Capturing a Storied Past: Historical Photo Analysis Guides Restoration Work at World War II Site in Alaska

By Cameron McLeodNovember 20, 2023

Aerial View of Dutch Harbor Naval Air Station
1 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – An aerial view of Dutch Harbor Naval Air Station on July 21, 1943, reveals a runway and other key features of the remote area’s abundant military construction. The USACE Army Geospatial Center is conducting historical photo analysis of this site and many others on Amaknak Island to assist the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District with its environmental remediation efforts. (Photo by U.S. Navy) (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL
Sailors practice their marksmanship from a shooting stand at Dutch Harbor Naval Air Station
2 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Sailors practice their marksmanship from a shooting stand at Dutch Harbor Naval Air Station on Aug. 25, 1943. Today, unexploded munitions that remain at this site and others on Amaknak Island present a threat to public safety today. Historical photo analysis is key in deciphering the characteristics of hazardous materials in the area. (Photo by U.S. Navy) (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL
Dutch Harbor Naval Air Station and Mount Ballyhoo
3 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Located near the base of Mount Ballyhoo, Dutch Harbor Naval Air Station served as a central hub of military activity on Amaknak Island during World War II. This photo was taken on Aug. 24, 1942. (Photo by U.S. Navy) (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL
Gun Emplacement and Magazine in Summer Bay
4 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Through its environmental cleanup program, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District is addressing hazards associated with unexploded munitions from the World War II era on Unalaska and Amaknak Island. Historical photo analysis is critical in locating formerly used defense sites, such as this gun emplacement and magazine in Summer Bay. (Photo by Jessequa Parker) (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL
Unalaska Lake overlooks the town of Unalaska
5 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Members of the Alaska District’s Formerly Used Defense Sites Program are working to protect environmental and human health from the remnants of World War II in the Aleutian Islands. Currently, the team is focused on identifying and remediating hazards in Unalaska, Dutch Harbor and Amaknak Island. (Photo by Rena Flint) (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL
Margaret Bay and Dutch Harbor at Sunset
6 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – More than 4,000 people live in Unalaska today, which includes Dutch Harbor and Amaknak Island to the north. During World War II, this remote area in the heart of the Aleutian Islands hosted a robust military population charged with defending the U.S. from a potential invasion from Japanese forces. (Photo by Rena Flint) (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL
Harbor Defense Observation Post at Fort Learnard
7 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – After a bombing attack on Fort Mears by Japanese aircraft, U.S. military construction surged across Amaknak Island and Unalaska. This activity included the establishment of a harbor defense observation post at Fort Learnard near the mouth of Unalaska Bay. (Photo by Jeremy Craner) (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District, in collaboration with the USACE Army Geospatial Center, is using historical photographic analysis to help determine the locations of structures, features and abandoned military munitions on Amaknak and Unalaska Islands.

By comparing images of the range complex site and surrounding area from the past century, USACE geographers, scientists and environmental remediation experts are piecing together an accurate picture of the area’s history. This crucial data will help the team create a plan for a safe and effective cleanup project.

“Historical photo analysis is the foundation of our remedial investigation,” Rena Flint, manager of the Alaska District’s Formerly Used Defense Sites Program, said. “It enables us to perform this critical work in a place with an incredible past.”

The history of the Amaknak formerly used defense site, located in the Aleutian Islands of southwest Alaska, is represented in photographic records that span to the late nineteenth century. The U.S. Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Coast and Geodetic Survey captured both aerial and ground photos of the region in the early 1900s for purposes ranging from coastal patrol and rescue to viewing locations for military construction planning.

The onset of World War II marked a turning point in the region’s history, and photography quickly became a distinct military interest. On June 3, 1942, Japanese aircraft released 14 bombs onto Fort Mears and the Dutch Harbor Naval Air Station, Unalaska Bay’s central hub of Army and Navy activity at the time. This event, which was the first aerial assault on the continental United States by an adversary, demonstrated the need for greater dispersion between military installations on the island to inhibit the effectiveness of a future attack.

The area experienced a boom in construction after the air assault, expanding onto Unalaska Island. When the conflict ended, many wartime assets in the Aleutians were abandoned and fell into disrepair.

“After the bombing, there was an intense buildup of armaments and structures in the area,” Flint said. “That event and its aftermath had a massive impact on the islands that lasts to the present day.”

Today, the remnants of this construction present an environmental hazard to people who live, work and recreate near the Amaknak range site. Risks to human health and the environment include unexploded munitions, chemical leaks and other potential hazards.

To address these concerns, the Alaska District’s Formerly Used Defense Sites Program is leveraging the Army Geospatial Center’s unique capabilities to identify the precise location and scale of munitions on the island.

“The entire town of Unalaska lies within the site boundary,” Flint said. “Native corporations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other entities each own land affected by the military infrastructure. This is a project that has direct, tangible benefits for landowners and Alaska Natives with enduring cultural ties to the land and its resources.”

Historical photographic analysis serves as the foundation of the environmental remediation process. Staff at the USACE Army Geospatial Center in Alexandria, Va., elected to divide the range complex site into eight zones based upon military activity type and geographic location. The project’s total area spans over 200,000 acres in land and water, requiring the team to painstakingly examine materials of varying quality, distance and capture method to determine the location of lingering munitions and infrastructure now obscured by inclement weather and the passage of time. These resources include print and film photography, schematics, topographical maps and textual records obtained from military, federal, state and local archives.

For team members who perform this work regularly, the challenging process of historical photographic analysis requires great attention to detail and a significant time investment.

“There is certainly a unique skill set that is needed for photo interpretation work,” said Shiloh Dorgan, lead of the Army Geospatial Center’s environmental analysis program. “Catching and documenting the footprints and scars of past military activity on the modern landscape requires a careful eye.”

When the team has researched, collected and pieced together decades of photography they start to characterize the historical activity over time. After personnel develop a clearer picture of the site’s magnitude and characteristics, the Alaska District’s Formerly Used Defense Sites team creates an accurate conceptual site model to display the entirety of the project and its necessary cleanup locations. Once the model is complete, remediation work commences, and the team can begin their work with a better vision of what they must accomplish.

For these geographers and scientists, the photographic analysis process is an excellent way to satisfy their professional and personal curiosity in environmental and military history and piece together the uncatalogued past of a populated area on a remote island.

“Historical photo analysis brings the contextual pieces of defense history that were lost back into the present narrative,” Dorgan said. “We learn something new with every project.”

The end goal of a safe and clean environment is another personally motivating factor for Flint and Dorgan when executing projects at formerly used defense sites.

“This site has a present-day landowner who is dealing with the negative effects of the leftover infrastructure,” said Flint. “It’s incredibly rewarding to restore land previously occupied by the military and meet the expectations of the community.”