We were on the island to learn about prehistoric Aleuts and the ecological past. But between us and Aleut occupation of the place, World War II happened. We hiked across maritime tundra landscapes scattered with symmetrical cereal-bowl bomb craters. We mapped what felt like an endless series of Japanese entrenchment features and the young men on the crew talked about gun emplacements, turkey shoots, and the Pacific Theater of War. They were terribly excited and they stood in the old emplacements waving their arms around, arguing over probable tactics, logistics, and use of terrain in defense of bays.
I sighed over my graph paper and measuring tapes because I wasn’t there to learn more about World War II. Nonetheless, I was there, the WWII sites were there, and finally it occurred to me that I was thinking about the soldiers who built and maintained these trenches as people – not as machines of war and history. Young men scrambled in these irritatingly numerous trenches in the same howling wind and rain I was experiencing. Except, I was wearing newest generation protective clothing and they wore wet wool and soaking leather. Except, I was listening to the slush of the Bering Sea and they listened for incoming planes. Except, I was there because I fought for the opportunity and they were there because they were sent.
And, in fact, these young men were enemies of the United States. If the plan had worked, everything would be different now. Empathizing with their peril and discomfort felt awkward.
Then, someone on the crew found the caves.
Japanese soldiers excavated tunnels where ever possible on the island. They are narrow, low, winding tunnels carved into poorly consolidated deposits. I stooped into one a few years ago and thought about being packed in there with hundreds of other people during a bomb raid. Didn’t feel safe. At all.
These caves were different in execution if the same in theme. Two small openings peeked out from tall grass on the wall of a tiny stream valley. You could poke your head in and see bits and pieces left behind. You could tell that the two caves curved around and connected deep in the hillside. The situation could not have been more adventure-style archaeology if it tried. Small, secret entrance, dimly-lit cavern, treasures – we all acted calm but our little archaeology hearts were pounding.
“Ok,” I told the crew, “None of you are going in there. It’s too risky and I’m not getting on the sat phone to tell your families I lost you.” The young men with WWII fever gave me hard eyes. The determined young women gave me hard eyes. The other senior researchers didn’t care. The openings, after all, were very small. There was going to be crawling through mud and soldier yuck undisturbed for more than 60 years. “I’ll go,” I stated. There were mutterings of various kinds, I employed selective deafness protocol.
I strapped on my headlamp. Shoved measuring tapes in my pockets. Hung my camera inside of my raincoat and heaved myself up into a cave opening. I dangled there, balanced on my waist. My head was in WWII, my feet in 2014.
I looked at the floor – how deep was the muck? I looked at the shredding timbering on the walls and ceiling – how rotten was the wood?
I looked at the slabs of rock on the ceiling – up close they looked sort of massive. And tilty. And broken. I dangled in the opening for long enough that a few crew members shoved their heads in next to my hips to see.
We breathed in there together. I tried to calm my pounding heart and stop my shaking hands. It looked terrifying. I was surely going to die in there. I thought about The Spouse. Hamish. I had a philosophical discussion with myself about the pursuit of knowledge. About eccentric and driven versus insane. When I was pretty sure my legs would hold me and my voice wouldn’t quaver, I slid back out – rebirthed myself really because at that moment I got my life back – “Too risky,” I said. And learned, once again, that fear keeps us alive.
* You can visit B. Hoffman’s Flickr page for other project pictures.