Attu – Aleutian Islands invaded 75 years ago
Attu, at the western-most end of the Aleutian Island chain, is 1,500 miles away from Chugiak-Eagle River, but what happened there was to have impact on several future residents of this community.
When the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was devastated in a surprise attack on Dec.7, 1941, it brought the United States into World War II. Japanese aircraft carriers had gone undetected on their voyage. There was no warning that Sunday morning when two waves of fighters and bombers flew over Honolulu. The attack that caused President Franklin D. Roosevelt to call it “The day that will go down in infamy” was over in less than an hour, but 2,403 Americans died and 1,178 others were horribly injured. Americans united in reaction to the deadly attack which came even while Japanese envoys were talking peace in Washington, D.C.
Alaskan defense installations were already being strengthened due to the threat that war in Europe and the Pacific would spread, but efforts were intensified. Airfields and naval bases were constructed at various places, including Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island at Unalaska. Unalaska was the historic passage to the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean.
Ft. Glenn was established on Unalaska, its runway completed on March 31, just 83 days after the sneak attack. Construction of the facility was highly secret and the project was disguised as a fish cannery. Its purpose discovered, Dutch Harbor was heavily bombed by Japanese planes on June 3 and 4. One hundred civilians and military personnel were killed or injured in the bombings. On the second day, however, P-38 Lightning fighters went aloft to confront 16 Betty bombers, downing five and sending the other 11 scampering back to their ships.
Lifelong Cook Inlet seaman Jack Anderson, Jr., skipper of an Army transport ship, was nearing Dutch Harbor at the time of the raids but his ship was not spotted by the enemy and escaped unharmed. He said he could see the smoke of burning buildings and flashes from the explosions. Now deceased, Anderson was the brother-in-law of this writer.
On Attu lived some 40 Aleut Natives and one non-Native couple. Their world changed forever on the morning of June 6, 1942, when machine-gun fire suddenly was heard above the noise of the surf and howling wind.
Villagers were aware that America had been attacked at Pearl Harbor six months earlier. Residents of neighboring islands had been evacuated but the Attuans were completely unprepared for an attack. They had no weapons other than the implements they used to harvest fish and seals from the surrounding waters, capture fox or wildfowl or to gather berries that grew on the tundra.
A peaceful people, villagers lived a subsistence lifestyle. Their children were taught by the 60-year-old woman assigned to the Territorial school. They attended the Russian Orthodox Church. Contact with the outside world was limited to what came through the radio operated by the teacher’s husband, whose job it was to relay regular weather reports to meteorologists in Anchorage.
Charles Foster Jones, who had come north during the 1898 Yukon Gold Rush, was the weather observer and radio operator. His wife, Etta, was from New Jersey and with her sister visited Alaska several years earlier. They stopped in Tanana where Etta caught the eye of the man who decided on the spot to claim her as his bride. They were married on April 1, 1923. Nineteen years later they were transferred to Attu, both then 60 years of age.
When the attack began, before destroying the radio Jones radioed word that the Japanese had invaded the island. He was interrogated by a Japanese officer, then shot dead when he refused to repair the instrument. His wife was brought to where he lay and forced to watch as he was decapitated. The village men, women and children were rounded up and brought to view the terrible scene, then locked up in the church with the grieving widow. The villagers and Etta Jones were transported to prison camps in Japan and held until war’s end. They endured vicious atrocities and starvation, half of them dying in captivity. None of them would ever return to their Attu homes.
The day after Attu was taken, Japanese forces landed on Kiska, about 200 miles to the east, which was uninhabited.
News of the Japanese invasion was heavily censored and many Americans did not even know of the attack on U.S. soil. It since has been called “The forgotten war.”
Alaskans, however, were not kept in the dark. They were under instructions to cover windows to block out light and avoid any activity that would help guide enemy bombers. The military was ever-present and air-raid drills were frequent. Big guns were located on the bluff at Pt. Woronzof to defend against enemy ships.
For 10-year-old Barbara Erickson Jordan, the sight of soldiers conducting exercises in the woods near her Spenard home was terrifying. She did not know if the armed men were heading out to confront an enemy or if they were just practicing. The war brought rationing of gasoline and strategic products such as nylon, sugar and rubber. She heard adults talking about the threat that now had reached Alaska shores. She knew her family and their friends were cut off from the rest of the world. There then was no highway connection with the States. There were no civilian airlines, only Bush planes. Steamships served mostly military purposes. Communication was limited to mail that was subject to censorship, and telegraph service through the Army Signal Corps’ Alaska Communication System. Long-distance telephone service was sporadic and expensive, available only at a booth in the federal building on 4th Avenue in downtown Anchorage.
