By Nancy C. Williams
This month marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, and the armistice six days later between the Japanese and U.S. on August 15 (“VJ” Day—Victory over Japan). Hidden stories about the war still continue to surface, including one from a local veteran named Arnold Williams who served in the South Pacific and Alaska. Here is his story, as told to his family:
Tucked away in old U.S. Navy records is a mostly forgotten story about a top-secret mission during World War II in Alaska, when American and Russian forces took part in a massive transfer of warships…intended primarily for an operation that never happened.
By 1945, America had muscled its way through World War II to a position where it was poised to end the conflict once and for all. Germany surrendered in May following Hitler’s suicide and U.S. forces were making headway into Japanese-conquered territories.
To help the Russians build up their naval forces in preparation for an assault on Japan, the U.S. Navy entered into the Lend/Lease Agreement whereby U.S. vessels would be reconfigured and turned over to the Soviets at a tiny base called Fort Randall at Cold Bay in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. The secret project was coded “Project Hula,” a name better suited for balmy Hawaii than chilly Alaska.
My father-in-law, Arnold Matthews Williams, was among a handful of U.S. Navy personnel assigned to work at the base. He was sworn to secrecy about its operations.
Arnold was a member of the Seabees, so called because of the “C.B.” initials for the Marine Construction Brigade. He had already served in U.S. forces for almost five years, part of that time at Wallis Island near the South Pacific combat zone at the Coral Sea. In 1945, he was put on a ship headed to Alaska.
“When we got there, we got the assignment that we were on a secret mission,” he said. “We flew into a special military base at Cold Bay and met the Russians there. Our naval forces came in, too.”
Arnold was put in charge of the Navy laundry, cleaning all the Russian uniforms. During the months he worked there, some 12,000 Soviet Navy personnel—about 750 officers and 11,250 enlisted men—came in and out through the port in Cold Bay.
“We couldn’t understand their language,” Arnold said. “I liked them myself. But because of the communist influence and the KGB there, they didn’t like us too well.”
At one point, a fight broke out between a U.S. sailor and a Russian. “Because it was serious, they flew our young man back to the States into Washington somewhere, to keep from having a problem with the Russians.”
Arnold said the base had a congregational chapel, but there had been no services. He and several others decided to have their own Christian worship service. After the first Sunday gathering, about 25 to 30 of the Russian military men came to ask what the Americans were doing there.
“I said, ‘Ya ne ponimayu,’ (‘I don’t understand’). I took out my translation guide, and said, ‘We are here to worship Iisus Khristos (Jesus Christ),’ in their Russian language. About two-thirds of them ran away like they were scared to death, and they were. The Russian authorities would have killed them if they found out the Russian sailors were Christians.”
Still, a few of the young Russian men stayed to worship with Arnold and other Americans. One of them made an impression on Arnold. After a while, when the young Russian didn’t show up again, Arnold asked the others about his whereabouts and was simply told that the young man was dead. Arnold was convinced the Russian was murdered—essentially martyred—for faith in Christ.
“I was walking up the beach, saw where they had thrown a uniform away, and I recognized that it was his. His things were just scattered there on the beach where they killed him. They buried him in a shallow grave there. I picked up the parts of his uniform and thought I could get back to the States with it. I will never forget what happened to him.
“Under the KGB, we were under constant danger. We were so outnumbered, and we could suddenly be taken prisoners. But we never worried about that, we went right ahead and fulfilled our duty.”
Arnold kept the Russian uniform, dagger, Cossack hat, and parts of the uniform with military ranking. Also among those effects was a small, blue, clothbound New Testament in Russian, printed in 1917 just prior to the Russian Revolution and the country’s conversion to communism.
“I never forgot that young man…he was very handsome. Even in the Russian language, I realized that he was a Christian because of his life and his devotion to Christ. I know one day I’ll meet him in Paradise.”
The feverish pace of training Soviet sailors and officers continued from April 1 through the rest of the spring and summer.
Then came the atomic bombs. “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6; “Fat Man” followed three days later on Nagasaki. Suddenly, the entire direction of the war shifted in light of the awful, devastating power of this new American weapon. Although the exact total has never been determined, nearly 200,000 Japanese people lost their lives instantly.
As promised, Stalin declared war on Japan on Aug. 9, launching a large invasion force of troops across the Russian border into the Japanese-held sections of Manchuria, China. Soviet-American relations at Cold Bay seemed to improve considerably as the commanding officers on both sides accelerated the transfer operations to help the Russians with their invasion plans.
Project Hula ships were used in successful Russian operations against the Japanese in the Kuril Islands, in northern Korea, and on southern Sakhalin Island. Several of those ships were lost, too, in the ensuing battles.
Japan finally surrendered to the Allies on Sept. 2 aboard the battleship U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The build-up of Soviet-American forces for an Allied invasion of Japan—secretly code-named “Operation Downfall” and scheduled for Nov. 1—was now canceled. The war was over.
On Sept. 4, the last ships from Project Hula, four patrol frigates, were commissioned into the Russian navy. Cold Bay officially shut down on Sept. 30, and Arnold returned to the States, with his Russian friend’s effects.
The Alaskan operation was to remain secret for a number of decades until declassification late in the 20th century, its “D-Day” type invasion plan from the northern Pacific still unknown today to most of the world. Arnold wouldn’t talk about it until much later in life.
Arnold came home to West Virginia, went back to college, and became a Methodist preacher, pastoring a number of churches in the Holston Conference and the Johnson City district.
During a break-in at one of those churches, the Russian uniform, hat, and other relics Arnold had carefully kept were stolen. Only the New Testament was left behind.
Arnold married Martha Ann Williams, who now lives in Blountville. His descendants include four children—Linda Huber of Atlanta, Randolph Williams of Phoenix, Rev. Dewey Williams of Bristol, and my husband, Dr. Mark Williams, of Johnson City—as well as six grandchildren and a dozen great-grandchildren. Our daughter, Elizabeth Williams, visited Japan and Hiroshima during her college years.
Arnold was particularly excited when Mark and I went to Siberia in 1999 to adopt a son, Alexei. Russian-American relations that year were particularly tense. My father-in-law prayed fervently for his Russian grandson, and we arrived home in the U.S. safely.
Arnold died in 2009 at the age of 91, having spent the majority of his life telling others about the gospel of Jesus Christ…the same Iisus Khristos his Russian comrade had worshipped.
Alex, now 19, has grown up in Johnson City and will leave soon for Liberty University to study commercial aviation. His inheritance from his grandfather includes his middle name Matthews, the tattered blue Russian Bible, and a legacy of faith.
For more information on this fascinating story, read Project Hula: Secret Soviet-American Cooperation in the War Against Japan, published by Richard A. Russell in 1997 (Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center. ISBN 0-945274-35-1)—the source of information and numbers about Project Hula in this story. The words of Arnold Williams are taken from a recorded interview when he was 85 with his granddaughter Elizabeth Williams, age 12, in 2004.