KODIAK, Alaska (AP) — A group of Peterson Elementary third-graders glimpsed snapshots of World War II history on Kodiak Island when they visited the Kodiak Military Museum at Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park on a crisp, clear Jan. 25 morning.
Led by third-grade teacher John Malloy and armed with iPads to document their trip, the large platoon of students explored the now-empty and weather-worn bunkers and buildings on the trails around Miller Point.
Malloy said the purpose of the field trip fits in with his class's segment on history and geography.
"We've been talking about the history and geography of Kodiak, so now they have a reference point," Malloy said. "They are surrounded by history in Kodiak and it's nice that we have experts here who can talk to them about it."
During a break in exploring the forest-covered site, Malloy introduced one element familiar to all military service members — vacuum-packed Meals Ready to Eat.
"You have 15 minutes to get your MRE, cut it open and eat," Malloy told students, adding they were allowed to eat the desserts only. The rest of the MRE package contents went home with parents.
The caveat: students had to retrieve cutting implements — scissors — from the frozen grass nearby.
Several students struggled due to the scissors being stuck together, requiring teamwork to cut the MRE open.
Peterson third-grader Charli McCarthy managed to open hers with assistance from an adult. Once the contents of the MRE were spread out on the grass, she sorted through it.
"Where's the desert?" she asked. While other MREs contained items such as M&Ms or Reese's buttercups, her package included sweet bread and peanut butter and jelly, which was promptly folded into a makeshift sandwich.
Malloy said the field trip offers a different perspective than one provided in Peterson's vicinity near Coast Guard Base Kodiak.
"We have a bunker we can visit near Peterson Elementary, but this shows them artillery and other equipment," Malloy said. "This really puts the talk they here in class into perspective. I wanted them to experience a site where history really happened."
He said the MREs were a last-minute idea that provided an extra element to the experience of exploring the area.
"It was a little frosting on the cake and something I thought of at the last second," Malloy said. "They (MREs) can hopefully emphasize what military personnel stationed here had to endure in 1942."
Students were given a tour of the Military Museum by Curt Law, one of the organization’s founding members. The museum is housed in the Miller Point Ready Ammunition Bunker, which was restored with grant funding in the early 1990s.
The museum itself was established in 1999 and operates via private donations, according to Law.
Inside, students got to experience the sights and sounds of World War II history, including military shells, armaments, radar equipment and radios.
During the tour, Law explained some of the significance behind Kodiak's military history. Kodiak Fort was built in 1898 by the Army on the site of what now forms the city of Kodiak.
Miller Point, later named Fort Abercrombie, was one of many Army defense postings on Kodiak during World War II. Artillery batteries were stationed at the site.
The Navy built a radio facility on Woody Island in 1911, and later established its base on what is now Coast Guard Base Kodiak in 1939 in response to the onset of World War II.
In April 1941, the Army transported Battery C of the 250th Coast Artillery Regiment along with three mobile artillery platforms to Navy Base Kodiak. In June, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order withdrawing 780 acres of land on Miller Point for military use.
Following the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese air forces, military activity ramped up on Kodiak. Between 150 and 200 soldiers were stationed in 25 Quonset huts at Miller Point, with 11,000 military personnel stationed on Kodiak Island overall.
"There were more people here on Kodiak then than there are today," Law told students.
Navy Seabees installed two eight-inch Mark IV naval guns in 1943. The installation's mission was denying Narrow Strait and Kizhuyak Bay to hostile sea forces.
The military post included an artillery bunker, searchlight tower, observation tower and several support structures.
According to the Alaska Division of Parks and Recreation, Piedmont Point, a half-mile southeast of the eight-inch gun positions, housed a tactical searchlight, a second observation post, a radar tower and ancillary personnel facilities.
Law showed students one of the large searchlights, noting the amount of heat they generated when activated.
"If you stood too close, you would catch on fire," Law said. "They would demonstrate this by holding a broom close up and watch as it started burning."
Today, the Quonset huts are gone and many of the remaining intact structures at Miller Point sit empty, monuments to a more tense era in modern history.
According to Alaska Division of Parks and Recreation, Fort Abercrombie probably was actively manned between the summer of 1942 and the spring of 1944. The facilities were placed into caretaker status in December 1944. The gun batteries were destroyed with explosives to prevent them from falling into hostile hands.
The years following its abandonment, Fort Abercrombie saw a number of uses, including a makeshift community springing up in and around the main bunker. According to Alaska Parks and Recreation, most of the fort's infrastructure was either destroyed or recycled for fill material.
Alaska established the area as a national park on Jan. 30, 1969, for its historical resources, and listed it on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. A decade later, approximately 25 residents were evicted from the park and full-time staff assigned to it. The main artillery bunker housing was restored in the early 1990s; the museum moved into the building in 2000.
During the field trip last week, students were quizzed on their knowledge of U.S. history, including the meaning of the flags hanging on the museum walls. One was the U.S. flag with 48 stars, dating back to before Alaska and Hawaii were states; the other, the flag of then-British-controlled Canada to represent when Canadian military forces served alongside U.S. military forces during WWII.
Static displays in the museum included barrack-style bunks, dummies wearing uniforms of both U.S. service members and pilots and Japanese Imperial Forces, artillery shells and silk cartridge bags.
In the museum's main room, students managed to get hands-on with a variety of typewriters, rotary phones and military-grade radio equipment.
A small group of Peterson Elementary students took the opportunity to don WWII-era uniforms and take turns scrambling into the museum’s 1945 Willys Jeep stationed in the corridor.
One group, comprising Charli McCarthy, Elinor Stoecker and Abigail Richards, hopped in, scrambling for either the steering wheel or one of three passenger seats.
"I'm an officer," Richards said while tugging on a military cap.
Law said that the museum caters to such hands-on activity.
"It's been my experience that kids learn by doing," Law said. "How many people remember things when teachers are yelling, 'Johnny, keep your hands in your pocket?' Here, you don't have too."
In his day job, Law owns Aksala Electronics, Inc. As one of the museum's founding member, he manages the business end of the museum. He said his board of directors and staff are all volunteers.
He said a hands-on experience was the intent when he and his partner Joe Stevens started the museum in 1999. The Willys Jeep is one such example.
"They like using their imagination in the Jeep, especially if they got a lot of time," he said. "I've had entire families dress up in military uniforms and sit in the Jeep, letting their imaginations go wild."
The typewriters are another fan favorite, he added.
"By far, the biggest things they like are the typewriters," he said. "They can figure it out until they get to the end, and then they are looking for the 'enter' key."
He added most young kids need help with that, demonstrating it by hitting the linespace return lever.
Law said other big hits with visitors were rotary dial telephones, teletype machines and military radios.
"We see kids coming back since we've been doing this in 1999," Law said. "As they grow up and have kids of their own, they remember that experience, whereas some other museums are strictly hands-off."
But the museum is more than just a warehouse of WWII-era military information, Law said.
"We're not just about WWII history," Law said. "I've got a diagram of Fort Kodiak in the late 1800s ... It's all about the rich military history we have."
For the Peterson third-grade class, it's an opportunity to break away from screens and books, according to Malloy.
“If you can channel the kids’ energy into activities like this, it makes for a great experience and teaches them that there’s more than YouTube videos and books,” he said. “They can touch things and get their hands dirty.”