WWII veteran recalls duty at remote Alaska outpost
11/12/2012 6:43 AM
11/12/2012 6:43 AM
William Alter spent most of World War II as a member of Battery E, 420th Coast Artillery Corps, charged with defending the Alaska mainland against an enemy attack.
Today he lives alone, 20 miles north of Anchorage. His house is full of craft pieces, several of which sport blue ribbons won in woodworking competitions, a wood stove, stacks of reading matter and walls full of old photographs.
Some show him as he looked 70 years ago.
"They made me a first sergeant," he said. "That meant you were supposed to be able to whip everyone in the outfit. I liked to box. I was a close-in fighter."
He grinned and brought his fists near his face and threw a few mock punches.
"Imagine a 23-year-old kid trying to be the boss of 150 soldiers, their father and mother, their chaplain."
Born to a Kansas farm family, Alter moved across the country and graduated from high school in Tigard, Ore., in 1935. He was the second youngest of the family's six boys, all of whom signed up for the National Guard. Six months before Pearl Harbor, he was federalized into the regular Army.
Shortly thereafter, he found himself on a boat sailing from Seattle to help man anti-aircraft guns in Seward, Alaska.
The little town on the Kenai Peninsula was about to become one of the biggest and most heavily fortified military installations in the territory -- Fort Raymond.
MUD, TENTS and HOOKERS
The population of Seward was 949 in 1940, but it had major strategic importance to the military planners. It was the largest settlement on the Kenai (Seldovia was the second, with about 400 people), the terminus of the Alaska Railroad, an ice free port, the year-round gateway to Interior Alaska.
With new Army Air Corps facilities under rapid construction in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Seward was the route through which almost every ounce of cargo and construction material would need to pass -- not to mention food, fuel and ammunition.
In the summer of 1941, more than 3,000 soldiers were assigned to Fort Raymond, on the outskirts of the town. Alter's group was among the first to arrive.
"There was nothing there," Alter recalled. "Just tent platforms."
In time wooden barracks and Quonset huts would come in. But for the first six months, the men lived in tents that caught fire with disconcerting regularity. Soldiers kept a stick with a rag on it and when a hole started burning in the cloth hit it with a wet rag. "There was one guy who all he did was patch tents," Alter said.
He recalled that the troops had been dropped off in Alaska with minimum gear. "We didn't have the right clothing. We were given a big overcoat and two blankets. The rest was whatever we could round up, cardboard, newspapers. I bought my own shoepacks and a field jacket."
Seward can hit subzero temperatures anytime from November through March. It gets an average of 83 inches of snow a year. Thaws bring no relief when cold rain turns the terrain into a mudpit.
But the troops mustered each morning whether it was muddy, snowy or storming. Contrary to protocol, officers were absent. This went on for a while before Alter brought the matter up with the brass.
"I said, 'If all these troops are out here every morning, I think there ought to be an officer out there, too.' After that, there was always an officer to receive the report."
Men assigned to the gun emplacement at the harbor had no shelter when not actually manning the weapon. Succor came from local prostitutes who conducted business in a row of small houses in a specified part of town not far from the unit.
"We went to the line and asked the women to let us use one of the houses so the off-duty personnel could rest," Alter said. "I'd go in once a month to make sure (the women) were being treated well. They were just regular girls doing their thing."
SUB IN THE BAY
Fort Raymond was still a work in progress when America formally entered the war. The raid on Pearl Harbor was followed by a stream of Japanese victories across the western Pacific. On March 25, 1942, a Japanese submarine was spotted inside Resurrection Bay, 2,000 yards from the Army's dock. In June the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor and captured two islands in the Aleutian chain.
The military presence in Seward increased with the addition of a Navy section base. In addition to Fort Raymond, gun units were built on the approaches to the bay, including Fort McGilvray at Caines Head. At one time Alter's company packed up and prepared to ship out for the hot fighting in the western part of Alaska; but nothing came of it.
