The Fact of the Matter Is…
From the Files of Gustavus Historical Archives & Antiquities (GHAA)
Q - During WWII, Gustavus, Alaska had no protection other than a hand full of settlers. Were there any “close calls”?
A - WWII was a strange time for the few homesteaders who stayed to brave the unstable conditions. The very isolation that made them generally feel safe, now felt exposed and vulnerable. And there were dangers lurking in their back yards—worrisome incidents as well as significant changes out of their control. Mining was shut down over most of the country and the Leroy Gold Mine in Glacier Bay was no exception. Everyone was well aware of the intense military activities occurring in Excursion Inlet just to the east. At home, the Gustavus airport was quickly being built and the “MK” camp (almost completely self contained) was established on the western shore of Salmon River above the bridge to house the airfield workers & families.
All this (and lots of rumors), but somehow life just went on. There was, however, a certain degree of preparedness that belied the surface calm. And an almost insatiable attempt to get the latest news. (Muz & Joe Ibach on Lemesurier Is. reported that the radio news of the War was so disturbing that they switched to music.)
GHAA has original government distributed warnings and instructions on blacking out windows and taking cover in case of enemy bombings or raids. Charles Lincoln Parker built his “safe house” cabin on the shores of Lake Independence (Bartlett Lake) to which he planned to retreat and inform the government of enemy strategy and movement if necessary. He also had a “bunker” dug and camouflaged in the line of trees across from the present day Bear Track Mercantile. From this underground “spy” fort, he could assume a well-stocked, armed position for enemy arrivals from the beach/dock area and “stop them dead in their tracks”.
There were reports of Japanese being seen in stealth positions raiding the barns of the locals, even milking the cows (under cover of early morning darkness) to provide fresh milk and whatever else they could find for their troops. A submarine (or two) was spotted from Gustavus shores and later confirmed to be enemy marine scouts and sunk by American response.
There was suspicious unrest in area waters as convoys were being prepared to be deployed. Gustavus boats leaving Salmon River by middle-of-the-night tides for Juneau (with minimal or no lights to provide cover for themselves) found themselves rudely intercepted before reaching Porpoise Islands and boarded for inspection. Folks at home would sometimes hear the warning gunfire eerily breaking the silence of the night and could only hope and pray that their loved ones in Icy Passage were meeting friendly faces.
But one of the most fascinating tales of all regarding “close calls” and the successful, under-cover infiltration of the enemy directly over Gustavus skies has just recently been received and archived by GHAA. Written as a first hand account of an incident occurring in Gustavus by homesteader Ruth Matson, the story also reports the shooting down of a Japanese war plane in a rugged “dog fight” over Glacier Bay, the sounds of which were heard by the locals in Gustavus. To read this incredible story in full, click here or do an internal “Search” on Reference number 20177.