The Norman Merritt Collection


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Norman Merritt, Recollections of Adak, 1967

I happened to stumble on this web site one day and found some of the remembrances people submitted very interesting. I thought I would add my own.

I was ordered to Adak after completion in 1966 of Aerographers Mate (Weatherman) Class A school in Lakehurst New Jersey. Most of the other people in my class got ordered to ships out of Pearl Harbor or to Subic Bay the Philippines. As I recall, one was even ordered to Morocco and the Marines went to Viet Nam. Because I had returned late from liberty one weekend, I was sure that my orders to Alaska was the Navy's way of punishing me.

I arrived in early January of 1967 on a Reeves Aleutian Airlines flight from Anchorage. It was a four engine prop plane with what seemed like a max speed of about 300 miles an hour on a good day. It was an interesting flight to say the least. Starting from the big game hunters that got on in Anchorage armed to the teeth with rifles and knives and got off at Cold Bay (I believe) to the best meal I've ever eaten on a flight (an inch thick steak cooked (or re-heated) by the flight attendants). More later about Reeves Aleutian and it's flights in and out of Adak.

Upon arriving in Adak, I was met by two individuals from the weather division. I discovered that the plan for me was to not live in the barracks with the other occupants of NAS Adak but to live in a converted pipe storage shack with the two people that met me, a dog named Kada and a few Norway rats. The building had been converted to allow us to store several tanks of helium gas and to provide a sheltered area for filling balloons used in taking upper air soundings (e.g., winds aloft, temperature, air pressure, etc.). They also constructed a living space (complete with kitchen) for up to 5 people. The pipe shack was located “up the hill” from the airport operations tower and across the street from the P-3 squadron barracks (Birchwood barracks I believe). I worked, ate, slept, and laughed in this building until I left in October of 1967.

That should set the stage for how I got to Adak and how I lived. Now, some stories of my 10 months on Adak...

The pipe shack was an interesting building. It was a wood frame building with no insulation and little wind proofing. It had a one room office that contained all our upper air balloon tracking equipment and our communications equipment (i.e. a teletype machine and telephone). It had a large main room with an old parachute hanging from the ceiling. The parachute kept the balloon from rising and hitting the ceiling and bursting. There were also several palettes of helium tanks.

It had a kitchen area, a laundry area, a work shop for our electronics tech, a pool table, and a head with a shower. Just outside, and up a rock outcropping, was a fiberglass structure (we called it a ray-dome) that housed our antenna. Connected to the pipe shack and the ray-dome was a heavy rope to aid us in finding the structure without getting blown off the rock by the wind or getting disoriented in a blizzard and falling off the rock. About 100 ft outside the front of the building was a smaller version of the ray-dome that contained a theodolite for manually tracking balloons.

Over the ten months I resided in this building, several things happened that still bring a smile to my face. It was from this building that the three of us repelled an invasion by the local Marine Corps contingent; established a movie theater; held birthday parties and blackjack games; hosted the local auto repair shop; and - unknown to the rest of the division - provided haven for our electronic techs wife during an unauthorized visit to the island. The building was also used for division meetings and ceremonies. It was well utilized.

How did we repel an invasion? Well, it seems that the local Marines - to keep sharp - would hold mock invasions of various parts of the Naval facilities. It was the Navy’s job to detect these invasions and defend against them. We were ordered to provide a 24 hour watch on our little facility with a “walking guard” armed with an old WW-II rifle that somebody dug up in some navy arms locker. Obviously the rifle was just for show. As I recall, it was missing some critical parts and pieces. When one considers that there were just three of us to perform this duty and we still had to do our jobs, it behooved us to come up with a solution that relieved us of the task of walking guard duty and allowed us to do our job. The solution came to us when one of us went on an errand to the operations tower and noticed the method used by the Marines to identify structures and facilities that had been captured. They hung a big sign on the captured facility that stated it had been captured. That was it. We immediately made a similar sign and tacked it up on our front door and went about our daily task of playing pool and doing upper air soundings. Hence, we were one of the few facilities not captured. Our chief was amused but not too happy with us. As I recall, we had to do some extra duty in the weather office.

We were always getting in trouble for something. On halloween we decided it would be funny to paint a face on one of our pibal balloons (these are small balloons that come in three colors - white, red, and black - and are tracked visually to determine upper air winds) and float it over the base. We also decided to enhance the effect by putting a couple of lights inside the balloon. The lights we used had water activated batteries and would glow for an hour or so. We painted and filled two balloons with helium and placed lights inside and released them tethered to a ball of string. The string was long enough and the wind the right direction that they ended up floating over the housing area. Well, the folks in the flight control tower saw them and were unable to determine what they were and ordered a flight of Air Force jets from Attu or one of the other outer islands to check them out. Again, people in authority were unhappy. After this incident, we had to call the tower before every launch of our weather balloons.

One of the nicer things we did was to put together a movie theater. The way this got started had to do with the remodeling of the P-3 squadron barracks and the dismantling of their movie theater. One evening we snuck over and snagged a few sections of their old theater seats and set them up in the pipe-shack. We hung a sheet on the wall and then set about trying to get a movie projector. We met a chief who happened to like to camp and fish and also worked in the Special Services division. It seems he liked the idea of the water activated lights and the water activated batteries. The batteries could be rigged to light a 60 watt bulb for several hours. We ended up swapping a case of batteries for a movie projector and for film privileges. The first film we got was a Raquel Welch film set in pre-historic times. I think it was called “When time stood still” or something like that. We would try and stop the film every time she appeared in her furry loin cloth and halter top. The next people that got the film had a lot of burned out frames in the film. Over time, however, we ended up serving as the division baby sitter every Saturday morning. We would rent cartoons and a kids movie, make popcorn and child proof the shack as best we could. The parents would drop their kids off and then do their shopping or just hang out without their kids or whatever. The kids would have a ball and we enjoyed it as well.