Though protecting the railroad was the main mission of the garrison, Alter suspects that the men were also kept in Seward as low-wage stevedores, loading freight, especially the bags of cement going to build Fort Richardson and Ladd Field. "They paid us $1 a day."
It would have cost a lot more to hire longshoremen for the job and, he said, they would have balked at lifting the heavy sacks.
Aside from guard duty and dock duty, diversions in Seward were "pretty limited," Alter said. "There wasn't much to do there. Hunting and fishing, if you wanted to. And skiing."
Troops built a ski facility with a rope tow at Mile 12 using logs from the site. There were occasional excursions to Anchorage or Fairbanks by train, and into the mountains by road.
"The highway stopped at Mile 70," he said. (Around Lower Summit Lake.) "I flipped a jeep out there one time with six men in it. No one was hurt, but I had to drive all the way back to Seward with no windshield. And then the government wanted to charge me for the windshield!"
He designed an NCO club, again using logs felled at Mile 12. "Drinks were a dime," he said. "But you brought your own liquor."
Today the building is still in use; it's the bottom half of the Seward American Legion post.
Despite backbreaking work and waiting to be attacked, life at Fort Raymond could have a leisurely feel. Weapons were fired, not at enemies, but at the icicles that formed in the Alaska Railroad tunnels.
Alter recalls towing a gun down the road for practice and, when he returned, hearing an officer quip, "So how were the berries today?"
STILL FEEDING THE TROOPS
By the fall of 1943, America had retaken the Aleutians. Alaska was no longer deemed to be at risk and Fort Raymond was dismantled in 1944, though a few troops remained until the last year of the war.
Alter was reassigned to Texas, where he constructed modular bridges used in combat. Then he was sent to Okinawa, where he spent three months waiting to join the occupation forces after the surrender of Japan. But before moving to that assignment, he was returned to civilian life. The war was over, and Alter was among those who had been part of the battle since before it officially started.
"I'd put in four years and nine months getting the job done," he said. "I had enough time to get out."
He left Okinawa in a typhoon. It took 26 days to sail to California and more days to get home, where he joined his family in a "milk toast," glasses of the real item that he hadn't been able to get in Alaska.
"There weren't a whole lot of cows in Seward," he said.
Alter went into the construction business in Oregon. During a lean period, a friend in Alaska told him that there was plenty of work here and he came back and has lived here ever since.
Divorced for many years, he has four sons who are all out of state. But he appears to manage fine on his own and seems satisfied. "I did everything I wanted to do," he said.
For his whole life he's dabbled in creative projects and inventions. He made a belly-strap backpack at a shoe shop in Seward years before such things went on the market. He once built a pickup truck with a cab that would convert into a bed. An antique electric car is parked in the yard; "It runs," he said, "but it's not fast enough."
And he's still at it. Alter has come up with a device for stretching pants when they get too tight, a clear ruler that guides one through the television listings in the Daily News, and cheap, simple air filters that plug into one's nostrils to catch sawdust and dirt particles.
"I'd be dead if I didn't use these," he said.
He plans to spend Veterans Day hosting a big part of the banquet at his local American Legion Post.
"I went to them a few days ago and said, 'How are we going to feed the troops this year? I'll furnish six turkeys if you find someone to cook 'em."
If any war stories are exchanged, Alter's will be unique. He suspects that he's the last of his Seward cohorts still around. "I don't think there are any alive," he said.
Today's Alaskans are mostly unaware of Fort Raymond. Seward is now best known as a tourist destination, the home of fishing charters and sightseeing tours, the site of the annual Mount Marathon race and Alaska's biggest Fourth of July celebration. Part of the former base is now the Seward Military Recreation Camp.
But Alter remains confident that the forgotten outpost served an important war purpose.
"If we hadn't been there, hell, the Japs could have come in and taken the railroad and taken over Anchorage and Fairbanks without ever firing a shot," he said.