Published in Outside, November 1998 as “Scratch the Island from the Map”
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THE PLANE COMES EVERY TWO WEEKS–weather permitting. The flight out is five hours from the Coast Guard base at Kodiak Island in an old C-130 Hercules, around 1500 miles. If fog socks in the airstrip or the rain stalls over the tip of the chain or the williwaws are blowing, you’ve got a five hour trip back. Tom Gauntt, our pilot, thinks we’ve got a fifty-fifty shot this morning.
The ride out is part of the place, and the possibility you won’t make it. This is the Cradle of Storms, where the warm Japan current meets polar air from the north and the North Pacific meets the Bering Sea, spawning rogue waves, 50-foot seas and 100-knot winds. The Wind Devil is strong here, Aleuts say. All day my photographer Charles has been regaling me with stories of crews who ditched or disappeared, and now Max Thompson, a birder with us, adds one.
“That Herc’s still up on the mountain,” he says. “When we make our approach you can see the pieces.”
Up on the flight deck, Tom Gauntt confirms it, shaking his head at that pilot’s stupidity, the sheer boneheadedness of running into a mountain. The windows in front of him are solid fog, and the navigator’s reading a money magazine: how to build your portfolio. “It’s like flying in a fluorescent tube,” Tom Gauntt says. You imagine the crash happened back in the ’60s, but later, digging through clippings, you find it was 1982, not so long ago. Two Coast Guard men burned to death in the wreckage. You go back to your seat.
It’s a log flight resupplying the Loran station with staples. They have three rows of commercial airline seats fastened to the deck, then nothing but cargo. The strapped down pallets behind you are stacked with Diet Pepsi and jars of salsa, beer and Pop-Tarts, priority mail. Like all cargo planes, it’s noisy, but not as bad as they warned; when you take your earphones off, the four props make it sound like you’re inside a vacuum cleaner. Along with you are Charles; Max, the bird expert; Joe Crawford, a writer for an airline magazine; and Cindi Horan, a Coast Guard medic spelling the station’s corpsman for a two week leave. As Tom Gauntt brings the Herc down out of the clouds, everyone grabs a window, hoping to catch sight of the island. The pitch changes as we descend; the plane seems to slow and float.
We’re lucky, the ceiling’s high, and Tom gives us a treat, flying several passes along the southern shore so we can see the black beaches, the waterfalls cutting the steep green cliffs. “It’s like Hawaii,” I say, though I’ve only seen that on the Discovery channel. “Like Kauai,” Charles says, ignoring, like me, the old snow caught in the folds. Below, the dark water brightens as it sweeps over the reefs and pinnacles of Massacre Bay, washes across the rock a washer-fluid blue. When the Army invaded in May of ’43, landing craft caught on these outcrops and sank, taking their heavily equipped crews to the bottom. The piers the Navy later built no longer reach the shore; a raft of gulls sits atop a solid carpet of moss. As Tom brings us around, it’s true, you can see pieces of the downed C-130 on the mountainside. He nails the landing, soft as Qantas, and weirdly the interior of the plane fills with the smell of oatmeal, possibly from the tires.
Chief Warrant Officer Dave Fowler, the new commander of the station, is there on the runway to greet us. He’s strack, with the eyes and smile of Clark Gable. Cindi snaps to attention–“Sir”–and salutes. Besides the fire crew, a few others from the station have walked down to the strip to see who’s arriving, or what. We’re lucky, they say; yesterday it was raining sideways–50-knot winds and zero visibility.
Trudging up to the low, white station, I mark its obvious resemblance to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining. I’d associated Attu with snow, and isolation, imagining the rimed, grimy quonsets of John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. As if to reconfirm my suspicions, a logy old Saint Bernard lumbers over–Coco, the station mascot. He’s 13, meaning he’s been here far longer than any of the 19 Coast Guard personnel, all of whom do a year-long tour.
Inside, the station’s tidy as a hospital, squared away as a ship. The first thing in the door is a magazine rack, giving the place the feel of a waiting room. A glass cabinet in the front hall displays relics from the battlefield–rusty grenades and mess kits, a Japanese soldier’s glasses–and a plaque warning all personnel that back in ’72 a crewmember injured himself while tampering with the exploded 40 mm shell below, so don’t do it.
