By USCG Auxilarist Drew Herman
Even after World War II ended, young Coast Guard recruits at the electronics school in Groton, Conn., promised not to say the word “loran” and risk a leak about the top-secret navigation system that guided American bombers to targets in the Pacific.
“Everything was very confidential,” said Don Funk, who manned the loran station on Attu Island for 13 months starting in 1946.
“It was isolated duty,” said Funk, now 86 years old and a resident of Lansing, Mich.
When the need for secrecy ended, the long range navigation system, or loran, revolutionized navigation for mariners and pilots, helping Alaskans settle the state’s vast interior and develop the nation’s most productive commercial fishing industry.
But manning the remote posts needed to operate the system remained one of the loneliest jobs in the world, until the last Coast Guardsman left Attu on Aug. 27, 2010.
The decommissioning ceremony for Loran Station Attu took place one day later than scheduled because dense fog typical for the Aleutians forced a Coast Guard C-130 to divert to nearby Shemya Island overnight. The airplane from Air Station Kodiak brought Funk and other guests and dignitaries to the island for a few hours before leaving with the entire 20-man crew.
“Loran’s been around a long time,” said Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Rosenberg, the last commanding officer on Attu. “And now it’s gone.”
Rosenberg noted about 1,300 Coast Guardsmen have served on Attu in the course of 66 years, one month and 21 days, a figure he has memorized.
In June 1942, forces of the Imperial Japanese Army landed on Attu. American forces won back the island 11 months later in a series of bloody engagements, the only land battle of World War II on American soil.
The isolation, rugged beauty and sense of history stay with everyone who served on Attu.
At the decommissioning, Coast Guard Cmdr. James Boyer, chief of port and waterway management in Alaska, quoted a 1945 memo from Col. James R. Kilgore of the U.S. Army Air Force. Kilgore credited the loran stations with making the Allies’ victory possible, and he described the Coast Guardsmen’s crucial work as “unglamorous, tedious, monotonous and requiring painstaking exactitude.”
Funk joked that the posting at Theodore Point, in a different part of Attu from the final station, amounted to incarceration. He remembers the excitement of mail call every 10 weeks or so when a dory or landing craft approached the beach.
“Four guys would row like the dickens through the rocks” [to meet the mail], he said.
Those early teams did not enjoy the relative luxury of a cozy barracks that made life easier for their successors.
“We just had Quonsets that sunk in the mud,” Funk said. “We didn’t have a flagpole; it would’ve blown down.”
Although the accommodations improved over the years, the extreme weather conditions never changed. After the decommissioning ceremony, a color guard hauled down the Stars and Stripes from a flagpole that has always spent the winter months safely stowed out of the frequent hurricane-force winds.
Funk’s assessment of loran duty applies to the last day at the station as much as to the first.
“It was a challenge,” he said. “Everybody kept things running no matter what. You had to.”
Following his time on Attu, Funk had his choice of duty station. He returned to home waters and helped install navigation equipment for Lake Michigan that’s still functioning. After leaving the Coast Guard, he worked as a salesman and as a Michigan state trooper, but he remembers with pride his role in the 20th century navigation revolution.
“Every little boat on the Great Lakes had loran,” he said.
Boyer pointed out that loran made a particular contribution to shaping life on the Last Frontier including the expansion of commercial fishing in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska during the 1950s.
“Alaska fisheries were built on loran,” Boyer said.
And even though GPS technology has replaced loran during the last two decades, leading to the August decommissioning ceremony on Attu, loran’s legacy continues in the newer technology.
“The fundamentals of GPS are based on the loran concepts of time differentials,” Boyer said.
Ron Caswell arrived on Attu 25 years after Funk left to stand watch at the loran station as a Coast Guardsman in 1972. Today Caswell lives near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and works as an engineer for the International Space Station. But like Funk, he jumped at the chance to return to Attu to attend the decommissioning and relive his earlier adventure.
Caswell shares Funk’s deep feelings for their remote post and the work they performed there.
“Of all the things I have done in my life, I am most proud of my service in the United States Coast Guard,” he said. “It still boggles me why anybody would want to join a different branch when the Coast Guard does so many different things.”
Caswell earned his degree on the GI Bill, he said, “So everything I did with the Coast Guard benefited my life. Hopefully I benefited the nation with my duty also.”
Standing on Attu again for the first time in 37 years, Caswell recalled a hike he took with an Air Force visitor, when they stood on a mountain overlooking the center of the island, more isolated from other people than possible even in a giant national park.
“I’ve never experienced that feeling ever since,” he said.
Once when a Coast Guard cutter had to wait at Attu for spare parts, the station crew got to celebrate Coast Guard Day on Aug. 5 with a ball game.
“That was pretty unique for this whole year to have enough people at one time to have a baseball game,” he said.
When the Air Station Kodiak C-130 took off from Attu after the decommissioning, only a handful of contract employees remained on the island. They will spend a few weeks preparing the station’s buildings for a future without much human attention. Without the loran station, Attu will have no residents. The few dozen Aleuts who lived there before World War II were forcibly removed by the Japanese and never returned to re-establish their village.
In the coming years, biologists, historians and anthropologists will visit occasionally for various projects, including repatriation of the thousands of Japanese soldiers buried there.
The last residents of Attu climbed out of the C-130 onto the tarmac at the airport in Anchorage in the first stage of dispersing to their new Coast Guard assignments. The young men gathered their bags, shook hands and joined Funk and Caswell as veterans of the most remote post in the U.S. military.
Petty Officer 2nd class Nathan Kinzel served on the Charleston, S.C.-based cutter Dallas before he asked for the assignment to Attu.
“I needed a break just from life in general,” said Kinzel, who enjoyed getting in a lot of reading.
Seaman William Sniffen came to Attu straight from basic training.
“I thought it’d be interesting,” he said. “I thought I’d learn a lot.”
Sniffen understands the connection earlier loran crewmen feel to Attu.
“It’d be cool to come back here eventually,” he said.
Attu can fairly claim the title of “last place on Earth,” since no inhabited land lies farther west on this side of the International Date Line. In effect, the sun sets there last.
Although soon nobody will be there to see those sunsets, about 1,300 Coast Guardsmen found out how they looked and felt.
For Caswell, the return visit to Attu “went by too fast.”
“I’m not sure ‘home’ is the right word, but it felt comfortable. It felt like a very familiar place to be,” he said.
“What a unique experience, to get to spend time out at a place like this”