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Alaskans mark 75th anniversary of WWII invasion with historic fly-in

Alaskans mark 75th anniversary of WWII invasion with historic fly-in

A Harvard Mk IV flies over the boggy area on Akutan Island in the Aleutian Island chain in far western Alaska on June 2 as part of the observance of the 75th anniversary of the Japanese bombing raid on Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The marshy area below the plane was where, during World War II, a Japanese Zero plane made an emergency landing and flipped, killing the pilot. The U.S. Navy recovered the plane, which was known for being fast and powerful, and sent it to a base in San Diego to be restored. Knowledge about the plane helped the Allies learn how to defeat Japanese Zero pilots in battle. (Photo courtesy Alaska Veterans Museum and Alaska Wing Commemorative Air Force)

By Rindi White

When thinking of America’s involvement in World War II, many Americans’ first thoughts turn to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Few are aware that Alaska was also bombed, then invaded and even occupied during the war.

In an effort to change that, the Alaska Veterans Museum helped organize an event earlier this month aimed at increasing awareness of the role Alaska played in World War II.

Commemorating the 75th anniversary of the June 3 raid of Dutch Harbor, volunteers flew two historic planes — a Harvard M IV and a Grumman G-21 Goose — to the remote Alaska location among the Aleutian Islands to take part in events June 2-4.

The weekend of events included messages from local tribal leaders and the National Park Service, which collaborated on the project, in addition to people sharing stories of what it was like during the bombing and subsequent evacuation of native Alaskans. Tours of the island and memorial church services and visits to local military memorials also took place.

The raid on Alaska took place six months after Pearl Harbor was bombed. According to accounts published on the National Park Service website (https://www.nps.gov/aleu/learn/historyculture/raid-dutch-harbor.htm), Kate bombers from two Japanese aircraft carriers, the Junyo and the Ryujo, flew through overcast skies and found Dutch Harbor in the eye of an evening storm. Bombers were surprised by anti-aircraft fire from forces on the island, however. A message about the attack had been intercepted three weeks before, so U.S. Army and Navy installations were on high alert.

The bombers did not locate an airfield or a carrier fleet, as they had hoped, so the pilots fired on the Margaret Bay Naval barracks, killing 25 servicemen. In his book, “The Aleutian Warriors,” historian Joe Cloe reports that more than 40 Americans died in the first day of the raid.

The next day the Japanese returned, this time taking out a tank farm, a makeshift barracks and a vacant hospital, along with hangars and other buildings. U.S. airmen battled with the Japanese pilots in an airfight before they circled back to their ships.

On June 7, the Japanese invaded Kiska, a neighboring island that was, at the time, only occupied by a crew from the U.S. Aerological Detail. The crew fled to the surrounding hills but most were captured after a few days. One man, Senior Petty Officer William C. House, stayed at large for 50 days, subsisting on plants and earthworms, until he finally had to choose between capture and starvation, according to the NPS account (https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-invasion-of-kiska.htm).

Japanese forces also invaded the island of Attu, 205 miles further west than Kiska. According to the National Park Service, 40 residents lived in the village of Attu; all were taken captive by the Japanese and taken to a prisoner camp in Otaru for the rest of the war; 16 died from disease or starvation while captive. 

Recapturing the islands from the Japanese was no easy feat. The Battle of Attu was one of the deadliest battles of World War II, lasting 18 days. It was nearly a year after the Japanese invasion, in May 1943. More than 12,000 soldiers landed on each end of the treeless island and proceeded to battle their way across it. Most were skirmishes, with the Japanese using the terrain of Attu to their advantage. They lay in foxholes for hours until they could attack American units with sniper fire.

Weather on Attu proved more deadly than the fighting. More than 2,100 soldiers were taken out of battle due to disease and non-battle injuries, while 1,700 were killed or wounded by the Japanese. Many of the weather-related injuries were caused by insufficient cold-weather gear, according to the National Park Service. Starvation was also an issue.

The Japanese soldiers also suffered: When the U.S. forces arrived, it was estimated that the Japanese had 2,600 able-bodied soldiers. Of that number, 28 were captured and 2,351 were killed. On the American side, 549 were killed, 1,148 were wounded, 1,200 suffered severe cold injuries and 614 had diseases, including exposure.

Civilian survivors of Attu were not allowed to return to the island when they were released from Japanese captivity, as the U.S. government found it too expensive to rebuild their village. Instead, they were taken to the village of Atka, 538 miles east of Attu in the Aleutian island chain.

In August 1943, the Americans succeeded in retaking Kiska, but it was not the battle they expected. The Army Air Force and Navy Patrol Wing 4 dropped 7 million pounds of bombs on Kiska in the year that the island was occupied, seeking to end the invasion. Coupled with an Allied blockade, the Japanese had no supply line to replenish their goods and were in a weakened state when, in July 1943, they planned an escape. Through subterfuge, they distracted the U.S. battleships circling the island and brought eight warships into the harbor under the cover of night, evacuating more than 5,000 men in under an hour.

Allied soldiers who landed the next month were amazed to find not one Japanese soldier on the island. But several Allied soldiers died while searching for Japanese soldiers. Seventy-one died when the ship Abner Read hit a floating mine; friendly fire killed 24, and four were killed by Japanese booby traps that were set throughout the island. Another 168 were wounded or fell ill while on the island.

Another segment of Alaska’s population took part in the war, albeit unwillingly. In response to the Japanese invasion, U.S. authorities evacuated 881 Unangax, or Aleut, civilians from nine villages. According to the National Park Service (https://www.nps.gov/aleu/learn/historyculture/unangan-internment.htm), they were “herded from their homes onto cramped transport ships, most allowed only a single suitcase. Heartbroken, Atka villagers watched as U.S. servicemen set their homes and church afire so they would not fall into Japanese hands.”

The villagers were taken to Southeast Alaska and housed in abandoned canneries, a herring saltery and a gold mine camp. The facilities lacked plumbing, electricity and toilets, and most of the Unangax did not have warm winter clothes. Camp food was poor, and water was tainted. The villagers were kept in the evacuation camps for two years. More than 100 died of pneumonia or tuberculosis.

Although conditions were deplorable, many Unangans forged a new life. Many sought jobs in nearby villages and towns. Some built new living quarters in their compounds or repaired the old ones and brought in electricity and clean, running water. Unalaska villagers created a makeshift church and named it after the church on their island. Some fought in the war — 25 Unangax men joined the U.S. military. Learn more about the evacuees by watching “Aleut Story” at http://www.aleutstory.tv/.

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