We’re billeted in the guest quarters downstairs, then take the tour. There’s a sauna and jacuzzi, and up on the Rec deck, a bigscreen TV, pool/ping-pong table and bar. The big TV, like all the others, is tied into a VCR system in the basement which shows up to 4 movies at once. One of my big questions coming into this was what the crew does to pass the time. 19th century lightship tenders wove baskets, and whalers carved scrimshaw. Our first day I see people deep into the Internet, or reading, getting ready to go flyfishing. It’s a long day; the sun stays up till eleven at night. Along with black shoe polish and Zippo lighters, the station exchange carries models of Star Wars Tie fighters and muscle cars like the 1969 Dodge 440 Super Bee. Two cupboards in the Rec deck are piled with board games both standard (Pokerkub, Battleship) and obscure (The Bionic Woman, Battle of the Bulge, The Mad Magazine Game). Winter must be long.
The Coast Guard will be the last people to live here. The first, the Attuans, arrived thousands of years ago after crossing the land bridge either from Asia or the mainland. They lived in grass-thatched dugouts called barabaras, fished the salmon in the streams and hunted otter from sealskin boats. In 1742, a Russian expedition under Vitus Bering made contact with the Attuans. In the span of ten years, Russian trappers overran the Aleutian chain all the way to Kodiak, making not just the Attuans but other Aleuts as well their hunting crews, moving them around, setting up colonies on good harbors. The Russians brought disease, alcohol and the Norwegian rat to Attu. In 1745, a band of traders executed 15 Attuans on a spit of land soon branded Murder Point, hard by Massacre Bay.
The fur trade had collapsed by the time America assumed ownership of the island in 1867, the otter population seriously depleted. The Attuans had intermarried with the Russians and converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. Their population was also dwindling. In 1880, there were 106 Attuans; there were only 41 in 1942, when the Japanese invaded, surprising them as they came out of church one Sunday morning. All were shipped off to Japan in the hold of a freighter, then forced to work digging clay. For a full year, no one knew where the Attuans were.
25 survived. After the Japanese surrender, they were flown over the ruins of Nagasaki to Okinawa, then taken by freighter to Manila, San Francisco, Seattle (where they were fascinated by the city’s Christmas decorations), Adak, and finally Atka, where the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided the refugees would live, in houses built with government surplus lumber, among their former enemies, the Atkans, who had been repatriated after spending the war confined to an abandoned cannery at Killisnoo, near Ketchikan.
The Army ruled Attu, now called Camp Earle on official maps (for Edward P. Earle, the first high-ranking officer killed in the fighting), though only until 1945, when the Navy took possession, running picket radar flights from the airfields at Massacre Bay and Alexai Point until 1958. The Loran “A” station, now used by birders, closed in 1960 when the new “C” station opened, housed in the old Navy HQ.
How long the Coast Guard will stay is a mystery. Over the years, as GPS has slowly replaced Long Range Aid to Navigation, the station has been slated repeatedly for decommissioning–first in 1994, then 1998, 2000, and now again in 2006. It’s my first question–will it actually happen?–but everyone I ask just shrugs. Who knows? By then, they’ll be long gone.
We have a chance to catch a ride up to the Japanese monument, so we take it. Yesterday’s rain has washed out one of the bridges, but there’s another way up Massacre Valley. Here is where the Army’s 7th Infantry Division slogged through knee-deep muskeg toward the dug-in Japanese positions high atop the fogged-in ridges. The 7th had trained in the Mojave Desert, expecting to fight Rommel in North Africa, then, when Rommel fell, changed plans and practiced an amphibious landing on San Clemente Island. Even leaving San Francisco, they thought they were headed for the South Pacific. It wasn’t until they swung north that the quartermaster clerks broke out foul weather gear. But the new boots issued to the soldiers were leather, useless in the wet snow and mud of May.
Now the valley’s overgrown with waist-high brush, the road washboarded by the rain. A black stream beside us seethes with fish–pink salmon and Dolly Varden trout so thick they shoulder each other, their fins thrashing in the riffle. Our driver, ET1 Kris Jensen, stops to inspect the next bridge. The fish are thicker here, swaying slow in a foot of water. Kris says a visitor last week jumped in and netted some just to prove he could do it. Next week there’s a fish fry, he says, for morale.
