“Nuking Alaska: Notes of an Atomic Fugitive”
By Peter Dunlap-Shohl; Graphic Mundi, 2023; 104 pages; $19.95.
Peter Dunlap-Shohl, the longtime cartoonist for the Anchorage Daily News and author of the acclaimed “My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s,” has returned with a second well-told and beautifully drawn graphic narrative — this time a personal history of Alaska’s atomic heritage, complete with end notes listing the author’s sources.
A present-day Alaskan might ask, what atomic heritage? Dunlap-Shohl, born in the late 1950s, recalls various puzzling or frightening events from his childhood and backs these up with historic research. First off, during the Cold War, three Nike sites with Hercules missiles armed with nuclear warheads surrounded Anchorage; his family skied below the mysterious cluster of guarded and razor-wired buildings on Mount Gordon Lyon. Then there was Project Chariot, the proposal to use a “peacetime” atomic bomb to excavate a harbor near Point Hope on the northwest coast. That was followed by the nuclear tests on Amchitka Island in 1971. These Alaska-specifics are bracketed by two national events — a prologue called “Einstein’s Greatest Mistake,” about the beginnings of the U.S. effort to build an atomic bomb, and an epilogue, about a 1962 incident in which a misunderstanding nearly caused a Russian submarine to launch a nuclear attack.
In colorful pages that combine short explanatory texts with the author’s distinctive — often comical, sometimes terrifying — cartooning, Dunlap-Shohl places Alaska in its Cold War context, home to the Distant Early Warning System, aka DEW-line, on watch for Soviet air attacks. The author draws himself as a googly-eyed young kid below a big yellow siren, the shape of a tuba, on a tower outside his school; he knew that if the siren sounded he was supposed to dive under his desk. In other panels, based on his Nike research and a tour of the old site near where he used to ski, Dunlap-Shohl details the missiles, buildings, and the plans to use nuclear warheads to knock attacking bombers out of the sky.
While those bombers never arrived and missiles were never launched, Dunlap-Shohl includes a little-known story related to the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. Here he depicts himself as a 5-year-old, dancing around with his siblings during the exciting shaking, then moves on to what happened in the nearby Nike battery, where the launch crews, after prying open the concrete bunker doors, found “chaos” and leaking fuel. The author relied on oral history collected by the University of Alaska to tell this part of the story, in which crews worked heroically to stabilize the missiles and clean up.
The second part of the story details the efforts in the 1950s and ’60s to promote peacetime use of atomic explosions with a demonstration project that would blow apart the land in Alaska’s Northwest, near the community of Point Hope, to create a boat harbor. Project Chariot, as it was named, ended up eventually being halted, but not before contaminated soil from nuclear tests in Nevada was brought to the Alaska site to see how radiation would respond to Arctic conditions. This was kept secret until the 1990s, when millions of dollars were spent on removal and clean-up. This chapter in Alaska’s history has been superbly told in Dan O’Neill’s “The Firecracker Boys,” a major source for Dunlap-Shohl. The author here makes the important point that defeating Project Chariot both launched Alaska’s environmental movement and empowered Alaska Natives, who soon carried that power into the fight for land rights.
The third section covers the 1971 nuclear testing on Amchitka Island, in the Aleutians. The author begins this with a memory and illustrations of the entire student body of his Anchorage school standing outside on a cold November day for the Cannikin test 1,350 miles away. “We stood with dread in the dim light of early winter, helplessly waiting for the man-made end of the world.” The reason to be outside, as Dunlap-Shohl remembers it, was that the explosion might cause an earthquake. While no earthshaking reached the mainland, the blast did cause landslides on the island, and the shockwaves killed thousands of sea otters, other marine mammals, and seabirds. Years later, Amchitka workers were found to have high levels of radiation-related cancers, and trace elements associated with nuclear explosions were found in water flowing from the island.
The brilliance of “Nuking Alaska” comes from the union of the graphic form and Dunlap-Shohl’s tremendous talent. Similar to “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s graphic story of survival during the Holocaust, “Nuking Alaska” takes on a very serious subject in a form more often used for entertainment. Dunlap-Shohl matches his vibrant, expressive cartoons with often cutting commentary. For example, in the Amchitka section, a small panel on a page criticizing President Nixon’s decision to go forward with the test includes “Nothing says ‘serious about being tough on Commies’ like blowing a hole in your own country with a 5-megaton nuclear explosion.” This is paired with the skeletal figure of man flying through a blast, shouting “Take that, Leonid!”
As we enter a possibly new Cold War era and with nuclear capabilities growing around the world, it’s a good time to remember Alaska’s military role and the risk of mass destruction, in both the past and future. “Nuking Alaska” is a significant contribution to understanding what might have been and how we might think about what comes next.