Nuclear testing in Alaska, the ’64 Earthquake, the Coast Guard, and Greenpeace

Early 70s protests bring newly-formed Greenpeace ship to Kodiak

CG  Cutter Confidence, a Kodiak vessel, stops Greenpeace protester

Kodiak Maritime Museum will have full story and photos at Friday’s Annual Meeting

Meeting begins at 6:30 in Room 130 at Kodiak College


The location of Amchitka, the site of nuclear bomb tests.




Here are four things which may seem random bits of Alaska history or trivia.

The 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, the testing nuclear weapons in Amchitka, the founding of the environmental group Greenpeace, and the Coast Guard Cutter Confidence, which used to be homeported in Kodiak.

What do they all have in common?

Quite a lot as it ends up.  KMXT’s Maggie Wall helps us put the puzzle pieces together.


Click Audio Above to listen to Maggie’s report.


USCG Cutter Confidence which used to be stationed in Kodiak.

This story starts in the early 1970s when America was busy testing nuclear weapons. Since Alaska is so sparsely populated, it seemed like a great test location.


“And the way they did them was they drilled a hole a mile deep. A big shaft. And then they went down there and built a cavern down there lined with concrete. And then they put the bomb down there which was a big device. They had people working, they wired it all up, and they all came back up the tunnel and they had a bunker some miles away and they lit it off.”


Toby Sullivan is the executive director at the Kodiak Maritime Museum. He’s done quite a bit of research on protests and nuclear testing in Amchitka during the early 1970s.


He says the earlier test in the mid-sixties garnered little attention, but the one scheduled for fall of 1971 was different.


“The one in ’65 or ’66 went off without too much of a public outcry, but by 1971 with the anti-war movement there was a lot of protesters out there who were not happy about the war, nuclear weapons, things like that.  So what happened was in the fall of 1970 as the planning for this explosion started to percolate through America and Canada, people started wondering if a big giant nuclear weapons test out in the Aleutians would cause an earthquake and maybe a tsunami.

This was only seven years after the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake so that tsunami was very present in people’s minds. So it really got people concerned about that.”


That brings us to Greenpeace, which Sullivan says, was a direct outgrowth of increasing concern about the proposed 1971 nuclear test in Amchitka…


“So in the fall of 1970 a group of activists, some of them were American anti-war draft resisters who’d fled to Canada, and most of them were Canadian, they started a committee called Let’s Not Make a Wave Committee.

And at one of their meetings as someone was walking out, he said, “Peace.” And somebody else said, “Let’s make it a green peace.” And that committee became Greenpeace, the Greenpeace we know today. So that was in the fall of 1970.”


The newly-formed activist group got its act together, enlisted some top performers, including Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, and had a concert. They raised enough money to charter a Canadian halibut boat, and made plans to sail to the Aleutians.


“And the idea was to get in the way of things and have it called off.”


And this brings us to how the Coast Guard is involved in this…


“And they got as far as Dutch Harbor. They were turned away at Dutch Harbor by the Coast Guard, the U.S. Coast Guard, who said: You are a Canadian vessel, you don’t have your papers in order. Go to Akutan and wait for us there.

So the Cormack went to Akutan and then the Cutter Confidence came in and sort of read them the riot act and told them they had to leave. And they did.”


But there was an unexpected twist to the Coast Guard’s involvement. Something that will likely send up red flags for anyone familiar with the military, but it reflects the mixed feelings of people of the time.


“Now part of the story with the Confidence, and this is kind of interesting, the Confidence had a captain, I forget his name now, but he was a pretty cool guy according to the Greenpeace guys, but he basically had to tell the Greenpeace folks you have to leave the area and you have to leave United States waters. And so he did that very politely and officially.

 But while he was talking to the captain and some of the leaders of this expedition in the wheelhouse of the Phyllis Cormack anchored in Akutan Bay, the little inflatable, or whatever boat the Coast Guard had to come across to the Cormack on from the Confidence, well the crewmembers of the Confidence were in that little boat just sort of standing around while the captain of the Confidence, who was a full commander was up in the wheelhouse, these crewmembers, U.S. Coast Guard crewmembers hand the Greenpeace guys a petition signed by 18 members of the Confidence’s crew that said, we fully support your mission against nuclear weapons.”


As you might expect, the crewmembers got in big trouble and were disciplined, but the incident became part of the news coverage of the protests that hit the national media.

Sullivan says he has a photocopy of the letter and a cache of photos from the Greenpeace Archives, including a number of photos taken in Kodiak when the Cormack stopped in port on its way back from Dutch Harbor to Canada.


“Kodiak and the rest of Alaska was very much against this nuclear testing so they were welcome with open arms in Kodiak. They were here for three days and there were a lot of public meetings and discussions and it was quite the big civic event.”


Sullivan had more to say about the history of the Greenpeace protest. The Maritime Museum will present the story as well as many newly found photos from the voyage at its annual meeting Friday evening.

I’m Maggie Wall


The Maritime Museum’s Annual Meeting begins at 6:30 Friday evening in room 130 at Kodiak College.

Members may attend for free. If you are not a member you can join the event.



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