Nothing ever happened on the lonely Aleutian weather outpost where five men kept watch. Then Old Tom blew his top.

By Cpl. John Haverstick

YANK Staff Correspondent

UMNAK, THE ALEUTIANS—When a snow-covered volcano suddenly blew its top on Chuginadak Island in June, four of the five men on the lonely Aleutian outpost were rotated back to their base at Umnak a month ahead of schedule.  The fifth man never returned.

After three men of the island’s previous garrison had died of exposure in a heavy winter storm, the new five-man crew took over in March. Two of them had been specially trained in Arctic Training School, Buckley Field, Colo., for this isolated duty—Sgt. Alec Alcantara of Portland, Oreg., a radioman, and Sgt. William Bigger of Chapel Hill, N.C., weatherman.

The other newcomers were Sgt. Fred Purchase of Holland, Mich., weatherman and ex-boxer, trapper and fisherman; Pfc. Kenneth L. Pitsenberger of Lead, S. Dak, radioman, and Pfc. Billy J. Cotton of Commerce, Tex. Cook.

Chuginadak, or Jinx Island as they later called it, lies about 70 miles by water from the nearest base. It is about 13 miles long by 5 miles wide, and except for Old Tom, as the men nicknamed volcanic Mount Cleveland, was entirely uninhabited. No barge reached the island for two months after the last of the replacements arrived.

During this time a snow storm cooped them up in their small shack for two solid weeks; they were together so long that one whole day passed in which they didn’t speak to one another. They discovered they all had developed common taste for onions and used them to season everything they ate after that.  They also agreed upon names for the fox trails on the island, which they learned to know as well as they could ever know the streets of a city. Miramar Drive led along the cliffs beside the Pacific; Pompton Turnpike, wide and fairly direct, ran up the mountains behind them, and the doubtful supply line leading to the beach was Burma Road. Their quarters were, naturally enough, Spam Shack.

Even when the rations did arrive, the station crew invariably ran out of fresh meat within two weeks. But because they wanted to watch the foxes in their natural state, they made a law against shooting the animals and kept it in force even after one of the rascals stole Bigger’s only pair of heavy wool socks from the clothesline.

Their garden later in the season, they admit, was a failure. Since the wild strawberries and cranberries were not particularly tasty, they decided to plant dried GI beans, unfortunately, every one of the beans rotted in the ground.

So they begged in their letters home for practical recipes for cooking the wild duck, geese and ptarmigan they found on Chuginadak. They also caught rock cod, sea bass and shellfish. Alcantara and Purchase even finished a 200-yard gang line with 50 hooks on it just the day before Old Tom erupted.

The two men were planning to hike to the top of the peak on the first clear day. It had been agreed that two men would be free to do what they liked every other day if the weather was good.
On the morning of June 10 Alcantara, who was on observations from 0600 to 0700, noticed during a lift in the fog that Old Tom was belching darker smoke than usual. He mentioned this at breakfast, but by that time Bigger, who had taken over, could see nothing because the peak was overcast again. It was almost 1000 hours when Bigger ran into the shack to report that smoke and steam were rising from the southern slope of the mountain below a fog line of about 1,500 feet.

wwii alaska jinx island aleutians

Purchase had already set out for the day with his rifle and a ration pack, the kind they all carried on hikes. Alcantara and Cotton, with a camera, tried to overtake Purchase a little later. They trailed him about two miles down the beach to the foot of the rumbling peak, past broken rocks that were steaming hot and as large as the stoves in Quonsets. In places, however, the two men could easily jump the narrow flows that were in their path. They figured that Purchase had passed this way earlier, but they did not overtake him and finally turned back.

The two had retraced their steps only about a quarter of a mile when a 50-foot wall of lava and mud rushed over the spot where they had stood a few minutes before, dashed down to the beach and splashed into the sea. When they reached Spam Shack, they found it had been badly shaken.

All that night the men fired a Very gun every hour and watched for any return signal from Purchase. Once Bigger searched for the lost man. The others wired to their base for a rescue vessel and received orders to stay in the shack. By midnight the whole mountaintop was ringed in flame like a brush fire.

Old Tom’s snow had been cleanly shaven off by the next morning when the crash boat P-141, captained by T/Sgt. August W. Templeton of Sacramento, Calif., arrived with a searching party to look for Purchase. While the boat whistled its way for 10 miles around the island, the crew watched the coast with binoculars. Meanwhile the landing party explored the island’s caves.

Twice during its search, the P-141 snapped its anchor in the rough sea. Its crew consisted of S/Sgt. Alexander F. Johansen of Kenai, Alaska; Cpl. Evangeles P. Kalafatis of New York, N.Y.; T/Sgt. Joseph J. Kowalczyk of Three Rivers, Mass.; Cpl Stephen J. Paladie of St. Paul, Minn.; Pvt. Stanley K. Malmedal; S/Sgt. Darrell M. Ray of Coffeyville, Kans.; T-5 Lawrence M. Janiak of Racine, Wis.; Sgt. Forrest G. Hansen of Des Moines, Iowa; Cpl. Lorentz O. Peterson of Boston, Mass.; Cpl. John R. Jager of Kodiak, Alaska; Cpl. Robert G. Smyth of Oakland, Calif.; Cpl. Louis D. Driscoll of Beloit, Wis.; Pvt. Charles L. Berg of Petersburg, Alaska; Pfc. Warren H. Hall of Gould City, Mich., and Pfc. George E. Mather of Ketchakan, Alaska.

Lt. A.R. Peracca of Crockett, Calif, led the searching part, composed of Sgt. Thomas V. Orsini of Albany, N.Y.; Pfc. Helmut P. Schurer of Philadelphia, Pa., and Pvt. William H. Riley of Anchorage, Alaska.

When the P-141 departed after the first search with the outpost’s four survivors, rations were left behind for Purchase in Spam Shack in case he returned. But two weeks later, the searching party went back and found the food untouched.

wwii alaksa jinx island aleutians

Sgt. Fred Purchase snapped this picture of the interior of Spam Shack not long before he vanished.

 For More Reading About Alaska in WWII Check Out:

Ghosts in the Fog: The Untold Story of Alaska’s WWII Invasion

81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska’s Frozen Wilderness

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One thought on “ERUPTION ON JINX ISLAND Nothing ever happened on the lonely Aleutian weather outpost where five men kept watch. Then Old Tom blew his top.

  • Bill Getz says:

    My WWII B-24 co-pilot’s brother was a fighter pilot in the early days of the war and flew against the Japanese in the Aleutians. He was killed during a raid against an enemy base. The war in the Aleutians is little known today. Thanks for reminding us.

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