In my previous blog post, I discussed the wilderness and wildlife of the remote Kuril Islands, but alluded, to in that previous post, the Cold War history, and to a lesser extent these days, World War II History. The abandoned military bases of the Kuril Islands give an amazing insight into our recent past. To be able to visit once top secret and extremely strategic bases in one of the remotest parts of the world is truly a fascinating experience.
Compared to the following two islands, the Cold War remnants on Urup, or at least those I was able to see, were limited to a former border guards outpost.
There was a lot of rusting communications equipment decaying in the grass, large watch towers, and significantly reinforced buildings, some of which are being “recycled” by Salmon fishermen, using them as a base during the warmer times for their fishing expeditions.
Urup is the next island in line to the disputed Japanese territories, so I can imagine the strategic significance of a surveillance post on Urup in the Cold War era.
Matua not only held Cold War relics of significance, but also significant WWII history as well. Several large concrete bunkers from the WWII era can still be found around the island, and the significant runway was constructed by the Japanese originally for use during WWII.
The runway had some quite unique engineering features, built in by the Japanese, such as geothermal vents running under the length of the runway heating the runway to allow it to be ice free through out the year. This feature would have been equally as significant in WWII as it would have ben during the Cold War.
Matua also held dozens of military helmets, most Soviet era, but possibly some from the Japanese in WWII. One of the most interesting finds was a 44 gallon (200 litre) drum with the inscription “Wehrmacht” and the date 1943. One could assume this was a remnant of WWII supply from Germany to their Japanese allies.
The amount of vehicles left on Matua was mind blowing. Tracked vehicles, armoured vehicles, trucks, trailers, electronics filled vehicles, dozens and dozens of them. And the number of empty 44 gallon drums would have been into the thousands., scattered around the island.
Also wandering around Matua it was easy to notice many underground tunnels. The state of them did not really invite deep exploration, but one got the impression there was significant underground installations on the island.
Out of three Cold War islands I was able to visit, SImushir was by far the most dramatic, interesting and fascinating. The island is essentially a series of four volcanic cones, with the northern one being a flooded caldera. In a situation reminiscent of the best Cold War James Bond movie, the soviets blasted an entrance channel into the caldera so Submarines and other vessels could access the base. And in a sign of the modern digital age we live in I was able to locate a picture of the actual blasting to make the entrance taking place (see below © All Rights Reserved by Sergey Nogovitsyn ).
Construction of the base started in 1978, and went on to eventually house over 3000 people in the base town of Kraternyy. It’s no doubt given the era, and the fact it was constructed inside a volcanic caldera on an extremely remote island, that the base was “top secret”. However it’s quite ironic that abandoned as it is today, there is a sign on the hill naming the base and listing the units that were based there. Reminds me sort of like the bat cave, secret but everything labelled!
A declassified US Navy report I located on line described the base as having the role of using its submarines to lay sea mines across the lines of supply in Northern Japan and around the Kurils in the event of outbreak of hostilities. There was also reportedly radar and electronic reconnaissance equipment for surveillance on the island as well.
The following report was disseminated by the Reuters news agency in 1982, when the presence of this base became public knowledge.
Published: October 24, 1982TOKYO, Oct. 23— The Soviet Union has deployed attack type conventional submarines at a new base in the Kurile Islands in the north western Pacific, a Japanese newspaper reported today.
The mass-circulation Yomiuri Shimbun quoted Japanese and American Government sources as saying that the submarine base had been built at the northern tip of Simushir Island, about 250 miles northeast of Japan's main northern island of Hokkaido.
PART ONE: Russian Far East: Kuril Island Wilderness
So you want to visit the Kurils?
- being so remote and without airfields on al but the disputed islands next to Japan, the only way in is by ship.
- several expedition cruise companies offer expeditions through the Kurils in the warmer ice free months of the year, departing either from Kamchatka or Hokkaido normally.
- other than that its very difficult and expensive to get to these remote and unique islands