Tom and Betsey Smith recall years on Adak Island 2008.11.19

Written by David Green.


Tom Smith knew what he was getting into when he accepted a U.S. Navy assignment to Alaska’s desolate Adak Island in 1975.

“I reënlisted to go to Adak,” he said. “That was my incentive.”adak.overview.jpg

And once he got there, it was hard to leave. He signed up for an 18-month tour, but that turned out to be just the beginning.

Within three months he was joined by his wife, Betsey, and their two daughters, Michelle, three years old, and Monica, six months old.

“After we were there, we liked it so much we ended up staying six years,” Tom said.

The island of Adak lies far out among the Aleutian Islands, 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage. It’s both the southernmost community in Alaska and the westernmost in the United States.

Tom had talked to other Navy enlistees about life on the island, and that’s what helped him make the decision.

“We had a pretty good idea of what we were getting into,” he said.

At the time, Adak offered the best of both worlds to a Navy man. On the one hand, families could come along and take advantage of the amenities of the base: swimming, bowling, skiing, racquetball, a movie theatre, etc.

Step off the base and outdoors people had the wilds of Alaska—devoid of bears. Tom fished for salmon and halibut and he hunted caribou and ptarmigan.

“If you liked the night life, you wouldn’t have liked Adak,” Betsey said.

But if you enjoyed nature, the beauty of the island drew you in.

“We loved it,” she said.

The Smiths lived on Adak when the population exceeded 5,000. Most of the residents were in the military, although there was a small population of native people.

Some of the native Alaskans lived on smaller, nearby islands in the summers and brought their children to school during the winter months.

Betsey used her teaching certificate to teach a fourth grade class. Tom worked as an electronics technician. The Naval base was chiefly used as a submarine surveillance post during the Cold War, to keep track of Russian naval vessels.

Adak’s climate doesn’t fit into the usual conception of Alaska. The Japanese Current prevents weather extremes.

Winter temperatures seldom fell below 20°, but 100 mile per hour squalls presented some miserable wind chills.

“There were whiteouts where you couldn’t see six feet in front of you,” Tom said. “Then a couple of days later it might rain and all the snow would disappear in the lower elevations.”

Foggy summers stayed in a chilly 60° range and annual precipitation is about double that of southern Michigan.

The island also avoids the extremes of darkness and lightness.

“It’s far enough south that it never got completely dark in the day nor light all night,” Tom said.

Adak is actually about parallel to Vancouver Island—not too much farther north than Seattle.

The Smiths’ experiences on Adak will never be lived again. Downsizing of the base began in 1994 as the Cold War ended and it was officially closed in 1997.

The Navy’s assets were sold to the Aleut Corporation and most of the facilities were closed. Today, fewer than 400 people live in the community.

Tom is glad he was part of the former era.

“We thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said.

Adak provided a rich experience for the Smith family that can’t be equalled today.

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