Shrouded by swirls of island fog, the entrance to Kodiak’s Military History Museum smelled of wet concrete and moss, and even though an American flag hung over the doorway, and an “Open” sign invited our family inside, we still hesitated. On a family vacation to the second-largest island in the United States, we had hiked around, crawled over, and gingerly explored inside dozens of bunkers and emplacements left over from Kodiak’s involvement in World War II at Fort Abercrombie State Park, three miles from town. Established in 1941 to provide an army presence and defensive posture from the potential invading Japanese military, and to protect nearby Kodiak Naval Operating Base, Fort Abercrombie played an important, if not critical role to the United States war effort.
Today, bunkers, batteries, and magazines dot the park’s landscape; some hidden from view by 60+ years’ accumulation of moss and forest floor duff, others standing silently erect, waiting for curious folk like us to venture inside and wonder what it might have been like to live and work enclosed in five feet of steel and reinforced concrete. For children who only discuss WWII in oblique terms in favor of focus on today’s worldwide conflicts, the museum is a valuable resource, especially for those who live in Alaska.
The benefit of the Kodiak Military History Museum is just that – visitors are able to enter a retrofitted and renovated bunker to explore the daily life of a soldier during WWII. An all-volunteer force worked thousands of hours for permitting and construction, and the result, along with a bluff-side location, produces stunning results.
Open on weekends and variable hours during the year, it can be tricky to show up at Fort Abercrombie and expect to visit the museum. However, volunteers are quick to point out the facility’s phone number, and true to form, someone did indeed answer my call with a schedule for the coming week.
Visitors to the bunker are greeted by a surprise wave of warm air, thanks to a large heating system that keeps humidity down and heat, up, important when one is inside a virtual cave. Painted in the white and gray colors of the time, the walls feel solid and secure, leading one to think living like a gopher wasn’t such a bad idea during a war. With big band tunes softly completing the transformation from 21st century back to 20th, we slowly shuffled between rusty guns, American and Japanese uniforms, and a wonderful display of a bunker barracks, complete with pin-up girls, card games, and those scratchy, olive-drab blankets. For kids whose lives revolve around “stuff” and their trappings, the spartan barracks provide a reality check for teens, especially since the average age of a WWII soldier was only 22, ripe with possibility and the invincible attitude of young adulthood.
A hop inside an old Willy jeep, a quick dress-up in a gas mask and officer garb, and we found ourselves moving through the final section, dedicated to 1940’s and ‘50‘s communication processes. In a brilliant maneuver, museum volunteers hooked up an entire switchboard and accompanying 1940’s-style rotary telephones. All work, and visitors are encouraged to dial phone numbers, listen for the switch and connection, then chatter away. AK Kid found this to be a hoot, having never dialed an actual telephone before, and he called and yakked and called again, loving the brash “rinnnnggggg” to be absolutely fascinating. A teletype, Army radio the size of my arm, and morse code/HAM radio set-up was equally intriguing, and the volunteer on duty said nothing about the taps and ticks and endless questions from our curious 8 year-old.
History is best understood in proper perspective. Location, combined with environment, delivered us to 1941; the perfect way to honor those who spent similar days and hours far from home.
If you go: Find the Kodiak Military History Museum inside Fort Abercrombie State Park, Mile 3.7 East Rezanof Drive. Call the office at 907-486-7015 for hours, or, if you have a few days, swing by the bunker and check the posted hours.
Admission is $5/adults, FREE for those under 13.
While the museum is heated, it still feels a bit damp and chilly, especially on a typical Kodiak rainy day. Bring warm jackets and sturdy walking shoes, because you’ll want to wander the rest of the park afterward.
This museum is best suited for school-aged kids. Do watch little ones; a few metal parts are displayed on the floor, and could be sharp for small fingers. Observe all posted signs and directions.