One of the other interesting things about Adak was the number of WW-II era Quonset huts that dotted the island. A division could claim one as a “recreation cabin” and clean it up and use it. We managed to get one on the road above the super secret sonar listening facility and below the radio communications facility. We scrounged old discarded furniture from housing and somehow managed to get an old oil burning furnace to heat the place. We would spend time up there playing poker and getting drunk and feeding our poor dog (Kada) beer and whiskey and jalapeno peppers. Unlike the other rec-cabins on the island, we never had to worry about vandalism or theft. The Marines guarding the sonar facility would patrol the road and got to know our vehicles. We eventually traded some more batteries to the same chief we got the movie camera for electric power. We were in fat city! One night, the winds got to blowing and peeled back the roof of the hut and damaged much of the contents. Including the old furnace. We put it back together, refurnished it and tried using it again. It quickly became apparent that we needed to do something about the furnace. Being creative, we ended up removing it from the hut and swapping it with the one in our pipe shack. Once it became the principal source of heat for our office, we were able to call the engineering people to come out and “fix” our non-functioning furnace. When they got there, they were astounded to see that we were using such a “beat up old piece of crap” as our primary heat source. They thought they had replaced all of them. Well, it didn’t take them any time at all to bring in a new one and offer us their most sincere apology for somehow overlooking us when they replaced those old furnaces. Ah! Necessity is the mother of invention!

Speaking of Kada, our feeding habits led to an interesting incident with some doctors. We noticed that Kada’s hair on her tail was falling out. Basically, it looked like a rats tail. We were discussing it one night during our bowling league and happened to be overheard by a team of doctors bowling in the next alley. They offered to come over and look at the dog if we would provide them with a couple of our balloons for a birthday party. We agreed. They came over and quickly diagnosed the problem as nutritional. We had to stop feeding her chips and beer. Well we thanked them and handed them two uninflated balloons. They, however, insisted we fill them. Which we did. The last we saw of them, they were driving back towards the main part of the base with two doctors sitting in the bed of their pickup truck trying to control these two huge balloons that were whipping all over the place. After our meeting with the doctors, we established better feeding habits for Kada. In a nut shell, whatever we ate at the chow hall, she got. We always managed to sneak out an extra steak or something. We got the cooks to start providing us with huge bones and whatever else they thought she might like. She prospered

She eventually got healthy enough to get pregnant and ended up having a litter of pups. Wasn’t her first. We used to call her the “whore of Adak”. She weaned her pups, wandered off, and we never saw her again. The Marines used to shoot stray dogs that wandered near the runways and we figured that’s what happened to her.

Lets see, what else do I remember... I remember going over to finger bay and buying 2 lb packages of fresh Alaskan King Crab meat from the processing boats that would tie up there. We use to pay a couple of dollars for them. I remember climbing Mt. Moffet and seeing airplane wreckage from WW-II and the remains of what I was told was an old ski lift. I remember the old cars (e.g., Kaisers, Ramblers, Hudsons, etc.) that were still in use. I remember the Adak National Forest. I remember singing folk songs and hoping to meet a girl in a little bar set up away from the base. I remember being blown across the street when we tried to launch a balloon on a windy day. I remember exploring old WW-II bunkers and an old underground hospital. I remember the wind blowing so hard you could hardly walk upright into it. I remember the time a B-52 landed with mechanical problems and they placed it under a 24 hour armed guard while it was there. I remember the earth quakes that shook us on occasion.

I also remember that the highlight of the week was the arrival of the Hughes Air West (also know as Hughes Air Worst) jet aircraft from Anchorage and the departure of the Reeves Aleutian Airlines flights. Both for different reasons. The first because of the pretty flight attendants and the second because of the doubt they would make it over the mountains at the end of the runway. The Reeves Aleutian airline reminds me of what happened one dark and stormy day on beautiful Adak. It seems that a storm system moved into the area and socked in the facility with basically zero visibility, winds, and rain. The Captain closed the facility to any incoming flights. Usually that meant that incoming flights would be diverted to Attu or Kiska. Both of which are a few hundred miles further west. The way I heard it was that the pilot of an incoming Reeves flight requested that the tower turn on the runway approach lights so that he could see where the runway was. They refused and told him to re-route himself to Attu or Kiska. Both of which would probably be socked in as well when he got there. He argued the point to no avail. About ten minutes later he called the tower again to request that the runway taxi lights be turned on. He again was reminded that the facility was closed to all incoming flights and that he couldn’t land. His response was something to the effect “Land hell! I’m already on the ground! Turn on the taxi lights so I know where the terminal is.” (Michael Gordon adds: I'm pretty sure this story is of Pat Kelly, for whom the air terminal was later named.)

When I left in October of 1967. I was both pleased and disappointed to be leaving. I have a lot of good memories of Adak and would love to go back and check it out. I have boxes of slides that I need to digitize. I also have two reel-to-reel tape recordings of the Armed Forces radio station broadcasts that I recorded when I was there. I haven’t tried to listen to them in 30+ years and don’t even know if they are any good. Some day I’ll find someone with an old reel-to-reel tape recorder and I’ll see if they’re any good.

Thanks for your web site and the memories it dredged up.

Norman Merritt

(Added to website 16 July 2003. Photos added 24 November 2003.)