Willis Brumhall spent World War II in the Aleutians building emergency runways as a member of the 46th Seabee Battalion for Russian pilots ferrying American made planes from Canada across the Bering Sea to their homeland to use against the Germans.
There was a period, in mid 1942 just before the 87-year-old Englewood, Fla. man and his unit arrived in the islands off the Alaskan coast, that U.S. war planners were concerned the Japanese might invade the United States through the Aleutians. For a time a small contingent of enemy soldiers did take control of Attu and Kodiak islands at the tip of the Aleutians, but they died on the barren islands without accomplishing much.
Brumhall never saw a Japanese soldier during the three years he spent in the frozen north country. What he did see was a lot of tundra, rock, sand and hard work. The godforsaken islands were devoid of trees and almost all vegetation and are continuously whipped by wind.
“The worst thing we had to contend with was the weather. I’ve seen it blow 120 knots on those islands and we were living in tents much of the time,” the old Seabee said.
Brumhall joined the service in early ’42 after many of his buddies had already signed up.
“At the time I was working in the steel mills and everyone was going in the service. So I thought I should go, too,” he said.
After basic in Norfolk, Va. he ended up in Seattle, Wash. where the 1,500 Seabees of the 45th boarded a transport. The ship headed for Kodiak Island, part of the Aleutian Island chain jutting hundreds of miles into the Bering Sea toward the Russian coast.
“It was November 1942 when we arrived in Kodiak. We immediately took over the construction of a big air base from a civilian crew. I drove trucks, laid bricks, dug ditches and did everything else that needed to be done,” Brumhall recalled.
“We brought in fill from the beach for road bed. We used anything on wheels to move the sand. We’d bring in big rocks and then the dozer would smash them down and we’d bring in more. We covered the rocks with more sand and on top of the road bed we put down interlocking steel mats about two-feet wide and six feet long that formed the runway.”
It took him and his fellow Seabees six months to complete the runway project at Kodiak. When men of the 45th weren’t building the airstrip they were scouting the area for Kodiak bears–the largest bears in the world.
Brumhall has a tiny black and white picture of a couple of Seabees spreading out a huge bear skin for the camera. The bear’s head has a menacing toothy snarl.
“One day I shot a beaver, skinned him out and nailed his tail to a nearby tree,” Brumhall said. “The next morning the beaver tale was gone. A Kodiak bear had come along and ripped that beaver tail off the tree. He left his claw marks on the tree.”
He also has another black and white picture of downtown Kodiak, Alaska dated 1942. It looks much like Dodge City must have looked in the 1880s with its small false-front buildings along the main drag.
After Kodiak the 45th moved on to Adak, much further out in the Aleutian Island cain. There the Seabees went to work building a massive 400-foot-long dock for ships that would bring in much needed supplies.
From November 1943 through May 1944 they did the dock construction and then his unit moved on to Tanaga, two islands further off the Alaskan coast. They spent the next six months working to construct another emergency air strip on the island.
After his unit completed its second runway in the Aleutians on Tanaga it was sent back to Adak. The Seabees killed time with little or nothing to do until May 1945 when they got word they would be taking a transport home.
On Oct. 18, 1945 Carpenters Mate 2nd Class Willis Brumhall was discharged from the 45th Seabee Battalion. World War II was over.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. and is republished with permission. Mr. Brumhall’s interview was conducted on Wednesday, Aug. 15 2005.
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