Railway demolition unearths new discoveries from World War II

Unalaska’s marine railway stands half-demolished in December. The WWII structure has since been leveled, about 75 years after it was built.
(Photo: Laura Kraegel/KUCB)

About 75 years ago, the U.S. Navy built a marine railway in Unalaska. It was basically an underwater railroad that helped the military haul boats out of the Bering Sea during World War II.

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Since then, the railway has slowly gone to seed and recently, it was demolished for good.

Unalaska’s small boat harbor, in the shadow of Bunker Hill, construction crews are tearing down a piece of history.

“They’re loading up the steel carriage that they used to pull the boats up in,” Joe Sacramento said.

Sacramento is the property manager for Pacific Stevedoring, the shipping company that took over the railway site a year and a half ago. He’s standing next to a giant mechanical carriage that was the crux of this whole operation, back in 1942.

“The bottom of the carriage sat on these rails,” Sacremento said. “They’d block it up with wooden blocks to pull it straight up and out.”

If you’re not a mariner, the procedure may be hard to picture, but it went something like this.

Navy men would drive a boat into the harbor — where ghostly train tracks still emerge from the water, continue up the bank, and run straight through an open space in the hollowed-out railway building. They’d pull up on the train tracks and fit blocks around the boat’s hull. That way, it wouldn’t tip as they used the carriage to reel it out of the water and into the workshop area, where welders and carpenters were waiting.

“They could take a boat as big as a minesweeper,” Jeff Dickrell said. “That’s a wooden-hulled boat less than 100 feet long.”

Dickrell is a local historian who has spent his career studying the Aleutians Islands and their role in WWII. When the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor in June of 1942, he said the island’s military base was still pretty small. More than 50 people died during the two-day attack, and it became clear the Aleutians were vulnerable.

So the military got to work. Navy construction battalions expanded the base. The battalion members were called Seabees, and they built the marine railway.

“They did it because there was no place to pull a boat out of the water between here and Seattle,” Dickrell said.

The structure was finished a year after the attack, but it never got to play a heroic role.

The war had become air battle, and the railway was only equipped to repair small boats, which were already struggling to navigate the region’s rough waters.

“You don’t operate with small boats in the Aleutians,” Dickrell said. “They tried to bring up YP boats — or yippee boats — for in-shore patrolling and close-to-shore work. The boats got so kicked around by the weather that they couldn’t really use them.”

Meanwhile, the war moved west to Attu and Kiska, where U.S forces fought the Japanese invasion.

The marine railway wasn’t used much, but it lived on — even after the war ended in American victory. The space was actually used into the early 2000s, when welders used the train tracks to haul out crab boats.

Like all of the surviving WW II buildings on the island, Dickrell says that longevity comes down to good old-fashioned construction. No power tools. Everything cut and pounded by hand.

“The buildings were designed to last five years for the war,” Dickrell said. “But they did such high-quality construction methods and used such high-quality materials that here’s a building that’s lasted 75 years. That’s pretty cool.”

Dickrell said it was a comfort too — once the railway was condemned.

“You can take some solace in a building that was supposed to last five years lasted 75,” Dickrell said. “It’s like the Russian Orthodox cross. You don’t put the person’s name on it, so that when people stop remembering who it was, you let it fall to disrepair and that’s fine.”

With the demolition now done, Pacific Stevedoring is deciding how to use the railway space for the present day. Sacramento said it could become storage or employee housing.

Either way, it’s hardly the end of WWII’s legacy in Unalaska.

Just across the property, Sacramento’s crew is renovating another WWII building that’s held up a bit better, and they’ve discovered a memento from 75 years ago, hiding behind mold and dusty drywall.

“We wanted to start fresh, so we gutted the whole inside,” Sacrament said. “One of my guys came to me and said he found some writing on the wall, so I went over to see it. Two U.S. Navy Seabees had signed and dated it — 7/29/42.”

Written with a deep blue grease pencil, the two names stand out against the wood.

“Carl Oberlitner,” Sacramento read. “And then that one I didn’t look up. W.B. Morphu? I’m not sure.”

While Sacremento works on deciphering the second signature, Pacific Stevedoring has already begun reaching out to the family of Carl Oberlitner.

The Navy man died in 2014, but Sacramento said he hopes to send Oberlitner’s signature to his daughters. That way, this piece of history can live on.