Pete Fineo lives hundreds of miles away from Amchitka Island, but while researching the origins of an airplane propeller on display in his hometown of Homer, he learned about the grave of an unknown sailor who was buried on the island in 1943 during the Aleutian Islands campaign.
Already embroiled in the mystery of the prop, Fineo, who has no background in historical research and said he's not all that knowledgeable about World War II, set off to see what he could find out.
What he found was a glimpse into the lives and deaths of a group of soldiers thrust into arguably one of the most challenging assignments of World War II. At its height, some 15,000 men were stationed at the Amchitka Army Airfield. While looking through historical documents about the deaths of the men who were buried on the Amchitka Island Post Cemetery, Fineo said he found that most were not killed in combat, but rather in accidents, as well as, sadly, from suicide. One was even murdered by his fellow bunkmates.
The stories of the deaths of these men came from summaries of their deaths provided in a map created by the men who laid out the cemetery. Some sparked Fineo's interest enough to pursue more fully, like the story of two men who dug a foxhole, but when the Japanese began a raid, they found another man in the hole when they ran for it. A disagreement over who would occupy the hole ensued, with the third man leaving the hole. The two men jumped into their hole, but when the Japanese plane came over, the bombing caused the two men to be smothered to death. The third man, who left the hole, sustained injuries but survived, Fineo said.
Others who died during the war, however, did so because of accidents that spoke to the difficult work and conditions these men faced on Amchitka Island during the three or so years the base was manned. Fineo was able to get records for 41 of the men buried in the cemetery. Of those, two died from hypothermia, another in a construction accident, two operating heavy equipment, and three in auto accidents. One of those auto accidents occurred when a soldier pulled into a parking spot in dense fog -- except there was no parking spot there; instead, he drove off a cliff and died. One man died when a landing airplane clipped him in the head with its wingtip, and five died from suicide. Two men died of alcohol poisoning, but not because of overconsumption. Instead, they had apparently set up a still, but the alcohol they made with it was bad, killing both men.
Some of the men succumbed to injuries in Amchitka's makeshift Quonset hut of a hospital, which, while manned by doctors, had limited resources and equipment. One man -- a basketball player from Kansas -- was wounded by flak in the leg while bombing Kiska. The plane was able to land on Amchitka, but they weren't able to save the leg, so they amputated it. Unfortunately, the man died of shock and blood loss during the surgery.
One especially unusual case involved a man who was 50 years old when he was re-drafted into the army. Initially, Fineo said he was under the assumption this man was somewhat of a hero because he was older than most of his fellow soldiers but re-enlisted.
"All of my assumptions have been 100 percent wrong," Fineo said.
As it turns out, this man was a steward's mate in the Navy, serving officers in the food facility. On Christmas Eve, his fellow stewards wanted to get to sleep early as they had to start preparing the holiday feast early the next day. But this man became irate, saying he had lost his watch and wanted the lights left on until he found it. A fight of sorts broke out and the man eventually pulled out a straight razor and started waiving it around, threatening the other men. They eventually ran out of the hut, but one grabbed his gun and a bullet that happened to be lying around at the time. The senior petty officer warned the irate man not to come any closer, and the man taunted him, saying he didn't have the guts to shoot him. It turned out the officer did, and the man died on the spot. The officer was investigated but not court-martialed for his action.
Fineo said he found the records of that investigation at the Anchorage office of the National Archives (which is closing next month).
Fineo said what he found by studying the demographics of the men who died on Amchitka Island was that most were young, minimally educated and ill-equipped or poorly trained to handle life on a remote island in the Aleutian Chain.
"Most of these guys were a product of the Depression," Fineo said. "Most didn't have more than a fifth-grade education, because that's the age they can be productive in the farm, so they dropped out of school. They were plucked from farm life, given not a lot of training, and sent to the Aleutian Islands to be bored to death, have lots and lots of accidents and get into trouble."
Unknown sailor likely from sinking of U.S.S. Worden
The case of the unidentified Navy man buried in the graveyard continued to taunt Fineo until he realized that the men were buried according to the date they died. Because of the dates of the men who died before and after, Fineo said he was able to ascertain that this sailor most likely died during the sinking of the U.S.S. Worden, a Navy Farragut-class destroyer that sank on Jan. 12, 1943, when it hit a pinnacle rock on its way out of the harbor while dropping off forces on the island during its occupation.
According to the records that were sealed for decades as secret for fear the high-tech equipment on board the ship would come into the wrong hands, the Worden, a 341-foot destroyer with 186 officers on board, was leaving the harbor during fairly tumultuous weather when it hit the rock. The ship didn't sink right away, and a nearby vessel came to its aid, trying to pull it off the rocks. That effort was unsuccessful, however, and most of the men were evacuated before the ship split in two. But when it did split in two, some men still on board -- 14, in fact -- died during the sinking, and only a few were ever found. The body of the unknown Navy man was found washed up on shore a few months later. Since no identifying features were found, he was buried as an unknown. The 11 possible Worden sailors are Electrician's Mate 3rd Class John Anderson, Fireman 1st Class Keith Briley, Radioman 3rd Class Robert Kieser, Seaman 1st Class Francis Musgrave, Fireman 1st Class William Reddeman, Fireman 2nd Class Leo Schultz, Seaman 1st Class Stephen Seltz, Seaman 1st Class Harvey Senne, Fireman 1st Class Willard Shinabery, Fireman 1st Class Jerome Wolshock and Seaman 1st Class John Wright.
Fineo said Walt Barranger, son of a Worden officer, contacted the National Archives and obtained a copy of the document that described the cause of death of the unknown soldier. Because of the date of his death and the records of a man washing up on shore, there is enough evidence to be relatively sure this body was that of one of the victims of the Worden sinking. Fineo said the director of the Alaskan Veterans Museum, Suellyn Novak, is working on an effort to get a marker placed on Amchitka Island near the site where the U.S.S. Worden sank, documenting the loss of the 14 sailors.
Fundraising efforts will be needed, however, not only to purchase and engrave the marker but also to transport and install it in its remote location.
All of the bodies buried on Amchitka Island during the war were moved following the war as part of a massive worldwide effort to bring home the remains of fallen enlisted men across the world. The body of the unknown was moved to the nearest national cemetery, which is in Sitka. Fineo said some have advocated for an inscription on his tombstone denoting that he died in the sinking of the Worden. Barranger contacted the Veterans Administration with a request to add this new information to the unknown's grave stone. The request was denied based on expiration of the time to make changes to markers (50 years), but this is being appealed.
But for family members, some of whom didn't know how their loved one died for more than 50 years while the information was labeled classified, any information is welcome, Fineo said. And the experience of researching those who died while serving on Amchitka Island was illuminating into the lives of the men who lived there during the war. And in the case of the sailors who died in the sinking of the Worden, some sort of commemoration of their sacrifice would be well-received.
"Hopefully, the seeds of that effort have been planted," Fineo said.
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.