 100 foot runway on Umnak for use by Jack Chenault's P-40 fighter aircraft.
The joint Board in late November 1941 had approved the
construction of an Army airfield on Umnak Island, not only to
provide local air protection for the naval base at Dutch Harbor, but
also for the broader purposes of blocking a Japanese advance toward
the mainland and permitting the projection of Army air power into
the more distant Aleutians. Army Engineers under the command of Col.
Benjamin B. Talley began the construction of a runway at Otter Point
on the northeastern end of Umnak in mid-January 1942 and soon
thereafter undertook similar work on an intermediate base at Cold
Bay near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, where construction of an
airfield had been started by the Civil Aeronautics Administration.
The Umnak base became the Army's Fort Glenn, and the Cold Bay base
Fort Randall, with Fort Mears, the Army garrison for Dutch Harbor,
in between. Both of the new fields were usable by 1 April, although
just barely so. When the enemy approached two months later, Umnak
had a garrison of about 4,000, Fort Mears of over 6,000, and Cold
Bay of about 2,500, including engineer troops, but also including
balanced complements of infantry and of field and antiaircraft
artillery units. Generals Buckner and DeWitt had wanted a much
larger combat force for the forward base on Umnak but had to be
content with the 2,300 or so combat troops that the War Department
04 Jan 2013 13:53
Online since 4 May 2001