Farther up the valley, on Hogback Ridge, the old Navy quonsets have fallen in on themselves, their floors filled with water. Stop, and all you can hear is the wind. Rusted oil tanks line the foothills far below, their circular berms imitating the bomb craters we’ll see later. And here on the ridge stand the only trees on Attu, a few scraggly, wind-whipped pines beside the sheet metal steeple of a collapsed chapel. The old Army joke was that there was a woman behind every tree on Attu; it was accurate back then, since there weren’t any trees, and it’s not far wrong now: along with Cindi (already answering to “Doc”) there are two other women crewmembers, SK2 Jo Hisaw and FA Sarah Hess.
We wind higher, through skewed telephone and power poles tilting in the fog like crosses, their dead black wires hanging limp. A ptarmigan bursts from the brush, its wings already taking on their winter camouflage. By this point of Operation Landcrab, the 7th had realized they couldn’t get their field artillery or tracked vehicles in across the muskeg, and the weather was too rough to call in air support. The foot soldiers alone would have to do the job. Above, on Gilbert Ridge, the Japanese waited, dug in and wearing white so they couldn’t be seen in the snow. As the Americans climbed into the fog, snipers opened up on them. The Japanese dropped mortars on the advancing troops, rolled grenades down the slopes. Offshore, the big guns of the battleships Nevada, Idaho and Pennsylvania roared, and avalanches of rock scree came tumbling down the mountain, full of machinery and pieces of dead Japanese.
It took the Americans twenty days to dislodge the enemy. In the end, the badly outnumbered Japanese killed their own wounded and made a banzai charge through the heart of the American base camp, killing patients in the field hospital, exploding the propane stove in the mess, and then, cornered by several units of engineers, 500 of them committed suicide with saved grenades, holding them to their stomachs and chests and foreheads. The Japanese lost 2622 men; only 28 survived to surrender. The Americans listed 549 killed, 1148 wounded, 1200 with severe cold injuries, and another 614 with disease, including exposure. Many of these injured were victims of frostbite and immersion foot due to the leather boots; hundreds had to have their feet amputated.
On Engineer Hill, the Japanese have erected a 25-foot tall titanium starburst monument to their dead and–the inscription reads–to world peace. In their military history, the banzai charge and mass suicide on Attu is referred to reverently as an instance of gyokusai, an honorable sacrifice, the participants venerated like the defenders of the Alamo. There are four smaller Japanese memorials on Engineer Hill as well as the starburst; despite the fact that the battlefield was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1985, the only two American memorials are modest stones down by the station, one of which isn’t engraved yet.
In clear light, the starburst looks ridiculous and ugly, like a child’s futuristic toy, a weapon plucked from a Megazord. In the fog, it seems regal, mournful, an apt remembrance of sacrifice. Nearby, housed in a plexiglas box, lies a picture of Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki, the leader of the banzai charge, and a facsimile of the final page of his diary. Two-man bunkers dot the hillside, overgrown and filled with water, but nothing else betrays the battle fought here; the only relics left are from the Navy’s occupation: tanks leaching diesel fuel into streams, rusting mounds of 55-gallon drums.
Mountain-biking back down, we pass a newer poured-concrete structure, a white shaft like the monolith in 2001. It’s a seismographic station maintained by the Air Force; a three-man crew is recalibrating the equipment, waiting for earthquakes from around the globe to verify their fine tuning. No photographs, we’re told. No problem.
The road, like the streams, runs down to the beach, passing the flat where the hospital used to be, only a cement arch of a door still standing. A few hundred yards across the road is the former site of Little Falls Military Cemetery, where the American dead were buried en masse, one of their dogtags screwed to the center of simple wooden crosses or Stars of David, and where the Japanese were interred eight to a grave. In 1946, the bodies were exhumed and shipped to the military cemetery at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, the crosses and Stars of David stacked in a quonset that has long since fallen. We leave our bikes on the road and trudge for hours through waist-high brush in our rubber boots and Goretex pants, occasionally plunging into chest-deep holes, but we never find the outlines of Little Falls, only cottongrass and barbed wire. The maps are old, and no help.
