FIELD OBJECTIVES & OPERATIONS
Traveling to Kiska Island is no small feat. Our team had to catch the twice-a-week flight to Adak, Alaska, a former U.S. Navy base. Closed in the mid-1990s at the end of the Cold War, the base now only houses a few hundred hardy individuals. After arriving in Adak, we faced a 250-nautical-mile westerly transit across the unforgiving rough waters of the Bering Sea. The Aleutian Chain, where the Bering Sea meets the Pacific Ocean, is known for high westerly winds throughout the year thanks to the low-pressure system known as the Aleutian Low. And Adak itself is known as the “birthplace of the winds.”
While a robust satellite link to our vessel provided contact to the outside world, the region in which we were operating was extremely remote. The nearest first responders were at least four hours away by air (and that’s assuming the weather was cooperating to allow the long-range U.S. Coast Guard helicopters to fly). Safety was, of course, a priority for every phase of the expedition, and daily briefs at breakfast for all onboard reinforced this focus.
Another way to put into context the remoteness of where we were working was this: The nearest Starbucks, in Anchorage, Alaska, was 1,400 nautical miles away. That would be like traveling from my house in San Diego to Chicago for my morning grande dark roast.
This expedition to such a remote location as the Aleutian Islands would not have been possible without the direct support of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the ongoing support of undersea technology research by the Department of Defense–Office of Naval Research, and the generous contributions from the Friedkin Foundation, which helps Project Recover conduct searches for U.S. military personnel missing in action (MIA).
While the academic objective of the expedition was to conduct a cultural resource survey of the Kiska Underwater Battlefield, this journey also shouldered the challenge of searching for, finding, and documenting the underwater reminders of the tragedy of war. Leveraging high technology and intelligence gleaned from declassified historical documents, Project Recover serves to find the proverbial needle in a haystack so we can find sites associated with lost U.S. service members to recognize their sacrifice and provide closure to families whose loved ones paid the ultimate price for the freedoms we enjoy.
The searches on this expedition did not come without risk—the ocean is unforgiving on the best of days, and we were operating in waters where fog, wind, and water temperatures in the low 40s are the norm. Fortunately, we had a team of some of the world’s best undersea engineers, analysts, marine scientists, technicians, and even an underwater forensic archeologist with several years’ experience as a civilian scientist at the Defense POW/ MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) to support the mission. At times I felt like I was sailing with a combination of NASA rocket scientists, NASCAR pit crew technicians, surgeons, and the Delta Tau Chi fraternity brothers from Animal House.
This unique combination of expertise and levity was needed for this trip, one of the largest expeditions for Project Recover. Our goal was to document around 12 square miles underwater while searching for 10 U.S. aircraft and an approximately 75foot section of the destroyer USS Abner Read. In total the losses associated with these wrecks included 117 MIA U.S. service members whose remains have never been accounted for. We were also searching for several Japanese war losses as we documented this forgotten battlefield, including several submarines.
During this summertime expedition, the 17 hours of daylight we had at this high latitude were both a godsend and a curse as there was ample time to work, but little time to sleep.
The majority of our search regions were on the eastern side of the island. While we were protected from the strong westerly seas by Kiska Island, somehow enough wind was able to flow through the gaps of the windswept hills to keep the breeze strong in the coastal waters. The USS Abner Read was known to be located on the “upwind” side of the island, so I kept my eye on the forecast for a lull in the winds to bring the vessel around to the search box we had identified.