Historic Unalaska torpedo shop faces demolition

Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2002

UNALASKA (AP) -- It is a ragged building now, a steel skeleton slowly and painfully shedding its skin alongside a modern runway.

Most of the local, state and federal agencies deciding its fate have turned thumbs down. Even the governor has included a request for funding to the Legislature asking for close to $1 million to tear it down.

But the old torpedo utility shop has a history that belies its tattered facade.

When it was new in 1942, the steel structure was part of a complex of buildings near the airstrip that manufactured, stored and loaded torpedoes onto planes.

Parts for the manufacture of torpedoes were stored where the old bowling alley lanes now lie dormant. Downstairs, torpedoes were assembled, and then taken next door to the shop annex to have the warheads loaded with explosives. The foot-thick walls of the welding building were designed to withstand an accidental explosion.

Fully assembled torpedoes were then stored by the hundreds in a nearby tunnel. When it came time to transfer the torpedoes onto warplanes, the torpedoes were rolled across the street to the steel utility shop, where last-minute adjustments were made. The lumbering steel torpedoes were then loaded onto semicircular wooden cradles and rolled out onto the runway to waiting planes.

It was the military's belief that submarines would be the critical factor in the war in the Aleutians that was behind the buildup of Forts Mears, Schwatka and Brumbaugh. They made up the so-called iron triangle, designed to protect the submarine base on Amaknak Island.

In the end, it was air power that made all the difference, according to Rick Knecht, director of the Museum of the Aleutians.

''The military had thought subs would turn the tide, but the weather really battered the subs,'' Knecht said. ''They couldn't stay under water as long -- limitations on air and battery power would force them to the surface.''

Knecht said that poorly charted, rocky coastlines and a dearth of targets also undermined the effectiveness of the submarines in the war in the Aleutians.

Still, the torpedoes were an effective part of the war effort. They were simply launched from airplanes instead.

Sixty years later, the torpedo utility shop is the only part of the original complex to languish without a tenant.

It was not always the case. After the war ended, the building was used by the Department of Transportation for vehicle maintenance before finally being abandoned and allowed to deteriorate. Then the bickering began.

The federal government said it was not responsible for the building, because the D.O.T. had used the building after the war. The state didn't feel responsible, and wouldn't budge until the feds cleaned up contamination left over from the war.

So the building just sat as sections of corrugated steel peeled off in fierce winds and blew out onto the runway and asbestos still clinging to pipes raised health issues.

''The city would like to see it torn down,'' said Scott Diener of city planning and zoning. ''I think it's a blight, and getting that building down is a safety issue.''

John Halverson of the State Department of Environmental Conservation said the department has no official position when it comes to the demolition of the old building.

The DEC, however, made the first move in the cleanup process, sending out a crew to remove contaminated soil and sludge from the building's floor last summer. Budgeted at $205,000, the cleanup took less than two weeks and came in under estimates.

''There is some diesel fuel in the groundwater around there,'' Halverson said.

He said the building has surfaces coated with lead-based paints. And mercury, which would possibly date to the war years, showed up in just one sample taken and did not show up in the groundwater at all.

One advocate for saving the historic, if decrepit, structure is Linda Cook with the National Park Service's Aleutian Programs.

Cook noted that Unalaska has three national historic landmarks: the Sitka spruce plantation from 1804, Holy Ascension Cathedral and all of Amaknak Island, which is part of the city of Unalaska.

''Every single building from World War II on Amaknak Island is a part of the national historic landmark,'' Cook said. ''That includes the torpedo shed.''

Cook was surprised to learn of the inclusion of funding for the demolition of the building in the governor's budget request, but added she's hopeful a compromise might be found.

So is Knecht.

''It would be great to look at all the options before we tear it down,'' he said. ''We are so used to living among history that we take the buildings for granted. One of these days we will look around and really miss them.''

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