For all the abuse the island has taken, Attu is so wild, the weather so overwhelming, that it denies any attempt at domestication. Of the hundreds of structures the Navy built in the ’40s and ’50s, besides the new Loran station, only the old Loran station and its mess hall on Murder Point are still inhabitable. They’re used by birders who charter regular trips to add windblown Asian vagrants to their life lists. The rooms in the old station (one lovingly dubbed The Rat Hole) are crammed with rusty bunkbeds and milkcrates, the floors awash; on the walls the birders have posted their names and the number of species they’ve seen so far, both their ABA total and that for Alaska. Most are regulars, it seems, their totals inching up over the years. “1st N. American record,” an asterisked note crows, “yellow-throated bunting!” In the mess, two dry-erase boards list the spring sightings like a menu. From the ceiling a rubber rat hangs among stuffed gulls. Reeve Aleutian Airways flies out groups for Attours, a private firm that charges $5,000 for a two week stay. The birders have been coming for as long as anyone at the station remembers, but rumor has it that Attours, worried that the Coast Guard might really pull out, may fold soon, leaving only the German tour boat the World Discoverer to bring birders and veterans out twice a summer.
Past the old station, around the other side of Murder Point, Jo Hisaw leads us along an old ATV trail to the site of the C-130 wreckage. It’s high on the mountainside, a decent climb through lots of pootschki, or cow parsley, a kind of wild celery whose flowering tops burn skin on contact. The tail’s relatively intact, bright orange paint still vivid, a new memorial wreath tucked inside. Hatches and shards of the fuselage are spread far down the mountain, scattered on impact, then carried off by snowmelt. The sun is out–full force–and the view of the headlands, the water and rocks, is reminiscent of Pebble Beach.
If we followed the shore around for another five miles, we’d see an even rarer specimen of plane crash, a complete P-38 Lightning just inland of Temnac Bay, a true beauty shot, but we’ve hiked 25 miles the last two days and need to get back.
Later that night, the Tiglax, a Fish and Wildlife Service vessel, puts in, bringing welcome visitors. They’re here to build shacks in support of a program to eradicate the blue Arctic fox. Like the Norwegian rat, the Arctic fox is thought to have been introduced to the island by the Russians, though a 1968 survey by the National Park Service states otherwise. Over Henry Weinhards on the Rec deck, we try to wangle a ride over to the P-38, but the Tiglax has only stopped in for the night; they’re off to the west end of the island in the morning, and they’re not coming back. We may get a second chance; the Coast Guard buoytender Ironwood is due on Monday. Back by the garage, the guys have set up the basketball net. One has a plastic mask on as he spraypaints a shaky three-point line around a wiggly key.
Even later–10:30, and it’s still light outside–a few crewmembers sit back and watch a tape of Lost in Space, a movie even more inane that the original TV show. Jo says she has a copy of The Thing, but it’s too late. We’ve got to get up tomorrow and hump it to Alexai Point and the abandoned airfield there.
The mountain bikes only take us so far, and then we hit the beach, following fresh fox tracks across the black volcanic sand. Out in the bay an otter floats on its back, a few harbor seals bob around the mouth of a stream, poaching some easy salmon. Caught under the timbers of a washed out bridge, sunk in the sediment, rests what is either a runaway buoy or a 500-pound bomb. We walk on.
The cliffs here are strictly Hawaiian, horsetail falls dropping from sheer black rock, walls mossy. It’s low tide and the piles of seaweed stink. It’s a long way in the fog. A vee of cormorants wings over, and then, ahead, on some rocks, an Arctic fox pops his head up, on guard. He turns in circles, agitated, always coming back to stare at us, then, when we get close, ducks into his den.
Alexai Point was once a major installation, with two runways, quarters, and support buildings. Now it’s a plateau of rusting Marston mats, perforated steel plate overgrown with weeds and wildflowers. Beyond the far runway is one of three restricted areas on the island, colored yellow on the map, where the military has sequestered their aging ordnance. Rumors of other, uncharted minefields and random, unexploded shells don’t stop us from searching the point or the valleys, but we step carefully, hold our breath when our feet drop into unseen holes, which seem to be everywhere. Also hidden by the lushness are a toxic combination of DDT, unused fuel, solvents, and oil containing PCBs. The shores of Massacre Bay are heaped with machinery–wheels and engine blocks and whole dozers fused into rusty tidal pools. Some reports say chemical weapons were stored here and dumped at the sea. In 1976, ’89 and ’91, a Navy ordnance disposal team destroyed some live ammuniton, but the overall clean-up proved too costly, and finally they decided it would be easier–and maybe safer–to leave the rest where it was.