It would be 11 months before American forces could seek to re-take the captured islands. Meanwhile, the Japanese were able to strengthen defenses. Japanese troops were well supplied until spring of 1943 when U.S. airpower began to take its toll. On March 26, enemy ships were spotted in the Bering Sea and forces were sent to intercept. American ships were outnumbered and sustained heavy damage in what became known as the Battle of Komandorski Islands. Although victors, the Japanese abruptly pulled their ships out. Thereafter, invaders at Attu and Kiska could be resupplied only by submarines.
Presence of the Japanese ships may have been spotted by members of Castner’s Cutthroats, a group of rugged people with far north experience recruited to be secreted onto islands in the Aleutian Chain to spy on the enemy.
Officially known as the 1st Alaskan Combat Intelligence Platoon, it was also called the Alaskan Scouts but more commonly known as Castner’s Cutthroats. Made up of resourceful Alaska Natives, sourdoughs, trappers and even some outcasts, they were required to live off the land while keeping an eye out for enemy activity.
The idea came from Col. Lawrence Varsi Castner. He named Capt. Robert Thompson to head the group. After the war, both men settled in Anchorage. A football star at Montana State University, Thompson was also a skier and helped found the Arctic Valley Ski Club. He opened the popular Thompson’s Restaurant on the corner of 6th and I in Anchorage. He died in 1955 when the bulldozer he was using to clear Arctic Valley Road rolled over the steep embankment.
On May 11, 1943, 11,000 American troops stormed ashore on Attu. Expecting to overwhelm the enemy quickly after landing with little opposition, victory did not come until May 30. One problem was that the troops, who had been diverted to Alaska while on their way to the South Pacific, were not adequately clothed for battle in the hostile weather of the Aleutians. Many soldiers were taken out of the fray not by the opposition but the climate.
Strategically, intelligence was lacking. The Japanese commander had his troops command higher ground rather than concentrate on defending the beach. Also unknown was the determination of the enemy soldiers to fight to the death rather than surrender. The Americans were surprised by the war’s first banzai charge. The Japanese were nearly out of ammunition and hope had run out. They mounted a charge that broke through the lines and made their way to a rear area where engineers, cooks, signalmen and other non-combatant personnel were camped.
Fighting was fierce over two days, the carnage devastating. When it was over, the American casualties numbered 1,000 while all but 30 of the enemy were either killed in the fighting or took their own lives. Two thousand Japanese died, many jumping to their death over cliffs rather than give up, having been warned to expect brutal treatment if captured.
Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, head of the Alaskan Defense Command, after reviewing the Attu battle reports, revised planning related to retaking Kiska. He also made sure that proper attire was available for the troops. They trained thoroughly for fighting such as that faced earlier. A force of 35,000 troops was amassed for the undertaking.
When the Americans went ashore on August 15, however, they encountered no resistance at all. Unknown to them, the Japanese had pulled out 19 days earlier. A transport had slipped through in the fog and removed most of the soldiers. The remainder were taken out on submarines.
Even though there was no enemy presence, 313 Americans perished, killed by “friendly” fire, booby traps or land mines left by the fleeing troops.
The recaptured islands were heavily fortified after being retaken. An airfield at Shemya became the base for B-29s that bombed Japanese installations in the Kurile Islands, 650 miles away. Vacant hangars alongside the runway still had tools left on workbenches and flight information listed on blackboards when this writer was stationed there in 1950, five years following V-J Day.
Another local soldier was sent there after the Aleutian Campaign had concluded. Clyde Oberg and his two brothers, Dallon and Russell, settled in Chugiak in the1950s. Oberg Road is named for Russell and Oberg Field baseball diamond is named for Dallon. Clyde moved to Palmer and owned Fishook Dairy.
The National Park Service has created a memorial at Adak. Working closely with them was Suellyn Wright Novak, a retired Air Force colonel, Eagle River resident and president of the Alaska Veterans Museum. Remnants of the long-ago battle remain there on display.
Alaskans are reminded today that our state was once under siege and remains vulnerable. The roar of military planes overhead and occasional blasts from artillery rounds are disturbing, but also comforting.