Coming back from Alexai, we confront the fox. He’s curious, believing he’s safe up on his rock perch. He’s brown and scrawny, no larger than a Cocker, and scruffy-looking, long white hairs sticking out from his dull coat. When Charles tries to climb up to him for a profile, he flits into his den again.
Back at the station, the weekend has started with a morale-building jambalaya supper on the Rec deck. Beers and popcorn, a movie. There’s no hard alcohol allowed out here, but every once in a while the commander authorizes a party at the Whoopie Hut, a cabin up on Terrible Mountain, and the crewmembers indulge themselves in more than a few beers. Otherwise the days are the same, except Saturday and Sunday are even slower, everyone off-duty except those few keeping the signal going out.
Sunday the wind is up, the windchill in the 30s, and we stay inside and listen to the windowpanes shake. All three hours of Titanic drag by, seeming to emphasize rather than speed the passage of time. Two younger crewmembers fight an escalating war that involves toilet paper and shaving cream, the contents of a vacuum cleaner and then a dozen eggs smashed on the carpet of the participants’ rooms. In a way, it’s like summer camp, or living in a frat house, the same aimless horseplay and boredom. It will all have to be cleaned up by tomorrow; the place needs to be spic and span for the arrival of the Ironwood. Up on the Rec deck, Bruce Willis is mugging through another Die Hard sequel. I find I’m savoring Tom Drury’s new novel a few pages at a time, saving it as if afraid it will run out too soon. Maybe the working week will rescue us, the comfort of routine eating up the hours. And the Ironwood‘s due, finally, bringing the promise of a basketball game, possibly volleyball too. By ten the Rec deck’s clear, everyone hitting the hay before the sun’s down, getting ready for the big day tomorrow–all except Sarah Hess, who stays up buffing the hallways with a whirring machine. The wind whistles. The Stanley Hotel. The Thing.
Time moves differently out here, idles by like in a resort town, despite the everpresent schedules and painstaking efficiency of the military. Reveille and taps are announced promptly over the intercom, and meals, and in the head a twenty-four hour clock reminds you that everyone’s on a strict regimen, with necessary work to do, but there’s an urgency missing. It’s island life, laid back as the Caribbean. Like Coco, we all move a few steps too slow.
Not on Monday though. Everyone is busting their humps making the place presentable for the officers on the Ironwood. It’s a brilliant day, the peaks of the neighboring islands of Shemya and Agattu visible for the first time since we arrived. We decide to hike the five miles out to Holtz Bay with the Air Force seismologists to view the Bering Sea and the remains of a Japanese two-man sub. The trek takes us through Jarmin Pass, where the Japanese held off repeated assaults. Nootka lupines and forget-me-nots sprinkle the hillsides; farther on, a waterfall spumes a hundred feet down a gorge. The rains have washed out the bridge here too, and the river fills my XtraTuf neoprenes–my Sitka sneakers, as Max calls them. Charles and Art Endress don’t have the boots to even try the high current, so Scott Morgan, Bob Foster and I promise to get a shot of the sub.
It’s not there, only a harbor seal lurking for the salmon clumped at the mouth of the river. Farther down the beach, we come across an aircraft engine, possibly a Zero’s, and, oddly forlorn, a single shovel, the handle winnowed like driftwood, the blade lacy. On the way back we take a higher line and find the foothills stepped with Japanese gun positions commanding the flats, the trenches filled with dark water. I think I see a helmet at the bottom of a draw, but it’s just a well-camouflaged rock. Miles later, Scott finds an M-1 cartridge, but that’s it, the island has swallowed the rest. Charles isn’t surprised.
One bay closer to the station is Chichagof Harbor, site of Attu Village. The Attuans’ white frame houses and onion bulb-topped church were leveled by American bombers in 1943, during the Japanese occupation. The last 4 Attuans live on Atka and work the fishing boats for a living. Innokenty Golodoff, now 81, returned to Attu in 1979 for a brief visit. “Now the Attu people like it at Atka,” he said. “My wife is an Atka woman and I don’t want to go back to Attu. There is no money in blue foxes, so I can’t stay home and make money like my father did on Attu.” In 1860, a census registered 247 Attuans; now only a commemorative plaque marks the spot, a list of casualties on the left side of a sketch of the village as it appeared in 1942, a list of survivors on the right.
On the way to the station, we pass strangers standing knee-deep in the Henderson River, flyfishing–the crew of the Ironwood, taking full advantage of their liberty. The volleyball game is called off; no one shoots hoops. Later, Lou–DC1 Keith Lewis–organizes a bonfire by the beach, and we stand around drinking free beer and chucking rocks at the empties in the flames. Out on the bay, the lights of the Ironwood rock gently. The North Star is higher than I’ve ever seen it, and I think: yes, you could convert the station into a fishing lodge and charge people 10,000 a week, easy.
The next morning the weather turns–fog on the mountains, spitting rain–but the captain of the Ironwood, Lieutenant Commander Bruce Toney, says we’ll still try to make the P-38. We tug on blaze orange Mustang suits to keep warm and climb into the launch. Stubby puffins flee from us, their wings slapping at the waves. Around Murder Point, undulating swells of kelp snare the prop and the motor overheats. MKC Rob Duprau hangs off the transom and unsnags things, clears a filter in the Volvo engine, and we’re underway again.
The P-38 is just east of the Temnac River, about a mile inland. As we come ashore, a seal surfing around the mouth breaks off for some rocks. Dollies but no pinks in the channel, the water a milky gray-blue. Humping the spongy muskeg is like walking across an endless succession of sprung couches, and the Mustang suits heat up quickly. ET3 Mike Eisemann, our guide, says the valley’s grown over since he was here last, but the Lightning’s right where it’s always been, its twin tailbooms intact, aluminum skin punctured by random potshots, scored with initials. After so many hours and miles searching fruitlessly for proof of the war, I’m surprised how easily we’ve found this (though, days later, we’ll find a box of Japanese hand grenades and cartridges in a water-filled foundation just beside what we believe was Little Falls Cemetery–ammunition taken from the dead, we figure–immediately creating a fourth no-go zone).
The rain comes down harder on the hike back, and out on the water the wind is pounding, at least five foot seas. The launch bucks through the chop. Chief Warrant Officer Chuck Bush pilots us through the kelp field again, and again the prop fouls, the motor overheats. We’re dead in the water while Rob fixes things. The captain asks Chuck to turn on his GPS and hails the Ironwood. I wonder how far I can reasonably swim, then realize my estimate assumes a water temperature of 70 degrees and that I’m wearing only a swimsuit. Toward Murder Point a whale breaches and blows. Rob’s done. The Volvo kicks over, the prop grabs, and, lurching, we leave the kelp and surf the crests into Casco Bay, where the Ironwood sits at anchor. They’ve got to head off to Shemya, so they Zodiac us to shore and haul anchor.
At the station, Max says he’s collected ten olive-backed pipits so far, double the existing total for the state. The seismologists have received verification of their data and are hoping the Air Force will send a jet for them. Maybe we can catch a ride.
The wind doesn’t stop, so that night we pop The Thing into the VCR and laugh at the parallels–the remoteness, the wretched weather, even the ping-pong table and bar.
The clouds are still sitting on us in the morning, keeping us from going out. In a week we’ve been everywhere you can get to reasonably. Anywhere else on the island requires a Zodiac, a long day’s hike and an overnight, a gamble even in this, the mild season. Much of Attu is inaccessible, trackless, parts uncharted, the interior a maze of blind draws and sheer cliffs. A western section of the 1959 Army Corps of Engineers map is bare of topographic lines, reads merely Obscured by clouds. Beyond that patch lies Cape Wrangell, the westernmost point in the U.S.–at 172 27′ east, actually in the next hemisphere. It’s Attu that the International Date Line swerves to miss. Fly another 400 miles and you hit Siberia.
There’s everything out here, and there’s nothing. The Arctic fox and the Norwegian rat are the only land mammals on Attu, and just possibly the house mouse. All three, biologists claim, aren’t native. Neither were the Attuans or the Russians or the Japanese, or the Army or the Navy or, today, the Coast Guard, though all have had their uses for Attu. Now, with Loran becoming obsolete, it appears that humans may finally quit the island, hand it back to the birds and salmon. Even the dead have left.
It’s inevitable, yet the Coast Guard’s termination date continues to move back. Until then, the station sends out its signal, the 19 crewmembers police the galley, play all-night poker and Nintendo, giddily TP each other’s rooms and rollerblade on the runway to relieve the boredom. The birders arrive, and the occasional veteran. The rain comes, the wind comes–the plane, with luck, comes.